Bocas del Toro (or the Mouth of the Bull) are a series of islands off the northern coast of Panama, waiting for you to arrive to relax on the many beaches and enjoy the paradise and Rastafarian influence of the area. Of course a place like this has many options of how you spend your time, and you could find yourself going from relaxing on the beach to exploring the islands, diving, and seeing dolphins and sharks all within the same day.
Of course we are not really tour people, so we tried to explore the area as best we could on our own and within our budget. By doing this, Bocas del Toro ended up being one of the best places we have visited on our travels (it definitely makes the top 10) owing to what we were able to find along the way!
But firstly, you have to actually get to Bocas which generally involves making your way from the nearby town of Almirante. This is where the water taxi’s depart from, costing you $6US with boats running until 6pm in the evening. If you are coming from the north, we recommend (after having crossed the border from Sixaola, Costa Rica into Panama) either taking a local bus to the bus station in Almirante followed by a taxi to the boat dock (costing around $3US total), or negotiating for a colectivo style van (they start at $10US but are easily negotiated to half that)
Generally, the water taxi’s will take you to the main island, Isla Colon, however there are also other boats that also go to Bastimentos as well (another popular island). If you are going to be staying elsewhere, for example on Isla Caranero, it is easy to get a water taxi to Colon followed by an additional $1US boat to Caranero.
Once you arrive on Isla Colon, there are plenty of options for accommodation if you have not booked yet. We stayed at Heike Hostel which was a great little spot offering dorms and private rooms at reasonable pricing across the road from the main park (Parque Simon Bolivar). They had a nice rooftop here where you could have a few drinks, or just hang out with new friends. Breakfast was also included here, with a make your own pancake buffet available well into the late hours of the morning (delicious!).
But of course the adventure begins outside the walls of the hostel, and we made sure each day to try something new. Here are a few of our favourite things to do whilst staying in Bocas del Toro:
Caranero Beach is located on Isla Caranero, a short boat ride away from the main island of Colon. For the price of $1US (do not pay more), you can take a water taxi across the short gap and then take a walk around this picturesque island towards one of the best beaches we have ever laid our eyes on.
You can ask the taxi driver to go to “Aqua Lounge dock” if you want to pay the $1US and then walk around the island, or if you are feeling lazy you can pay a few dollars more to be dropped off directly at the beach itself. We recommend taking the 15 to 20 minute walk, as you can see just how the locals live out here, as well as the beauty of the island.
Once you arrive at the beach, you will be greeted with calm waters, alongside a great beach besides the lush jungle. This is a great spot to spend half a day, lounging about on the sand or enjoying the crystal blue water that is on offer in front of you. This was probably our favourite beach in Bocas del Toro, as it looked exactly like a post card whilst also not having too many people around fighting for a piece of the beach.
The names of beaches do not come with more originality than this, with this one getting its name because of the hundreds of starfish than can be found no more than wading distance from the shore. It truly is a spectacular sight to be walking in knee deep water and see 5 starfish within reaching distance from you, especially with calm water all around.
Located on Isla Colon, but on the other side of the island, Starfish Beach is definitely worth making the trip for. All you need to do is go to the main park (Parque Simon Bolivar) and wait for the mini-buses to arrive that are heading to Boca Del Drago which is the location of Starfish Beach. You will pay $2.50US each way, and then be dropped off a 15 to 20 minute walk away from the actual beach. If you wish you can take a water taxi from here for around $1US (you may need to negotiate), before you are dropped off right next to where the starfish can be found.
If you are going to go here, we would definitely recommend taking an early bus (around 9am or 10am at the latest) so that you can beat the crowds that descend upon this place at around 11:30-12 and hang around until about 2-3pm. Whilst we were here a number of boats arrived playing loud music and generally disturbing what was a peaceful atmosphere.
It would also be wise (if you have them) to bring a snorkel and mask, which allows you to explore deeper waters and see other sea life. Whilst we were here, Rachel was able to see a manta ray in amongst the starfish which was a real highlight!
Up in the Hill Café
This café is situated on Isla Bastimentos, which is the other major island (second only to Isla Colon) in Bocas del Toro. Many people also choose to stay on this island as it offers a number of great beaches and a little bit of seclusion away from the “hustle and bustle” of the main island (not that it gets too busy mind you).
We heard about a great little café at the very peak of the island offering organic food and drink in amongst the trees and thought we would check it out. Of course it is not as easy as just taking a car here as getting to the café requires you to make your way uphill by hiking up past the town and into the trees.
This makes the journey a part of the adventure, with a 30 minute or so trek (maybe slightly less) before you reach the café. Also, if you are so inclined, you can continue on after visiting the café and make your way down to Wizard and Red Frog Beaches which would add around 1 to 1.5 hours to your trek. From these beaches you can always take the shortcut path back to a small dock which provides water taxi’s back to Isla Colon for around $5US.
We would always say to be cautious when making the trek up to Up in the Hill Café, as well as down to the beaches if you continue on the path. There has been some troubles in the past (some serious) on these paths, however if you stick to the main hiking track, go with at least one other person, and go during the day (most importantly) then all will be fine.
Once we arrived at the café, we were pleasantly surprised to find a great organic menu, alongside natural remedy products and a chance to go on a cacao tour (book in advance as it is in the morning). We sat outside and had a couple of drinks and an organic brownie with the place mostly to ourselves, before making our way back down into town in order to get a water taxi back to Isla Colon – a great way to spend a morning or an afternoon.
If you’ve been across to Isla Caranero or Caranero Beach, then you would have most likely been on the dock of Aqua Lounge. But of course there is more to this place than just its dock, and after having it recommended to us we headed there during the day to see what all the fuss was about.
Once you head inside (for free during the day), you will be confronted with a large decked area with many holes cut out providing some swimming areas alongside lounges to relax. More than this though, they also have a rope swing, trampoline (where you can jump into the water below), swing, tight rope above the water, and a high platform to jump in from. All of these provide hours of entertainment and all for free which makes it even better!
In addition to this, at night Aqua Lounge turns into a bar and club (with an entry fee this time) right on the waterfront with drinking games and great music also.
Red Frog Beach
If you’re ready for another beach, and the chance to see some more wildlife, head back across to Isla Bastimentos to Red Frog Beach. The easiest way to do so is to take a water taxi from Isla Colon to the Red Frog Beach dock, which provides a shortcut through the jungle on a specially built track straight to the beach. The only downside to this option is that you just pay $5US to take the shortcut (in addition to your taxi cost), as it is private land. The other option is as described above, with an approximate 2 hour hike over the high point of the island to the beach on the other side from the main town on Isla Bastimentos, Old Bank.
If you end up taking the shortcut path, be on the lookout for animals, especially the red frog that the beach is named after. Unfortunately for us we weren’t able to see any on the day we visited, but we did see a sloth and many caymen on a small pond along the way!
When you get to the beach, you will notice it is different from other beaches including Caranero and Starfish. Here, the waves a plentiful as the beach faces out to the ocean and is not protected. This means that you should be careful when swimming here owing to the strong current. Still, it is a great place to check out, sit in the sun, and go for a swim.
We also recommend checking out Palmar agent Lodge whilst you are at Red Frog, which has a tasty (if not a bit pricy) menu! If you are looking to volunteer these guys also take some on depending on availability.
When you’re on an island one of the first things that come to mind (at least for us) is where the bar is! La Iguana offers a great bar and an even better nightclub where we partied a few times during our stay.
Depending on the night, you might get a few free drinks along the way (especially for the girls on ladies night), and if you can get over the sometimes awful song choices you can dance the night away here quite easily!
The best thing about this place though is it’s location, right on the waterfront where you can sit on the dock overlooking the water and have a few quiet drinks if you want to get away from the action inside. Grab a couple of friends and make your way here for a night out, you won’t be disappointed!
This is a great activity for a half day, especially on Isla Colon. The problem with the main island is that the main beaches are so far away, and if you don’t feel like going across to another island by boat, you are limited in your options. But instead of trying to walk the long distance, why not rent a bike for cheap in town and make a day of it riding up the coast, or even all the way to Starfish beach if you think your legs can take it!
The more common route that us tourists take begins in the main town and winds its way along the coast past different beaches including Playa El Istmito and Paki’s Point. The end point is generally at Point Bluff, with the waves here much too dangerous for swimmers but supplying those on the beach with a great view of those surfing.
After grabbing a drink or lunch here, it is easy enough to take the same path back into town (the road ends at Point Bluff) and even use the bikes for the rest of the day to explore the town if you like- totally up to you!
Bikes can easily be rented around Parque Simon Bolivar- try not to pay more than $5US.
Parque Simon Bolivar
The main park on Isla Colon, Simon Bolivar, doesn’t provide much in terms of adventure, but it does give something more. Sitting down on one of the many park benches here will supply you not only with a great opportunity for people watching, but also something else.
Usually, there is something going on in or around the park, especially in the early evening. Whilst we were here we saw many street performances including a traditional children’s game involving dressing up like devils and cracking whips at one another. It may be a bit weird, but it sure is fun to watch!
Many people come to Bocas del Toro solely to surf, with a friend of ours even spending a few months here just to chase the waves.
We won’t pretend to know anything about the best surfing areas on Bocas or the best time of year to go, you will have to get in with the local surfing crowd there to find out all of the secrets. However, we can provide some basic tips and starter areas where you may find some waves, and there are many places to go if you are just starting out where you can get a lesson and be well on your way.
Caranero beach is a great starting point for example which supplies a small break off the shore from the quiet and tranquil beach. This is perfect for those learning as the waves aren’t too big and are behind the swimming area, giving little chance for people to judge or be in your way. It is also very easy to paddle your way out through the quiet waters before finding the waves, an additional bonus for the beginners among us that know the pain of paddling out amongst large waves! You can also find lessons here, especially if you walk from Aqua Lounge dock as you will pass surfing schools during your walk to the beach.
Further surfing can be found on Isla Colon usually at Paki’s Point or Point Bluff, but be sure to ask at the local surf shops and rental areas as these can provide some pretty advanced waves (or none at all depending on the day), so it is better to know the actual conditions before you head out there!
There are of course many other things to be seen and to do whilst you stay in Bocas del Toro, including many different day tours involving boats, diving, and other adventure activities. Unfortunately we weren’t able to do it all (who has the money!), but we enjoyed our time here very much and would definitely go back if we had the chance!
Tell us in the comments what your favourite part of the islands was- it would be great to hear from you!