Bocas del Toro in Panama exudes the perfect Caribbean feeling. The highlight of the Caribbean islands is that you are always surrounded by water. The sea is always present. Many restaurants and hotels on Bocas del Toro are built with stilts directly on the water. If you want to go to another island or to a special beach, you take a water cab. If you want to go to the mainland, you can also take a water cab. In addition, of course, there is the obligatory Caribbean relaxation, everything runs a little slower and is more relaxed here.
We were on Bocas del Toro for more than a week and at the beginning it took us a while to find our way around. What are the sights and highlights on Bocas del Toro? What means of transportation are there on the Bocas and what can you actually do on the different islands? Where should you stay on Bocas del Toro? To these and other important questions we want to give you some answers in our Boa del Toro Travel Guide.
We are Sabrina and Andreas, two adventurous travelers who never miss an opportunity to discover the world. Whether by plane to distant countries or with our campervan Bruno, we just love to travel. We hope to give you helpful tips for your next trip on our blog.
Sabrina & Andreas Globetrotters, Travelers, Adventurers
Things to know about Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro are a group of islands in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Panama and are located just a few miles from the Costa Rican border, making them a top destination for Costa Rica travelers. In Panama, Bocas del Toro are one of the most visited destinations and therefore correspondingly crowded during the peak travel season (January – April). This is at least true for the main island Isla Colon. Nevertheless, the islands have a lot to offer and are also quite different, which we would like to explain to you a bit more in the following.
The Islands of Bocas del Toro Panama
Isla Colon – The Main Island
On Isla Colon there are most hotels, restaurants, stores and tour operators. It is therefore the tourist center of the archipelago. The airport is also located here and most tourists stay overnight on Isla Colon. There are real roads, cars and even loud trucks drive around. The capital of the same name is located in the south of the island and is a mixture of a small town and a large village with everything you need as a tourist.
There are numerous supermarkets, which are owned exclusively by locals of Chinese origin and are open until late at night. If you want to make it very easy, then you should look for accommodation here. It is the noisiest of all islands, but at the same time the most comfortable, because you can find everything you need and the distances are very short. By the way, there is no nice beach near the capital on Colon.
About 10 minutes by cab (or 40 minutes walking) to the north there are some beach sections, but due to many sewage pipes flowing into the sea, the Caribbean feeling does not arise so much. You can find these beaches south and north of the Playa Tortuga Hotel (here on Google Maps).
If you want to visit a nice beach on Isla Colon, you have to drive up north (about 45min cab ride) to Starfish Beach (Playa Estrella) or Playa del Drago. To get to the famous Starfish Beach, you have to drive to Playa del Drago and walk another 20 minutes from there.
Hotel Recommendation on Isla Colon
We stayed at the family-run Bocas Style Hostel*. The rooms there are a good size, it is very clean and the hosts are super friendly and have an open ear for all questions. There is only one shared bathroom, but it is also very large and super clean. In addition, there is a communal kitchen, which has everything you need as a recreational cook. Even a Kitchenaid kitchen machine was there!
Here you will find a lot of nature, great beaches and you can also see a lot of wild animals (like sloths), which you probably won’t see so easily on Colon. Bastimentos is much more pristine, relaxed and quiet. So if you are more into nature and tranquility, look for your accommodation on Bastimentos instead of Colon.
If you want to book a tour or go to one of the many restaurants on the main island, you’ll be over there in no time by water cab. There are no roads on Bastimentos and only small supermarkets. There is also the famous Red Frog Beach (5 USD entrance fee).
Carenero is directly across from Isla Colon and can be reached by water cab in 1-2 minutes. Alternatively, you can rent a kayak and paddle over here in 20-30 minutes. The island is very quiet and has some nice, although often with seaweed infested, beach sections to offer. It’s worth a day trip here, which can be spent sunbathing, walking around the island, and having a nightcap at Bibi’s restaurant.
There are some nice accommodations on the island if you want to escape the hustle and bustle of Isla Colon. However, watch out for the sand flies that swarm on numerous beaches and can make your life miserable. The bites can be very painful and keep you busy for a few days.
Isla de Solarte
Solarte Island is known as a great snorkeling and diving spot. It is home to Hospital Point, so named because it is where the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) built the first hospital in the region. You can take a water cab to Hospital Point and then you will be taken to a small beach where you can relax and snorkel right off the beach.
However, you will probably not be alone, also numerous day tourists are brought by boats directly to the snorkeling area located 50 meters in front of the beach. Nevertheless, this small beach is a great, and very close, excursion destination of Isla Colon. By the way, there are also a few high-priced hotels on the island.
The dream islands of the archipelago. Zapatilla is often visited by boat tours (offered everywhere). It takes about 1 hour to get there and most of the time you are not alone. Zapatilla No. 2, where most tourist boats land, is full of beer-drinking tourists. But if you move a little away from the main beach, then you can have your peace and quiet here too and enjoy the gorgeous beach with turquoise water.
Accommodation or a restaurant is not to be found here. You should therefore take something to eat with you if you are not catered for by your tour provider. Zapatilla is really what some people wrongly imagine Bocas del Toro to be. But beaches like the one on Zapatilla can only be found, who would have thought it, here on Isla Zapatilla. Therefore, this island belongs in any case to the must-see program.
How to Pay on the island?
As everywhere in Panama, the US dollar is the most popular means of payment. At the ATM you don’t have the choice between domestic currency and dollars (like in Costa Rica) but you will only get US dollars. However, you can usually get change (in the form of coins) in Panamanian Balboa, the Central American country’s own currency. The exchange rate between Balboa and US dollars is conveniently 1 to 1, which means that instead of paying 5 dollars you can also pay 5 Balboa and vice versa.
This makes the whole thing quite simple. What made paying a bit difficult, though, in my opinion, were the American coins (the Panamanian coins weren’t much better, though), which have the value printed in tiny little letters on the bottom of the coin. Instead of a large 25 (as would be the case with the Euro), the bottom edge reads un quattro Balboa or quarter dollars in teeny tiny letters. When paying, you sometimes feel like a visually impaired pensioner at a supermarket, who simply holds out her open wallet to the cashier so that he can help himself.
How to get around?
Water cab or normal (yellow street) cab is used for all the ways on the islands that you don’t want to walk or rent a bike. It is quite easy to get a cab, either on the water or on the road.
By Cab across Isla Colon
There are yellow pickup cabs everywhere that will take you to any place around the capital for a fixed price of 1 USD (or 1 Balboa). You just wave at a passing cab and say where you want to go. You don’t have to ask for the price, because it is always the same. Only to more distant destinations (such as Starfish Beach in the north of the island) the ride costs more. Then ask for the price when you have named your destination.
You can transport your luggage on the loading ramp of the pickup. However, you should take valuables with you in the car in any case. By the way, the cabs are always very well air-conditioned, which can be a good cooling when the outside temperature is over 30 degrees.
By Water Cab to the other Islands
It is just as easy to organize a water cab. You only have to be near the numerous water cab providers on the main road and will be constantly asked if you want to go somewhere or what you have planned for the next day (you can book a tour directly). The prices of the water cabs are relatively similar, although some skill in bargaining can not hurt.
The approximate prices (for a one-way trip) of the water cabs are as follows (as of June 2019):
- Carenero: 2$ per person
- Punta Hospital on Solarte: 5$ per person
- Red Frog Beach: 8$ per person (Attention for the Red Frog Beach you have to pay an additional 5$ entrance fee per person)
- Starfish Beach: 12,5 $ per person
Biking around the Island
Colon is also a good place to rent a bike. You can do this for $5 per day and then explore the island on your own. This is only worthwhile if you want to go somewhere more often per day. If you want to go somewhere and back only 2 times a day, then a cab is cheaper. By electric bike you can also go to more distant destinations on the island (eg Starfish Beach) and do not sweat as on a normal bike. You can rent an electric bike on Isla Colon for $40 a day. We found it way too expensive, but would have loved to do it otherwise.
Rent a Scooter
Scooters are not as common here in Central America as they are in Southeast Asia and therefore expensive. the rental companies want 50 $ per day for a scooter. We also found that outrageously expensive and therefore did not do it.
Driving around the island with a Golf Cart
Funny enough, you see a lot of people cruising around the island on golf carts. On such a small cart fit up to 4 people and you can also transport luggage. If you are traveling with some friends or the whole family, this can really be a (funny) alternative. You can get a golf cart for 75 USD per day.
Things to do on Bocas del Toro
Diving on the Bocas del Toro
On Bocas del Toro I (Andreas) finally got my diving license. After personally looking at the top 3 dive schools on Tripadvisor, we decided on La Buga. The 3-day course to become a PADI Open Water Diver costs $320. In addition, you get another 10% discount at the really recommendable restaurant La Buguita (in the same building), can rent a kayak for free and get 2 fun dives (dives for already certified divers) for $45, instead of the regular $85. We took advantage of this offer so that Sabrina could dive with me at the same time on the 3rd day of the diving course.
The 3 days of the open water diving course run as follows:
Take a Boat Tour
Everywhere in the city you will find boat tours, and actually everywhere the same ones at the same prices. Most tours cost between 20 and 35 USD and take you to Red Frog Beach, Starfish Beach or Zapatilla.
We decided spontaneously for a more unusual variant. Although we also drove to the standard destinations of a day tour. Among them were:
- Dolphin Bay (where we directly saw some dolphins)
- Sloth Island, which can only be visited from the boat (where we also saw sloths in the trees)
- Isla Zapatilla, where we stayed for about 2 hours to enjoy the gorgeous turquoise Caribbean scenery
In addition, our provider also offers deepboarding. We had never heard of this before, but we immediately found it exciting. You are pulled behind the boat on ropes and hold on to boards the size of serving trays, to each of which the rope is tied. The board works like the rudder of a boat. You can use it to determine the direction in which you dive. But not left or right like a boat, but up or down.
If you push the board down, you dive down and can glide elegantly along the seabed and look at the fish and corals. When you want to catch your breath again, you push the board up a little and then automatically dive back to the surface. The whole thing was so much fun that we didn’t want to stop. We can only recommend it to everyone.
Rent a Kayak
As part of my diving certification, we were given the opportunity to rent a kayak for free. Of course we took this offer and paddled over to Isla Coronero. We did this in about 30 minutes and could then relax at the various beach sections of the island. On the way there, we were only a little worried about the various speedboats that race past us at breakneck speed. The waves that are created are not to be underestimated with a small kayak. Nevertheless, we had a lot of fun and were able to explore the area on our own.
We also only saw another kayak in the water once during our stay on the Bocas. So this pastime doesn’t seem to be very common.
Going out for a Tasty Meal
- Right in our diving school there is the restaurant La Buguita, which for about 8-14 $ really conjures up very tasty and also wonderful looking food. In addition, it has a great atmosphere, as it is located right on the water on a jetty, so you can watch all the hustle and bustle on the sea while you eat your meal.
- If you’re into vegetarian or vegan dishes, Bocas Falafel is the place to go. Here, as the name suggests, there are delicious falafel, humus and other Arabic delicacies served by a nice team. Again, you’re in for $8-12.
Bocas del Toro: Our Conclusion
We have already heard that some people were disappointed by the islands off Panama, because they did not find the Caribbean paradise they expected. We believe that you have to go to these islands with the right expectations. It must be clear to you that not every island (and certainly not the main island of Colon) has the dream beaches that you might expect. Also, the capital on Isla Colon is just that, a city. With car traffic, tourist stores, an airport and relatively much noise.
Bocas del Toro is not a dreamy island paradise. But nevertheless we stayed for more than a week. And not only because I made my diving certificate here. The islands captivated us with their flair. The fact that almost every store here is located by the sea and the water is therefore omnipresent, creates a great, relaxed atmosphere. We enjoyed our time there very much and felt comfortable.
And if you need a little more peace and quiet, you should not choose a hotel on the main island like we did, but rather go to one of the quieter islands (see the island descriptions above). We felt very comfortable there, probably also because of the fantastic weather, and can also put a visit to the Bocas del Toro as heart to everyone.
Do you have any further questions about Bocas del Toro or do you want to share your experiences with us? Then feel free to write us a comment or an email via our About Us page.