A few weeks ago I stumbled across a little group of islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama just south of the border of Costa Rica. In the blog I was reading it seemed like this was a common stop for people traveling by bus, which is what we would be doing, from Panama City to Costa Rica. It sounded cool so my next move was to Google “Bocas del Toro” and then I clicked on the Bocas del Toro images and just about crapped myself. The place looked incredible. Luckily for us we had about a week to burn in Panama, Bocas here we come.
It’s the off-season in Bocas del Toro right now. December – March is the high season and the place can be an absolute zoo from what we were told. The high season also has rougher seas which makes for ideal surfing conditions. I have never surfed in my life so I don’t know what that means. The very low season of September and October have calm waters which make it ideal for relaxing on the beach, surfing and snorkeling.
4 Perfect Days in Bocas del Toro
Getting to Bocas del Toro is sort of easy and sort of complicated. Almost all travel will originate from Panama City (although you can get there from Costa Rica via bus/shuttle as well). Your options are to either take a 45 minute puddle-jumper from the domestic airport in Panama City or take a 10hr overnight bus from the same spot. Being the budget-conscious travelers we are we opted for the overnight bus.
The bus ride was fine – the bus was in decent shape, the roads were paved sort of and the driver seemed to be less crazy than every other bus driver. But – and this is a big but – the driver, for some unknown reason, was BLASTING the A/C. Everyone on the bus was shivering. Lindsay and I gave all of our warm clothes to her parents when they left Cartagena and our luggage was packed away with no access so we were sitting ducks. I swear it must have been 45° the entire ride. Several people asked…and then begged the driver to turn it off. He would comply for 10 or 20 minutes and then blast it again. It was very strange and very uncomfortable. We couldn’t sleep. For $27 per person we weren’t complaining.
The bus takes you to a small mainland town of Almirante where there are a bunch of cabs ($1/pp – 5min) waiting to take you to the docks where you will join others on a small boat ($6/pp – 30min) to take you to the main Bocas town. From there you can either hail another boat or have a restaurant call you one to take you to whichever island you are staying on. The rides are quick, 5-10min, but quite expensive $2-$5/pp and you don’t have a choice if you need to get to another island.
Our original plan called for 2 nights in Bocas del Toro, but after the first we knew we were going to stay a bit longer. We spent the first two nights in an over-water bungalow at Careening Cay Resort on Carenero Island- a bit of a splurge for us which was a really nice treat. Careening Cay Resort is also home to the Cosmic Crab restaurant, one of the archipelagos most highly rated restaurants.
We spent the first day playing catch up online because we had been moving around quite a bit since our San Blas sailing adventure and needed to just relax. But by noon we were getting thirsty and hungry. We ended up with a pretty good buzz by the time dinner rolled around and found ourselves wandering the main Bocas town for dinner. Fun times.
The next morning we woke up, foggily pieced the last part of the night before together and decided that we would simply take it easy and lounge the entire day at our place. This was one of the best decisions that we have made in a long time. The weather was absolutely perfect, the food was incredible at Cosmic Crab, the happy hour was priced perfectly and we met a hilarious and interesting couple from California that we’d end up snorkeling with and having dinner with the next day. Lindsay, aka the Late Night Comic, made an appearance towards the end of the night. Luckily we only had about 20ft to walk back home to our bed. 🙂
A few minutes after we finished lunch we were feeling really good, really chatty and started talking with another couple having an early dinner there. Next thing we know it’s 9pm, Lindsay and I haven’t eaten any dinner and the drinks were going down like candy. We had made arrangements to snorkel with our new friends the next day which worked out perfectly.
Snorkeling Bocas del Toro and Zapatilla Island
We were moving pretty slow the next morning. But we got up, had some breakfast, drank plenty of coffee and water and eventually made it over to The Firefly resort to meet up with our new buds for a day of boating, snorkeling and exploring Zapatilla Island.
For $30 per person you hire a boat driver to take you around to any place you want. You pretty much get the driver for the day and anyone with a phone can help you set this up. The owner of Firefly hooked us up and we were off. Not an early start by any means, but it worked out nicely.
The snorkeling was the best I had seen in my life and it rivaled what Lindsay had seen in Belize 20 or so odd years ago. Unfortunately our GoPro case broke back in Bolivia on our Salt Flat tour and we haven’t been able to take it underwater since. We hadn’t had much of a need until now. The pictures that I took really don’t do the snorkeling justice, but here we go anyways.
Later that Night…
After a fun day on the water we got back to our new hotel – a much more economical hotel on Basimentos Island called Bubba’s House – to take a shower. Dinner reservations were at 7:15pm at the #1 rated restaurant on the island – The Firefly Restaurant. The food did not disappoint (I think that we tried just about everything on their tapas-style menu) and the company was even better. I hadn’t laughed so hard in long time hearing about Eric’s challenges of changing money in the Panama airport (Panama is on the USD), the couple’s awkward viewing of a thriller called “Knock Knock” at the Sundance film festival and the pondering from the Californians on how the bums from Chicago do not freeze – like, literally become frozen. My god I was cracking up. Hard.
I really, really liked Bocas del Toro
This was one of my favorite stops along our way. I would go back in a heart beat. It was cool, off the beaten path yet easy to access. The part that struck me the most was it’s still a bit raw and not built up. No chain hotels – really only individual operators doing their thing. Which means that it’s reasonably affordable. Beers are $1-$2, maybe $3 if you’re at a fancy place. Every place has a legit happy hour. Hotels and rooms are reasonably priced. We paid $80/night for an overwater bungalow that included breakfast and $35 for a room with private bath and A/C at the next place.
And you know what else is still relatively cheap? The real estate. It’s going up – but there are still some decent bargains – especially if you compare it to waterfront property in other parts of South America and in the states. Curious to see what’s out there and available? Check it out. Bocas del Toro real estate
Bocas Del Toro