The Bocas del Toro province in northeast Panama is a fascinating geographical formation right below the border with Costa Rica. Just off of the mainland, 9 tropical islands, 52 cays, & 200 islets make up an archipelago that looks & feels like it belongs on the opposite side of the world.
On his last New World voyage, Christopher Colombus landed here in 1502, and was so impressed with its beauty that he decided to name a few islands after himself (thanks, Chris). The archipelago later became a haven for pirates & ship building, and legend tells us that treasure was buried on a number of the islands here.
Although I was only there for a few days to renew my Costa Rican Visa, I fell in love with Bocas del Toro and vow to come back (despite not finding any treasure), and wanted to share a few reasons why you should go island-hopping in Bocas del Toro.
This is the main town on the islands of Boca del Toro, and the base for accommodations, restaurants, hotels/hostels, and entertainment. Bocas Town looks as Caribbean as it gets, and was built from scratch during the banana-boom days of the early 20th century. As you approach the multi-colored houses built on top of wooden stilts & docks floating on crystal-clear, blue water, you begin to realize that you’re going to love this place, even before you step off the boat.
Bocas Town is also the base for most of the water taxis & tours that connect you to anywhere you’d like to go within the archipelago. Whether you want to catch an all day tour out to the idyllic Isla Zapatillas, or a quick $1 taxi over to Isla Carenero for lunch, this is island-hopping at it’s finest. This is my favorite thing about Bocas – the fact that boats that zip you around are the most common form of transportation. And not just to explore the beautiful lagoons, jungles, & beaches by day, but also to go out & experience the nightlife. Friday nights are a little cooler when you can look across to another island, see that there’s a pumping party going on at a beachside club, & then catch a $1 taxi over with a bunch of new friends.
Scuba Diving & Snorkeling in Bocas del Toro
There are close to 20 official dive sites in Bocas del Toro, and countless places (including all of the beaches I list in this post) to snorkel. The unique geography of this archipelago, with it’s shallow waters, hidden lagoons, protected parks & bright-colored coral make Bocas del Toro an underwater paradise. I’m no diving expert, but I have been “under da sea” in a few different countries like Thailand, Indonesia, & Brazil, and I can safely say that Bocas del Toro holds it’s own. Not to mention that getting your Open-Water certification here is dirt cheap – something like $270. I recommend going with La Buga Dive & Surf, and a list of all the dive sites can be found here.
Surfing in Bocas del Toro
You don’t have to go to the Pacific to catch the tasty tubes – Bocas also has plenty of good waves for the surfing crowd. From November to April & from June to August there are plenty of big swells coming into the islands here. Spots like Old Man’s & Black Rock on Isla Caranero, and Tiger Tail at Paki Point are great for beginner’s. But there are also wave breaks for the experienced pros, and recently Kelly Slater and Sunny Garcia were out surfing in Bocas, taking advantage of the in-season swells which can see wave faces up to 20 feet.
If you’re interested in surfing at Bocas del Toro & don’t feel comfortable braving the waves yourself, you can find a list of some popular surf schools here.
Bastimentos Island – Red Frog Beach
“I mean, why do they call it Red Frog Beach though. Did you guys see any frogs?”
Sadly, I heard this from too many people that I met in Bocas. Red Frog Beach is on Bastimentos Island, and is one of the most popular destinations in all of Bocas del Toro. The beach has nice blue water & soft white sand, but contrary to popular belief, there are NOT red frogs jumping around everywhere catching waves & sunbathing with you and your friends.
But if you do want to see why it’s named Red Frog Beach, all you have to do is walk to the far end of the beach and find the path leading through the jungle to Wizard Beach (also recommended). With a good pair of sandals strapped on, enter the jungle and get ready to see more red frogs than you have ever seen in your life.
You might not see any at first, but then once your eyes focus, you’ll start to see hundreds of little red guys jumping all around you. These frogs are really small, and extremely poisonous, but they are not poisonous to the touch (just don’t eat them yea?). It’s a pretty cool experience, and is a fun, eye-opening hike between 2 beaches that are worth serious chill time.
Although all of the islands in Bocas del Toro are beautiful, many consider the two Zapatillas cays to be the most stunning. These two mangrove islands rise out of the turquoise-blue water and are surrounded by brilliantly-colored reefs, and are likely the islands you’ve seen on Bocas del Toro postcards/advertisements. Both of these islands are part of the Isla Bastimentos National Park, and are an important nesting site for leatherback turtles. Actually, more scientists visit these islands than tourists, but you can book a tour from Bocas Town & go check them out for yourself. Just be prepared to pay a little more than other tours (Zapatillas are farther away than other islands) in addition to a $10 park entrance fee that is also required to visit the island.
Many people mainly use Isla Colon & Bocas Town as a launching point to get to more far away, advertised beaches. They don’t realize that on the back side of Isla Colon, in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful beaches in Bocas del Toro – Playa Estrella. Of course you can take a car or boat taxi to get there, but I recommend renting bikes in Bocas Town & pedaling across Isla Colon to go there. Not only does it cost less and you get a good workout, but it’s way more rewarding and you can see another side of the island.
You bike through the jungle, past farms, and even through a few little towns with school yards overrun with little Panamanian kids playing everywhere. But finally coming out of the jungle onto the northern coast at Boca del Drago is when the bike ride really becomes fun.
The last few km’s follow a sandy path that hugs the coast line and wraps around the point between Colon & the mainland, & heads back south. After a few minutes of zig zagging through palm trees, and your tires sinking in the sand, you finally arrive at Playa Estrella – a laid-back, chill beach with nothing but a few restaurants & fishermen hauling their most recent catch up onto the sand to slice & dice in front of your eyes.
This is not the beach to come to for waves (there are none), nor to party (there aren’t many people), but to relax, eat a seafood lunch and feel like you’re off the map. Go for a swim and it’s possible to find hundreds of starfish that decorate the bottom.
Hiking & Exploring in Bocas del Toro
There are many hikes & adventures to be had on all of the islands of Bocas del Toro, but I only want to highlight a few. The point at Isla Caranero isn’t just for the experienced surfers – there is a path that heads to the end of this little island that offers a fantastic view & is also a great place for collecting seashells & driftwood.
For those looking to get off the beaten path in Bocas, try your luck in finding the blue lagoons of Isla Colon. Like any good hidden spot, you’ll have to ask detailed directions from a knowledgeable local, but I can tell you that both the caves and lagoon are accessible via the Flying Pirates trails. My buddy Wes handcut the trail to the blue lagoon himself and it’s a bit of a hike out there, but the reward of the refreshing waters of the blue lagoon washing away all the sweat and mud more than make up for the journey. There are an impressive array of reef fish, turtles, & small sharks that at times share the lagoon with you, so make sure that you leave no trace when you leave.
Finally, seek out Polo Beach on Isla Bastimentos. The beach takes it’s name from Polo, a friendly local who owns the beach, and welcomes visitors with open arms. Go do some cave snorkeling and beach bumming, and then come in to eat lunch with Polo, who loves cooking for new friends.
So, you wanna go?!?
That’s what I thought! You can either fly directly to Isla Colon (the main island), or take a bus to Almirante, Panama, and then a 30-minute boat ride out to the island. If you opt to for the bus/boat option (definitely much cheaper), it is quicker to fly into San Jose, Costa Rica than Panama City because the bus between PC & Bocas takes about 11 hours. Detailed instructions on how to get to Bocas del Toro can be found here.
Have you been to Bocas del Toro before? What were your favorite activities? Or maybe you want to go for the first time? Let me know if you want to go and I’ll hook you up with my friend Wes who will show you a great time. I know I can’t wait to go back, and until then I’ll be dreaming of island-hopping in Bocas del Toro, Panama.