Bocas del Toro Travel Guide Part 1: What to Do & What to Eat – Bocas del Toro, Panama

This post is part 1 of 2 in the series Bocas del Toro Guide

Christopher Columbus arrived in Bocas del Toro, Panama in 1502. In the 17th century, pirates used the sheltered bays in the area to repair their ships. Rumors of buried treasure persist. British author Graham Greene finally got to Bocas in the early ’80s on his third attempt to reach the area. These days the conquistadors, pirates and old-school adventure travel writers are long gone, replaced by a growing number of tourists. Here’s part 1 of our 2 part  Bocas del Toro Travel Guide. This one is focused on what to do and what to eat. Check out part 2 to find out where to sleep in Bocas del Toro on any travel budget.

Getting to Bocas del Toro and Bocas town

Generally speaking, when people say Bocas del Toro (Mouth of the Bull) they’re referring to the whole Bocas del Toro Archipelago of nine islands. But it gets confusing since the main town in the archipelago, located on Isla Colon, is called Bocas town. This is where you will get off the ferry from Almirante on the mainland (30 minutes, US$5 per person in an open sided motor boat) or off your flight from San Jose, Costa Rica or Panama City.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro in Panama is not short on charm, as this guest house proves.

Bocas town wouldn’t exist at all if not for the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita Brands) which created the town as part of its now defunct banana operations in the area. Today, Bocas town still has more bicycles than cars, though a vehicle ferry makes the run between Isla Colon and the mainland daily. The number of buildings in Bocas town has increased but they’re still mostly small, wooden structures (there’s a five storey maximum) simply built and brightly painted in true Caribbean style. Electricity is supplied from massive, and massively unreliable, diesel generators.

Bocas town has the charm and pace that beach towns in Belize wish they had and a smaller price tag to boot. It’s like a Central American version of Key West from 50 years ago and it makes the perfect base for exploring the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, which we did for two weeks.

Panama Beer  - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Beer on the beach, just another day in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

What to do in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Playa Bluff: You have to work a bit for it–a five mile (eight km) bike ride from Bocas town (about 45 minutes)–but your effort delivers you to one of the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen. The sand at Playa Bluff is gold. The beach is wide and flat. And nearly deserted. Shade-giving sea grape trees hug the high tide line. The waves crash mercilessly, so much so that you can’t actually swim at Playa Bluff. No problem. That allows you to focus on settling into the chair or hammock you’ve claimed and downing your cold beverage of choice, supplied by nearby Playa Bluff Lodge. If you had your heart set on swimming, we hear Mimbi Timbi Beach, further down the coast, has a naturally protected pool.

Playa Bluff  - Bocas del Toro, Panama

We told you the sand on Playa Bluff, in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, is gold.

Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach): You’ll need to catch a public bus (US$3 round trip from the small central park in Bocas town) going to Boca del Drago (Mouth of the Dragon) if you want to visit Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach), and you most certainly want to visit Starfish Beach unless you’ve got something against giant, bright red starfish. They’re common in the archipelago but they love this beach in particular for some reason. Buses leave town for Boca del Drago on even hours and come back from Boca del Drago to town on odd hours. From Boca del Drago you can catch a water taxi to Starfish Beach (US$1.50 per person) or walk for 30 minutes along the coastline.

Starfish Beach - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Two of the starfish that congregate in the calm, warm, shallow bay off Starfish Beach in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama.

Playa Estrella - Bocas del Toro, Panama

A water taxi waits to take travelers to and from Starfish Beach (Playa Estrella) in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama.

To be honest, we were expecting to be tripping over starfish but there were only a dozen or so around when we were at Starfish Beach. The smart ones fled. We watched in horror as person after person picked up the fragile creatures for photos or just for the heck of it despite signs all over the area telling people to keep their hands off so they don’t kill the starfish.

Don't touch the starfish sign - Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Despite warning signs like this all over Starfish Beach, many, many visitors still insist on touching and picking up the starfish which can be deadly.

Enterprising locals have set up makeshift kitchens on Starfish Beach and we were delighted with our fresh grilled fish lunch. Fried chicken and even lobster were available too (US$7-US$12). We rented beach chairs (US$4 each for the day) and enjoyed cold beer (US$2) before getting back into the crystal clear, warm, protected water in the bay. It was like floating in a salty, warm pool full of pipefish and humans tormenting starfish.

Starfish - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Don’t touch the starfish in the bay at Starfish Beach!

Red Frog Beach: The most famous beach in the area requires a 15 minute water taxi ride form Bocas town (US$5 per person plus US$3 per person to walk through the private property at the dock) followed by a 10 minute walk to reach the beach itself. But famous doesn’t always mean fabulous and Red Frog Beach left us a bit non-plussed. It’s wide and the surf is swimable but we found Playa Bluff to be much more beautiful and much, much less crowded.

Red frog Beach - Bastamientos Island,  Bocas del Toro, Panama

Red Frog Beach in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama before the arrival of the day tripping crowds.

Yes, we saw the red frogs for which the beach is named. They’re strawberry frogs, actually, and visitors are so anxious to see them that local kids gather them up and charge you to take a picture of them. We’re fairly certain the captured frogs were dead by the end of the day. Luckily, we saw some in the wild too.

Strawberry poison dart frog - Red frog Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Red Frog Beach gets its name from the strawberry frogs which live above the high tide line.

There are some hotels on Red Frog Beach, notably Palmar Tent Lodge and its bohemian tented beach safari vibe with solar power, outdoor showers, purified rain water and daily yoga. In late 2013 a mega resort called Red Frog Beach Island Resort & Spa opened as well.

Day trip to the Zapatilla islands: Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park was founded in 1988 and was Panama’s first marine park. It protects a vast area in and around the Bocas archipelago, including Zapatilla 1 and Zapatilla 2, a pair of neighboring island so named because someone thought they resembled a pair of shoes (zapato means shoe in Spanish and zapatilla means little shoe). The only way to visit the Zapatillas is on a day trip in a long motorized wooden boat with a driver (around US$40 per person including mask and snorkel plus US$10 per person park entry fee).

Zapatilla Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

We finally managed to find a stretch of beach on Zapatilla 1 that wasn’t strewn with washed-up garbage.

The day we decided to visit the area the sea was rough which meant we didn’t see any dolphins as we passed through Dolphin Bay. It also meant that it was too dangerous to reach Zapatilla 2 so we had to content ourselves with Zapatilla 1. This was not easy since Zapatilla 1 was ringed with a mini-moat of garbage, mostly plastic stuff probably brought there from Bocas town on the tides including a bunch of flip flops which struck us as ironic. And sad.

The Zapatilla tour includes a lunch stop at a small nearby restaurant. We enjoyed the snorkeling around and under the restaurant’s dock and pier more than what we’d done around Zapatilla 1 (no garbage for starters).We saw soft corals, starfish and baby reef fish. But be warned: meal prices were extremely high at this restaurant. We’d recommend bringing your own food for this long day outing.

Smithsonian Tropical Research Center: The Smithsonian Tropical Research Center about a mile (two km) from Bocas town can be toured as well though we never got to it.

Oggling at the sunset: Any local will tell you that the best place to watch the spectacular sunsets is from Bibi’s on the Beach, an open-air, thatch-roof restaurant and bar on the waterfront on Carnero Island just a stone’s throw across the bay from Bocas town. Water taxis will take you to and fro and there’s a generous happy hour nightly.

Sunset Bastamientos Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset in Panama’s Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

What to eat in Bocas Town

Lili’s Cafe, on main street, is a solid spot for moderately priced passable food served slowly on a pier. However, the real reason to come here is to try their famous, fiery-hot housemade Killin’ Me Man hot sauce which gets its considerable punch from habaneros, mustard and a slew of secret ingredients.

Eating in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Main Street in Bocas Town is dotted with eateries like this one.

The Wine Bar, on the second floor of a building on the inland side of main street, has a proper climate-controlled cellar for wine storage (though we’re not sure how climate-controlled the wine’s journey to the archipelago is). They offer a wide range of wines by the glass (around US$4 per glass when we were there)  which change every day. There’s a breezy balcony and interior living rooms and dining rooms for tapas or more substantial plates. Art rotates in and out of the place and there’s life music on Friday nights.

The RipTide Bar & Restaurant has two things going for it: it’s located in a converted ship that still bobs in the water and they offer things like “chicken fried steak and Texas holdem” specials and broadcast events like the Super Bowl which reliably attracts local expats as well as travelers. Don’t expect to try any Panamanian or Caribbean food here. It’s all US comfort food all the way, at reasonable prices.

Cute - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Opening hours can be unpredictable in Bocas Town.

It was too rich for our blood (around US$25 per person), but diners rave about the six course, prix fixe Mediterranean food at Guari Guari. Reservations are a must, it’s cash only and the restaurant is located a mile (two km) from the center of town.

We were disturbed to learn from another traveler that it looks like Chris Fish, a closet-sized take-out-only place we found on the waterfront on main street not far from the ferry docks, seems to have closed. It was our go-to spot for big red snapper sandwiches and huge plates of made-to-order fish and chips with hand cut fries and coleslaw for US$5.50 Ask around and let us know if it’s really closed or merely moved.

Main street, Isla Colon - Bocas del Toro, Panama

This is where our favorite cheap meal place, Chris Fish, used to be located on Main Street in Bocas Town, but other travelers told us it may now be closed. Update, please.

Another good budget travel eating option, also on main street not far from the ferry docks, is the no-frills place with the huge machines out front slowly cooking succulent chicken rotisserie style. You can buy a quarter, half or whole chicken, each one rubbed with a delicious Caribbean mix of spices and served with fries or patacones (fried discs of mashed plantain) along with hot and delicious housemade hot sauce. Get your ice-cold beer at the little store next door.

For a good cheap snack, pick up a few of the meat-filled empanadas at John’s Bakery (less than US$1), but grab ’em early. They’re usually sold out by noon.

There are a few moderately well-stocked Chinese-owned small supermarkets in Bocas town. There’s also the Super Gourmet, an adorable, well-stocked gourmet market. You won’t have any trouble finding ingredients to cook up if your accommodation has a kitchen.

Super-Gourmet-Bocas-del-Toro

The Super Gourmet market in Bocas Town lives up to its name.

Weird Bocas del Toro

  • There’s a guy who walks around Bocas Town at night with a large, intricate paper plane on a string tied to a stick. When the spirit moves him, he starts running down the street to make his plane “fly”.
  • There’s a Chinese temple on the water near the fire station with Chinese characters in red across the front. It’s never been used, but it will never be sold or torn down either. It’s been sealed and sacred since the Buddha inside it somehow remained upright through a strong earthquake in 1991.
  • There’s an old man who collects tin cans. When  he has more than he can carry he lines them up in the middle of main street and crushes each one with a cinder block very methodically.

Bocas del Toro travel budget tip

Whenever we head to a beautiful island location (which is embarrassingly frequently) we get ready for the sticker shock. After all, the logic goes, everything has to be shipped or flown in and the customers are a bunch of geographically captive holiday makers so who cares if we double the price of beer/Band-aids/beds. Imagine our delight when we realized that prices for most things in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago are only marginally higher than they are on the mainland. We don’t know why and we don’t care.

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Bocas del Toro Travel Guide Part 2: Where to Sleep – Bocas del Toro, Panama

This post is part 2 of 2 in the series Bocas del Toro Guide

Christopher Columbus arrived in Bocas del Toro, Panama in 1502. In the 17th century pirates used the sheltered bays in the area to repair their ships. Rumors of buried treasure persist. British author Graham Greene finally got to Bocas in the early ’80s on his third attempt to reach the area. These days the conquistadors, pirates and old-school adventure travel writers are long gone, replaced by a growing number of tourists. Here’s part 2 of our 2 part  Bocas del Toro Travel Guide. This one is focused on where to sleep in Bocas del Toro on any travel budget. Check out part 1 to learn about what to do and what to eat in Bocas del Toro.

Beautiful beaches Isla Colon - Bocas del Toro, Panama

This is why you want to travel to the Bocas de Toro Archipelago in Panama.

Getting to Bocas del Toro and Bocas town

Generally speaking, when people say Bocas del Toro (Mouth of the Bull) they’re referring to the whole Bocas del Toro Archipelago of nine islands. The main town in the archipelago, located on Isla Colon, is called Bocas Town. This is where you will get off the ferry from Almirante on the mainland (30 minutes, US$5 per person in an open sided motor boat) or off your flight from San Jose, Costa Rica or Panama City.

Bocas Town wouldn’t exist if not for the United Fruit Company  (now known as Chiquita Brands) which created the town as part of its now-defunct banana operations in the area. Today, Bocas Town still has more bicycles than cars, though a vehicle ferry makes the run between Isla Colon and the mainland daily.

Hotels & hostels - Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town on Isla Colon has many hostels like this one.

The number of buildings in Bocas Town has increased, but they’re still mostly small, wooden structures (there’s a five story maximum) simply built and brightly painted in true Caribbean style. Electricity is supplied from massive, and massively unreliable, diesel generators.

Bocas Town has the charm and pace that beach towns in Belize wish they had and a smaller price tag to boot. It’s like a Central American version of Key West from 50 years ago and it makes the perfect base for exploring the Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

Where to sleep in Bocas del Toro

We spent two weeks exploring Bocas del Toro which gave us plenty of time to try lots of different accommodation options including a hostel and a boutique hotel on Isla Colon (Bocas Town), over the water bungalows in the middle of the Caribbean and a real stunner on Isla Bastimento.

Sunset Bastamientos Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Tropical sunset, Bocas del Toro style.

Beach boutique:  Take the best of a small waterfront apartment and add in attentive hotel staff and you’ve got Tropical Suites. The hotel was built in 2005 and renovated in 2010 by new owners Jamie and Chip, a couple from the southern US. They’ve crafted the perfect balance of laid back island style with spot-on North American service and southern hospitality.

All of the 16 suites (six have ocean views) at this waterfront hotel right on main street just a few blocks from the ferry docks are sunny, large and have air conditioning, furnished patios and fully equipped kitchens. Breakfast at Lili’s (one of the highlights of our previous post about what to do and what to eat in Bocas del Toro) is included in rates.

Tropical Suites also has good quality bikes for hire (around US$15 per day) which is how we got out to Playa Bluff (another travel highlight in our previous post about what to do in Bocas del Toro). Since we were at the hotel, they’ve opened up a “glass bottom Starfish suite” which sounds totally intriguing too. Tell us how it is…

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town, on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

Bocas on a budget: If you’re on a tighter travel budget don’t worry. Bocas Town is full of hostels, but if you’re not interested in a party atmosphere head to Hostal Hansi (big thanks to our friends at Globetrotter Girls for tipping us off about this place). Located just off Main Street, Hostal Hansi has a wide range of different room types from singles with shared bath (from US$11) to private doubles (from US$25). WiFi and use of a spotless kitchen is included. It’s a quiet and clean (there is a resident cat) and it’s extremely popular. Hansi does not take reservations so get there as early as you can to see about available rooms.

When we were in Bocas an absolutely enormous building was going up next door to the Hansi and the rumor was that was going to be a 100 bed hostal. That sounds like hell on earth to us, but fyi.

Eco immersion: The place is called Al Natural Resort and it really is one of the most stunning places we’ve stayed at on our Trans-Americas Journey. For starters, stand-alone stilted bunglaows, built using techniques and materials the indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé people have used for decades, are mostly open air with very, very few walls. Heavy canvas curtains can be pulled shut it you want.

Al Natural Resort bungalow - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Our virtually wall-free bungalow at Al Natural in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Each wood, bamboo and thatch bungalow was built by local Ngöbe-Buglé workers, many of whom had forgotten the traditional techniques until they were asked to resurrect them to build Al Natural.

Bathrooms were covered in tiles in designs inspired by Ngöbe-Buglé weaving patterns. Bungalows were intentionally placed near the high tide line, giving the feeling of being in the calm Chiriqui Bay when you’re really just lazing around in your hammock. Again. Great mattresses, custom-made super-bug-proof nets and cooling fans inside the nets plus the sound of the Caribbean ensure restful nights.

Over water Bungalow View Al Natural Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bungalows at Al Natural are built at the high-tide line giving you the feeling of begin in the peaceful bay right from your room.

Al Natural’s owner, Michel, a reformed NYC lawyer from Belgium, calls his bungalows “natural houses” and they range from single rooms with a small bathroom to a three bedroom house. He says he created Al Natural to be “the place I always hoped I’d find in my travels but never did.” He explored Madagascar, Costa Rica and other countries looking for the right location for his vision before he returned to Bocas del Toro (a place he’d visited nearly 20 years earlier) and was shown beach front property on the southern tip of Bastimentos Island.

Michel Natalis owner of Al Natural Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Owner Michel during the commute to his remarkable Al Natural eco bungalow hideaway in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Michel bought the land directly from the local owners who still live on an adjoining piece of property. Don’t miss the chance to take a short jungle walk with Michel to visit Niato,and his family. When we visited Niato he told us how a friend had just drowned while free diving for lobster. Niato was convinced that his friend’s death had been foretold in a dream and that an evil mermaid had lured him deeper with visions of giant lobsters. He said many local men see mermaids all the time but the secret is not to pursue them. Good advice.

Bocas

Niato told us local men see mermaids all the time. The secret, he said,  is not to follow them deeper to a watery grave.

Despite the semi-remote location (it’s a 30 minute boat ride to Al Natural from Bocas Town), the food at Al Natural rivals anything in the region. Every single thing we ate was delicious from fresh juices to buttery soft grilled octopus to fragrant chicken cooked with mushrooms and orange peel. Even better, all meals, which are included in room rates including wine at dinner, are served family style with Michel at the head of the table telling stories and making friends.

Restaurant Al Natural Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Pre-dinner drinks at Al Natural.

Over-rated over-the-water: To say we were excited to be staying at Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge would be an understatement. This long-standing place is basically the poster child for over-the-water bungalows and classic Caribbean island accommodation in Panama and photos of the place are used in many tourism promotional materials.

Pulling up to Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge, after a 10 minute boat ride from a private dock on Isla Colon, was dramatic.The whole thing is built over the water a short distance from a mangrove-covered shoreline. We disembarked and got settled into our over-the-water bungalow, one of nine at the lodge.

Punta Caracol Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

The over-water bungalows at Punta Caracol just might be the most photographed hotel rooms in Panama.

All are two-storey affairs built out of wood with thatch roofs and powered by the sun. They’re romantic in a rustic, castaway kind of way. Conch shells are used instead of door handles. Your back deck has loungers, hammocks and a ladder directly into the clear Caribbean below you. It’s certainly not basic, but the only truly luxurious thing is privacy, views and lack of WiFi/TV.

Snorkel gear (including fins) is provided and you can jump in for a snorkel right off your deck. We saw parrot fish, pipefish, starfish and even some coral without ever venturing too far away from the lodge and that was pretty awesome as was kayaking through nearby mangroves.

Punta Caracol Resort Kayaking  Bocas del Toro, Panama

Kayaking through nearby mangroves and snorkeling right off your back deck are just some of the activities at Punta Caracol in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

However, our food at Punta Caracol was mediocre at best and some dishes, like rubber-tough squid, were downright terrible. The service was even worse. Staff members spent more time on their phones than doing anything constructive or helpful. Morning coffee was repeatedly delivered to the bungalow without the benefit of cups.

To be fair, Punta Caracol was for sale when we were there and that sort of limbo invariably creates an environment where employees feel like they don’t have to be on top of their game. However, that’s an excuse not a justification and with rates starting from US$330 (including breakfast and dinner but not lunch for some reason) let’s hope this place finds the owner and management that it and its guests deserve.

Hammock-life-Bocas-del-Toro-Panama

Karen testing out the hammock on the back deck of our bungalow at Punta Caracol.

 

Weird Bocas del Toro

  • There’s a guy who walks around Bocas Town at night with a large, intricate paper plane on a string tied to a stick. When the spirit moves him, he starts running down the street to make his plane “fly.”
  • There’s a Chinese temple on the water near the fire station with Chinese characters in red across the front. It’s never been used, but it will never be sold or torn down either. It’s been sealed and sacred since the Buddha inside somehow remained upright through a strong earthquake in 1991.
  • There’s an old man who collects tin cans. When he has more than he can carry he lines them up in the middle of main street and crushes each one with a cinder block.

Bocas del Toro travel budget tip

Whenever we head to a beautiful island location (which is embarrassingly frequently) we get ready for the sticker shock. After all, the logic goes, everything has to be shipped or flown in and the customers are a bunch of geographically captive holiday makers so who cares if we double the price of beer/Band-aids/beds. Imagine our delight when we realized that prices for most things in the Bocas del Toro archipelago are only marginally higher than they are on the mainland. We don’t know why and we don’t care.

Read more about travel in Panama

 

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