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The Ultimate Guide to Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro

 

The rickety panga skids across the ocean

 

Bocas del Toro

 

and enters a tunnel of mangroves

 

Bocas del Toro

 

islands appear on the pane of blue glass

 

Bocas del Toro

 

each a unique treasure to behold.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

Clapboard houses painted pastel hues

 

Bocas del Toro

 

sit on stilts on docks over the turquoise bay

 

Bocas del Toro

 

faded and weathered I wonder

 

Bocas del Toro

 

if Bocas is a ghetto fabulous Nantucket.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

On the main drag you’ll find

tour desks restaurants and dive shops

 

Bocas del Toro

 

a traveler with some cash

can have whatever he wants.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

American expats, drunken sailors

backpackers, drug dealers, and dancing queens

 

Bocas del Toro

 

drink and dance until dawn

Bocas feeds party fiends.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

But as the paved road snakes

along the coast outside of town

 

Bocas del Toro

 

bars and restaurants thin

and make way for fields and cows.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

Golden sand beaches emerge

 

Bocas del Toro

 

with strong and powerful waves

 

Bocas del Toro

 

or house colorful starfish

 

Starfish Beach Bocas del Toro

 

in calm glassy bays.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

A tiny island that faces town

 

Gran Kahuna Bocas del Toro

 

has got surf and lazy island vibes

 

Isla Carenero

 

no cars, no shoes, no worries

 

Isla Carenero

 

just sit and watch the tides.

 

Isla Carenero

 

Come sunset sand fleas feed

on all of the fresh white meat

 

Isla Carenero

 

slather up with coco oil

or expect to lose your feet.

 

Isla Carenero

 

Explore a little further and find the real Panama

 

Isla Carenero

 

dogs, chickens, children run wild

 

Isla Carenero

 

litter and poverty remind you

 

Isla Carenero

 

this is still the third world.

 

Isla Bastimentos

 

Caribbean soul lives on Isla Bastimentos

 

Isla Bastimentos

 

I guess Old Bank is Bocas without all the gringos.

 

Isla Bastimentos

 

Girl get braids, women manicures

 

Isla Bastimentos

 

they speak island lingo with English words.

 

Isla Bastimentos

 

Watch yourself when walking

on the Basti jungle paths

 

Isla Bastimentos

 

lest you be robbed in the wild

by men with machetes and masks.

 

Red Frog Beach

 

Surfers get to play

at Wizard or Red Frog beach

 

Isla Bastimentos

 

keep following the coastline

for one of the most gorgeous beaches you’ll see.

 

Isla Bastimentos

 

A stunning boat journey

 

Isla Bastimentos

 

through the national marine park

 

Isla Bastimentos

 

arrive in deserted island paradise

 

Isla Bastimentos

 

with millions of stars after dark.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

Some say that Bocas

is just for the party

 

Starfish beach Bocas del Toro

 

I say that Bocas

is whatever you want it to be.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

You can sleep in a hostel and party until dawn

 

Red Frog Beach Bocas del Toro

 

or snooze on the beach with no one else around.

 

Bibi's on the beach

 

You can dine on sushi, Indian, fru fru steak

 

Taco Surf

 

organic veggie salads, tacos, local plates.

 

Taco Surf

 

You can surf world-class waves

Bocas del Toro

 

kayak or dive in coral caves.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

Honeymooners relax on deserted bays

 

Bocas del Toro

 

surfers chase the epic waves

 

Bocas del Toro

 

sailors seek a moment of rest

 

Paki Point Bocas del Toro

 

restauranteurs and hoteliers make their nest

 

Bocas del Toro

 

backpackers find their sleazy fun

 

Bocas del Toro

 

illegal expats make their visa run.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

In Bocas you can really have it all

 

Bocas del Toro

 

so why not choose something that nurtures your soul?

 

Bocas del Toro

 

Why not let it be more than a vacationer’s vice?

 

Bocas del Toro

 

Why not let it be true paradise?

How to Get to Bocas del Toro

 

From Puerto Viejo

Caribe Shuttle, $32, 3.5 hours

The Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica is a short journey from Bocas. Caribe Shuttle arranges transport twice daily, 8am and 12pm. Shuttle vans pick up passengers from their hotel in Puerto Viejo, take them to the border, seamlessly organize the border crossing (which is KEY if you don’t speak Spanish), provide shuttle service to Almirante, and put passengers on the boat to Bocas Town. Everything is included and well organized making it by far the easiest way to do the crossing.

 

From Panama City

Fly, $150, 45 min

Air Panama flights connect Panama City with Bocas Town in just 45 minutes several times per day. This is definitely the easiest, though most expensive option. The airport in Bocas Town is a short walk to the boat docks and most hotels.

Bus +Boat, $35, 11-14 hours

Overnight buses ($30) leave Panama City daily and arrive in Almirante in the morning. From there you can catch a water taxi ($5) for about 30 minutes to Bocas Town. If you go with this option, bundle up for the bus ride. The night buses in Panama are notoriously cold. Last time I was on one I wore pants, a sweatshirt, and shared a sleeping bag with the girl sitting next to me. I was still cold.

 

 

When to Go to Bocas del Toro

 

I’ve been to Bocas del Toro three times over three years. One year I went in March, another in April, and most recently I went in October. It rained every single time, nearly every single day. Most sources report that the driest months are August through October and February through April, so every time I went fell into the “dry season” range. My advice? This is the Caribbean. You can never predict the weather. Go when you want to go and hope for the best.

 

 

The Islands of Bocas del Toro

 

With nine major islands, fifty cayes, and hundreds of deserted islets, Bocas del Toro is an island hopper’s dream. Some of the less populated islands have incredible resorts and if you have your own boat, it’s your playground, but most travelers will end up on one of these islands:

 

Isla Colon

The most populated island in Bocas, most travelers begin their time in Bocas here. Bocas Town, on the Southside of the island, has the only airport and several marine docks that connect with the mainland as well as other islands. Most restaurants, hotels, hostels, tour companies, and dive shops base themselves in Bocas Town. This is the place to base yourself if you intend to party a lot. Outside of town some restaurants, hostels and hotels scatter along the coast all the way up to Bluff Beach which has a beautiful golden sand jungle backed beach with intense waves. Bluff Beach has a few nice resorts with restaurants. On the other side of the island is one of the most popular beach destinations in Bocas, Starfish Beach, with crystal clear water inhabited by colorful starfish. Staying outside of town on Isla Colon is great, with a car, otherwise you’ll likely feel too far removed from town and other islands, and land taxis are expensive.

 

Isla Carenero

Even with its swamps and sand fleas, Carenero holds a special place in my heart. It’s close to town, $1 water taxis run all night and take about 5 minutes, yet it feels like a desolate island. There’s clearly a surfer vibe here, it has the most famous break in Bocas, which may be one reason why I love it so much. Carenero doesn’t really have beaches for lazing and swimming, but I love wandering the trail that wraps around the small island, climbing up to the viewpoints, and exploring the local village. If you can handle the sand fleas, I highly recommend staying here to get away from town while still having the convenience of town nearby.

 

Isla Bastimentos

With some of the most beautiful beaches in Bocas, a colorful Caribbean village, and virgin rainforest, Bastimentos is my favorite island in Bocas. Old Bank has incredible charm with West Indian culture and brightly painted homes built on docks over the glassy ocean. Bastimentos has two beaches popular with surfers, Wizard Beach and Red Frog Beach. Beach lovers on a budget can stay at one of the hostels at Red Frog Beach and walk to Polo Beach, one of the most gorgeous in all of Panama, for snorkeling and beach bumming. The only downside to staying on Bastimentos is that water taxis run infrequently to town at night and there are far less dining options. I’ve heard about muggings on the walk between Wizard Beach and Red Frog even in the daytime, and some people advised against having valuables walking around Old Bank, however generally I felt safe there. Bastimentos also has remote beaches in the marine park accessible only by boat. If you have the chance I highly recommend staying at Punta Vieja and visiting Caye Zapatillas across the bay.

 

 

Where to Stay in Bocas del Toro

 

Bocas has a wide range of accommodations from cheap backpacker dorms to luxury all inclusive resorts on remote islands. Here are my top recommendations for where to stay whether you’re looking to socialize on a budget or get away from it all and experience luxury.

 

Gran Kahuna *TOP BUDGET PICK*
Isla Carenero
$12 for dorm, $45 for private

When young people on a budget ask me where to stay in Bocas, I always send them here. Granted, you will be attacked by sand fleas come sunset, but the vibe is so good, go anyway. Plush sofas and hammocks big enough for two offer ample lounge space during rainstorms and there’s always cool travelers hanging around. The rooms have hot water showers and air conditioning and the communal kitchen makes it ultra affordable. I love the style of Gran Kahuna, the people who work there, the people who stay there, and the quiet laid back location on Carenero. Even if you choose not to stay here, stop by for breakfast or cocktails in the bar right in the sand.

 

Palmar Tent Lodge
Red Frog Beach, Isla Bastimentos
$15 for dorm, $50 to 60 for private tent

One of the challenges in Bocas for budget travelers is that there’s really nowhere affordable to stay on the beach. Except for Palmar Tent Lodge. Located on Red Frog Beach, one of the most popular spots for surfers and beach bums on Isla Bastimentos, Palmar Tent Lodge is the best option for those who want to fall asleep to the sounds of the waves and wake up and watch the sunrise on the beach, without shelling out for an all inclusive resort. The spacious dorm room and the private tents are impeccably clean and well decorated, offering something akin to camping but way more elegant. Travelers can socialize and fuel up at the restaurant and bar with a solid menu of pastas, salads, fish, and even steak and practice yoga daily on a beautiful wooden platform in the jungle. The lodge runs on solar power and uses collected rainwater, sustainability woo hoo!, but be aware that there’s no wifi and the water pressure is basically nonexistent.

 

Bubba’s House
Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos
$15 for shared room, $35 for privates 

While I didn’t personally stay here, I met some very nice locals who live and work there and made sure to swing by when I was in Old Bank. It’s an adorable brightly colored house built on a dock right next to the main pier in Old Bank. A $3 water taxi will take you town and I imagine it must be an awesome way to stay outside of town and feel connected with the local community.

 

Bambuda Lodge
Isla Solarte
$16 for dorm, $40 to 65/night for privates

This place is less of a hostel, and more of an affordable eco resort. The property is absolutely stunning, surrounded by pure jungle, gorgeous gardens, and a private dock in a hidden cove, and there’s even a hiking trail to take you across the island. The rooms and common areas are extremely clean and beautiful and they have a swimming pool that overlooks the ocean. Though, honestly I never used it as I preferred to go down to the dock at sunrise and snorkel out to the reef just in front. It’s quiet and chill but also social if you want to meet people, especially at the family dinners every night. The only downside to staying here is that it’s a $5 water taxi each way, every time you want to go into town, and there’s no shared kitchen so if you’re on a budget the costs can add up.

 

Casa Acuario
Isla Carenero
$70 to $90 for suites that sleep up to 3 

Years ago, on my first trip to Bocas, I stumbled upon Casa Acuario while wandering around Isla Carenero. It immediately charmed me. I imagined how romantic it would feel to sleep over the water at night and wake up to the sunrise from the dock. So when I planned my recent return to Bocas, I knew I wanted to stay at Casa Acuario. In the morning I watched the sky light up from the hammock strewn on my porch, jumped from my room into the clear turquoise water, and waited right on the dock for a boat to pick me up to take me to town for dinner. Probably what I loved most about Casa Acuario was how staying there reminded me of staying in someone’s home. I felt like I was sleeping the spare room in a beautiful home of a close friend, and the Panamanian family who ran the place were so sweet. There were some problems with the wifi, and those who do not speak Spanish may struggle to communicate with the staff, but the charm of this place is undeniable.

 

Palma Royale
Bocas Town
$80 for a studio, $150 to $300 for suites 

If you’re looking for comfort and convenience in town, you really can’t top Palma Royale. Despite directly facing the most popular bar in Bocas, La Iguana, my room at Palma Royale managed to be blissfully quiet. I loved being able to walk across the street for dinner and dancing and then come home to my cozy fluffy white bed for a good night’s sleep. The suites feel like deluxe apartments with a wrap around deck with great views of the bay and the sunrise, a spacious living room, and even a full kitchen. One afternoon I bought some snacks at the gourmet grocer next door and had my own happy hour during sunset while people watching from my balcony.

 

The Firefly
Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos
$85 to $150 for private rooms and bungalows

These beautiful wooden bungalows sit up on the hill overlooking the deserted coastline on the backside of Old Bank in Isla Bastimentos. The style and decor is just gorgeous and having the highly recommended Firefly restaurant onsite is certainly a perk.

 

Al Natural Resort *TOP PICK*
Punta Vieja, Isla Bastimentos
All inclusive packages starting at $100 per person per night

We rode across the open sea until we approached tiny mangrove islands and finally emerged at the entrance to a golden sand beach. As we reached the dock we heard him shout, “welcome to paradise!” and paradise it was. The sun came out, I kayaked beside pelicans and drifted ashore to lay on the beach until the storm rolled in. We dined by candelight on Indian spiced mahi mahi caught fresh that day and sipped crisp white wine at a family dinner table with travelers from all over the world. I tucked myself into bed inside of my wooden treehouse without walls overlooking the ocean. In the middle of the night I awoke and walked down the dock under the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen. Dipping my feet in the water I watched phosphorescence sparkling in the distance. I’m not sure if life gets any better than this. Just go. Go now. And please, take me there with you.

(Al Natural Resort is a 45 minute boat journey from Bocas Town, but your stay includes free transportation. Consider staying first at their cute waterfront apartments in Bocas Town, M&M Residencias, and then have their boat pick you up the next morning and take you to the resort.)

 

Island Plantation
Bluff Beach, Isla Colon
$150 to $240 per night for rooms and suites

Island Plantation sits on a beautiful surf beach surrounded by jungle. I hear the rooms are beautifully done and the service is impeccable. They operate sustainably, using solar panels and a rain catching system. I did stop by the beach bar that sits in front, right on the beach, and loved the ambience. Apparently the food in the hotel restaurant is delicious and on the weekends they even do an Argentinean BBQ.

 

La Loma Jungle Lodge
Bahia Honda, Isla Bastimentos
All inclusive packages starting at $100 to $125 per person per night

The two spots all of the expats in Bocas del Toro told me I needed to stay at were Al Natural Resort and La Loma Jungle Lodge. Unfortunately I didn’t have a chance to get over to La Loma, but the place sounds just incredible. Eco cabins sit on the highest point on Isla Bastimentos for stunning views of the bay and are surrounded by lush jungle and cacao forest. They use solar panels, have built from locally sourced materials, and the cuisine comes from their own organic gardens. Best of all they have a chocolate farm which means amazing local chocolate is available onsite and the wildlife is abundant. I hope to check it out next time!

 

 

Where to Eat in Bocas del Toro

 

Latin and Caribbean influences lend spice to the local food and expats from all over the world have opened restaurants here. The variety of cuisine available on these Caribbean islands is nothing short of  spectacular. You can find authentic Italian, Israeli, Indian, Fusion, and more. This list is made up of what I consider to be the most delicious restaurants in Bocas del Toro.

 

Bibi’s on the Beach
Isla Carenero
$6 to $15 for apps and entrees

If I could only eat in one restaurant in Bocas, it would be here. In fact I even told Carly, my dining companion, that if I could eat one meal for the rest of my life it would be the one I had at Bibi’s. The older I get and the more I travel, the more I appreciate simplicity. For me Bibi’s offers simplicity in its most perfect form. On a quiet dock on Carenero, surfers fill up the dining room at happy hour to watch the sunset and enjoy cocktails for $2. The ambience manages to be simultaneously romantic and social, a place you could go for a date night or head to solo to mingle. I highly recommend coming before the sunset and enjoying a mojito with no sugar (my new favorite drink) and the tropical passionfruit ceviche with plantain chips. The grilled octopus appetizer, the fish in coconut sauce, and the passionfruit sesame shrimp, are all incredible.

 

Raw Fusion
Bocas Town
$8 for sushi roll, $12 for entree

Growing up in Seattle and traveling in Southeast Asia I’m typically disappointed when I eat Asian food in Central America. Raw Fusion? Another story. In fact it’s probably the restaurant in Bocas that I most crave. The food is light, fresh, healthy, and so, so, so yummy. We shared some warm sake, a welcome reprieve from the sugary cocktails that abound in the tropics, and had probably the best ceviche I had in Bocas… and I had a lot of ceviche in Bocas… mahi mahi marinated in a coconut lime sauce and tossed with pickled onions, black sesame seeds, and fluffy microgreens. Don’t miss the tropical salad with dried papaya and the spicy tuna roll with the sweet addition of ripe plantain.

 

Om Café
Bocas Town
$6 to $12 for appetizers and entrees

One of my fondest memories of Bocas took place in Om Café. More than a year ago I was traveling with my childhood best friend Marissa. We made a deal, if she helped me film a video for a travel contest I would take her with me to Bali when I won. Well, I didn’t win the contest, so instead of Bali I took her to Om. It was almost as good. We had been traveling on a very tight budget, cooking ourselves rice and beans in hostels, so going to Om felt like the ultimate treat. The warm candlelight, the intoxicating aromas, and the plush cushions swaddled us into deep conversation. Over crispy samosas, intensely flavorful curries, and possibly the best salad I’ve ever eaten made with tandoori chicken and homemade paneer cheese, we talked about romance and passion and dreams. I felt at home that night with my best friend at Om. To this day it’s still one of my favorite restaurants in Central America.

 

Maracuya
Bocas Town
$6 for breakfast, $12 for dinner entrees

When I returned to Bocas this year I knew I had to try Maracuya, created by the same woman as Om. The brightly painted wooden space sitting on a dock called to me and I knew the woman who made Om could never fail me. The ultra romantic dock donned with candles instantly wooed me and I loved the complexity of flavors in every dish. Go for a romantic date night with your best friend, order the drunken fish, and do not leave without at least a bite of the perfectly tart not too sweet passionfruit cheesecake. They also serve brunch which looks fabulous, check out the Indian style French toast served with tamarind coriander chutney and please tell me how it is!

 

El Ultimo Refugio *TOP PICK*
Bocas Town
$10 to $17 for starters and entrees

This is likely the most famous restaurant in Bocas, if not in all of Panama, and it certainly lives up to its reputation. Not only does El Ultimo Refugio have the best food in Bocas, it could hold its own in any international city in the world. The setting is super romantic, built on a wooden dock and decorated with dozens of candles. We felt beyond spoiled, sipping on crisp unoaked Chardonnay (good wine is hard to come by in Central America) and nibbling on plate after plate of fresh, innovative, flavorful, cuisine. The owner is from DC and the chef comes from Seattle and in the past cooked in some of the trendiest restaurants, which certainly comes across in the food. Everything I tasted was incredible, but the biggest standouts for me were the beet carpaccio with creamy blue cheese, dried figs, and spicy arugula, the perfectly spiced tuna tartar, and my absolute favorite the grilled octopus with chorizo, sun dried tomatoes, eggplant puree, crispy fried carrots, and pepitas. This was the best meal I’ve had in as long as I can remember.

 

Firefly
Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos
$6.5 to $17 for tapas, $22 tasting menu

The day I came to Old Bank Firefly was unfortunately closed, but just seeing the setting and surroundings I can understand why it’s considered one of the best places to dine in Bocas. The extremely stylish restaurant sits on a wooden deck and overlooks a wild palm fringed coastline. Asian influences lend interest to the cuisine which I hear is just stellar.

 

La Casbah
Bocas Town
$10 to $15 for entrees

Unfortunately I spoiled my appetite the night I went to La Casbah by eating a streetside arepa first, ya I know I caved, so really I need to go back to give it a proper review. This is a spot all of the expats recommended I check out, so after gorging on a cornmeal cake stuffed with onions and cheese from a food cart I made my way in. There were plenty of expats and travelers hanging out on the street in the front and I sipped on a glass of red wine and enjoyed some flavorful gazpacho. The entrees look incredible, if you make it in, let us know how they taste will ya?

 

Guari Guari
Isla Colon
$23 for a five course dinner

I’ve been hearing about Guari Guari for years, but somehow once again I didn’t make it in. Apparently it’s the best restaurant in Bocas both for the experience and the cuisine. Diners receive five artfully done courses with flavor influences from all over the world. I hear that the atmosphere is charming and intimate and the service impeccable.

 

Taco Surf
Bocas Town
$3.50 per taco, $10 for three tacos and a beer

This may be hard to believe, but the food I miss most when I’m in Central America is actually Mexican. So you can imagine my delight when I found this Baja California style taco bar in Bocas serving tacos, burritos, nachos, salads, and ummmm green smoothies?!?! Yes! A super cool couple from So Cal owns Taco Surf and they’ve created a lively, fun spot that’s perfect post surf or dive. I have my fingers crossed that they will open another location in Puerto Viejo. The nachos are killer, but probably my favorite thing I tasted was the fish taco which comes on a corn tortilla with fresh pico de gallo, crispy slaw, and guacamole. Um, yum. Don’t forget to try one of their homemade hot sauces.

 

Leaf Eaters
Isla Carenero
$6 to $8 for lunch

Go to Leaf Eaters. No, seriously, go to Leaf Eaters. That’s what I kept hearing around Bocas Town. This cute cafe has been open for less than a year and it’s already the spot all of the locals are talking about. So, one day finally I popped in for lunch. I perched right up next to the ocean and quite appropriately ordered a coconut water and the “hippie bowl” which came with brown rice, raw kale, shredded carrot and beets, sprouts, seeds, and a delicious tahini dressing. Yep, I could eat like this every day. **They’ve officially moved locations from Bocas Town to a super cozy spot in Isla Carenero on a dock overlooking the sea.

 

Street Falafel
Bocas Town
$5 for falafel and a drink

For a fast cheap lunch I love the falafel food cart on the main street in Bocas Town. The falafel patties are crisp and homemade and come topped with a fresh cucumber tomato salad and a flavorful tahini sauce. I ordered mine without the pita bread and it became a salad topped with falafel.

 

Super Gourmet
Bocas Town
$1 to $10 for groceries and deli food

Super Gourmet is a rare treat in Central America. With clean, well organized aisles, air conditioning, organic produce, specialty delicacies, and a full service deli, it feels very first world. Every Friday they get a fresh supply of organic veggies including kale, spinach, chaya, and katuk.

 

Tom’s
Bocas Town
$4 for a Caribbean plate

I never made it to Tom’s but every local and expat I spoke with sung its praises. You can find this local hole in the wall on the dock beside the Police Station. Apparently plates come with salad, plantains, rice and beans, your choice of protein, and lots of flavor.

 

 

Where to Drink in Bocas del Toro

 

What draws many tourists to Bocas is the party scene. There’s live music, free drinks, and DJ beats somewhere every night of the week. Here are the coolest bars for watching the sunset, listening to live music, having a romantic glass of wine, or throwing back tequila and dancing until the sun comes up.

 

Beach Bar

Playa Bluff, Isla Colon

Up on Playa Bluff this darling beach bar sits right on the golden sand shore across from the crashing waves. Expats gather on the weekends for the reasonably priced cocktails and simple beach bar fare like salads and wraps. It’s a fun spot to hang out in the day with a glass of fresh coconut water or stay for sunset cocktails.

 

Paki Point *TOP PICK*

Playa Paunch, Isla Colon

The first time I came to Bocas I stayed in a little cabin near Paunch Beach at the start of the rainy season. We had no wifi in our house and little to do in the rain, so we hid out in the nearest bar, Paki Point. Over papaya smoothies and ceviche we watched rainstorms, played with local kids, and tried to blog with intermittent wifi. Paki Point has a special place in my heart. It’s beautifully done with an open wooden deck overlooking the beach, comfy sofas, big wooden tables, and beach loungers. Stop in on your way back from Bluff Beach to wait out a rainstorm or watch the sunset with a pina colada.

 

The Wine Bar

Bocas Town, Isla Colon

In a Colonial style building smack dab in Bocas Town, The Wine Bar has a warm, cozy, sultry ambience with dim lighting and cozy couches. Pop in for a pre dinner wine tasting or an after dinner cocktail. I hear the tapas are also excellent.

 

Pickled Parrot

Isla Carenero

A short walk from Bibi’s on the Beach, Pickled Parrot draws the local and surf crowd with laid back reggae vibes and awesome live music. I came one night for a live band from Jamaica and met some cool expats, locals, and sailors.

 

The Bookstore Bar

Bocas Town, Isla Colon

Also known as Loco Dave’s, The Bookstore Bar is an institution in Bocas. Expect to see locals and expats here any night there’s live music. I had a blast there one night mingling with all of the restaurant owners I met over the past week and meeting plenty of new faces.

 

Aqua Lounge

Isla Carenero

Infamous for its Wednesday and Saturday night parties, Aqua Lounge can be a bit of a shit show, but if you’re young single and ready to mingle look no further. Admittedly I’ve had some pretty wild Wednesday Ladies’ Nights at Aqua Lounge when every backpacker in Bocas comes for the free drinks. Wear your bikini if you plan to walk the slackline or jump from the trampoline into the bay.

 

La Iguana Bar

Bocas Town, Isla Colon

While it may be a bit of a meat market, the space is actually quite cool and must offer a great sunset view. Thursdays they have free drinks for ladies until midnight and most nights of the week you’ll find a mix of reggae and hip hop, tourists and locals.

 

 

What to Do in Bocas del Toro

 

There may always be a party in Bocas, but Bocas is so much more than the party. Bocas has incredible outdoor adventures, unique local culture, gorgeous beaches, and abundant wildlife and nature. Here are some of my top recommendations for what to do.

 

Dive with La Buga
Bocas Town, Isla Colon

It’s always a good time at La Buga. You sense it the moment you walk by. The café is full of people, the staff skateboard and BBQ on the street, Tony who runs the place couldn’t be cooler, and when you get on the dive boat you become part of the family. As part of a Discovery Dive we went to Hospital Point on Isla Solarte with some stunning coral reef and also to Pandora, the secret spot in the middle of the bay known for having the healthiest reef in Bocas, that few dive shops even know how to locate. I was a bit nervous going diving as I hadn’t been in over a year and on our first dive I had trouble equalizing. One of the instructors stayed with me the entire time, helped me equalize, and looked into my eyes to make sure I was ok. Genuinely I felt the love. If you have time, do a dive course here and you’ll leave with not only a certification, but with friends.

 

Play at Starfish Beach
Boca del Drago, Isla Colon

There’s a reason why Starfish Beach is easily the most popular daytrip in Bocas: it’s absolutely gorgeous. Keep in mind, it’s quite touristic, but just a 30 minute shuttle ride from town and you can swim in calm turquoise water with colorful starfish. You can easily arrange a tour by catching one of the shuttles in the morning near the park in town for around $10 round trip. When you arrive, they’ll try to convince you to take another smaller boat to the main beach. I highly recommend walking down the beach instead, as in my opinion the deserted beach en route to Starfish Beach is actually the most beautiful part. Make sure to pack some snacks.

 

Cycle to Bluff Beach
Bluff Beach, Isla Colon

My favorite way to see Isla Colon is by bicycle ($7 for full day rental, $5 for half day). Weaving up the coast out to Playa Bluff you hug beautiful golden sand beaches, quaint Caribbean houses, and incredible greenery. It’s about an hour bicycle ride to Bluff, which is a golden sand beach that stretches for miles with intense crashing waves. Bluff has a few resorts and beach bars and strong currents for surfing.

 

SUP on Carenero
Isla Carenero

The calm bay that touches parts of Carenero makes it a great spot for taking out a Stand Up Paddle Board. Gran Kahuna and Surf Escuela rent boards, which you can paddle all the way to Isla Solarte for some awesome snorkeling.

 

Zipline at Bastimentos Sky Canopy Tour
Red Frog Beach, Isla Bastimentos

I almost chickened out of doing this canopy tour. In the past I did the famous zipline in Monteverde in Costa Rica, which while amazing scared the crap out of me. I’m doing this for the blog, I told myself as I strapped on my helmet, belts, and metal hooks. Though by the time I reached the first platform I felt at ease. The guides were playful and teased me just enough to make me feel comfortable. Their energy and enthusiasm made it the most fun thing I did my entire time in Bocas. We did several ziplines, one rappel, a rope swing, and walked across some swinging bridges. It’s a special experience to be able to be in the virgin jungle in Bastimentos and to experience it through the Afro Caribbean locals who guide the tour.

 

Sail to Cayo Zapatilla

Imagine bright white sand, calm clear water, and no inhabitants but palm trees. All over town operators offer daytrips to Caye Zapatillas on speed boats with snorkeling stops along the way. The most classic tour involves a visit to Dolphin Bay to watch the dolphins from your boat, snorkeling at Coral Caye, a brief ride through the mangroves of sloth island, and a couple of hours to chill on Cayo Zapatilla.

 

Get a Massage at Susurro Spa
Red Frog Beach, Isla Bastimentos

What I love most about this spa is how immersed in nature it is. The simple, thatched roof open space sites beside a river and you can relax to the soundtrack of birds chirping and cicadas humming. The spa offers a variety of treatments including Reiki, Shiatsu, and Deep Tissue massage. I enjoyed the Signature Massage, which felt both soothing and spiritual.

 

Snorkel at Polo Beach
Isla Bastimentos

To see the authentic Bocas less touched by tourism, head to Bastimentos. Most of the island is a protected national park with stunning virgin rainforest. Boats leave Bocas Town for $10 round trip to Red Frog Beach, a popular surf beach, which you can walk for miles to Turtle Beach and Polo Beach. At Polo Beach, one of the most beautiful in Bocas, it’s possible to snorkel when the water’s calm. Unfortunately a huge development project at Red Frog Beach has disrupted the jungle behind Turtle Beach, turning what was once beautiful nature into a suburban compound. Fortunately, for the time being, Polo Beach remains untouched.

 

Explore Old Bank
Isla Bastimentos

The heart of the Afro Caribbean community in Bocas del Toro lives in Old Bank on Isla Bastimentos. I loved exploring this part of Bocas, seeing families going about their daily lives, kids walking to school, men mowing lawns, and women doing their laundry. The homes are so bright and colorful, so taking photos is an absolute delight. A steep climb up the hill leads to a darling café, farm, and shop Up in the Hill with homemade treats and a beautiful line of toiletries made from local coconut oil.

 

Surf
Isla Bastimentos, Isla Carenero, Isla Colon

Bocas del Toro is a world-class surf destination, with so many beaches and so many different surf breaks. I’m not much of a surfer and I’ve never surfed in Bocas, but I hear the surf here can be pretty epic. Playa Bluff on Isla Colon is known for having strong currents and halfway to Bluff there’s a reef break at Playa Paunch. Red Frog Beach and Wizard Beach on Bastimentos are also quite popular among surfers. Though most surfers who come to Bocas decide to stay on Isla Carenero with some of the best breaks in Bocas just a short walk from affordable hostels. You can rent a board or take a lesson through Surf Escuela on Isla Carenero. For more info on surfing, check out this comprehensive guide to surfing in Bocas.

 

Befriend a Sailor

There’s no better way to see Bocas than from a sailboat. Consequently it attracts a large community of international sailors basing themselves in the islands for a while. I had the good fortune of befriending several sailors with boats while in Bocas and was able to sail to more remote places.

 

Find a Deserted Island

In Bocas, hundreds of islands gift their sand shores and shady palms. Accept the kind invitation and let yourself get lost in the middle of nowhere for a while.

 

 


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Comments

  1. Awesome! Thanks for compiling this great list and beautiful photos. If I get back to Bocas I will definitely use this! It would be SO awesome if Taco Surf opened in PV!!! :) Happy travels Camille!

  2. Awesome article! I loved Bocas, and hope to go back again (when I have a few more days!) We went snorkeling at Thieves beach… and yes, we did get robbed.. all of us. Safe to say my day spent in a detectives office was not my favorite day there. The perfect paradise island beaches and late night nonsense were worth it though :)

    • Camille Willemain Says: October 23, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      Oh my… I heard stories but fortunately I didn’t haven’t any issues myself, though it took a lot of restraint for me to not want to walk through the jungle in Bastimentos…

  3. What a great post. As I am travelling to Panama next year, I will immediately bookmark your post. So helpful! Thanks for sharing. I will definitely go to Bocas :)

  4. Thanks for this! Because of your blog and the inspiration it provides me, I will be travelling to Peurto Viejo in January for a Yoga Teacher Training in Cahuita. I have now decided that upon completion, I will travel to Bocas. Do you think two nights is enough time? I’m sure more time is better but would it be worth the travel for just two nights? Also, would love to meet you if you are in PV in January :) Your blog give me so much hope and excitement. Thanks for sharing your stories!

    • Camille Willemain Says: October 27, 2014 at 11:26 am

      Awesome! Thank you so much for your sweet compliments :) Two nights is ok, you can still see some stuff. I’m not sure if I will be in Puerto Viejo in January, but if I am lets have a coffee!

  5. I’m so glad I stumbled on your blog, as I’m planning my trip to Bocas next January (2015). You have provided a lot of great information – thanks! I hope the robberies/muggings are few & far between… I am very likely to be flying solo on this trip, and let’s just say that I won’t look like a local :p

    • Camille Willemain Says: October 29, 2014 at 10:50 pm

      Awesome! I felt totally safe there, it was just on this one stretch of Bastimentos everyone told me not to walk with any valuables. You can take a boat instead :)

  6. Thanks for sharing your experiences of our beautiful Bocas Camille! Our guides overlap quite a bit :) Seems we have the same taste . Let me know when you are in Bocas again! http://laurenziemski.com/2014/11/10/the-only-insiders-guide-to-bocas-del-toro-panama/

    • Camille Willemain Says: December 22, 2014 at 10:13 am

      Awesome!! I hope you enjoyed your time in Bali. Just watched you’re acting reel, you’re one talented lady! Would love to get together when I’m in Bocas next time :)

  7. Super cool run down of all the Bocas goodies! I live here too, Lauren’s a good friend of mine :) All the locals/ex-pats appreciate the exposure… I just thought maybe you should update The Bookstore’s name. It’s not Mike’s place it’s Loco Daves :) Awesome stuff here great info!

    • Camille Willemain Says: January 12, 2015 at 4:24 pm

      Awesome so glad you liked it! And oh my goodness you’re the second person to point out to me that I called it Mike’s Place, haha, no idea how I got that one wrong it’s very different lol. Thank you for calling it to my attention and I’ve now corrected it :)

  8. Love Love your blog. Can’t wait to visit. What did you do with your passport and cash while swimming ect.?

  9. Before this post I was not too excited to go to Panama, but now you have completely changed my attitude. These islands are exactly what I’m looking for, actually!

  10. Amazing pictures! I’m curious, when you say it rained everyday, was it typically the brief afternoon downpour type of rain, or the all-day overcast, drizzly/rainy kind of rain?

  11. Hello! So happy I found your blog! My husband and I are flying in to Panama and out of Costa Rica in December and we have 3 weeks to play! We are going over to Santa Catalina/ Coiba for the first week but after that we are not sure if we make the trip to Bocas. Are there any mellow/quiet places to stay in the Bocas Islands? It seems like a pretty big party scene which we are not into. If you have any recommendations for mellow surf towns without big ‘scenes’ anywhere between Santa Catalina and San Jose we would LOVE your help! Puerto Viejo? Dominical? Santa Theresa? Not sure where to start! Cheers:)

  12. Awesome, awesome, awesome stuff! This really solidified our breaking away from the city and the Canal Zone for a few days to check out Boca Del Toro. My husband grew up in the Canal Zone so we’re taking our kids down in April. I would love to hear any thoughts you have about kid friendly options/things to avoid in Bocas Del Toro. I also found Hotel Tortuga, which with our children seemed like a good option. What are your thoughts? Off to go find your other Panama posts! Ty!

    • Camille Willemain Says: September 12, 2015 at 3:52 pm

      Great I am so happy to hear that!! I’m not exactly sure about activities with kids, since I don’t have any myself. But I would say Starfish Beach and visiting the marine park in Bastimentos are great options :)

  13. Hello Hello from Hamburg,
    I am looking for an escape for myself and my two boys….winter in Germany is a nitemare. Your blog really inspired me and I think I have found the right place :-)
    Any house rental suggestions for me?
    I am a salsa dancer and hope to find some partners….
    Best Jana

    • Camille Willemain Says: October 22, 2015 at 10:36 am

      Thanks Jana! Unfortunately I don’t know about housing rentals in Bocas, but you can consult Google or Craigslist. Enjoy your trip!

  14. Hi Camille,
    I really want to stay in Carenero, but I keep hearing horror stories about the sand fleas. Are they really that bad? And if so is coconut oil enough to keep them at bay?
    Cristina

    • Camille Willemain Says: February 8, 2016 at 4:38 pm

      They are very very very bad, but I still love it there! Coconut oil helps but not sure if anything will keep them at bay…

  15. Michele Says: June 22, 2016 at 9:41 am

    Thank you for sharing this amazing information. You are truly an inspiration!

  16. A Chaos Fairy Says: June 24, 2016 at 11:44 am

    I saw this on House Hunters, and (idealistically, of course) always wanted to live there… :-)

  17. Hi Camille! I’ve followed your blog for years; our family went to Little Corn in 2015 after seeing your notes, and we just booked in Boco Del Toros for later in 2017. We are staying at the Monkey Tree on Isla Colon, so more the remote angle – I think! Loved your photos; quick question though – your poetic voice came through but I was rattled when you had the notation of robbers with machetes… I have a 15 and 11 year old (boys); I was thinking they could walk alone, freely about. Not sure if you were just playing with words or were serious :) Any insight is helpful!

    • Camille Willemain Says: January 9, 2017 at 7:04 am

      Hey love, that’s lovely I’m so glad my guides helped! Ha, ok yes I can understand your concern, sometimes I’m dramatic. But ya, that does happen. Though, I’ve only heard stories about it happening in Bastimentos on the back trails going between beaches, and also at night in certain areas. So, if you’re out in the middle of nowhere in Isla Colon, and then taking day trips places, you guys should be totally fine! I just wouldn’t have them wandering by themselves on backstreets in Bastimentos or around the more populated areas with valuables on them.