There’s a certain alluring magic to Bocas del Toro that travellers seem unable to resist. Located on the northern Caribbean coast of Panama, the province of Bocas del Toro consists of the mainland and nine main islands that make up the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. The energy of this mesmerizing group of islands begins on the main island Isla Colon and transcends to the other islands in a harmonious balance that is just about perfect. Imagine a hammock, sunny open air, the music of birds, lush green trees and white sand beaches within walking distance. Hmmm…bliss!
Bocas del Toro is home to a lot of expats from all over the world, many of whom fell in love at first sight. Thanks to Panama’s many immigration visas, thousands of expats have been able to make Bocas del Toro their home. As for visitors, they come back every chance they get. What makes someone fall in love with Bocas del Toro? You’ll never really understand until you experience it for yourself. Keep on reading and let us take your mind on a tour of Bocas del Toro in this ultimate travel guide.
How to get to Bocas del Toro
For most visitors, getting to Bocas del Toro includes flights, buses or boats or a combination of all three. The shortest route to Bocas del Toro is to fly from Panama City in Panama or San Jose in Costa Rica. Direct flights to Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro are only offered through the international airports of these two cities. If you’re a fan of the easy way out, this is the hassle-free way to travel to Bocas.
One-way flights from Panama City on Air Panama start at US$105 and last about one hour. It is very important to know that planes to Bocas del Toro fly from Marcos A. Gelabert Airport is also known as Albrook Airport. This airport is Panama City’s domestic airport and is different from the city’s Tocumen International Airport. From San Jose, Costa Rica, you can book a one-way flight with Skyway from Tobias Bolaños Airport for around US$150-190. Expect a 45 minute flight from San Jose to Bocas. After landing at Bocas del Toro airport the journey is finally over and it only gets easier from there because most hotels and restaurants are located in the town center which is only a five-minute walk from the airport.
How many of us are always up for an adventure? If you have time on your hands and are looking for a more affordable way to travel you can always take a bus from Panama City to Almirante for US$28. You should know this option is a 10 hour bus ride and you will need to take a 30 minute boat taxi (US$6) from Almirante to Bocas del Toro. If you would like to get your hands on lots more detailed ways to travel, you are invited to read our post on How to get to Bocas del Toro.
How to get around Bocas del Toro
The main way to get around the islands of Bocas del Toro is to take a water taxi. There’s a certain thrill to island hopping in a boat that never fades. A little speed, a few splashes and a light wind on your face tends to complete the journey. Your host/hotel will tell you how to get a water taxi and prices to expect for traveling between islands as distance is factored in overall prices and can cost from US$1-US$5 between islands. If you are not familiar with boat fares, negotiate with the boat operator before heading to your destination. Many tourists tend to hire boats to take them on tours, surfing and snorkelling. These boat services are popular on the main island and you can always shop around to find the best price. Some hotels already have pre-arranged tour packages that take care of the planning for you.
On Isla Colon, you can find many Toyota pickup vehicles painted yellow that serve as taxis. Even though everything you need is walking distance in the town center, popularly called Bocas Town, you may need to take a taxi for longer distances like going to Starfish Beach or Boca del Drago. Trips like these may cost you around US$15 one way, since there’s no Uber in Bocas you’ll have to do it the old fashioned way and flag down a taxi to see if it’s headed your way. It is not unusual to end up sharing a taxi with other passengers. The cheaper option is to take a bus. Buses to Boca del Drago are white Toyota Coaster buses with the name of the destination on the windshield. You can find these buses near the community park in Bocas Town, facing the direction of Boca del Drago. Rides typically cost US$5 one way.
If you’re due some exercise like many of us, you can always rent a bike to ride anywhere on Isla Colon.
Where to stay in Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro has its fair share of real estate offering short term or long term stays. The easiest way to decide on accomodation is to consider your budget and what you’re looking for. Do you prefer staying by the shore or more inland surrounded by nature?
Many hotels in Bocas del Toro have sea views and are located on piers over the water or on white sand beaches. Some also offer more inland access to an almost jungle-like environment with the sounds of birds in the air. Places to stay range from high/low end hotels to hostels and Airbnbs offering cabins, piers and bungalows. Double occupancy rates start as low as US$38 during high season. In order to see what is available a quick internet search will have all of Bocas del Toro at your fingertips.
If you fell in love with Bocas like so many others and are looking to immigrate you can definitely find property to buy or rent. It is widely suggested that people who intend to relocate should rent before buying. For those looking for more than a short stay, Bocas is home to several real estate businesses that can assist with the finer details of buying property. Perhaps you’d prefer to rent and the good news is you can rent for as long as you want to. Lots of homeowners in Bocas del Toro purchased their homes for retirement, as holiday homes or as an investment. These homes are often empty when the owners are away and might be up for grabs as rentals. The most amazing thing is these homes are often right by the sea and have the most breathtaking views. You can easily find beautiful homes to rent by checking out Bocas del Toro Facebook groups or local real estate services. Sometimes by simply walking the islands, you may find a ‘for rent’ sign or meet a few people willing to dish on available rentals in your area of choice. Rentals often include electricity, water and internet for as low as US$500 per month.
Where to eat and drink
People often travel with the intention to try new cuisine, in response, destinations around the world do their best to satisfy this curiosity. Cuisine in Bocas del Toro is largely influenced by Caribbean flavours and you can find many local food stands and restaurants offering Panamanian food. Local food stands offer the most laid back eating experience you can find anywhere, as for where to eat, that’s up to you. Your options include roadside eateries, to sitting in the park, to just walking around stuffing your face meanwhile soaking up the sun and listening to reggae or Spanish music. Undoubtedly, there is no shortage of international cuisine in Bocas. If you absolutely cannot do without pizza, pasta or burgers, the islands have you covered. Let’s not forget the drink menu especially since much of the beer sold in Bocas are local brands. Even more exciting to know is Bocas del Toro is home to the Bocas Brewery where diners can have a meal and drink authentic, straight from the keg beer. There are more than six varieties of Panamanian beers, in addition, avid drinkers can also find a little something strong in the form of local wines, rums or concoctions found in almost every bar/restaurant throughout the archipelago.
Things to do in Bocas del Toro
Visit lots of beaches
Bocas del Toro has some of the most spectacular, untouched beaches in the Caribbean. A visit to several of the province’s beautiful beaches goes without saying. Visitors have access to over five beaches in this tropical paradise. These beaches are so popular we decided to dedicate an entire section of this article to Bocas del Toro’s must see beaches.
The best vacation spots around the world usually have one thing in common: beaches. Bocas del Toro is home to some of the most scenic, white sand beaches in the Caribbean. Pure white sand and clear turquoise waters with the possibility to discover private shores during your explorations offer a tranquil and idylc paradise for beach goers. These beaches are often bordered by lush tropical islands, exotic wildlife, calming ocean waves, and very few people. Exploring Bocas del Toros beaches by bike or boat is a must. Some of the best beaches to visit are:
Starfish Beach – Isla Colon
If you’ve never seen live starfish before, this is your opportunity. Starfish Beach is even more amazing thanks to the crystal clear water that actually allows you to see the starfishes. When you arrive at Starfish Beach, expect a party-like atmosphere as sounds vibrate from DJ stations while people swim, sunbathe, snorkel or eat fresh seafood from local food stands. When the excitement becomes too much you can easily escape by exploring the trail until you find a secluded spot where you have the beach all to yourself. To get to Starfish Beach, you can take a taxi to Boca del Drago for around US$15 or a local bus from the park in Bocas Town for around US$5. At Boca del Drago water taxis are always available to take you to Starfish Beach.
Carenero Beach – Isla Carenero
If you travel across the narrow gap of ocean between Bocas Town and Carenero Island you will find the pristine blue waters of Carenero Beach. This beach is just 10 minutes away by water taxi. Carenero Beach is usually less crowded compared to Starfish Beach and is nearby to popular hangout spots, Bibi’s Restaurant and Aqua Lounge. When the tide is just right, surfers can be seen riding the waves off the coast while beach-goers seek a more laid back kind of fun in the waters on the shore. You may find a few vendors walking by selling jewelry or snacks and one or two vendors may set up a small stand to sell refreshments or grilled meat. The sellers at Carenero Beach do not intrude and will not invade your space unless you want to buy. After lazing around the beach you can get some energy back into your body by walking/hiking the trails along the beach as you explore unspoiled coastlines and tropical forest. You can also find a cliff that is excellent for taking in the sun set in all its glory.
Red Frog Beach – Isla Bastimentos
To get to Red Frog Beach you can take a 15 minute water taxi from Isla Colon to the Red Frog Marina for around US$5. When you arrive at the national park you will need to pay a US$5 entrance fee. After hiking through dense tropical rain forest you will arrive at Red Frog Beach. Take care during your trek through the forest and keep your eyes open for the red poison dart frogs for whom the beach was named. If you look up, occasionally you might even spot a sloth. Red Frog Beach is absolutely picturesque. In its wild, natural state, it’s a sight to behold. Many tourists choose to laze around under beach umbrellas made from thatch facing the pristine turquoise ocean. We don’t mean to ruin the fun but as enchanting as the water may seem, pay attention to the currents in the ocean because this beach is good at disguising its power. There are many signs posted with rip tide warnings. A great option to swimming is food, a massage and pure relaxation.
Cayo Zapatillas (Zapatillas Cayes)
A visit to Bocas del Toro is incomplete without seeing the incomparable beauty of the beaches of Cayo Zapatillas. Zapatillas Cayes are two islands encircled by tropical coral reef and is about an hour boat ride from Isla Colon. The crystal clear turquoise sea and white sand beaches welcome the sea as it washes ashore then disappear into the horizon. Plan a day trip to discover these two remote islands and budget around US$50 to get there and back to Isla Colon. Due to the islands being a part of the Bastimentos National Marine Park, no businesses are allowed in this protected zone. Having a picnic sounds like a great idea if you might get hungry. The beaches at Zapatillas will leave you in amazement of Panama’s natural shores.
Costa Azul Beach – Isla Colon
If you’re wondering how many beaches are on Isla Colon, bear in mind Bocas Town is only a small part of the main island and there’s lots more to see. You can easily take a leisurely walk or ride a bike from Bocas Town to Costa Azul Beach. The beach is located 3.5 km away from the town center. Even though Costa Azul is only 15 minutes away you will notice charming differences that make this area seem a world away from the constant action in the town. After spending some time at Costa Azul you can head over to Bluff Beach (Playa Bluff) to spend more time enjoying the beach. On your way to Playa Bluff you’re sure to pass Paki Point. This is an amazing rest stop for a few drinks or lunch in the sunny open air. Tiger Tails surf break happens to be in view and is one of the best places to surf or watch the action. Enjoy a laid back lunch time at Paki Point with food and beers and look out for Skully’s (more drinks!) on the way back. If you’re looking forward to making the best of the day its easier to rent bikes early or even the day before.
Partying in Bocas
If you spend enough time in Bocas, you’ll realize the party never stops unless you want it to. The energy of the islands welcomes you to throw caution to the wind and let your hair down. Locals, tourists and expats alike love to have a good time. From all night dancing to downright Filthy Fridays, everyone can find the party of their heart’s desire. Some of the best party spots are:
Summer (Isla Colon)
The night is alive and full of Summer as this location hosts its most popular parties on a Wednesday and Saturday. This is the closest you’ll get to a real club feeling and is accompanied by a well-deserved US$5 cover charge. Confetti and free body painting is a part of the package so come ready to party!
La Iguana (Isla Colon)
Located on the sea and sharing the same owner as Summer, La Iguana bar/club is the real party spot on Mondays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays ladies nights set the tone for girls’ night out or maybe even finding that special someone. It is common to find people swimming at the late night sessions when the party hits its climax and the dancefloor is electric with Latin hits and a good mix of pop.
Mamallenas (Isla Colon)
Mamallenas is a popular group of hostels in Panama. Their hostel on Isla Colon has one of the coolest dock in Bocas. With open inviting seats and a spectacular view of the water it’s no wonder people are happy to hang out here. As if you need more encouragement, happy hour is between 4 pm and 8 pm attracts with two cocktails for $6 cocktails and national beers for $1.50 so there isn’t a better way to enjoy the dazzling Bocas sunset.
Filthy Friday is exactly as the same suggests. This animated party is Central America’s first and only island crawl and takes place every Friday in Bocas. Filthy Friday is the party of all parties to attend and has the reputation to back it up. This party is heavily advertised everywhere in Bocas, from patrons walking around in namesake t-shirts to flyers at popular hangout spots. If you enjoy a good party, you must dedicate one entire Friday to this boisterous event. The festivities begin as early as 11:00 am every Friday and comprises three out of the nine islands located in Bocas. These islands are Isla Colon, Isla Solarte and Isla Cerenero.
The first round up spot is Barco Hundido on Isla Colon. Here you’ll get a free T-shirt and temporary Filthy Friday tattoo for those who don’t mind. As the excitement builds, partygoers are loaded into boats and transported to destination number two: The Blue Coconut on Isla Solarte. This is where things get wild as your competitive skills are tested by the party organizers, expect float races and much more. Just before the sun sets, you’ll make your last stop on the party carousel at Aqua Lounge on Isla Carenero. The competition champions are named here and everyone is invited to dance the night away. For the next level party-goers who haven’t had enough, the unofficial after-party is at Selina Hostel. Tickets include transport between the three islands and can be bought on Filthy Friday’s website or at their outlet in Bocas Town. Standard tickets cost $35 while VIP costs $75.
In Bocas life is an enchanting dream filled with good energy and allure that cannot be experienced anywhere else. If partying isn’t your thing, no problem, Bocas is way more than just a party spot.
For those who dare to brave the depth of the deep blue sea Bocas del Toro is ideal for scuba diving and snorkeling. Diving various sites around Bocas del Toro is an opportunity of a lifetime and will leave you nothing short of speechless. Places to dive are plentiful and diving spots can be found to suit every level of diver. The Bocas del Toro Archipelago is a dreamland of perfectly clear Caribbean sea sprinkled with vibrant coral gardens and a spectacular range of tropical fish waiting to be discovered. It could take you months to explore all the different dive sites in Bocas Del Toro. Without a doubt, scuba diving in Bocas Del Toro is certain to be one of your best adventures in Panama. Because of great conditions and highly competitive prices, Bocas del Toro is among the most ideal places to take part in scuba training. Whether you’ve just begun exploring the underwater world, have plans to advance your current certification or merely need a refresher course-you are sure to find the right diving school in Bocas. You’re also sure to find one or two PADI 5 Star dive centers in Bocas Town where you can get PADI 5 Star Certification at the best prices.
Diving conditions are fantastic throughout the year, particularly for training sessions with best months for scuba diving being February, March, May, September and October. At these times of the year, Bocas experiences calmer sea conditions allowing access to more remote locations
Diving is definitely not the only way to enjoy the underwater world in Bocas. If you’re not a fan of diving you can explore the magnificent Caribbean sea by going snorkeling.
Lots of colorful sponges are unique to Bocas and you can always spot a great variety of corals and marine life such as the queen, french and grey angelfish, trumpet fish and so much more. On an adventure packed day you might even get a view of crabs, lobsters, sting rays and sometimes even slow-moving bottom-dwelling nurse sharks.
Some scuba diving locations are quite shallow and offer ideal conditions for a terrific snorkel experience. You can easily rent snorkel gear at most water sport shops in Bocas or it may be automatically included in a booked tour.
Bocas del Toro is a superb kayaking destination. Visitors can Kayak from Isla Colon to neighboring islands and vice versa. In Bocas your kayak conquests may include a visit to the famous snorkel spot at Hospital Point on Isla Solarte. Additionally, you can explore the mangrove forests and indigenous villages of Bahia Honda and its vivid coral reefs and the miniature hidden coves of Isla Solarte. Your kayak adventures can also take you on popular routes around The Point on Isla Bastimentos all the way to Wizard Beach. The more enthusiastic traveler may choose to traverse Isla Solarte or Isla Bastimentos, while including stops along the way for snorkeling, food, a few drinks and rest stops. If you’re crazy about kayaking you can definitely decide which islands you would like to see and hire a guided full day tour for one or more days.
Chocolate Farm Tour
One of the most delightful and unexpected tours you can find in this tropical archipelago is a chocolate farm tour. Just say the word ‘chocolate’ and many are sure to start drooling. We can’t help it! Interestingly, Bocas del Toro is home to the best chocolate in Panama and it’s becoming one of the country’s most sought after exports. In Bocas you are sure to find local guides ready to take you on a trip that puts the spotlight on cacao farming and chocolate production, which is quickly becoming one of Panama’s most coveted exports. A typical chocolate farm excursion includes a look into the native villages where the indigenous Ngabe women explain the entire process of organic cacao grown in the shade, from planting, reaping, fermenting, drying and the best part – chocolate making. The tours are conducted and operated by Ngabe farmers. Visitors are also given the opportunity to understand the way of life of an indigenous Ngabe community.
Surfing is one of the most popular water activities in Bocas del Toro. Throughout the province you will find surfers towing surfboards as their favourite vacation accessory. Surfing the islands of Bocas del Toro is an unforgettable, one of a kind experience. The warm waters of the Caribbean sea offer pristine turquoise swells that welcome the surfing adventures of seasoned veterans and newbies alike. Every level of surfer can find the ideal spot to perfect their surfboard shenanigans with many places offering surf lessons for beginners. The height of the surfing season is between December and March. At the delight of surfing enthusiasts, waves from 4-12 feet high might make an appearance. There is even a smaller wave season lasting from May to July when brisk waves between 3-8 feet can be surfed.
Most of the breaks to be found are coral reefs and beach breaks. If you’re looking for easy to access surf spots you should know Isla Colon, Isla Carenero, and Isla Bastimentos are ideal options.
Avid surfers with experience and an adventurous nature can charter boats in order to reach breaks that will give the surf opportunity of a lifetime. Many of these breaks are local secrets, with uncrowded spots. Local surf shops and boat captains can assist with all the details in finding these hidden gems out on the water. An excellent way to track surf activity in Bocas is to visit Magic Seaweed’s website.
Bastimentos Sky Zipline Canopy Tour
The most heart-stoppingly fun activity to do in a jungle is zip lining. Isla Bastimentos has a popular zip lining tour that will send you speeding high above a canopy of green forest near Red Frog Beach. This zip line tour offers amazing aerial views over the islands below and is a great way to add some variety to your trip in the form of a non water-based adrenaline pumping activity.
Some of the more adventurous activities to partake in Bocas del Toro may need some level of skill or commitment. However, if you’re looking for a laid back activity that requires little to no expertise, renting a bike to explore Isla Colon is a great idea. You have the opportunity to choose one of three main routes. You can cruise around Bocas Town on the tiny roads lined with quaint little stores and cafes against the water. Another option is to ride out of town to Bluff Beach and enjoy a day of fun in the sun at the beach while indulging in local food and drinks. This trip will take about an hour of cycling, be sure to stop at Paki’s Point half way on your journey and hang out at an awesome bar or restaurant. Whether you want to chill with some beer or rent a board and try the surf, the choice is yours. After your break keep cycling north along the coast to the scenic Punta Bluff.
Option number three includes a ride to Boca del Drago where you can swim with starfishes at Starfish Beach. To rent a bike you can easily run an internet search or walk around Bocas Town, you’re sure to run into a shop or two. On the other hand, passionate cyclists can follow the trail of the hilly road through the jungle to Boca del Drago. This trip will take you to the far northwestern tip of Isla Colon, which is about 15 kilometers of riding.
There are regular group catamaran boat cruises across the island, charters spanning a few days, custom-designed private day cruises to far out locations and party excursions that vary from a couple hours to a few days.
People who decide to learn a new language usually have a reason for doing so. Whether you are a traveller looking to communicate with locals, a student or a business professional learning a new language is always a good thing. Bocas del Toro has one of the most highly ranked network of Spanish schools in Panama. Courses are available for every level of fluency, age and time availability. Habla Ya is one of the top recommended Spanish schools in Bocas because it holds the distinguished Instituto Cervantes certification from Spain. The Cervantes Institute of Spain is the international regulatory body for teaching Spanish as a foreign language. Here you can find classes lasting four hours or less allowing you the opportunity to enjoy much of what Bocas has to offer. Spanish by the Sea is also another great Spanish school in Bocas del Toro. Classes are held all over the property of the school as teachers encourage a more relaxed atmosphere in teaching the language.
Both schools offer group lessons, private lessons or personalized courses, such as Business or Medical Spanish.
Botanical Garden Tour
With a bounty of lush, green trees and nature at its fingertips, it’s no surprise Bocas del Toro is home to a botanical garden or two. Finca Los Monos Botanical Garden (the Monkey Farm) is located outside of Bocas Town and is about a 10 minute drive from Bocas Town and is also nearby the Smithsonian Institute. The farm spreads across the island from coast to coast has the most spectacular views. By looking eastward you can see the archipelago of Bocas del Toro and westward is the mountainous mainland with the blue-green Caribbean sea lying between. The tour includes views of over a dozen species of edible bananas and even a taste of some of these tropical nectar. Thanks to a constant temperature of 80 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit all year round there is more than sufficient rainfall to encourage the lush, humidity of the plants. There are also wide varieties of fruits and flowers. You can also find an abundance of wildlife such as parrots, woodpeckers, hummingbirds, howler monkeys and a lot more. New plants are constantly being added to the property and plants are labeled to give details of their medicinal and everyday use. Tours take place on Mondays at 1:00 p.m. and Wednesdays/Fridays at 8:30 a.m. Group visits can be accommodated by reservation. Entrance fees are US$25 for adults and US$10 children 5-16 years old. Plants and flowers may not be ideal for traveling but if you’re staying for a while you can definitely buy plants and flowers for your home or as gifts.
Isla Bastimentos is home to two caves for those seeking some ‘underground’ adventure. The first cave is the Nivida Cave and can be accessed by taking a boat upriver at Bahia Honda. A short hike from the pier through the forest will reveal the cave entrance where visitors must wade through a waist-high waterway to discover stalagmites, stalactites, bats and a natural swimming pool. The second cave can be found upriver from the Salt Creek indigenous village. A visit to this cave can be combined with a tour of the village and its surrounding jungle by getting a local guide that knows everything there is to know about the cave, the villagers and the edible and medicinal forest plants.
Panama’s rugged western Caribbean coast is wild and undisturbed and that’s what makes it so incredible to fish these waters. In Bocas del Toro, fishing is for everyone as long as you’re willing to try. There’s quite a sense of pride that washes over you when you catch your first fish. You don’t need to go deep-sea fishing, you can simply try your luck by fishing from a dock or the shore. Barracuda and snapper fishes are plentiful close to the shore. For fishing enthusiasts, spearfishing, or diving for lobster and octopus with the locals is a great way to enjoy fishing adventures. Many locals offer charter boat services and will take you to the best spots to do some offshore fishing. Catches include mackerel, tuna, wahoo and kingfish. If you would like an organized fishing excursion, you can always book a fishing charter business on Isla Colon. These charters are often equipped with all the fishing equipment you will need. There’s nothing like the satisfaction of reeling in a fish or two and making them into freshly caught meal.
The province of Bocas Del Toro is located 3 meters above sea level in the Caribbean and experiences a tropical climate. When combined with the archipelago’s natural, untouched beauty and pristine clear turquoise water, it’s no wonder Bocas is a top vacation destination. The average annual temperature in Bocas Del Toro is 26.0 °C | 78.7 °F. The temperature in Bocas varies very little year round and it is not significant to consider hot and cold seasons. You could sum it up as Bocas has two prevailing seasons, a rainy season and a dry season. The province gets significant rainfall throughout the year where even the drier months still get a lot of rainfall. The most rain falls during July and the least rain falls during March. The best time to find clear, rain-free days in Bocas del Toro is from late December to late March where temperatures hover between 65°F and 90°F. This weather is ideal for beach days and outdoor activities.
Bocas del Toro is amazing but don’t take our word for it, take a trip and experience the magic of the islands.