Panama may be a small tropical country but it boasts two long coasts which makes for a bountiful playground of island, urban, and rainforest adventures. What to do in Bocas del Toro? Surf, SUP, snorkel, and chill in Bocas del Toro, then, experience the cosmopolitan side of Panama in culturally diverse Panama City with its shimmering skyscrapers, miles of dazzling coastline, and one of the premier engineering feats in history that transformed international commerce, the Panama Canal.
Nature abounds in Panama and I saw only a small fraction of it. Adventure tourism is at the heart of Panama where you can zip through rainforest canopies amongst screeching howler monkeys, swim alongside sea turtles, and feel an adrenaline rush when a magnificent whale breeches alongside the crowded ferry traveling to and from the islands. Explore the ruins of Spanish forts on the Caribbean coast or boat deep into indigenous territories in a dugout canoe.
My first trip to Panama was a five-day SUP (standup paddleboard) tour in Bocas del Toro, an island archipelago off the Caribbean coast of northeastern Panama. My girlfriend posted on Facebook that there was one space available and, hunkering down during a frigid February ice storm and dreaming of a tropical vacation, I signed up and quickly paid the deposit but, unfortunately, had to wait until April to realize my tropical vacation. Nevermind that I had never done standup paddleboarding—my friends that do insist it’s easy and what better place to test the waters than in a tropical island paradise. Paradise it was not.
What to do in Bocas del Toro
Before we get into why Bocas del Toro wasn’t the paradise I imagined, let’s talk about the good stuff. Naturally, most of the things to do in Bocas del Toro spring from the sea. Whether you’re staying in Bocas Town on Isla Colón or one of the smaller islands like I was, you’ll have to travel a little to find the best beaches that Bocas del Toro has to offer. Water taxis are the main mode of transportation between the islands and are available at the dock in Bocas Town or call for pick-up if you’re staying on one of the other islands. RIdes around Isla Colón can be arranged by your hotel or guest house.
From Bocas Town, it’s a 30- to 40-minute drive through the bumpy interior of Isla Colón to get to Boca del Drago at the northwestern corner of the island. A short 15-minute walk along the beach or along the edge of the jungle will bring you to Playa Estrella aka Starfish Beach, one of Isla Colón’s most beautiful and most popular beaches. As its name implies, Starfish Beach is famous for the abundance of starfish that float in the shallow waters to sun themselves on the white sand.
Tip: To see more of the starfish and fewer people walk a few minutes down the beach which also affords you a little extra serenity from the throng at the cabana bar.
Red Frog Beach
To visit Red Frog Beach from Bocas Town, you’ll need to hire a water taxi to zip you across to Bastimentos. Our group was scheduled to paddle to Red Frog Beach but driving rain sidelined that plan. Instead, we made two trips via water taxi to do the zipline at Red Frog Beach Resort. While ading in the waters of Playa Estrella is a Bocas del Toro beach at its most relaxing, it’s all action at Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos due to the very strong riptides. Swimming further from the shore is recommended for strong swimmers only. Treksplorer recommends combining Red Frog with an island hopping tour which allows you to explore the archipelago and end the day with relaxation on the beach.
Bocas is well known in the surfing community and most of the best waves are found on the coast of the lesser-known islands that make up the archipelago. The Caribbean Sea offers world-class surfing in warm, crystal clear, turquoise water and swells fit for seasoned surfers as well as beginners. Peak surfing season is from December through March when Northeast storms deliver waves in the 4 to 12-foot range.
Check out Nomad Tree Lodge’s Ultimate Bocas Surf Guide for an excellent, more comprehensive description of the breaks and conditions at the best surfing beaches in Bocas del Toro.
Panama offers clear waters for snorkeling and Bocas del Toro, known for its coral reefs, and Las Perlas for its white-sand beaches were named by Frommer’s as two of the best beaches in Panama. Waters may be murky during rainy season downpours in Bocas and, except for the summer months, Las Perlas is also relatively unoccupied by tourists, so you can snorkel in peace. Other areas for excellent snorkeling are Coiba Island, on the Pacific Coast in the Gulf of Chiriquí, known for its diverse marine life and jungle animals. Dive sites on Bahia Damas Reef are home to manta rays, whales and hammerhead sharks. The San Blas Islands are an archipelago of approximately 365 islands (49 are inhabited) that lie off the north coast of the Isthmus of Panama, east of the Panama Canal and closer to Columbia. Home to the Kuna people, San Blas and its surrounding area is a haven for ecotourism because of its pristine environs.
As I mentioned, I came to Bocas del Toro with a standup paddleboarding group through FlowWorld Travel. I hesitate to recommend this tour company due to my negative experience (which was not weather-related) but standup paddleboard enthusiasts can paddle on any body of water, including the open ocean, depending on your ability. It was my first time and I thoroughly enjoyed the first-day paddle through a forest of mangroves on the Bahia Honda river. After that, the rains began and most of the destinations included open water paddling. The driving rain and resulting waves deterred me and several other novice paddlers from participating.
Visit the Bat Cave
Step out of your comfort zone to explore the Bat Cave on Isla Bastimentos. Paddle, kayak, or row up the narrow Bahia Honda River through the mangroves and dock where you see the blue sign for the bat cave. We walked in a short distance and met our local guide at his home. You’ll follow a trail through the jungle for about 1/2 mile to the entrance. Along the trail, you’ll see many exotic tropical flowers as well as cacao trees whose seeds provide the raw ingredient for Panamanian chocolate. Interesting fact: most of Panama’s cacao fruit trees are found in the Bocas del Toro region where the trees thrive in the shady and rainy climate. For the cave, you will need a headlamp or flashlight and water shoes. Several species of nectar bats reside in the cave and they are interesting to observe and must be accustomed to tourists in their habitat because they don’t bother you at all.
The Downsides of Bocas del Toro
While I’ve heard people rave about Bocas, mostly from a surfing viewpoint, I didn’t fall in love with it and would opt to go elsewhere in Panama. Unfortunately, I didn’t do any research before impulsively plopping down the $500 deposit for the SUP tour. Come to find out it was the rainy season and our tour company failed to advise of us of this fact (rain gear wasn’t even on the packing list). Later, I read that the weather in Bocas is normally very iffy year-round.
The Weather in Bocas del Toro
The traveling couple from Escape Clause spent two weeks in Bocas and noted that Bocas del Toro averages more than 130 inches of rainfall every year–and there is no predictable dry season. As a comparison, famously rainy Seattle gets roughly 38 inches per year! “When it was dry, 90% of the time thick clouds hung in the sky, robbing the bulk of the beauty of the Caribbean beaches the area is known for.”
Of the five days I was on Bocas it rained every day – most days it rained intermittently but, on two of the days, it poured which made paddleboarding on the open ocean undesirable and dangerous for beginners such as myself and taking the water taxi to Bocas town or other islands a sodden and choppy experience. I heard that the day of arrival was what you would expect in Bocas—sunny, 80°F swimsuit weather—but I missed that day thanks to United Airlines. It cleared up on the last full day of the tour but by then I had voted myself off the island for some solitude, a good night’s sleep, and a hot shower in Panama City.
Getting to Bocas del Toro
Flights to Panama arrive at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. Besides Panama City, Bocas del Toro is the most recognizable of all Panamanian tourist destinations. To get to Bocas you will have to fly on Air Panama to the tiny Bocas airport. Air Panama is a regional airline based at Albrook “Marcos A. Gelabert” International Airport in Panama which, allowing for traffic, is about 45 minutes by taxi from Tocumen.
The tour company repeatedly advised us to pack light because the small prop plane that flies to Bocas limits passengers to 20 kilos (44 pounds). This may be difficult for some people but the airline is serious about this weight limitation and when you see the plane you will know why. Realistically, it’s easy to pack light for a trip to Panama as all you really need is swimwear, a sundress or two, casual attire for trips to town, water shoes/sandals, and flip flops. In fact, your toiletries, which should include sunscreen, reef-safe sunscreen, and bug repellent, will weigh more than your clothing. I also packed Immodium AD, just in case. My bags, a square carry-on and a Patagonia backpack, weighed 12 kilos – the lightest I have ever packed for a trip!
Below are the baggage requirements that were printed on my ticket. Prices are in Panamanian balboa dollars. The balboa has always been tied to the U.S. dollar—one dollar equals one balboa. Since Panama does not print its own paper currency, it uses the U.S. dollar as legal tender but you will receive change in Panamanian coins which come in 1, 5, 10, 25, and 50-cent pieces.
IN THE CASES OF THE “E” FARE OF THE FLIGHTS OF PANAMA-SAN JOSÉ OR VICE VERSA IS NOT ALLOWED TO CARRY LUGGAGE.
IF THE CUSTOMER WANTS TO CARRY AND REGISTER LUGGAGE, HE SHOULD FOLLOW THE FOLLOWING SCALE:
- 1 PIECE BETWEEN 0 AND 20 KILOS WILL PAY B /. 40.00
- 1 OR 2 PIECES BETWEEN 0 AND 40 KILOS WILL PAY B /. 69.00 IN BETWEEN
- 1 OR 3 PIECES BETWEEN 0 AND 60 KILOS WILL PAY B /. 149.00 BETWEEN THE THREE
Don’t Expect 5 Star Accommodations
Bocas is a tropical beach destination but it IS NOT a secluded 5-star Caribbean paradise. You can’t come here expecting the amenities of a luxury resort or the same level of comfort you can find in Mexico, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic or Jamaica. Our group numbered 13: 11 guests plus our group leader and a yoga instructor who left after the second day. I’m telling you it was like being on Survivor! We stayed in a large island house, well known for its prominent location on Camino de Carenero on Carenero Isla, a short water taxi ride from Bocas town.
While the house is impressive by island standards, it is a typical wood-frame island home with no soundproofing and a cistern (two in this case) providing water for toilets, bathing, and cooking. You DO NOT DRINK this water. Upon arrival, we were instructed on limiting showers as the cisterns were close to running out of water due to months of drought, and the separate disposal of used toilet paper. Locals were seriously concerned about running out of water and, fortunately, they were blessed with relief from the drought by the rains that came while we were there.
With two opposing masters and three bedrooms upstairs and sturdy, yet spare, furnishings the house works well for families and groups. Traveling as a single, I was assigned the small room above the kitchen and was sharing a bathroom with the tour leader and yoga instructor who were bunking in the loft area above the great room. I’m a light sleeper anyway and was awakened by every creak of the bathroom door, evening card games, and early risers in the morning.
Good Times in Bocas del Toro
Thank goodness my longtime girlfriend, who suggested I go on this trip, and her husband were with me on this island adventure. We made the best of a bad situation with endless belly laughs, ongoing jokes, taking the water taxi to Bocas town to shop, eat and explore, drinking lots of rum and the best Piña Coladas ever at nearby Bibi’s on the beach —basically saving each other from a disappointing vacation. Your time on the islands is spent outside and all is well with the world basking in the sun with toes in the sand, reading on the deck, lounging in a hammock, or appreciating the expansive view of the azure waters of the Caribbean becoming one with the sky. When it’s not raining!
The Best Piña Coladas Ever!
Another great thing about the house where we were staying on Isla de Carenero—Bibi’s on the Beach was just steps away. They served an excellent ceviche and their Piña Coladas, made with fresh coconut and pineapple juice, were the best I’ve ever imbibed!
Where to Eat in Bocas del Toro
Also on Isle de Carenero is Leaf Eaters on the water. A family-owned and operated restaurant that serves smoothies, sandwiches, fresh salads, and vegetarian dishes. Don’t walk past their narrow dock with a palm-thatched roof shading a bench-for-two— it’s the perfect, romantic Instagrammable photo op (see opening photo).
Bocas Town has an abundance of small independent eateries serving typical Panamanian food, legit tacos (go see George at Casa Surf!), or American fare. There are several grocery stores where you can buy food and alcohol as well as pharmacias where you can purchase toiletries and over the counter medications. If shopping is your thang there are plenty of surf and swimwear stores, boho boutiques, and tourist souvenir shops.
Appreciate the Locals
For many travelers, visiting a developing country is an eye-opener. The way people live can be shocking to those of us who enjoy the many comforts of our civilized world. As you walk along the pot-holed streets and dirt paths scattered with debris take a moment to count your blessings and, perhaps, pack some inexpensive toys, trinkets, games, etc. to make an innocent child’s day.
When traveling, you must be flexible and take the good with the bad. Group tours have many benefits—the planning is done for you, you can meet like-minded people, etc.; but they also have many ways of going sideways, which is why many people avoid them. Two days in Panama City, a tour of the Panama Canal, and hilarious times with Julia and Tom saved this trip from being one of my least favorite travel experiences. You absolutely cannot go to Panama without visiting the Panama Canal and I’ll tell you about that in my next post. Meanwhile, don’t let me dissuade you from visiting Panama as there are many other outdoor adventures to be experienced and unique things to do.
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