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The Ultimate Guide to Bocas del Toro

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.

 

 

Panama City is Wabi Sabi

Panama City is Wabi Sabi

Panama City Casco Viejo

 

Years ago a designer friend of mine loaned me the book Wabi Sabi.

 

Panama City Casco Viejo

 

I read it on a trip to Mexico where I was severely sunburned the first day, hid from the rain the next four days, and fought with my (now ex) boyfriend nearly every day.

 

You would be correct in calling the trip imperfect.

 

Panama City Casco Viejo

 

For those who are unfamiliar with the small philosophical text called Wabi Sabi, it reads “for artists, designers, poets, and philosophers” and attempts to define the Japanese aesthetic.

 

panama city skyline

 

This philosophy is derived from Buddhist teachings and focuses on impermanence, suffering, and emptiness.

It is filled with asymmetry and irregularity.

It is the counterbalance to the ideals of perfectionism and beauty in the Western World.

 

Panama City Casco Viejo

 

As a Western reared perfectionist borderline OCD Hollywood Regency loving twenty something
the words were lost on me.

 

I pondered them in the likeness of a hipster attempting to embrace originality.

Without authenticity.

 

Panama City Casco Viejo

 

And it wasn’t until years later

after living in homes that lacked boundaries with nature and frequently invited uncivilized life forms inside

 

Panama City skyline

 

in Panama City

a place which fully embodies impermanence, suffering, and emptiness, juxtaposed against a perfectly modern Western skyline

that I began to truly understand and embrace wabi sabi.

 

panama city casco viejo

 

I began to see

that nothing lasts

that nothing is finished

that nothing is perfect.

 

panama city casco viejo

 

I found

beauty in the broken

beauty in the damaged

and felt perfectly imperfect.

 

panama city casco viejo

 

Hugging buildings on narrow sidewalks under the eave’s protection from the rain.

Devouring ceviche brimming out of Styrofoam cups at the local wharf.

 

panama city casco viejo

 

Laughing while a construction worker hosed dog doo off of my open toed shoe.

Practicing yoga in the wet grass while curious local children stopped, stared, then joined in.

 

panama city casco viejo

 

Eating outdated yet delicious cuisine surrounded by an even more outdated décor.

 

panama city waterfront

 

Embracing wabi sabi

and its consistent inconsistency

I began my next adventure

 

casco viejo panama city

 

knowing that my time in Costa Rica

was not

and never would be

complete.

 

panama city casco viejo

My Guide to the Casco Viejo in Panama City, Panama

 

Where exactly did I find wabi sabi? Was it among the tall towers in the commercial skyline surrounded by North American conglomerate chains? No, it was in the small charming Casco Viejo neighborhood. This historical area was built in the late 1800s but over the years became unfashionable as people headed for the lights of the big city across the water. Following this abandonment it began to badly deteriorate which you can now see in the form of many vacant dilapidated buildings covered in foliate and layers of weathered patina. It is considered a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is undergoing large renovations. I find it absolutely beautiful in its wreckage.

 

casco viejo panama city

 

Sleep

 

Luna’s Castle

$13 for a dorm bed, $30 for a private 

At times it may feel big and impersonal, and some of the rooms lack windows entirely, but the building is absolutely stunning and the location can’t be beat. A standard pancake and banana breakfast is included in the rate and served at a big communal table surrounded by shelves of books. The “castle” has plenty of other common areas with comfy modern leather couches, computers, guitars, and balconies with views of the city. The club downstairs hosts a fun party on Friday and Saturday nights which hostel guests can enter for free.

 

Magnolia Inn

$15 for a dorm bed, $80 for a private

For budget travelers looking for a quiet, more intimate environment, the Magnolia Inn is a great option. Dorm and private rooms have AC, deluxe mattresses, and private balconies with views of the city.

 

Tantalo Hotel

$135-$175 for a room for two

This small boutique hotel is the perfect place for those seeking luxury. Each room is individually and artfully decorated and are outfitted with a flat screen tv, kitchenette, and many have views of the city. The rate includes a gourmet breakfast, bicycle rentals to explore the city, wifi, valet parking, cell phone use, and even free yoga classes on their rooftop deck. Laundry and dry cleaning is available for a fee. The downstairs restaurant serves lunch and dinner and the rooftop bar has incredible views of the old town and city.

 

panama city ceviche

 

Eat

 

Super Gourmet

$5 for breakfast, $5-10 for lunch

Hang out with the local expats at Super Gourmet. Come here for excellent deli sandwiches, salads, and espresso. You can also pick up gourmet grocery items here including local organic chocolate. They also sell all natural beauty products, great for trips to San Blas where you will likely be bathing in the sea. Besides who wants to use chemicals on their body ever?

 

Mercado de Mariscos

$1-5  for big cups of ceviche, $8 for a fish plate

Head to the Mercado de Mariscos for a real Panamanian experience. Do not miss it!! Counters offer heaping cups of fresh ceviche, just choose your fish! The price is shockingly low and the variety is incredible. Warning: locals may stare as you will likely be the only gringo. Soak it up. Upstairs is the Mercado de Mariscos restaurant which serves big plates of fresh fish and fried patacones.

 

Las Clementinas

$12-30 for dinner entrees

Enjoy upscale fusion Panamanian cuisine inside this lovely bistro restaurant. Delicacies include steak with chimichurri and Caribbean seafood risotto. Or come in for their prix fixe brunch with a selection of omelets, empanadas, risottos, and parfaits for $24.

 

Puerta la Tierra

$15-30 for entrees, $10 appetizers

An expat favorite, Puerta la Tierra has nice outdoor seating in the park which is great for people watching and a chic interior. You can’t go wrong with their delicious tuna tar tar and killer steak nachos. The salads are also excellent.

 

panama city skyline

 

Do

 

Wander and marvel at the beautiful architecture

It’s unique and beautiful. Soak it up.

 

Shop at the outdoor markets along the waterfront

I bought a pair of hand hammered brass earrings made by a Peruvian man that friends have begged to trade for. Not a chance.

 

Take Yoga on the rooftop at Tantalo

Sol Yoga offers community classes on the roof at Tantalo hotel for stunning views. Join them for some sunset Vinyasa or let loose and do some yoga dance.

 

Bar hop

The Casco Viejo has great nightlife and it gets started around 4 with drink specials all over town. Get started at a corner cafe with glasses of bubbles on special.

 

Tour the Panama Canal

If you’ve made it all the way to Panama City, you should probably see the world wonder that is the Panama Canal, right? Why not take a tour en route to Taboga Island for such beach time? Two birds one stone. The Balboa Yacht Club takes passengers on a 30 minute ride for $6 to Taboga Island through the Panama Canal. Spend the day swimming in the water and eating at the fish shacks before returning on the Calypso Queen Ferry, aka the slow boat.

 

Side Trip to San Blas

If you have time, fit in a side trip to one the most incredible places I have ever been.

 

For more tips, the New York Times did a great feature called 36 Hours in Panama City.

 

How (Not to) Sail from San Blas to Colombia

How (Not to) Sail from San Blas to Colombia

San Blas Islands Panama

 

Awakened with a jolt, my body crashed violently against the side of the cabin. Sea water flooded through the roof. My eyes sprung open and scanned the room for our inebriated captain as his puppy nested in and ate my hair. They adjusted to the darkness and I spotted him across from me, rolling a joint.

 

Who was sailing the ship?

 

We were twelve hours into our fifty-hour crossing to Colombia and I was more nauseous than I had ever been in my life. My patience had worn as thin as the cushion that separated me from the steel boat frame.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

“Sebastian! Sebastian!” my whisper released more like a shout.

 

He looked my way for a moment before the cabin swayed and water swept his midnight delight to unknown territory. I watched as his headlamp moved frantically in an attempt to recover some of its loosely packed herbs.

 

My watch revealed that it was 3am.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

I shifted my gaze to the small opening between the kitchen and the deck and saw that Carlos, one of five other passengers aboard, was manning the boat. He was on his honeymoon and had never sailed before.

 

Perhaps I should have heeded my many warnings.

 

san blas chichimae

 

Sailing the Caribbean from the Southern coast of Panama to Cartagena, Colombia or the reverse route, has become the predictable pathway for backpackers between Central and South America. But many travelers, like myself, have no idea how unpredictable their journey will be.

 

First of all, traveling overland is essentially impossible.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

If you manage to escape the machine gun packing guerillas you’ll be faced with deep unmarked rainforest trails covered in poisonous snakes and jaguars.

 

I am rarely one to discount adventure but the common sense side of my brain still functions from time to time. So, overland was out.

 

Considering that flights cost about the same as a five-day sailing excursion, which includes three days in the I’ve Died and Gone to Heaven San Blas Islands, for most backpackers the decision to sail is a no brainer.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

Some have the experience of a lifetime aboard a luxury catamaran.

Others have one closer mine.

 

I’ve heard tales of four course meals with chilled wine, private bathrooms with hot showers, and luxury decks with saunas.

More often I’m told about capsized vessels, drunk captains, tight quarters, and debilitating seasickness.

 

For this reason I was urged to choose my boat wisely. Antsy to reach Cartagena and with little information to go on, I hopped aboard the first available boat.

 

Rookie mistake.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

As we approached the technicolor water surrounding the mythically beautiful San Blas Islands our boat came into view. My amazement over the utter magnificence of my surroundings became momentarily halted by complete shock. The six of us would be spending the next five nights on the smallest sailboat I had ever seen.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

The two couples slept in the back and front compartments of the boat on pieces of foam next to their bursting packs. Myself and a twenty something Swiss girl slept head to foot on a bench in the cabin next to the kitchen table opposite the captain.

 

A natural spooner I struggled to stick to my side and awoke occasionally to the sensation of Sebastian’s tri color Chihuahua, Chico, crawling across my belly.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

We had no shower.

No refrigeration.

And Sebastian forgot to purchase ice.

 

But really, it didn’t matter.

We were in San Blas.

 

San blas islands beaches

 

I spent the next three days lazing on powder white sand, snorkeling in clear turquoise water, and eating fresh lobster prepared by the Kuna Yala Indians.

 

I woke with the sunrise and swam to the nearest island for my self guided morning yoga practice. My feet sunk deep into the bleached grains as the tide rushed over my grounded soles.

 

San Blas Waysaddalup

 

I napped for hours under a noni tree until its sun-ripened aroma awoke me.

 

I wandered the palm covered island perimeters and explored the offshore sunken ships.

 

I bathed in the ocean with handmade coconut lavender soap.

At night I watched the stars and shared stories while Sebastian drank his body weight in Panamanian Rum.

 

San Blas Sunset

 

Then the time came to sail.

 

“I forgot to retrieve your passports from the maritime border patrol,” Sebastian informed us.

 

“We can take a risk and enter ambiguous territory for the next two days without passports, or we can wait until tomorrow.”

 

Never mind the fact that earlier that day he asked who would like to join him in an acid trip.

 

San Blas Moon

 

That night I stayed on land until after the sun set, apprehensive to discover what kind of sea legs I might have when we started moving. I snorkeled back to the boat in the moonlight.

 

The following day I discovered just how weak my legs were.

 

San Blas

 

I was horizontal and motionless on the bench inside the sweltering cabin as my head spun. The reality that this sensation could last for the next fifty hours of sailing, with no reprieve, no shower, and nothing cold to imbibe could have easily driven me to insanity.

 

Instead, I breathed. Deeply. I meditated. I thought a lot about my family and tried not to think about the greasy chorizo I had eaten that morning.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

The hours passed in both a standstill and a blur.

 

Sleep was a gift, beautiful and loving in its presence, and my only liberation from the sickness. It came late in the night when darkness overtook the sky and the drunken rants of Sebastian ceased. The two men aboard the ship exchanged turns manning the wheel. I woke often as the boat strived to achieve balance.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

The second day when I woke, dripping with perspiration, I bolted for the deck.

I lay there for nearly sixteen hours.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

The Swiss girl ate her cereal with the unrefrigerated milk then hurled off the side of the boat.

 

I ate nothing. Drank nothing. I never used the bathroom. I couldn’t risk stepping into the sweat lodge with its hammocks of overly ripened fruit.

 

I remember watching spoiled cucumbers, apples, pears, and tomatoes, thrown overboard.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

I remember the few moments of joy that came with the distraction of an old school ballad that I would belt out of tune with the other passengers.

 

Watching the sun set over the ocean.

 

Then waking to the cold rush of seawater flooding over the side of the deck in a swift crash. I remember finally crawling into the cabin as we rocked uncontrollably.

 

Cartagena street

 

I will never forget the next morning when the skyscrapers composing the Cartagena skyline appeared like a mirage on the horizon.

 

My body suddenly flooded with a familiar feeling.

Energy.

A sensation I had somehow forgotten.

 

The sickness was now a mere memory despite the continual rocking.

 

Cartagena statue

 

When we reached land I walked across the dock with my bulging backpack emulating the sway of the boat with my movement.

 

Looking back at the rickety little boat amid the gleaming white yachts in the harbor, I remembered a favorite quote of mine and I smiled.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

“The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible

but they have never found this sufficient reason for remaining ashore.”

– Vincent Van Gogh

 

 

How to Sail from Panama to Cartagena

or Cartagena to Panama

Without Killing Yourself or the Captain

 

So you still want to sail through San Blas to or from Cartagena?

 

I admire your sense of adventure.

 

I recommending reading the info from Blue Sailing, who organizes most of the boat trips, to establish some basic expectations up front. Though the level of quality varies dramatically, most boats follow the same route and cost $475-550.

 

The best piece of advice I can give is this: plan your trip around when a good boat is leaving rather than taking a random one that already fits into a predetermined schedule.

 

Search for your own boat with Blue Sailing 

If you are brave enough, do some research on your own on the many sailboat options on the Blue Sailing website. For some reason traditional review sites do not exist for boats so you will need to look up reviews of boats in forums and on blogs. Depending on the type of trip you would like to have, your idea of a great sailing adventure may differ from mine. However, in my opinion the two most important factors to consider are the size of the boat and the age of the boat. Bigger, newer catamarans will make the open water crossing much more swiftly and you will feel less movement due to their size. They are typically equipped with showers, often hot water, which trust me you will want, and refrigerators ensuring fresh food.

 

Sailing Koala

Sailing Koala, and particularly their Nacar boat, seems to have consistently positive reviews. The boat looks large and new and they offer transport to and from Panama City, which is rarely included.

 

Darien Gapster

If the thought of a long open water crossing makes your stomach turn and you’re not attached to the romanticism of sailing, the Darien Gapster is a great option. Like the sailboats, you spend 3 days on San Blas. However, the boat is not equipped for sleeping, so you camp on the islands themselves. In my opinion this is much more ideal and a better way to connect with the Kuna culture. The crossing is smooth because they follow the shore to isolated coastal towns on the North Caribbean Coast of Colombia. This also enables you to visit some deserted beach towns you would not see otherwise. The cost is significantly lower, $365, however you will need to arrange your own transport from the small town of Capurgana, which usually means taking a boat to Turbo, then a bus to Cartagena.

 

 

 

See San Blas Before You Die

See San Blas Before You Die

San Blas Islands Panama

 

Hop a flight to Panama.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

Catch a jeep to the coast.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

Cruise out into the Caribbean.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

Pass millions of tiny islands

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

decide which to call your own.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

Step foot on the white powder shore

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

swim in the pristine green sea

 

san blas

 

switch off your cell

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

it won’t work here

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

forget about email, social media, the news

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

simply relax and enjoy life

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

free from digital distraction.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

Eat freshly caught lobster

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

bathed in butter and coconut

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

wash your dishes with sand in the sea.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

Gather around a bonfire

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

with the few other island dwellers

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

share stories under a sky littered with stars.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

Crawl into your hut

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

with sand for a floor

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

sleep deeply

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

away from the sounds of the world.

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

Rise in the morning

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

with nothing to do

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

but throw on a snorkel

 

San blas islands beaches

 

or get lost in a book

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

ever grateful

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

to the native Kuna Yalas

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

who keep San Blas precious

 

San Blas Islands Panama

 

who keep San Blas pure.

 

 

How to Arrive

 

Air Panama flights leave daily from Panama City and cost $45-60 each way. From the airport you take a panga to the island where you plan to stay.

Jeeps leave Panama City every morning, cost $60 round trip, and take 2.5 hours to reach the coast. From there you take a 1-2 hour panga, $20-30 round trip, to the island of your choice.

 

How to Book

 

The islands are small and space is limited. Plan ahead to secure your stay on the island of your choice. Book through Luna’s Castle or Mama Illena in Panama City.

 

Where to Stay

 

My favorite island in San Blas is Chichaemae. It is tiny, gorgeous, and everything San Blas represents. Accomodations are very modest and inexpensive, development is nonexistent. Other islands range from backpacker party havens to pricey couples getaways to completely desolate.

 

Read more about the different islands here.

 

What to Bring

 

A few changes of comfortable clothes and bathing suits

Washing laundry is not an option so bring enough to feel comfortable, but pack light. 

 

Your passport

You will be required to show your passport when entering the islands. 

 

All natural shampoo, conditioner, and soap

Most of the islands do not have showers. If you’d still like to wash with soap bring all natural products so that you can bathe in the ocean without having an environmental impact.

 

Snacks

Meals are included but tend to be very simple: fish, coconut rice, and salad. If you’d like to add flavor bring your own hot sauce or other condiments. There is no food for purchase on the island, so if you are a big eater or a picky eater bring your own snacks. Crackers, peanut butter, bread, granola bars, anything that does not require refrigeration, which is not available on the islands.

 

Beverages

You may purchase bottled water on the island, but it is expensive and some of it tastes like dirt. Coconut water, beer, and rum are also available, but expensive as well.

 

The Cost Breakdown

 

$60-120 for transportation to the islands (jeep vs flight)

$20-30 for boat transport to your island, round trip

$13 for entrance fees and taxes

$25-45/day includes accommodation and food

$0-20 per day on drinks and alcohol

 

Cost to Arrive: $93-$163 round trip

Cost to Stay: $25-65 per day

 

 

The Sun Does Shine in Bocas del Toro, Panama

The Sun Does Shine in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Drago

 

Last year, my darling Andie and I reluctantly left our little jungle house in Puerto Viejo, ordered one last batido at our favorite café, said farewell to our fast but furious friends, and crossed the border into Panama.

 

Isla Carenero Bocas

 

We carried suitcases and sea legs into the town built on docks, and with wide eyes and heavy hearts we came to the place we planned to call home.

 

Isla Colon Bocas

 

Except home did not expect our arrival that day. Deck chairs and dishes piled high on our unmade beds.

 

Playa Paunch Bocas

 

The beach in front of our house wore tire tracks. There was no other road.

 

Playa Paunch Bocas

 

Civilization was miles away and the internet never cooperated.

 

Playa Bluff Bocas

 

We hiked uphill to golden sands and crashing waves and lay on the rainy beach until the tide took Andie’s camera into its furious waters.

 

Bocas Town Bocas del Toro

 

The night we partied, taxis stopped running at midnight. Four Panamanian police officers shuttled us home. They made sure we had their numbers.

 

 

Isla Carenero Bocas del Toro

 

Rain hailed heavily. And did not stop. For days and days.

 

We hid in a hotel lobby one afternoon while it poured and began to scheme how we might return to our Costa Rican home, instead of staying our intended three weeks.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

The next day we did.

 

And I always wondered, what might have happened, had we stayed.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

I was determined to know Bocas in the sunshine.

 

Paki Point Bocas del Toro

 

When I returned last week, more than one year later, with my travel mate and childhood friend Marissa, I strapped on my heavy pack and walked through town with an open heart instead of a broken one.

 

Bocas Town Bocas del Toro

 

I found light in the Crayola colored Caribbean homes.

 

Bocas Blended Isla Colon

 

Interest in the different faces around me.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

Excitement staring at the distant islands, each promising a new adventure.

 

Again, in the rain.

 

Isla Carenero Bocas del Toro

 

We rode a boat to Isla Carenero under the protection of a blue tarp, and checked into a beachfront hostel that already felt like home.

 

Isla Carenero Bocas del Toro

 

I ran down a dock and jumped into the waist high murky water. Even in the rain I was enchanted.

 

Isla Carenero Bocas del Toro

 

We climbed a cliff and watched surfers flow fearlessly between colossal waves and dolphins dance in the distance. My heart felt so full.

 

And still, it rained.

 

Bocas del Toro

 

We dressed in ponchos and rode to Isla Bastimentos, a muddy wilderness island, wind and salt blowing through our hair.

 

Red Frog Beach Isla Bastimentos

 

Clouds overtook the sky but rain ceased long enough for us to stop and sit on the white sand, and occasionally stand with trepidation in the crashing sea.

 

Still, I wondered, does the sun ever shine in Bocas?

 

Paki Point Bocas del Toro

 

At night deep bass pulsed through the island and we stumbled over crabs on the sandy path to Aqua Lounge for Ladies Night, where one year before I made friends with women from all over the world over pink cocktails and too many tequila shots.

 

Starfish Beach Bocas del Drago

 

This time, sober, I danced in bubbles and fog under the multicolored disco ball and wandered back to our dock to stare at the starry sky.

 

Each dot of vibrant light promised that maybe, possibly, hopefully, tomorrow I would see the sun.

 

Starfish Beach Bocas del Drago

 

And the next morning, I did.

 

Starfish Beach Bocas del Drago

 

We climbed over sun-bleached docks and fallen palm trees on deserted beaches

 

Starfish Beach Bocas del Drago

 

to golden sand and calm clear water

 

Starfish Beach Bocas del Drago

 

covered with the friendliest starfish I have ever known.

 

Bocas del Toro Bike

 

We rode our bicycles up hilly potholed country roads

 

Isla Colon Bocas del Toro

 

past the cabin where Andie and I stayed those five rainy days

 

Isla Colon Bocas del Toro

 

across the road that she and I called our beach

 

Playa Bluff Isla Colon

 

to Playa Bluff, where we sat in the rain one year ago.

 

Playa Bluff Isla Colon

 

The sand was as soft and gold as I remember. The waves as menacing.

 

Paki Point Isla Colon

 

And when the rain came to greet us again, we pedaled to Paunch Beach, taking cover at Paki Point, where Andie and I spent wet afternoons desperately seeking internet.

 

Paki Point Isla Colon

 

Laying on a lounger, sipping my pina colada, watching the rain fall over the crashing sea, it almost felt like she was there with me

 

Bocas del Drago Isla Colon

 

loving every moment in rainy Bocas del Toro, Panama.

 

 

Stay

 

Gran Kahuna Hostel Carenero

 

Gran Kahuna Hostel

Isla Carenero, $12 a night for a dorm bed, $45 for a private room with a double bed and bunk bed

We discovered this little gem our first day on Carenero. It sits directly in front of the beach with its own private dock. Rooms have air conditioning and hot water showers, but the real joy is laying in a hammock or on one of the many plush sofas while staring at the ocean. Montserrat, the Barcelona born owner could not be more adorable. Bocas town with restaurants and shopping is a $1, 5 minute water taxi ride away.

 

Casa Verde

Bocas Town, Isla Colon, $12 for a dorm bed, $30 for a private 

The best inexpensive option right in Bocas town. Casa verde is built on a dock and offers quaint rooms overlooking the water.

 

Bluff Beach Retreat

Bluff Beach, Isla Colon, $150-500 for private cabins

For solitude and relaxation head outside of town to the Bluff Beach Retreat, a 45 minute bike ride from town. The Lodge sits on grand, deserted bluff beach offers a private swimming pool, gardens, and a full complimentary breakfast. Each night Ron will make you one of his signature rum and pineapple cocktails.

 

 

Eat

 

El Ultimo Refugio Bocas del Toro

 

El Ultimo Refugio

$15-20, Bocas Town

Dine on Caribbean fusion at its finest at this restaurant overlooking the water.

 

Super Gourmet

$5-10, Bocas Town

Stock up on specialty grocery items like imported olives, thai curry paste, and asparagus or visit the deli for cold cuts made on homemade bread, quinoa salad, and cookies baked fresh with local cacao nibs. Yummmm.

 

Om Cafe

$10-18, Bocas Town

Satisfy your craving for spice at this incredible Indian restaurant serving curries, samosas, salads piled with grilled chicken and paneer, and full Indian thalis for sharing. The restaurant sits above a cute little bar called The Bookstore which had live music the night we went. It makes for excellent people watching.

 

Authentic Panamanian Cafeteria

$1-5, Bocas Town

I wish wish wish I could remember the name of this place, but I do remember that it is next door to Hostel Heike on the main road across from the park. The food is incredibly cheap and incredibly authentic. Stewed lentil, grilled meat, fried chicken, and empanadas are sold cafeteria style and priced by the weight. Last year I came to this hole in the wall and ate a big plate for $2. It’s not the healthiest option but it’s a great way to try lots of Panamanian food for cheap.

 

Bibi’s on the Beach

$10-$15, Isla Carenero

Bibi’s is the best place to eat and drink on Carenero. The restaurant sits on a dock over the calm turquoise sea and offers delicious tropical beverages, Caribbean style cuisine, and delicious ceviche. Come at happy hour for cheap cocktails.

 

Paki Point Bocas del Toro

 

Paki Point

$5-10, Playa Paunch

Paki Point is my favorite place to have a drink in all of Bocas del Toro. The view is unbeatable, the design is positively inspired, and the smoothies and blended cocktails are to die for. The food is simple beachfront fare with burgers, wraps, and ceviche. They also rent surfboards for those brave enough to face Paunch.

 

 

Do

 

Surfing Isla Carenero

 

Surf at Playa Bluff, Playa Paunch, Isla Carenero, Wizard Beach, or Red Frog Beach

 

Bocas del Drago Starfish

 

Swim with Starfish at Bocas del Drago

 

Isla Carenero

 

Wander down docks on Isla Carenero

 

Bluff Beach Isla Colon

 

Ride bikes to Bluff Beach

 

Isla Solarte Bocas del Toro

 

Kayak from Isla Carenero to Isla Solarte

 

Red Frog Beach Bocas del Toro

 

Hike Isla Bastimentos

 

Bocas del Drago

 

Take a tour of Dolphin Bay, Cayos Zapatillos, and Swan’s Caye

 

Aqua Lounge Bocas del Toro

 

Get playful on the swings and trampolines at Aqua Lounge

 

 

Arrive

 

Fly from Panama City

$100, one hour, Air Panama and Aeroperlas

or San Jose

$88-200, one hour, Nature Air

directly to Bocas Town, Isla Colon

 

Shuttle from Puerto Viejo to Almirante

$20, 2.5 hours

or

bus from Panama City to Almirante

$23, 9 hours

then take the boat from Almirante to Bocas Town, Isla Colon

$5, 30 minutes