You’ll often hear of places where travellers tend to ‘get stuck’ (in a 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 a few years back and having recently returned, I would say that at least fifty per cent 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 keep hearing people say the phrase ‘Sweet Bocas Love’. Life here truly is sweet, an enchantment and allure I’ve never experienced anywhere else. There are a great many things to do in Bocas del Toro. Between the palm-lined streets, you’ll find whatever you’re looking for – whether that’s great surf or great beaches, wonderful seafood or wondrous 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). Also, 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 loss of 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 and 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 about an hour’s flight from Marcos A. Gelabert 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), something I’d never witnessed before on a commercial flight. Once you land at Bocas airport, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s 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. 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?
From Costa Rica, you can fly with Skyway direct from San Jose’s Tobias Bolaños airport. It’s a 45-minute flight and which departs daily at 12:15 PM. One-way tickets hover around 150-190 USD. From Bocas back to Costa Rica, departures are at 2:15 PM.
Where to eat
Munchies Express (Isla Colon): The juicy burgers at Munchies are highly sought-after. Pop into this express burger joint to get yours and ask for lots of napkins, you’ll need them.
Amaranto (Isla Colon): This healthy juice bar and coffee shop serves an American-style breakfast and has vegan and gluten-free options. Some go as far as calling this the best place to get coffee in Bocas.
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 an outdoor rooftop deck and bar. Dining here is given a hint of magic by live music they put on in the evenings.
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.
El Pirata (Isla Colon): Those who have been coming to Bocas del Toro for years will notice that sushi restaurant Raw Fusion is no more. In its place is El Pirata, a lovely waterside seafood restaurant. Grab a table outside for the best views.
Fincas & Estancias (Isla Colon): Isla Colon had a steakhouse shaped gap, which Fincas & Estancias has luckily filled. This parilla isn’t the cheapest place to eat but those in need of Argentinian chorizo and morcilla (blood sausage) can get their fill here.
Pier 19 (Isla Colon): This paradisiacal restaurant is located within the Divers Paradise Boutique Hotel and Bocas Dive Center, which happens to have the largest diving boat in Panama. The dock is utterly romantic for a sunset dinner and food options are varied and delicious.
Bibi’s on the Beach (Isla Carenero): Though many come to Bibi’s primarily for the best Piña Colada of their lives made with love by Lady (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 be 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.
Places 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.
Filthy Friday: Filthy Friday is Central America’s first and only island crawl. Succumb to the hype and join the party to rival all others. People travel from far and wide just to attend this raucous event. The debauchery takes place (as the name suggests) every Friday on three of Bocas’ nine islands: Isla Colon, Isla Solarte and Isla Cerenero.
The initial meeting point is Barco Hundido on Isla Colon. Get your free T-shirt and temporary Filthy Friday tattoo here (if you so desire). With the engines fully warmed up, you’ll travel to destination number two: The Blue Coconut on Isla Solarte. This is where things really get started. Expect float races, swimming and an assortment of competitions. Before sunset, you’ll decamp to Aqua Lounge on Isla Carenero. The competition champions are announced here and you’ll dance into the night feeling glad you came. The unofficial after-party is at Selina, for those who still have their dancing shoes. Tickets include transport between the three islands.
Filthy Friday takes place every Friday with three stops on three islands: Barco Hundido 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 4 pm and 8 pm 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 10 am 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
Gran Hotel Bahía (Isla Colon): Stay in one of Gran Bahía’s 19 luxury Caribbean-style rooms and you’ll be treated to a generous buffet breakfast each morning. The building’s first plank of wood was laid in 1905 and its owners have since restored it to become one of the loveliest accommodations on Isla Colon.
Eclypse de Mar Aqua Lodge (Isla Bastimentos): Sequester yourself in nature at Eclypse de Mar, an over-the-water bungalow resort on Isla Bastimentos. Snorkel, kayak and paddleboard to your heart’s content or enjoy spending time in your private ocean top bungalow, all of which have glass panels for marine observation.
Spanish by the Sea (Isla Colon): When you stay at Spanish by the Sea, you feel a sense of community and find yourself having shared dinners and conversations over cards against humanity. The hostel is situated a little bit further away from the action of 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. Taking Spanish lessons is one of the other popular things to do in Bocas del Toro.
Selina’s (Isla Colon): This is certainly the biggest powerhouse hostel in Bocas (and all of Panama probably). Selina’s 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 every day for $4 as well as a lovely lounge area and dock for swimming.
Sun Havens Apartments: For couples, groups or families, Sun Havens Apartments are exceptionally convenient and comfortable for your stay in Bocas. You get a tropical welcome drink on arrival and there are studios, suites, apartments and penthouses with kitchens, lounges and balconies. Remember that one of the loveliest things to do in Bocas del Toro is sweet nothing, so the balconies come in very handy. The owners are Italian (and also speak French, English and Spanish, of course). It’s terrific value for money so do book in advance where you can. I’ve personally stayed here on multiple occasions and know I’ll be back sooner rather than later.
Photo credit: Booking.com
Azul Paradise (Isla Bastimentos): Make all your dreams come true at once with a stay at the fabulous over-water bungalows at Azul Paradise. Here one may unashamedly binge on all the blessings the water brings: fresh seafood caught by the on-site staff, decks stretched out onto the water for night stargazing, as well as water sports galore – pedalos, kayaks and paddleboards. They don’t call it paradise for nothing. Book your stay here.
Photo credit: Azul Resort, Isla Bastimentos
Azul Paradise Bocas (Isla Colon): The Isla Colon outpost of Azul Resort is undeniably the most stylish hotel on the lively Main Street. This boutique property is a relatively new addition to Isla Colon’s collection of hotels and all rooms are pristine with blue and white accents, luxury rain showers and the on-site restaurant is just fabulous.
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 travelling 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 won’t 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. Day trips to these cays often include snorkelling stops and a visit to Dolphin Bay.
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. The waters are ever so still here, the main sounds that will envelop you are from the Panamanian families who come scarily well prepared for their beach days with chairs, tables, parasols, board games, boom boxes and multiple coolers. There are also a delightful number of beachside restaurants, each selling juicier octopus dishes than the last. Starfish Beach is my favourite place to just lie, watch, breathe and exist. Don’t leave your snorkel gear at home.
To get to Starfish Beach, take the bus from Isla Colon’s Main Street towards Bocas del Drago. The bus departs from the central park and one leaves every 30 minutes (tickets are $2.50 each way). From Bocas del Drago you can take a short boat ride directly to Starfish Beach at a cost of maximum $1.50.
Boca del Drago (Isla Colon): Less crowded than Playa Estrella but equally as scenic, Boca del Drago is a still and sleepy beach on Colon. There’s a swing and a wooden staircase leading up to a palm tree because why not. There’s also a white linen cabana and two perfectly-placed waterside hammocks in front of Coconut Hostel Bungalows where you might be sweetly serenaded by the reggae sounds that sneak out of Africa Restaurante Bar. Park yourself in your paradisaical seating of choice and bring a good book (this one happens to have a chapter dedicated to Panama and adventures in Bocas). Come to Boca del Drago for a laid-back Caribbean beach experience.
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 and jungle are all yours for the taking. All yours. If your beach day extends past sunset, please be sure to look all the way up; there are more stars to be seen from Isla Carenero at night than on Isla Colon. 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.
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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.