If you're planning to visit Bocas del Toro, discover things to do, how to get around and where to stay on these Panama islands
If you've been to Utila in Honduras, then a trip to Bocas del Toro in Panama may remind you of this crazy Central American island. Not because it is full of people eager to party and then complete their dive masters course the day after but because it is full of party-goers and those long-lost travellers that have somehow lost their way.
You know the ones. The surf guy who decides to visit a party island for a long weekend and ends up staying a month because “the vibe is just too good man.”
Then there are the more mature men who seem to originate from North America and spend their days hanging out in bars drinking the local beer and talking to anyone who will listen about American politics and discussing how the world is changing for the worst yet they remain in their colourful, Caribbean island bubble, removed from everything that is actually going on. Then there are the travellers who are just passing through on their Central American itinerary, looking for adventure, relaxation and plenty of fun.
So, what is the draw of this archipelago of islands in the North of Panama?
Things To Do in Bocas del Toro
Did I mention that these islands are good for partying? The main island of Colon is where it is at and there are often Ladies Nights where ladies get free drinks. After a few cervezas you'll probably find yourself following the rest of the island-dwellers to La Iguana where you can strut your stuff on the stage to a mix of Reggaeton, electronic and some Latin beats. There's an outside deck area where you can mingle with the rest of the crowd when the dancing gets too much.
Aqua Lounge – Another good place to party is Aquas Lounge Bocas del Toro. It's actually a hostel with a very cool lounge and a deck that extends out over the water with dipping pools for a quick swim. The beauty of this place is that it turns into a nightclub after dusk, and even if you're not staying here, it's a good place to chill out during the day serving great grub. It's only a 5-minute water taxi ride from Colon Island, the main island in the Panamanian province.
If you love to party, Filthy Friday’s Island Party Crawl is one to go on. This crazy crawl happens every Friday and you’ll transfer from one island to another via the party boat seeing the nightlife in Bocas del Toro. You visit three tropical islands and bars and end at my favourite, Aqua Lounge Bar, where you’ll get to dance and drink your hearts out.
Boca is a haven for cocktail bars and restaurants so if you’re not a party Girl about the Globe you may prefer to spend an evening enjoying a laid-back dinner instead, especially after a long day in the sun.
Some of the restaurants have terraces where you may be treated to various performances such as live bands and fire shows. It’s never dull on Bocas!
If you want to take chilling to another level, how about hopping on a floating bar instead? Just outside Bocas Marina, you’ll see the floating bar with a lower and upper deck and a diving platform. Relax under the sun, order a drink or two, and munch on some tacos and quesadillas while you sunbathe. You can even snorkel too! The bar is open from December to April only.
Surfing Bocas del Toro
Apparently, Bocas del Toro has some of the best-uncrowded surf in Panama. Red Frog Beach is one of the favourite spots for surfers with great surf breaks and some of the best Bocas del Toro surfing.
Bocas del Toro’s surf season runs from December to March when the waves can reach four to twelve feet high. Some of the most accessible surfing spots are situated in Isla Colon (Playa Buff, Playa Paunch, and Tiger Tails), Isla Bastimentos (Wizard Beach and Silverbacks), and Isla Carenero (Black Rock and La Punta). These places just have the perfect swells for both beginners and experienced surfers. You can find surf schools here if you're like me and have never surfed before.
What else goes with surfing? Yoga! And you can find a few yoga studios here as well as surf schools. Palmar Tent Lodge offers yoga within an eco-environment on Red Frog Beach. Other classes offer Hatha Yoga, Vinyasa Yoga and Yoga Fusion.
If you love smoothies and fresh fruit juices, you definitely won't be disappointed here as Bocas is full of them. Whether you want to sit on the water's edge, gazing out at the sea or in the comfort of an armchair accompanied by a fresh ceviche at Starfish Coffee, you don't have to walk far to find one.
Go Snorkelling or Scuba Diving
If you want to take a deeper look into this Caribbean paradise’s rich biodiversity, try snorkeling or scuba diving. Bocas’ turquoise waters are breathtaking coral reefs swarmed by diverse marine animals including crabs and stingrays. There a few great snorkelling and scuba diving spots in Bocas.
There are two in Isla Solarte (Hospital Point and the Garden), one in Admiral Bay, plus Isla Colon (Mangrove Point and Boca del Drago) and Isla Bastimentos (National Marine Park).
Take a Boat Trip
For wildlife lovers, Bocas del Toro has dolphins! To see a glimpse of these cute and whimsical creatures, take a boat trip to Dolphin Bay in Isla San Cristobal (just 10-15 minutes away from Bocas Town). And as part of the tour, you’ll stop by Crawl Cay to snorkel in the best spots.
If you’re not into diving or snorkelling, one of the best ways to tour around the archipelago is by boat. It’s a great way of meeting others too as you get to enjoy food and drink, dance along to some feel-good music, listen to stories told by the captain, and mingle with your fellow tourists.
Go Island Hopping
In the archipelago, you’ll never grow bored with more islands to explore.
Isla Carenero is the closest island to Bocas Town. Take a day trip here to explore the small island. Carenero is small enough that you can hike the whole of it in just an hour. Plus, you can do kayaking, surfing, and stand-up paddle boarding if you need something a bit more active. Don’t forget to try the savoury seafood dishes offered in the restaurants too.
If you’re seeking a more peaceful rendezvous, head to Cayos Zapatilla. The cay belongs to Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park and is composed of two completely uninhabited islands. You can spend your whole day just lazing around the golden (or white) sand and snorkelling in the inviting crystalline sea without the crowds.
But you won’t find any shops or restaurants here so make sure to bring everything that need for a day such as food, sunscreen and plenty of water.
Enjoy The Beaches
Bocas del Toro has several stunning coastal areas donned with the most turquoise of waters.
Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach) – Located in Isla Colon, this beach is one of the most popular in the archipelago and can get crowded. But don’t let this stop you from visiting because the beach is still beautiful as ever! Plus, you don’t want to miss seeing the red and orange starfish in the water. Just try not to disturb them if you’re swimming in the calm waters.
Boca del Drago – Before you get to Starfish, you’ll reach Boca del Drago first. You can spend an hour or more here just admiring the tropical bliss of the coastline.
Playa Bluff – This is Isla Colon’s largest beach with a contrast of orange sand and vivid blue waters. If you go here, take note that it’s not recommended to swim because of the strong current. However, the area is ideal for lounging. So, you could just stay here to enjoy the sea breeze, try some restaurants by the beach road, and wait for the sunset, it’s magical!
Red Frog Beach – This beach is a popular gem in Isla Bastimentos, known for its white sand and crystal-clear water. Aside from the beach, it has a dense forest filled with abundant wildlife to be found like the red frogs (hence the name of the beach), sloths, and exotic birds. The beach is popular with tourists who come here to swim and surf.
Walk around the towns
The best way to learn the culture of a place is through its people and environment and amongst the partying and surfing, Bocas del Toro does have some culture.
So, in your free time, stroll around the main town of Bocas. You’ll appreciate how the streets are quiet and how the people are homey and warm. Drop by some local shops and buy some cute souvenirs. Or better yet, try out the different delicacies that you find.
Another Town you might consider visiting is the Old Bank in Isla Bastimentos. This town is home to a deep and rich culture preserved by Afro-Caribbean people. You can meander through the vibrant-coloured colonial-style homes and interact with some of the natives.
For the chocolate lovers, one of the things to do in Bocas del Toro is to visit Up in the Hill Coffee Shop and Organic Farm. To get there you have to hike through the jungle of Isla Bastimentos before arriving at the place. Bask in the café’s eco-friendly ambience and try their coffee and cacao drinks. You can also take a chocolate tour for $25 to learn about the production process of their cocoa products.
See the bat cave
If you’re not scared of flying things, another adventurous feat to do in Bocas is to visit the bat cave (or as they call it, La Gruta). Located in Isla Colon’s centre, La Gruta is a sanctuary for thousands of bats. At the entrance, you’ll find a small shrine and a statue of the Virgin Mary (Nuestra Señora) plus a box to put your donation (a dollar is enough for entry).
You can find a guide or go in without one. If you do venture inside, the water in the cave can run as deep as your chest level so you’ll need a headlamp to be able to see the cave’s interior and of course, the colony of bats.
It's so easy to get around here with so many water taxis. Just head to the wharf and within minutes you can jump on a boat to cross the water to one of the nine islands. Or you can take a taxi, a colectivo (shared van), or even a bike to reach the beaches. Buses run on the main island and take 20 minutes from Bocas Town to Starfish Beach for $5 but the best way to get around is by hiring a bike, especially to cycle around Isla Colon.
You get to tour the island at your own pace and can stop by some beautiful spots along the way. You’ll find plenty of bike rental shops in Bocas Town and can rent one for two dollars an hour or for the full day. Depending on which route you’ll take, you can pass through the beaches, Boca del Drago and Starfish, or Paunch and Bluff.
From Panama City to Bocas del Toro
There is an airport on the main island called Isla Colon International Airport (BOC) with direct flights to Panama City. From other places in Panama, take a bus to Almirante where you just need to say “Bocas,” to a yellow taxi that will take you and anyone else going the same way to the dock for $1 each (in under 5 minutes).
You then wait for a water taxi from here which takes 30 – 40 minutes for the ride to Isla Colon (30 minutes if you take a speedboat) and costs $7. I took an overnight bus from Panama City to Albrook Bus Terminal which cost $27 for the 10-hour journey. The bus is freezing with over-the-top air conditioning but it does stop once for a toilet and refreshment stop.
Accommodation in Bocas del Toro
There's accommodation for every budget here and some of the accommodation is pretty basic so choose wisely if you're on a budget. There are a few eco properties and you can even stay in a luxury tent near the beach. Below are my recommended accommodations for solo female travellers. For all other accommodations in Bocas del Toro, click on the link below.
Budget – I stayed in Tungara Hostel which was great. There’s also Selina Red Frog which is great for solo female travellers. The staff are friendly and welcoming and you can see red frogs! * Check prices & dates for Selina Red Frog
Comfort – and there are plenty of hotels if you prefer some comfort. The Hotel Bocas del Toro is great for those on a modest budget (and they practice sustainable tourism) * Check prices & dates for Hotel Bocas de Toro
Luxury – For a taste of luxury in this island paradise, choose Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge. It is a romantic place but it offers peace and quiet away from Boca Town in your very own suite. * Check prices & dates for Punta Caracol
Is Bocas del Toro good for solos?
Yes. Being islands makes this area safe for women and you can wander around alone at night as there are always people around (on the main island of Colon anyway). What began as a trip there to meet others, ended up being a huge group for dinner one night proving that it's so easy to meet people here. How long do you need? I recommend two or three nights at the very least. Here are my tips for the islands:
Don't expect there to be beaches and sand everywhere as the beach on the main island is a 20-minute bus ride away. Be careful with swimming here as there can be strong riptides. At the time that I visited, the waves at Red Frog Beach were too dangerous for people to even surf and swimming was abandoned for a few days.
Transmitted by mosquitos, Dengue fever is quite common here especially in the wet season from May to November. The symptoms are similar to the flu so make sure you take lots of mosquito repellent and cover up to avoid bites.
It rained for the whole four days that I was here which I must admit did put a little dampener on my trip and is the reason why my photos aren't looking so great. But there are still cafes and restaurants to chill out in and yoga positions to get into.
There are street vendors here but I did come down with food poisoning after a night out. Make sure any meat you buy is piping hot before you eat it.
In summary, if you love smoothies, surfing, yoga and partying, Bocas del Toro is for you. If these activities don't float your water taxi, then you can always grab a local beer and join in a discussion on American politics.
Welcome to Bocas del Toro.