I recently returned from one of my most memorable vacations. This February, my boyfriend and I set our sights on Bocas del Toro, Panama for a 9 day vacation: 6 full days in Bocas del Toro, 1 day in Panama City and 2 days of travel. We wanted to go to a country that neither of us had been to, and we had heard some great things about this tropical archipelago in Central America. With visions of caribbean clear seas and not a worry on our mind, we eagerly booked our vacation back in October (!!) when flights were the lowest I had seen in awhile.
The route and details
There are a few ways to get to Bocas del Toro, and we opted to go fully by air. It was the quickest, but certainly not the cheapest.
Panama City to Bocas del Toro: $200 CAD roundtrip. 1 hour plane ride.
You can also get to Bocas del Toro from San Jose, Costa Rica through Nature Air, but the flights are $400+ roundtrip, so even though flights to San Jose tend to be cheaper than to Panama City, it still was always about the same cost. We decided to fly through Panama City since it also seemed to be a better place to explore.
Panama uses the US dollar. Not so good when you’re a Canadian traveller and the dollar has tanked. Oh well, we sucked it up.
Arriving to Bocas del Toro and getting around
We arrived at Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro in the early morning. It was sunny and beautiful, and seeing the islands from a bird’s eye view was breathtaking. We paid some kind of ‘tourist fee’ of $3 and collected our bags. The airport is literally a 5 minute walk from the main part of town, so it certainly isn’t necessary to get a cab. Being so early, the streets were pretty quiet and we grabbed a quick bite to eat and enjoyed the warm air. We were staying on a different island: Isla Bastimentos, which was a 10 minute boat ride from the main island of Isla Colon.
I’m a wimp when it comes to boats. I don’t get sea sick, but they terrify me. Maybe coming to a place where boats are absolutely essential wasn’t such a good idea…This is what I was thinking as we threw our suitcases on and hopped in for our first ride. Water taxis fit maybe 6-10 people and consist of wooden plank seats and occasionally, life jackets. An average ride is $3 one way. I don’t know why, but our first ride was among the worst. It was so rough, so naturally I just squeezed my eyes shut and hoped we would make it in one piece. We did.
We took water taxis about twice per day, if we wanted to go into Bocas Town. One day, we caught a water taxi during a bit of a storm. We needed to get back to our island and didn’t want to wait any longer to see if the storm would pass. Oh god, it was scary. I sat near the back and Adam was closer to the front with two little boys. There were also two locals on the boat. As we started, the little boys were bouncing SO high off the seat with each wave. The captain started screaming in a Caribbean accent and I couldn’t understand a word. The locals were also yelling. Finally I understood: He was telling someone to grab the little boys and pull them back further on the boat, because he couldn’t go any slower due to huge waves and they were going to be thrown off the boat. So, Adam was left at the front to fend for himself. We made it, white knuckling it the whole time.
There are also land taxis on Isla Colon. You can hop in one of these to go a few blocks or to go out of town to Bluff Beach or Starfish Beach. You’ll have to get into a truck if you want to go to Bluff though, as small taxis don’t like to take the route. A roundtrip to Bluff Beach (30 minutes away) is $30, which I thought was pretty good compared to the taxi fares that I’m used to.
Where we stayed
We stayed on Isla Bastimentos, which is a 10 minute ride from Bocas Town and the island where many locals live.
I have a wee bit of an issue picking places to stay, so I often end up splitting my trip between two places. Our first 4 days were spent at Bubba’s House, which has it’s own dock and can be accessed directly from a water taxi. When we arrived, we liked the chill, backpacker vibe of the place.
The main area had wooden benches and tables for chilling out and eating. There were 3 hammocks for lounging and kayaks and paddleboards for rental. Food and beer could be purchased directly from the front desk. Sounds great, right? Well, to be honest, I didn’t really enjoy my stay at this place. There were several blunders early on, such as not getting the correct room (later fixed) and finding an uninhabited hornet nest (which was quickly removed). While these don’t seem like big problems, they just kept piling up. Due to a recent drought, there was no fresh water in the tank. We found this out after spending a day out in the salt water of the ocean and my hair was a GIANT DREADLOCK. Oh my god. I can’t even express to you how difficult it is to wash a dreadlock out of your hair with bottles of water. Luckily (and unluckily), we had arrived just as the rain was starting again and we got cold, yet fresh water the next day to shower in.
Bubba’s House was overall very clean with a comfortable bed, and most rooms had a private bathroom which is always a plus when staying at a hostel. But that’s the thing. It’s still a hostel, and I might be starting to get over them. I’m tired of the constant noise, the overly chill staff (I do have to mention that several members of staff WERE a huge help to us) and the slightly uncomfortable setting. The food served was very meh. Would I stay there again? Unlikely. But it is a good place to go if you’re a solo traveller looking to socialize. It is by no means a party hostel, but not quiet at night either.
We arrived to The Firefly halfway through our trip. This far, we had experience a bout of sickness, non-stop rain and felt a little down on our luck. But things were looking up. As we arrived to this tiny hotel/bed and breakfast, we were greeted with a cute sandwich chalkboard with our names. Lauren, one of the owners, greeted us with two rum punches. By some miracle, the clouds opened up and we experienced our first sunshine since arriving. We both heaved a great sigh of relief.
I can’t say enough good things about The Firefly. First, it is impeccably designed. It sits on a different side of Bastimentos, giving way to an ocean breeze (whereas Bubba’s House sits on the lagoon) and a quiet vibe. The large deck has a variety of furniture to lounge on – everything from hammocks to loungers to bean bags. The rooms are peaceful and serene, with a memory foam bed, hot water rain showers and beautiful decor.
By night, the Firefly transforms into a full service restaurant, serving up some of the most delicious food I’ve ever had in the most romantic setting ever. Imagine eating dinner under twinkle lights, hearing the waves crash gently with a warm breeze on your shoulders. It was tapas style, so we were able to eat gnocchi, green curry, veggie tempura and prawns all in the same meal. We dined here twice. Also included in our stay was a free breakfast, which went above and beyond my expectations. We were treated to a bowl of fruit, a smoothie and a delicious dish every morning.
The Firefly is also extremely eco-friendly, which we realized is incredibly important on an island like this. They don’t serve water bottles (or anything in a bottle) and are leaders in the community for waste management.
All this, for only $25 extra each a night compared to Bubba’s House. That’s a good investment.
The food scene in Bocas del Toro is way more advanced than you might expect. You can find everything from pub food to sushi to tacos here, and for pretty good prices. A few of our favourites were…
The Firefly: See above.
Cafe del Mar: Delicious burritos and breakfast food.
Raw: Fusion: Unique sushi with an island twist and noodle dishes.
The Blue Coconut: Over-the-water restaurant with lobster tacos and macaroni cheese balls. Yum.
There are tons of things to do in Bocas del Toro, so don’t let anyone tell you it’s boring. You can rent a bike, deepboard, shop, go to different islands, go to a bat cave – the list goes on! Due to weather, we only got to do a few activities but I was happy with what we chose.
Isla Zapatillas, Sloth Island and Cayo Coral Tour
This is one of the most popular tours offered and we opted to go on it through our hostel, Bubba’s House. We got on a boat with one other couple and our driver for the day and head out for a day of exploring. Sloth Island is a protected island so you can’t walk on it, but you can drive past and spot sloths lazing in the trees. Next, you head to the beautiful Isla Zapatillas for a couple hours of beach lounging. The water here is turquoise blue but not clear. When we went, it was rather crowded but we found a more secluded spot and spent our time jumping in the waves.
The last spot was Cayo Coral, an area known for its coral reefs. We snorkelled here for an hour or so and I can easily say it was some of the most colourful coral I had ever seen. There isn’t too much wildlife but you might see some schools of fish.
Our tour included a packed lunch (with the weirdest sandwich I’ve ever had. We asked for vegetarian so Bubba’s House gave us a bun with Zucchini and onions. Okay.) and a stop at The Blue Coconut for dinner (food not included here).
Up the Hill Cacao Farm
On Isla Bastimentos, we took a 20 minute hike up the hill for the Up the Hill Cacao Farm tour. Our guide, who was also the owner of the farm, was extremely knowledgable of vegetation and took us around his property. Along the way we got to taste some interesting plants (and yes, cacao) and learn about how they developed the farm. It was inspiring to see a passionate individual take a stand on sustainable development. Prior to their farm being built, the land was quite barren with cattle roaming. Now, it’s a thriving rainforest and home to many species. By the end of the tour, we got to see the chocolate making process and try hot chocolate, brownies and a variety of fruit and nuts. This tour was SO worth it so be sure to go if you can.
Finca Los Monos Botanical Garden
Another hit on our trip was the Finca Los Monos Botanical Garden. This oasis is located about 5 minutes outside of Bocas Town, but you will miss it unless you get a cab to take you there. The 20 acre property is expertly maintained by a couple who purchased it in 1998, before major tourism had come to Bocas. Lin was our gracious host and provided us with umbrellas on this rainy day as she guided us through her amazing garden. It’s more like a rainforest, home to species such as howler monkeys, sloths and caymen, as well as to plants from around the globe. It really is something you need to see. At the end of the tour, we were treated to fresh lemongrass tea and many stories.
There are many beaches to visit in Bocas del Toro, and it saddens me to say I only visited a handful due to weather. Starfish Beach was my favourite, which was surprising because I had read it was crowded, noisy and dirty. I experienced the exact opposite. You can catch the bus (more like a van of sardines) for $5 round trip. It takes quite awhile and fair warning, the buses stop at EVERY pothole. Every single one. After a 20 minute hike, you arrived at Starfish Beach. There wasn’t too many people, the water was very clear. We saw starfish, and even though there are signs everywhere telling you not to touch them, you will see people picking them up for photo ops. One strange thing that happened on this beach was I kept feeling like I had glass in my feet and on my legs, and in the water it felt like I was being stung. Very odd, since Adam felt nothing. Still, we had our most beautiful day here with clear blue skies and lots of swimming.
We also visited Bluff Beach, which was 30 minutes away from Bocas Town by taxi. It started raining as soon as we arrived, but I found the waves quite astonishing. Certainly not a swimming beach, but nice to see none the less.
The last beach we visited, Red Frog Beach, was in my opinion, average. It costs $3 to get into the beach since it’s privately owned and maintained (although apparently this practice is illegal). I found this beach very crowded and noisy, and it’s not very swimmable due to large waves. Still, overall nice but Starfish was still my favourite.
And lastly, the trash
It pains me to mention the trash (oh god, the trash) but it can’t be ignored. I’ve read way too many blog posts that don’t even mention the outrageous amount of trash on the island. Seriously guys, I might need to write to Leo Dicaprio about this. The sad part? I had several travellers tell me this was actually normal for Central and South America (even Costa Rica). I have never felt so ignorant in my life. I really didn’t know this type of horrible waste management existed, and it made me think twice about what I threw away. When we throw something away in Canada, it gets taken away by the garbage truck and is never seen again by most. Here, there seems to be little to no management. Garbage lays stinking in the sun and rain. Broken glass is shattered everywhere, sinking into the ocean. You see recyclable goods in with trash. Abandoned flip flops and christmas decor are scattered on the sidewalks. You even see these. Yeah, the horrifying object that dolphins and turtles are shown getting trapped in for recycling commercials. Spending time in Bocas del Toro made me realize that everything we use has a footprint. I want to get more involved in recycling, composting and using plastic wisely. A final note is, the further out from town you get, the less trash you see.
So why a love hate relationship? Well, I loved the vibe of the town. I loved the food. I loved the beaches, and I loved the caribbean sea. On the other hand, the rainy days, trash and sickness put a bit of a damper on things. Bocas del Toro is one of those places often debated about on blogs and forums. Some people love it, some people hate it. Me? I’d say this little archipelago really grew on me, but I won’t be booking a trip back anytime soon.