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 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?
Did I mention that these islands are good for partying? The main island of Colon is where it is at and there's 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 the Aqua Lounge. 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'e 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.
Not being a surfer chick (anything above one foot high freaks me out), my knowledge of surfing is absolutely nil but 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. 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 waters 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.
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. 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. You can rent a bike for a whole day or just by the hour from hostels, shops and even restaurants in Bocas Town. Prices for one day rental cost approx $10.
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 who 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 from 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.
Where to Stay
There's accommodation for every budget here and some of the accommodation is pretty basic so choose wisely if you're on a budget. I stayed in a hostel which had bed bugs so switched to Tungara Hostel which was so much better.
There are a few eco properties here where you can stay in a luxury tent near the beach, 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 practices sustainable tourism) or choose the Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge is just a taste of luxury in this island paradise. Don't expect the Wifi to be great here though.
Beaches – Don't expect there to be beaches and sand everywhere as the beach on the main island is a 20 minute bus ride away.
Riptides – 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.
Dengue Fever – Transmitted by mosquitos, Dengue fever is quite common here especially in the wet season from May to November. The symptoms are similar to flu so make sure you take lots of mosquito repellent and cover up to avoid bites.
Rain – 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.
Street Food – I always eat street food as it is so cheap but after a late night hot dog from a local street vendor, I came down with food poisoning for a few days. Be careful if you choose street food from here and make sure it is piping hot before you eat it.
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's 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.
So, 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 America politics.
Welcome to Bocas del Toro.