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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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