Bocas Del Toro Archipelago is a stunning series of islands off the coast of Northern Panama. Surrounded by beautiful clear blue water and lush trees, these remote islands offer a Caribbean island feel in Central America. Bocas Del Toro is a Panamanian province that includes part of the mainland, 9 main islands and tiny isletas (mini islands) scattered about.
The main island in the archipelago is Isla Colón. It has the capital city of Bocas Town or Bocas. Nearby islands are Isla Cristobal, Isla Solarte, Isla Bastimentos, and Carenero Island.
My favorite thing about Bocas Town is that it doesn’t remind me of anywhere else. It has an upscale run-down feel to it. The architecture of tin roofs and brightly colored buildings, along with the tropical flair of the local food and reggae music floating out of the bars create a breezy laid-back Caribbean vibe.
Bocas Town is a lively little town with most of the hotels and restaurants on the water’s edge, many built out over the emerald water. While real estate appears to be at such a premium that locals were forced to develop out over the water, the rest of the island feels more abandoned with a few accommodations scattered along it’s beaches.
And I use the word developed loosely. Because of the remote location, the islands struggle with reliable access to internet, electricity and water. But the ability to get off the grid is part of it’s charm.
Christopher Colombus explored the area in 1502 and decided to call it Isla Del Drago. Previous owners were Costa Rica and Colombia, but Bocas del Toro is now an official province in Panama.
Although not an official language, Bocas del Toro is the home of Bocas del Toro Creole or “guari-guari” language, which is a dialect of Jamaican Patois.
Air Panama offers flights into Bocas Town/Isla Colon. It is a 45 minute flight from Panama City. You can also take the Caribe Shuttle from Costa Rica, either from San Jose or Puerto Viejo. This trip is a drive is through lush rolling hills and banana plantations followed by a 25 minute boat ride.
If you’re planning to drive from Costa Rica, you can’t do it in a rental car. If you drive your personal car from Costa Rica, you have to have a vehicle exit permit (government approval) from the National Registry office and also the title of the vehicle to leave the country.
From David, Panama, it is a 3 hour drive to Almirante, where you can catch a ferry. If you are in absolutely no hurry at all, you can take a 10 hour bus ride from Panama City to Changuinola, then get a ferry to Bocas Town, but the boat ride will be longer than from Almirante.
If you are not coming from Panama City, you will most likely have to get a ferry or water taxi from Almirante, which is about a 30 minute boat ride.
I use the word ferry loosely. It is a boat that when full hovers a few inches above the water. Luckily the islands block the waves, so it is almost like a lake. We traveled to the island during a storm and it wasn’t too rough.
WHERE TO STAY
Azul Paradise Bocas Town – A new hotel in Bocas Town near where the ferry leaves from. Rooms are small but well decorated, and built over the water, so all rooms should have some sort of water view, even if it is just looking down to the water. Their restaurant, Azul, is fantastic. (More about it below.) Paddleboards available for rent next door at La Buguita, and you can catch a boat off the back dock to go to their other hotel, Azul Paradise Resort for the day on Isla Bastimentos.
Red Frog Beach Resort – If you want to just go to one place where you can do everything and have everything organized for you and a full resort experience, check out Red Frog Beach Resort on Isla Bastimentos. You would have to take a boat or flight to Isla Colón, then take another boat to Red Frog Beach Resort.
Playa Tortuga Hotel – Offers the best of both worlds if you are debating between staying in Bocas Town or out at a more remote island. Playa Tortuga is about a 10 minute drive from downtown Bocas, and right on the beach. It offers more traditional hotel accommodations, large pool and standard rooms with oceanfront views.
Hotel Palma Royale – If the above recommended hotels don’t have availability, Hotel Palma Royale is in a great location in Bocas Town, close to the ferry, although not right over the water, it is across the street, and it is walking distance to all the bars and restaurants.
WHERE TO EAT
Om Cafe – What could be better than eating authentic dishes from East India on a deck above the tranquil Caribbean waters while sipping a lotus flower sangria?
Azul restaurant – Amazing dishes with a Caribbean twist. Has great view off the back deck of the hotel. Best restaurant in Bocas in terms of both ambiance and cuisine.
La Buguita – Colorful waterfront lounge with hanging swing and great place to lounge. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, they offer everything from healthy eats to heavy eats. And they rent paddle boards here.
Fincas y Estancias Parrilla Argentina – This Argentinian steakhouse offers delicious hearty portions. While the decor is minimalistic, the owner’s colorful personality makes for a fun dining experience.
Leaf Eater’s Cafe – While you could possibly throw a rock from Bocas Town and hit the Leaf Eater’s Cafe, you’ll have to take a boat or paddle board to get here. And if you don’t have time to get to Starfish beach, you can just look off the deck of Leaf Eater’s Cafe at the giant starfish in the shallow water below.
Octo – Known for their grilled octopus and homemade lemonade. Not oceanfront, but if you have a hankering for octopus in a leafy green garden atmosphere, this is the place to go.
WHAT TO DO
Nothing. The best thing you can do in Bocas del Toro is nothing. Just sit in a hammock and enjoy the ocean breeze and Caribbean inspired beverages. But if you must be up and about, here are some suggestions.
Take a paddle board or boat over to Carenero Island and grab a bite at Leaf Eater’s Cafe.
Take a boat to Isla Bastimentos and stay the day (or overnight) at one of the resorts.
Pack a bag for the day and grab a boat to Isla Zapatillas (Cayo Zapatilla) for snorkeling or dolphin watching. (There are no restaurants or stores on the island, take food and water.)
Finca Los Monos Botanical Garden (the Monkey Farm). Call ahead as they only offer 2 tours per week, Mondays at 1:00 pm and Fridays at 8:30 am. You may be able to call and get a private tour with a reservation. They also offer a half-day retreat by reservation only that gives you access to their pool, an open bar and lunch.
Green Acres Chocolate Farm – Like most things in Bocas Del Toro, you’ll need to call ahead to make sure they are open and you’ll have to take a boat to this location from Bocas Del Toro (It is on the mainland of Panama).
Still have energy to burn? Maybe rent a bike, take a yoga class or get certified to SCUBA dive.
And of course, check out their array of stunning beaches. The beaches in Bocas del Toro are what I imagine when I think of the word paradise. The northern part of Isla Colon has Bird Island and Starfish beach (Playa de las estrellas). Starfish beach offers calm waters and, you guessed it, Starfish. Playa Boca del Drago is a picturesque beach lined with palm trees and calmer waters great for swimming. Playa Bluff is beautiful sea turtle nesting site, but the bigger waves make it better for surfing than swimming. Isla Colon offers Paunch Break for beginner surfers while Dumpers break is for advanced surfers. If surfing is a priority, talk to a local or your hotel for the best time to visit Bocas del Toro as the conditions vary depending on the season.
The ferry boats in Bocas Town arrive and leave from different locations a few blocks apart. Make sure you know where your boat is leaving from.
There aren’t a lot of shopping options in Bocas so take everything you think you may need with you.
Panama City has two airports. It has Tocumen International airport (PTY), but it’s domestic airport is Albrook Domestic Airport (PAC). If you are flying from Panama City to Bocas del Toro, make sure you go to the correct airport.