Brilliant crystal blue-water, stunning white-sand beaches, lush emerald-green jungles, and abundant bio-diversity: Panama’s Bocas del Toro is one of the most beautiful and eco-rich Caribbean island destinations I’ve ever visited.
How to get to Bocas del Toro
Isla Colon, located in the north-western corner of the country close to the Costa Rican border, is the port of entry for any Bocas trip. There are regular flights from Panama City, or an all-day bus if you’re on a budget. You can also rent a car, which is a great way to see hidden corners of the country, as public transportation is scarce. Both the bus and car will only take you as far as the port town of Almirante on the mainland, where you’ll have to take a water taxi to Isla Colon’s main settlement Bocas Town.
This scruffy Caribbean touristy beach town has great bars and restaurants. But I wouldn’t spend too much of your time here; unless you need supplies or food, or you want to check out some diving or other activities that require an organized program.
The archipelago of Bocas del Toro
Out of the six inhabited large islands that make up this archipelago (Isla Colon, Isla Bastimentos, Isla Popa, Isla Solarte, Isla Cristobal, and Cayo de Agua), Isla Bastimentos is the most magical and accessible (a short 15 min water taxi ride). It’s also the only island that has a national park and a marine park, and it’s also where you’ll find the region’s best eco-lodges.
Activities in Bocas del Toro
Beach time on Isla Bastimentos
One of the most famous features on Bastimentos is Red Frog Beach on the northwest coast of the island. This crescent bay of glittering white sand has a nice convenient beach bar and other amenities you won’t find on Bastimentos’ other beaches. Both swimmers and surfers alike will enjoy it here. Because of this, Red Frog Beach can sometimes get a bit crowded. But for those that don’t mind walking, there are plenty of empty beaches along the island’s north shore to the east and west of Red Frog.
The only sandy beach that’s not along the north coast is Punta Vieja, which is on the southeast coast, just around the eastern tip of the island. Red Frog and Punta Vieja are the only beaches that have services and lodging. And whereas Red Frog has good surf, Punta Vieja is a large calm bay. Accessible by a short water taxi ride from Red Frog Beach Marina or Isla Colon, Punta Vieja is a great place for wandering and life contemplation. The water here is calm as a pool, and there are large, colorful coral beds to snorkel or dive.
Visiting the indigenous settlement of Salt Creek on Isla Bastimentos
Just inland from Punta Vieja bay you’ll find an indigenous Indian village, Salt Creek. They charge a nominal fee for guiding you around the settlement, and you can also visit their little gift shop where you can buy local craftsmen’s work. For an additional charge they’ll guide you on some of their trails, where you’ll be shown native wildlife and plants.
Hiking and wildlife watching on Isla Bastimentos
There’s a great hike that starts at Red Frog Beach and takes you to Old Town on the island’s western tip (about 1.5 hours). The trail swings through a large, secluded, beautiful stretch of undeveloped coastline called Wizard Beach, which you’ll most likely have all to yourself.
While walking through the island’s wonderful interior rainforest, keep an eye out out for small wild caimans slithering across the path and sloths hanging from the trees. Also make sure to search for some of the tiny and ubiquitous poison dart “red frogs” that are unique to this area.
Old Town is in one of the few local settlements on Isla Bastimentos. It has a small grocery store and a reggae bar, so you can stop for refreshments there if you want.
The trail is poorly marked and pretty muddy when it rains, but still a lot of fun for the adventurous. If you don’t want to hike all the way back to Red Frog Beach, you can grab a water taxi at Old Town that will get you back to Red Frog Beach Marina on the mangrove side of the island. A short, level, pleasant walk across this narrow section of Bastimentos will get you back to Red Frog Beach.
Relaxing on the Zapatillas Islands
No trip to Bocas is complete without a boat ride out to the Zapatilla Islands. These remote, protected and deserted cays are the perfect place to truly experience Bocas’ awesome as-yet unspoiled beauty. Head there early in the morning or late in the afternoon and enjoy your own private desert island. Be sure to bring a snorkel as there are great reefs to explore. Besides that, you don’t need anything. Just pick your favorite palm tree, lay down in the sand, listen to the sound of the waves, and relax.
Snorkeling in the mangroves
While this region is best known for its incredible beaches, don’t overlook the wonder and splendor of the mangroves. These beautiful aquatic trees with their twisted, arched roots thrive on the protected side of these islands. The best way to tour them is to grab a kayak, canoe, or paddle board and explore. Be sure to bring your mask and fins, as the snorkeling can be amazing here. Though the water is not perhaps as inviting as on Bastimentos’ white sand beaches, you’ll be amazed at how clear it is. You’ll also be fascinated by the rich sea life in around the root systems, where seahorses and tiny little multi-colored fish play among dazzling jewel-like corals. Definitely some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever done!
Surfing off Isla Carenero
If like to surf or want to learn, you have to visit Isla Carenero. This small island between Bastimentos and Colon has some of the best surfing in the region. There are waves for all levels, from small gentle waves to huge thundering tubes. If you’re new to the sport, check out the small reef break in front of Bibi’s Beach Bar. Otherwise, walk five more minutes down the beach and join the pros at the long, barreling reef break off the north side of the island. Before our after your “session”, head to Bibi’s—a wonderful overwater restaurant with great food and a fantastic view. (They also rent surfboards there.)
Diving in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro has world-class diving, so if you’re into that, or want to learn, this is a great place to scuba. The water is warm and the sea life and coral is vibrant and healthy. The dive season runs all year, but the best visibility coincides with the driest seasons, which are from February to April and September to October. Expect to see a variety of macro life such as cowries, arrow crabs, and nudibranchs. On the larger scale, you can also see nurse and reef sharks, spotted eagle rays, and even manta rays. All the dive shops are on Isla Colon (though some resorts offer dives as well). If you don’t want to head back there, give one of the shops a call, they might even pick you up at your resort.
To see where exactly Bocas del Toro is on a detailed map, to view more photos, and to get additional information on Panama, go to our Panama page. Just underneath the map you’ll find a link to our favorite restaurants and eco-lodges (with special discounts for our readers), and a country-specific packlist. This page also shows our other top spots in Panama, and we’ll keep on uploading more, so keep checking back for updates.
Now it’s your turn: What is your favorite Caribbean island paradise? Share it with us in the comments below!
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