You’ll often hear of places where travellers tend to ‘get stuck’ (in the good way). I’ve heard urban myths of people going to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca for a week and never going back home. I’ve witnessed mutterings of vacations to Maui that turned into eternacations. Never had I witnessed this with my own eyes before I went to Bocas del Toro, the boisterous archipelago in the west of Panama. My first visit to Bocas was two years ago and having recently returned, I would say that at least fifty percent of the travellers I met back then still reside on those magical islands. They are now truly immovable, trapped. Since they tasted its sweet nectar, they remain unable to enjoy any other earthly destinations.
There are reasons for this. If you spend enough time in Bocas, you’ll recurrently hear people saying the phrase ‘Sweet Bocas Love’. Life here truly is sweet, an enchantment and allure I’ve never experienced anywhere else. Between the palm-lined streets, you will find whatever you’re looking for, whether that’s great surf or great beaches, wonderful seafood or wonderful vistas. I won’t lie; Bocas is a huge party mecca. Fret not however, as that’s not all you can do here. Sunset lovers should prepare themselves to be spoilt for choice. Bat cave tours, hiking, birdwatching, snorkelling and diving are also reasonable pastimes here (diving schools are literally littered all over the joint). And trust me, the novelty of actually having to take a scenic water taxi as your primary means of inter-island transport never wears off. Bocas is the perfect place to wander barefoot, or so they tell me. I never saw my friends Sam and Dave wearing shoes, not even once. I thought they were crazy. Walk around town with no shoes? Me? What about the broken glass and decreased dignity? “We’re in Bocas Rosie, we don’t need shoes” they retorted. Caution (along with inhibitions) are rapidly thrown to the wind by those whom Bocas welcomes through its palm gates.
Photo Credit: Azul Resort, Isla Bastimentos
No one is quite not sure where the archipelago gets its name from (Bocas del Toro means bull’s mouths), but rumour has it that the last chief who ruled over the region was called “Boka Toro”. Bocas del Toro is a melting pot of cultures and you’ll definitely notice that you can always hear music wherever you are. San Cristobal, Isla Solarte, Isla Carenero, Isla Bastimentos, Isla Colon: I am fortunate enough to have called these islands my home. I leave begrudgingly, but I suspect Bocas hasn’t seen the last of me. Here’s your definitive guide to all things Bocas del Toro.
How to get there
There are two ways to get to Bocas from within Panama. The nice and easy method is to fly there from Panama City. Flights start from USD 105 one way with Air Panama (I include only one way prices as many tend to intentionally miss their return flights). It’s an hour flight from Albrook Airport (be sure not to go to Tocumen international). When I flew, our plane actually made a pit stop somewhere else to pick up additional passengers (much like a bus). I’d never seen that before on a commercial flight. You can also fly in from San Jose, Costa Rica with Nature Air. Once you land at Bocas airport, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover that it is only a five-minute walk from the town centre.
The slightly more long-winded, treacherous bus route takes ten hours and favours the penny-wise. The journey involves driving to Almirante and then taking a 30-minute water taxi to Bocas Town on Isla Colon, the main island. Annoyingly, one may only purchase bus tickets in person by going to Albrook mall and buying one in person. The bus ticket costs $28 and then the water taxi from Almirante to Bocas is $6 on top of that ($ for Panamanians). There are three busses which depart at 18:00, 18:30 and 19:00. For the trip, dress like you’re going on an extended outdoor expedition in the arctic, as that’s how cold the bus is. If you manage a wink of slumber or two, be sure to wake up at Almirante and not the final stop, which is Changuinola. You can tell that happened to me, right?
Where to eat
Munchies (Isla Colon): I never expected a burger this delicious from this unsuspecting bar and restaurant, which hosts the best live music in Bocas on a Sunday. Munchies offers up a nice cosy atmosphere and is perched on the first floor of a disused apartment, meaning you can inquisitively glance at all the passersby below making their way around town.
Bocas Bambu (Isla Colon): Go to Bocas Bambu. Sit down. Ask for the Pescado al Ajillo. Eat every single bit of the Pescado al Ajillo. Then be glad you did.
La Buga (Isla Colon): Renowned dive school La Buga has had a refurb and moved homes from its old plot two doors down. The new and improved location now includes and outdoor rooftop deck and bar. Dining here is given a hint of magic by live music they put on in the evenings to a sunset backdrop.
Buena Vista (Isla Colon): The nachos are so handsomely priced despite being laden with all the queso the world has to offer. The gargantuan portion sizes will mean you might not have space for dessert. If you still do, the brownies with ice cream are a fan favourite with very good reason. The soft sound of the waves crashing around the restaurant doesn’t hurt either.
Bibi’s on the Beach (Isla Carenero): Though many come to Bibi’s primarily for the best Pina Colada of their lives made with love by Argentine Joaquin or Lady (that’s her real name), I urge you to try their seafood creations too. I saw someone eating the Red Snapper and I knew it had to me mine. The seafood soup crammed with octopus, shrimp, potatoes and mussels came highly recommended from a local who eats there almost daily. I too went back for another helping the very next day. Just peering over the corner of your table, you might even see a stingray or two.
Where to drink and dance
Summer (Isla Colon): Summer hosts the main party on a Wednesday and a Saturday. Right next to Iguana and run by the same owners and bartenderesses, it’s also on the water and feels the most like an actual club. This explains the $5 cover charge, which is unusual for Bocas. There’s free body painting and confetti galore so you somewhat get your money’s worth.
La Iguana (Isla Colon): This bar and club on the sea is the place to be every Monday and on ladies nights Tuesday and Thursday. Night swims are popular later into the night when the reggaeton gets the crowd really pumped. Expect Latin top 40 hits with a bit of Ed Sheeran and Jason Derulo thrown in for good measure. La Iguana is where you’ll make most of your new friends.
The Book Store (Isla Colon): ‘Loco Dave’s’ or The Book Store attracts a slightly more mature crowd and more longer-term residents, however everyone will check in on a Tuesday night for the live music from 9pm. Watch out for Loco Dave who didn’t earn that moniker by chance. He’ll talk your ear off about pretty much anything and be sure not to mention Trump.
Filthy Friday: I was in two minds about whether to go to Filthy Friday, dubbed as Central America’s first and only island crawl. Firstly, It felt like a direct replica of the Sunday Funday pool crawl in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua, right down to the t-shirts you get with your ticket purchase. Secondly, it seemed hyper excessive and potentially dangerous: the sign up form includes a disclaimer that the company is exempt from liability in the event of illness or death and has a space for an emergency contact. I found that somewhat unnerving. Additionally, there was something I found unpalatable about the name of the event. Nevertheless, after three weeks on the island I finally succumbed to the hype and went along for the party and I’m so thrilled that I did.
Filthy Friday takes place every Friday with three stops on three islands: Toro Loco on Isla Colon is the meeting point and the crowds are then carted off by boat to The Blue Coconut on Isla Solarte. This is where all the magic happens and the journey there is almost half the fun. Boats passing by hoot and holler to egg each other on, and by the time you arrive at Blue Coconut you’re in the best mood and ready for dancing in the water, on the stage or doing the limbo. A blow up float race also takes place here. The third and final stop is Aqua Lounge on Isla Carenero, a party spot first and hostel second. It used to have a trampoline that you could bounce directly into the water from, but that has since been done away with. There is still however a tightrope and a high jumping platform which invites copious amounts of water play. Those still standing usually head over to Selina’s after the party winds down at Aqua Lounge- the crazy ones swim there though this is absolutely not recommended and highly dangerous. Filthy Friday was probably the most unique and rousing party experience of my life.
Mamallenas (Isla Colon): Mamallenas is a hostel chain but they have the best dock in Bocas in my opinion. Their happy hour between 4pm and 8pm attracts cocktail lovers (two cocktails for $6 and national beers for $1.50), but it’s the stunning glistening sunset that keeps them there.
Where to stay
Hotel Limbo on the Sea (Isla Colon): If you happen to stay at Limbo on the Sea, you must absolutely grab one of their sea view rooms, if they are available. Rooms 17 and 18 have the best views, but the latter certainly takes the cake. There’s a free breakfast each morning until 10am as well as quirky marine-inspired decorations all over, just to remind you that you’re in paradise.
Sea view from Hotel Limbo on the Sea
Spanish by the Sea (Isla Colon): When you stay at Spanish by the Sea, you feel a sense of community unlike any other hostel in Bocas. You meet your tribe and find yourself having shared dinners and conversations over cards against humanity. That sort of thing. The hostel is situated a little bit further away from the action of the Main Street, but that adds to its charm. It has a large, open (and clean) kitchen, which is one of the focal points of social interaction, as people will often cook together here. It’s a Spanish school as well as a hostel so there are lots of breakaway areas and desks for working.
Selina’s (Isla Colon): This certainly isn’t my favourite place and feels a bit cliquey, but it’s the biggest powerhouse hostel in Bocas and isn’t all bad. Their rooms are air conditioned all day and the wifi here is strong enough to stream your favourite shows from back home. They have a buffet breakfast everyday for $4 as well as a lovely lounge area and dock for swimming.
Azul Paradise (Isla Bastimentos): If your budget extends this far, make all your dreams come true at once with a stay at the fabulous over-water bungalows at Azul Paradise. They don’t call it paradise for nothing.
Photo credit: Azul Resort, Isla Bastimentos
Where to shop
Supermercado Isla Colon (Isla Colon): The Main Street is not lacking in supermarkets, however Isla colon is the cheapest and certainly the cleanest.
Super Gourmet (Isla Colon): If you’re traveling for a while, you probably won’t shop here every day, but it’s air-conditioned and you’ll feel that extra pinch of luxury. They have the best sandwiches too, prepared before your eyes much like Subway but healthier, heartier and certainly larger.
Red Frog Beach (Isla Bastimentos): The most famous beach on Isla Bastimentos got its name from the red poison dart frogs that can be heard croaking thunderously throughout the day. You wont have many neighbours here as it’s a little on the quieter side, but you can always pop into Palmar Beach Eco Lodge, which is directly on the beach for a snack and on to play on the swings when you’re once again ready for human contact. Myself and my friend Franzy got royally lost in the jungle while trying to make our way to Red Frog and had to be rescued by some local children, but that’s another story.
Palmar Eco Lodge on Red Frog Beach, Isla Bastimentos
Paunch Beach (Isla Colon): My favourite thing about Paunch beach is that you can choose to lay on the sand or at the uber snug lounge chairs at Paki Point. I fondly recall melting into them on many an occasion. Accessing Paunch beach will require getting on your bike as it’s off the beaten track on Isla Colon, but it’s a scenic and noteworthy journey- I once caught a glimpse of a crocodile resting in a sideway ditch. I pedalled faster.
Paki Point at Paunch Beach, Isla Colon
Cayos Zapatilla: The Zapatilla Cays are two uninhabited paradise islands in Bocas. Bring your own picnic gear as there is no tourist infrastructure whatsoever. No restaurants, no shops, nothing but bliss. If you ever wanted to feel like Tom hanks in Cast Away for a day, Zapatilla is just the place.
Starfish Beach (Isla Colon): What starfish Beach lacks in waves, it makes up for in abundance of gorgeous echinoderms (starfish to you and me) trickled all over the bottom of the ocean. They don’t call it Starfish Beach for nothing. The waters are ever so still here, the sounds which will envelope you instead are from the Panamanian families who come scarily well prepared for their beach days with chairs, tables, parasols, board games and multiple coolers. Starfish Beach is my favourite place to just lie, watch, breath and exist. Don’t leave your snorkel gear at home.
Carenero Beaches (Isla Carenero): You know you’re at Carenero when you see the pretty yellow houses on the water (Hotel Faro del Colibri). Many will argue that Isla Carenero is more picturesque than the main island of Isla Colon as it “looks more like paradise”. Be prepared to make friends with all the fiddler crabs traipsing along merrily. Carenero is certainly quieter than Isla Colon. With the exception of Aqua Lounge, there isn’t too much going on here. Long stretches of white sand beach are all yours for the taking. All yours. If your beach day extends passed sunset, please be sure to look all the way up. I haven’t the faintest idea why, but there are more stars to be seen from Isla Carenero at night. Walk up to one of the extended boat docks so the water surrounds you, lay flat on your back, and look at the stars. If that isn’t bliss, I don’t know what is.
Rosie Bell is an international travel writer, author of the book “Escape To Self”, and content editor for Club Elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram @TheBeachBell.