As the small motorboat passed through the last of the arching mangrove trees, we could barely see the outline of the hotel. We approached the dock so carefully in the dark that it took us a moment to realize we were there, but then arms and legs dangling from hammocks and the soft glow emanating from the porch began to come into focus.
After mounting the stone stairs to the deck, we sat down on the porch with our fellow guests for a homemade dinner of stuffed lobster, fried plantains, and fresh local vegetables. We laughed over beers and talked about travel and life.
Panama’s Dolphin Bay Hideaway has the warmth of a vacation home, with hammocks that have memorized many bodies and three rooms filled with handmade wooden furniture and fresh flowers. Owners Erika and Jose welcome guests with the tenderness of a couple welcoming a friend into their home. This comes naturally to them, because Dolphin Bay Hideaway is far more to them than a business: it is their home, livelihood, and family.
Erika’s life was completely intertwined with the hotel from the very beginning, her story of coming to own property in Panama seemingly the definition of destiny.
Facing a hard time in her mid-twenties while struggling to make a living in Canada, Erika found dancing as a source of relief and joy, and as a place to meet new friends. As she experimented with various dancing classes, Erika found a deep love for salsa dancing, and soon began dancing salsa exclusively. She and one friend in particular grew to love the music so much that they began taking Spanish classes in order to learn the language. It was this Spanish class that let to a serendipitous moment that changed the course of her life.
As we sat on the front deck of the hotel overlooking the bay, Erika explained, “At the end of our first semester, our teachers decided to have a little party and mixed two classes, our class and an exchange student class from Panama studying English in Canada. There were these two girls in particular that we befriended. I invited them to my house, and I ended up taking them out.”
Erika stayed in touch with her friends in Panama, and after years of insisting she come visit them, Erika gave in and booked her flight.
When Erika arrived in Panama in November of 2003, the country was celebrating their 100-year anniversary. Her friends took her to dance salsa until late in the night, and just a day before her flight home, Erika decided to take an impromptu side trip to see Bocas del Toro. Her friends advised her to see the mountains and to skip Bocas, but once Erika set her mind to something, she was doing it.
Erika arrived in Bocas and after a day of snorkeling and taking in the tropical island lifestyle with the owner of Cocomo hotel, Erika had a thought.
“I’m sitting there and the dolphins are all around the place, and the owner is sitting in a hammock reading a book. It fascinated me that this man was very knowledgeable and well read and used to be a policeman, but he didn’t have these physical or material longings that we have, these expectations for everything to be aesthetically perfect. He kind of just accepted life and seemed so stressless.
I said, “This is really beautiful. You know, when I retire I would love to live in a place like this.” And he said, “Why would you wait until you retire? Why don’t you do it while you’re still young and have energy?’”
The owner of the hotel told her that there was a property for sale just across the water if she’d like to see it. Her interest was piqued, and she agreed to take a look. Erika was just 26 years old.
“So we paddle over there, and I’m in high heels. We hike up to the top of the hill, he’s with a machete cutting the grass and I’m hiking in the mud, my shoes getting stuck. We get to the top and I look out and I think, I can see myself looking out at this view every day. I told them I was interested and for the owner, who lived in Argentina, to give me a call.”
Erika left the next day to return to Canada, and soon received a call from the owner in Argentina. Erika could buy the property on one condition: she must fly back to Panama to meet the elderly neighbor and ask her permission. So a few months later, she flew back.
“I met the little old lady neighbor, and she said, “I don’t want anyone who will kill my chickens if they wander into their yard.” I said, “Neither do I.” She said, “I don’t want anyone to kill my cows,” and I said, “Me neither.”
After an hour of talking, the neighbor offered Erika a cup of coffee, a gesture of approval in their family. With that, the property was sold.
In February 2004, just three short months after Erika first sunk her high heels into Panamanian soil, she purchased what was to become Dolphin Bay Hideaway. She moved to Panama full time in 2005 and met her husband, Jose, shortly after.
Now, for the romantic twist: Jose is the grandson of the elderly neighbor.
Erika and Jose built Dolphin Bay Hideaway together over the next few years, creating not just a hotel, but also a home. Though Erika hadn’t planned to open a hotel in Panama when she bought the property, once she arrived she felt it best suited what she does best: hosting people.
“Eastern Europeans (Erika is of Hungarian heritage) are very hospitable, they really like receiving people. It’s part of the culture. My family always welcomed people into our homes and always had people visiting us, so this comes naturally to me. At the beginning the hardest thing for me was to put a price on people’s stay, charging them money. I would like to do this just because it’s fun to meet people, and show them a good time.”
And Erika excels at it. From the moment Wendy and I arrived at Dolphin Bay, it seemed anything and everything Erika could offer, she did. Erika offers a lengthy list of complimentary services to all guests, including two large freshly cooked meals a day, three alcoholic beverages a day, Wifi, transportation to and from the hotel, a dolphin tour, and more. None of these amenities come cheap, but Erika offers them on principle. She expressed that running a small hotel in a country with a very low off-season is rarely profitable, but can be sustained with hard work. She keeps the hotel open year round in order to support the local staff, many of which are her extended family.
“Antonio (who served breakfast) is my brother in law, Kathryn who cooked for you is my sister in law, and Natalie who does our trips and is our captain is my other sister in law. Half of the staff is my family! I could close and open for the high season, but people depend on us…there are five or six other families also dependent on this income. Even though in the slow season I’m not making any money, they get paid, so they get to feed their children.”
In addition to looking out for the community in close-knit Dolphin Bay, Erika also seriously and carefully manages the effects her hotel has on the local environment. With every reservation, guests receive a detailed explanation of the hotel’s eco-friendly lodging, and how these practices preserve the integrity of the island. The rules are easy to adhere to: compromises such as shorter showers and using proper adapters are small changes that ensure the hotel and nearby communities are kept safe and their livelihood sustainable.
You certainly don’t feel any less luxurious while staying at the hotel. The rooms are brightly decorated with furniture, artwork, and linens hand picked by Erika. Vibrant colors and soft drapes offer the tropical warmth and ethereal quality one desires in a vacation stay, while rustic wooden furniture and towering bed frames reflect the utility and practicality of a well built home. Every bathroom tile and decorative mask has a story, and the result is a hotel that breathes life into Panamanian culture.
We spent a lot of time in the hammocks that decorate the common area, where guests relax in the afternoons after snorkeling or exploring local caves. The hotel is elevated above ground overlooking a sprawling garden, woven with walkways, fruit trees, and flowering bushes.
The hotel offers a very specific type of traveling experience, one that Wendy and I prefer. The small number of rooms offer a boutique intimacy that is lost in sprawling hotels, and the nearness to management ensures that all expectations and desires are met (and often surpassed). It was difficult to leave Dolphin Bay Hideaway, because it quickly felt like a tropical home away from home. The bright side is, they are always happy to see visitors return again, and welcome them back with a plate of delicious food and more conversations about love, life, and finding where we belong.