Bocas del Toro, or Bocas Town, is one of the top destinations in Panama, but fortunately, it’s not overrun by tourists. It’s an eco-tourism paradise made up of nine “large” islands and fifty two cays (tiny islands). Here are six reasons you should visit this archipelago. Be careful, like many people, we fell in love with it. Some people go for a visit and never leave.
It’s a great place to chill out and relax or be as active as you would like– Bocas is on the northern Caribbean coast of Panama and has a relaxed,Caribbean vibe. The first thing you’ll notice is the burst of colors from the buildings, to the flowers, to the food. People speak Spanish, but many speak English, and you may even hear some Jamaican patois from descendants who came to work and chose to settle there.
Whether you’re a backpacker looking for like-minded folks, a couple looking for a getaway, a family with small kids, a surfer, a digital nomad, or a solo traveler, you will feel at home. We met people from all over the world and of all ages during our trips. No one will rush you out of a restaurant, you won’t hear cars honking, and you’ll be greeted with a smile. One bonus- unlike many islands, shopkeepers and artisans won’t harass you to buy their wares. If you’re coming from the United States, you can use your U.S. dollar. Many places take credit cards, but most people prefer cash. There’s only one ATM on the island, but you won’t need to spend much to have a great time.
The beaches- The main island, Isla Colon, doesn’t have the best beaches. Instead, it’s best to take a lancha (water taxi) to one of the beaches on the other islands. You’ll see shades of blue and green in the water that you won’t see in many other parts of the world. Try Red Frog Beach, Cayo Zapatilla, Starfish Beach, Caranero Beach (with the popular Aqua Lounge), or Bocas del Drago. You can get to the beaches via water taxi or bus from Isla Colon. Even if you can’t swim, don’t miss out on snorkeling. You can wear a life vest if you need to and many tours stay in relatively shallow, warm water.
The nature– Bocas has incredible biodiversity with beautiful beaches, rainforests, jungles, and coral reefs. We never made it to the bat cave, but we did see star fish, dozens of dolphins, sloths, and spectacular, colorful fish. If you see the red frogs on Red Frog Beach, look, but don’t touch because they’re poisonous! If you don’t speak Spanish, make sure someone on your water taxi speaks your language so you learn about what you’re seeing. Did you know that dolphins can live for 60 years and that starfish are asexual, reproduce their limbs, move about one meter a day, and live for 40 years? We didn’t either until we visited Bocas.
The Oreba Chocolate Tour– One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to the farm run by the indigenous Ngobe tribe. Eighty farmers work in this village of 700 people. In addition to chocolate, they grow pumpkin used for food and for medicinal purposes after women give birth, mimosa plants as a sleep aid, fresh lemongrass, bananas, and curcumin (used for cooling and as a yellow dye). This fair trade farm sends its products to Switzerland for the famous Swiss chocolate. Everything is done by hand, and you’ll learn the process from start to finish. You’ll also get a delicious meal of chicken, vegetables, and potatoes, all grown or raised on site. Don’t leave without buying some chocolate. Once you learn about how good it is for you and all of its uses, you’ll feel even less guilty indulging!
There’s always something to do. – Bocas del Toro is great for the beaches, but it’s a tropical locale and of course, it rains. That’s what makes it so lush and green. Fear not, you can party for ten hours straight on three different islands with Filthy Fridays-– just make sure you have stamina. You can learn to surf, and in fact, it’s often better to learn to surf when it’s raining. You can also do some great shopping, get a masseuse to come to your hotel room, find a yoga class, go horseback riding, zipline over a canopy of trees, or eat a meal on the water.
The food- Some of the best food we ate in Bocas was the local food– rice and beans, chicken, pork, fish, soups, etc. If you’re a lobster lover, you can pay less than $20 for a filling meal with the lobster caught fresh that morning. Although Bocas del Toro isn’t very big, you won’t run out of food choices so indulge in sushi, Thai food, French pastries, chili, or whatever else your heart desires. For the beer drinkers, there’s a microbrewery on the island as well.
How to get there and where to stay: We flew from Panama City to Bocas del Toro on Air Panama, but you can also get there via bus or boat. If you take the plane, you can enjoy beer and pork rinds and get a spectacular view of the islands prior to landing.
If you are coming from Costa Rica, you can take a bus to the border town of Sixaola where you will cross the border into Guabito, Panama. After you get to Panama, you can take a taxi or bus to the Port town of Almirante. If you don’t want to fly from Panama City, go the Albrook bus terminal and purchase a ticket to Bocas del Toro. An express bus will take between 10-12 hours and there’s also a night bus option as well. Once you arrive in Almirante, you will take a boat ride from Almirante to Bocas del Toro. You can find more information at this official site.
You do not need a car in Bocas del Toro. You can walk to many places, especially if you stay in town. Taxis are cheap and you will use the water taxi to get from island to island.
The best thing about Bocas is that there is an accommodation for every budget. Although we often prefer hostels to save money, in Bocas, we stay at the Playa Tortuga Resort, and that’s where we will be hosting our Nomads4Life Getaway from July 13-20, 2019. We still have spots available and we will be visiting many of the sites discussed above. In the evening, we will wind down with sound healing and meditation on the beach.
We’ve visited three times and we haven’t even scratched the surface. Leave your hair dryer and high heels behind. Bring your flip flops, shorts, and open mind with you. Your first visit will not likely be your last.