Bocas del Toro, Panama Travel Guide
Explore Bocas del Toro, an archipelago on the Carribean side of Panama. Our travel guide is packed with travel tips, suggestions on the best things to do, advice on how to get to the island or where to stay.
Bocas del Toro alias Mouths of Bull is quite remote and beautiful part of Panama, yet this place, unlike other remote islands, is not unknown, and the distance from Panama City does not keep crowds away. This pearl of Panama's Carribean Coast must compete not only with another Panamanian gem, San Blas islands but also with aplenty of paradise-like beaches in nearby Costa Rica. And we must say it is doing great.
Some people we met along the way confessed that Bocas del Toro did not live up the expectations, but we were quite happy there, maybe because of our down-to-earth attitude.
Yes, Bocas Town has some issues.
It is not the cleanest town, and you must drive, bike or take a tour to reach the nicest beaches. Also if you are already in your late twenties or older, the party atmosphere of Bocas del Toro won't probably amaze you, but there is nothing easier than book yourself in a non-backpackers hostel or stay away from city center. Now, when we outlined the possible negatives you might find on Bocas del Toro, let's have a look at the best things you can do on the archipelago - we believe you will enjoy it when having realistic expectations.
Some people might find challenging that the best beaches on Colon Island are a bit away from Bocas Town, but we found it great as we could rent a bike, exercise a bit, explore the island on our own before we hit the beach.
You'll soon find out that biking is THE way how to get around the island, and everyone - both locals and tourists use it on an everyday basis to get from point A to point B.
There are several places where you can rent a bike, the lowest rate we found was $5 per day. The terrain on Bocas del Toro is mostly flat, so don't be surprised that you can't change gear as there is no shifter and when you want to break you must pedal backward.
Also, check the bike quality before you rent it - I rode my bike for two hundred meters, and it stopped working all of a sudden, so I had to walk back and rent another one.
The main reason why people are tempted to visit Bocas del Toro are the beaches on the main island of Colon and beaches on other five bigger islands nearby which can be easily visited on a boat trip.
We enjoyed the most Playa Bluff on Colon Island, but the most popular beach is Playa Boca del Drago on the opposite tip of the island where you can get comfortably by frequent public transport.
Bastimento Island (easily accessible by water taxi) is famous for Red Frog Beach or Wizard Beach.
Island hopping is a great way how to enjoy an active yet relaxing day away from the main island. It is also the most popular activity, so no wonder that Bocas Town feels during midday as a ghost town as most of its visitors is on tour at that time.
The best seller is a tour taking its visitors for dolphin watching, than to Zapatilla island where you can enjoy warm sea and white sand beach, another activity is snorkeling, stopping near another island to look for sloths and observing starfish in shallow waters.
The tour is six hours long and officially cost $30 (we bargained and paid only $25). Because the weather is sometimes unpredictable on Bocas del Toro (the chances to have clear skies and less rain are in the summer from December to March), you pay deposit $5 at the time of booking and the rest on departure day.
There are several agencies along the main drag near water offering the same tours.
We did not have high expectation for snorkeling, but it really surprised us how good it was.
We stopped at Cayo Coral and snorkeled over well-preserved corals with lots of species of fish. The water visibility was ok but could have been a bit better. Overall, when we read a negative review on snorkeling on Bocas del Toro, it was caused by bad visibility, especially when rain and wind hit the archipelago and whirled the sandy seabed.
If you enjoy snorkeling, even more, you can sign up for a specialized snorkeling tour visiting three different places in one day.
Seeing dolphins is always hit and miss, but not when boating in Bocas del Toro's Dolphins Bay where it is guaranteed that you spot at least some dolphins.
Specifically, bottlenose dolphins live in the bay which you can visit on own or as a part of an organized tour. When we arrived in the bay, there was only another boat, and the engines were turned off for the whole period when we were looking (successfully) for dolphins.
This experience was definitely more pleasant than the one we had on Bohol Island in the Philippines.
We could see some wildlife in Boquete or in El Valle de Anton, so of course, that you will see animals also here, in the most remote part of this Central American country. You can observe birds, butterflies, turtles or monkeys, but your best bet will be to spot the slowly moving sloth.
Raise your head up and scrutinize the treetops - there's a big chance sloth is hiding there.
Starfish, lying on the sandy seabed is easy to spot thanks to its motionlessness and distinct coloring. There are many of them, so many, that one of the spots close to Bocas Town (reachable only on a boat or with a tour) deserved its cheesy name Hollywood.
Another place where you can look for starfish is Playa Boca de Drago.
KAYAKING & MANGROVES
We think that kayaking goes very well with mangroves. There's nothing better than to paddle around mangroves on own, look for animals living in it and overall enjoy a sunny day out. This activity was also available in the colonial town of Paraty in Brazil, but here, in Bocas del Toro, you can also visit Bat Caves on top of that.
You can visit the caves only on a tour.
SAFETY ON BOCAS DEL TORO
We felt very safe on Isla Colon and everywhere else, but the truth is that the safety situation has worsened in the past few years, especially because of the collapse of banana trade.
Petty theft is not uncommon, and you should watch your belongings even when you go on a beach which looks completely empty. Our hostel had a sign that we should keep doors locked because of the possibility of robberies.
Isla Bastimentos sometimes sees robberies at knife-point even in broad daylight, and it is better to hike there in the larger group. That's being said we did not encounter any unpleasant situation or strange individuals in four days we spent on Bocas del Toro.
Local residents on Bocas del Toro can suffer from poverty for many reasons, and you can help them by a couple of simple things - do not throw away food or donate some of the clothes you don't need.
WHERE TO STAY IN BOCAS DEL TORO
Although Bocas del Toro is technically an archipelago, travelers usually stay on the main island, Colon Island in Bocas Town. If you are looking for something a bit quieter, you can look for accommodation on Bastimento Island.
Budget | Surfari Bocas - This budget-friendly hostel offers comfortable rooms with air-conditioning and a rooftop terrace where you can enjoy a drink.
Mid-range | Bambuda Lodge - In the tropical forest, you can find a reasonably priced lodge offering both private rooms and dormitories. The lodge features free wifi, swimming pool or kayak rental.
Luxury | Divers Paradise Boutique Hotel - A new and stylish hotel in Bocas Town has everything you would expect from a high-end hotel.
You can also search for all hostel options using HostelWorld.
Although Bocas del Toro is somewhat remote, Bocas Town is a regular settlement where you can find plenty of hotels and hostels, restaurants for every budget (the cheapest we found served a meal for $5), bike rentals, travel agencies, ATMs and clothes, and grocery stores.
Food in grocery stores are slightly pricier than on the mainland, but this should not surprise you as this is a standard when on the island, it is the price for being privileged to stay in such a beautiful place.
HOW TO GET TO BOCAS DEL TORO
There are two ways how you can get to Bocas del Toro. Bocas del Toro has a small airport which usually receives flights from Panama City or From San Jose in Costa Rica. Getting to Bocas del Toro by plane does not come cheap, but it will surely save you time.
The other option of how to get to the archipelago is by a combination of a bus and a boat. It does not matter from where are you coming you must get to Almirante city from where you can take a water taxi to Bocas del Toro.
If you travel from Panama City, take an overnight bus for $28 from Albrook Station.
Another popular destination from where travelers visit Bocas del Toro is Boquete - in that case, you can take a direct shuttle for $30 (which also include a water taxi from Almirante to Bocas Town), or you can travel on the public, but you need to go from Boquete to the city of David first for $2.5 and then continue to Almirante for $8.45 with another bus.
Many people also include Bocas Del Toro into their Costa Rica itinerary when traveling the Carribean side. If this is your plan, you need to take a bus from Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica to Almirante.
From the bus station in Almirante, you must walk 1.5 km to the port or take a cab for $1. From the port, jump on a water taxi which goes every 30 minutes and cost $6.
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