Find remote tropical wonderland in Panama
THE bright coral looked like it had been spray-painted with cans of incredible colours. From fluoro pink to deep violet and electric blue, one of the coral gardens near Bocas del Toro was like a candy store for mermaids. The fish weaving between the coral and sponges were, of course, no match for the Great Barrier Reef's offerings.
But when you've just seen a dozen dolphins playing around your boat, the smaller fish seem somehow less important anyway. Bocas del Toro, on Panama's Caribbean coast, is one of those places where the real world seems a zillion miles away.
Shacks line the water's edge, clothes dry on lines stretching the length of the jetty and occasionally you'll see an outhouse over the water. Tinnies zip around the archipelago transporting locals and tourists between the islands and the mainland - even at night, with no light to guide them.
Restaurants and bars often serve their offerings on decks over the water and there are many beaches to lie on. A drive or bus to Bocas del Drago on the other side of the main island and a 15-minute walk along a palm-fringed path, leads to the starfish beach. There are enough of the orange creatures that you have to be careful not to stand on them as you wade into the gleaming turquoise waters to cool off - with or without a cocktail in hand.
The area is much less developed for tourists than many spots along Central America's Caribbean coast but that adds to the charm. Bastimento, just a 10-minute boat ride from the main island, is even less developed than the main island. Locals can be seen filling up buckets from one of the island's freshwater taps and the shops have just basic supplies.
But walking tracks leading each way out of the town can lead you to a chocolate shop or a stunning beach. Both islands are a great starting point for a trip to the marine park to swim with sharks, stingrays and dolphins as well as plenty of fish and coral. You might be lucky enough to see sloths and macaws along the way too.
But if you're the kind of person who likes to float in postcard-perfect crystal-clear blue water - the marine park also has that covered.
Sandwiched between Panama's Caribbean and Pacific coasts is a mountain getaway to suit the adventurous and those who want to chill out.
Boquete Tree Trek Mountain Resort is the kind of place you can choose to sit on the deck and watch as the clouds envelope the country's highest volcano.
It's where you can imagine escaping from life to write that novel or read those books that have been piling up. The peace is only interrupted by the occasional visitors on zip line flying through the tree canopies high above the resort.
Of course, you can always indulge in zip lining too, or walk to the nearby coffee plantation or do the 12-hour return hike up that volcano. Plus there's hot springs, bird watching and other adventures on offer. Though rare, it's apparently possible on a clear day to see the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea from Baru Volcano's peak.
Santa Catalina is as basic as they come but there's a great surf beach and an underwater playground off the coast. About an hour-and-a-half off the Pacific coast is another wonderland known as the Galapagos of Panama. Coiba National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site with huge numbers of turtles, rays and sharks to swim among.
From young dudes to the old grand-daddies with crustaceans on their shells, the turtles glide through the ocean often followed by fish. While it doesn't quite stack up to the incredible adventures on offer in the real Galapagos, the waters around its 38 islands are rich in preserved natural resources. Lunch at the ranger's station island is a sidebar to the gentle waves lapping along the shore and the hammocks to laze in.
A few steps away from this slice of paradise, to the other side of the narrow island, you can see crocodiles having their daily sleep.