It wasn’t long ago that Panama’s Caribbean archipelago, Bocas del Toro, was a hidden, nine-island prize for adventurous travelers. Today, new hotels and restaurants are unveiled every few months, and the string of tropical islands is far from secret. But with plenty of great dining establishments, hotels and activities, spending a week in Bocas definitely still feels like a win, particularly in September and October when the Pacific side is rainy.
Just a four-hour bus-and-boat trip from the Costa Rican Caribbean travel destination of Puerto Viejo, Bocas del Toro has become a popular border-run destination for expats and a convenient stop for travelers aiming to visit both countries. There’s even talk of branding the two destinations as a coastal package deal, offering relaxation with a splash of culture.
The wildlife is nothing to sneeze at either. Smack in the middle of a huge coral reef system, Bocas’ nine main islands and 200-some islets are home to a diverse population of fish and marine mammals. In addition to the area’s great diving and snorkeling, the ocean’s coral floor generates amazing surf breaks. For those more comfortable on land, the islands’ well-developed tourism industry has it all: chocolate farms, bat caves, white-sand beaches and a rollicking bar scene.
What to do and see
A first-time visitor to Bocas del Toro will likely be overwhelmed by the postcard-like scenery. The dockside hotels and restaurants, low hanging palm trees and crystal blue water form the perfect Caribbean island cliché, but for the intrepid tourist, Bocas del Toro offers far more than lounging around.
Whether by air or by boat, tourists arrive to the archipelago via Bocas Town, the province’s capital on its largest island – Isla Colón – which also serves as the launching point for most of the area’s activities.
On Isla Colón: Aside from being the restaurant/bar and tour-booking hub of Bocas del Toro, Isla Colón is also home to many of the archipelago’s best beaches. Bikes are available for rent for around $5 per day from virtually any hotel in Bocas Town. Four-wheelers, scooters and motorcycles are also available for rent and both land and water taxis frequently pass.
The coastal road that stretches northeast out of Bocas Town is the portal to the island’s best surf breaks, and it’s a great bike ride. Once the pavement turns to sand, surfers can reach Playa Paunch, the Dumpster and Playa Bluff, three of the island chain’s most well-known surf spots. The laidback beachfront art lounge Paki Point is along the way, offering delicious food, cold beer and board rentals.
For those looking for a more secluded adventure, the island’s extreme northern beach, Boca del Drago, allows overnight camping for those hoping to spot sea turtles. Nearby is the Playa de las Estrellas, the beach of stars, known for its clear water and abundant starfish. Local buses leave daily for the beaches, but don’t attempt to bike there – particularly on a beach cruiser.
On Isla Bastimentos: About a 10-minute boat ride from Isla Colón, Isla Bastimentos is a mix of untamed wilderness, remote beaches and upscale luxury developments.
The island is home to what are widely regarded as the best beaches in Bocas del Toro – Red Frog and Wizard Beach. The Red Frog tour company also has ziplining, snorkeling and fishing tours. Additionally, Bastimentos hosts a large community of the indigenous Ngobe-Buglé people.
Visitors can grab lunch at the community’s center, Bahía Honda, and then hit up the area’s most popular tour, Nivida Bat Cave. Though definitely not for the claustrophobic, the bat cave is worth undertaking for those looking for a wonderfully creepy experience. Though he does not speak English, the Ngobe-Buglé guide Rutilio Milton knows the cave inside and out (6726-0968).
Tours: Just about every boat-owner in Bocas del Toro offers some kind of informal half-day tour. Everything from sloth and dolphin spotting to snorkeling and underwater tow surfing are available for about $25 to $40 per person. For something more unique, try a tour to the uninhabited beaches on the far-flung Zapatilla islands, which offer white sand beaches surrounding pristine jungle (entrance to this national park costs $10). For diving tours and certification courses, head to Starfleet Scuba right off the main road in Bocas Town, and for a booze cruise, ask around about the Trunca Negra – an old refurbished steamship set to hit the waters again in coming weeks.
Where to stay
Bocas Town: Hostels abound, but for travelers looking for a more upscale and tidy experience, there is the TripAdvisor favorite, Tropical Suites. The waterfront boutique hotel’s 16 well-appointed suites feature triptych paintings of red frogs, Jacuzzi tubs and fully stocked kitchens. The Serta pillow-topped mattresses are super comfy, and offer semi-private balconies facing the ocean and the nearby Isla Carenero, which also offers a few great sleeping options.
Carnero: While Isla Colón is chock-full of hostels and up-all-night party bars, Casa Acuario sits just a $1 water taxi away on the more relaxed Isla Carenero. The two-story, five-room turquoise hotel perches on a dock over the shallow, aquamarine water. The air-conditioned rooms each have their own semi-private balconies with a hammock, table and chairs overlooking the ocean. Guests can catch a water taxi right off the dock using the hotel’s handy signaling light, or step right off the back porch onto one of the island’s white-sand swimming beaches.
Solarte/Bastimentos: For those seeking an even more private and natural experience, there’s the Garden of Eden, which actually sits on its very own extension of mangroves from Isla Solarte. Though it was once a clothing-optional resort, a down-to-earth new owner has taken the place in a more general-audience direction, renovating the three spacious and elegant waterfront cabins and bringing on an incredibly skilled chef. A stay includes access to a refreshing pool, a friendly Weimaraner named Zeus, and kayaks. It’s just a short paddle over to Isla Bastimentos’ Red Frog Beach as well as Los Secretos resort, which serves up pizza from its wood-fired oven Thursday-Sunday. It’s a bit of a climb to reach the hilltop restaurant, but the views of the surrounding islands are well worth it. On Bastimentos, options range from the La Loma Jungle Lodge (which operates it owns coffee farm), to the upscale, beachfront and jungle-side cabins of Casa Cayuco.
Where to eat
Over the past 10 years, a thriving culinary scene has evolved in Bocas Town to offer a wide array of international and local dishes. Nothing quite beats the lobster though, and on our first night there, we stumbled into Hotel Bocas Town based on its lobster signage. A six-pound monster had just been caught by a local fisherman and sold to the hotel, and we purchased it for a mere $40. It took two hours to devour the succulent meat. Delicious.
Other restaurants of note include Guari Guari – a hidden marvel known for six-course masterpieces, Bocart– a gastronomic, “MediterrAsian” fusion place with Caribbean flair, and La Casbah – a romantic option with great service and mouthwatering steak.
On Isla Carenero, Bibi’s on the Beach is an old favorite. Under a thatched-roof by water, Bibi’s serves up some of Bocas del Toro’s best Caribbean-style seafood. Reasonably priced tropical seafood sandwiches and freshly caught whole-fish are on the menu, but the restaurant is best known for its ceviche, which changes daily based on that day’s catch.
Where to drink
By day, Bocas del Toro is known for its tropical beaches. By night, the island chain is legendary for its party scene.
While there is no shortage of beer-friendly hostels on Isla Colón, none are quite like hostel/bar combo Mondo Taitu. With cheap drink specials and shots with names like alien brain hemorrhage, this backpackers haven is popular almost every night of the week.
Right off the main street in Bocas Town, the Iguana Surf Club’s dockside dance floor and waterfront patio invites swimsuit-clad partiers every week.
Trampolines, swings and dock holes fashioned into swimming pools might not sound like the safest thing for a bunch of drunk partiers, but the owners at Aqua Lounge seem to disagree. If inebriated water acrobatics aren’t your cup of tea, the lounge also hosts beer pong and beer Olympics tournaments ever week.
If ping pong is more your style, the Bocas Book Store (which doubles as a super-fun bar) hosts a competitive tournament every Sunday.