The Zapatilla Cays (Cayo Zapatilla) are two uninhabited paradise islands in Bocas del Toro, Panama’s aesthetically blessed Western archipelago. While casually strolling along Bocas Town’s main street one afternoon, we were enthusiastically approached by a guide from Coopeguitour. “What are you doing tomorrow, wanna go to an island?” Silly question, I always want to go to an island. He pitched a day trip to the larger of the two Zapatillas, and with the promise of sloth viewing, starfish aplenty, snorkelling AND golden sands, we were sold.
At 930am the following day, our guide picked us up from our hotel and took us to the dock at their offices. The day trip cost $30 with $5 on top for the entry fee for the National Park (usually $10), payable to the boat captain just before arrival. Prices seem to vary between $25 and $40, depending on who you book with. It’s best to go with a tour operator that has an actual office, so you’re certain everything is above board. You may also be able to book a tour directly with your hotel or hostel. Introductions made with the six other passengers on our boat, we headed out and made a pit stop at Dolphin Bay to admire everyone’s favourite mammal for about half an hour.
A little further out, snorkelling was on the menu and our captain asked us if we had any biscuits. What a curious question, we thought. “Yes, biscuits. The fish love them”. Really now? Fortunately, I happened to have some Quaker oatmeal biscuits on my person at that very moment, which I retrieved and fed into the water slowly. Out of nowhere, a school of sergeant major swarmed towards us in perfect unison. It was really something to behold.
Sufficiently snorkelled out, we then made a pit stop at Crawl Cay for a bathroom break, as well as to pre-order lunch, which we would have after the day at the beach. Finally, we made it to Zapatilla and we would be left to our own devices on South Cayo Zapatilla, the larger of the two islands.
Eagle-eyed reality TV fans may recognize Cayo Zapatilla from the Panamanian season of Survivor. Those familiar with Spanish will know that ‘zapatilla’ means shoes. From aerial photos, the cays supposedly look like two shoes in the water, as if someone was walking in the sea towards Bastimentos. Rumour also has it that the islands were made by God as he descended down from heaven (believe what you will).
I thought the other islands in Bocas were stunning, but these really take the cake. Zapatilla is jewel in the region’s crown. There is no tourist infrastructure whatsoever, so if you’re looking for a place to feel like Tom Hanks in Cast Away for a day, Zapatilla is just the place. You’ll be tasked with bringing your own picnic gear and supplies, as there’s nothing here but bliss. No restaurants, no shops, just endless beaches of unspoiled powdery white sand and transparent water.
The island feels wild and untouched and given the two-hour duration to get there from Isla Colon, it feels wholly secluded too. If you’re lucky, you may practically have the entire island to yourself, meaning you’re free to belt out your best soliloquy or rendition of Phil Collins’ “Another day in paradise” as loud as you please. If you’re even luckier, you’ll have picture perfect weather as we did. There was none of that impetuous Panamanian rain, despite the fact we went during the rainy season (May till November).
The full circumference of the island can be discovered on foot in under 45 minutes. It’s also impossible to take a bad picture here. After being granted three blissful hours on this pearl, we took off for lunch to reminisce and pinch ourselves. The way back to Isla Colon through the mangroves was equally eventful with sightings of starfish and sleepy sloths (when aren’t they sleepy right?) All in all, I couldn’t recommend Zapatilla enough. If you believe the Garden of Eden is real, this might be it.
During our time in Bocas, we lodged at Hotel Limbo on the Sea in a lovely sea view room.
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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.