Where have 18 countries film their Survivor series? The answer is the exotic Bocas del Toro Archipelago off of Panama's Caribbean coast.
Bocas is one of Panama's top tourist attractions. Where else can you can relax on glistening beaches with scarcely a soul in sight and hike through rainforests so arresting and bountiful that Lonely Planet Guide calls them "a biologists fantasy".
Bocas is part of an archipelago replete with stretches of aqua blue waters, palm-lined white-sand beaches, and luscious green jungle.
Most hotels are located in Bocas town on Colon Island. This area has the infectious laid back feel of the Caribbean and has a surprising amount of quality restaurants and nightlife spots. You will find that many if not most of the locals speak English.
Bocas is perfect for intimate experiences among nature, ecotourism, romantic getaways and families vacations. It is also a prime location for both beginner and veteran surfers who want to experience the ride of a wave while catching a glimpse of coral reefs beneath their board.
The most popular activities are boat tours to islands for beaching, snorkeling, diving, dolphin observation, rainforest treks, bat caves and indigenous tribe villages. Bocas is also considered a 'Mecca' for surfers; there are a variety of venues for surfers and enough surf spots to please even the most intrepid visitor.
Hotels start from $13 a night for the back-packer crowd, with middle range hotels in the $30 -$80 range. Medium and upscale options include Playa Tortuga set up for meetings on a private beach just 10 minutes from downtown Bocas and for close-to-nature romantics experiences Punta Caracol and Al Natural with cabins over the sea.
Bocas is a popular place for second homes and retirement due to the relatively low prices, stunning natural beauty, and because it is a low-risk investment as there are no hurricanes.
How To Get There
You can fly to the town of Bocas, on Colon Island by catching one of the several daily flights from Panama City that Air Panama provides. Round trip tickets from Panama City are around $180.00. You can also fly to Bocas del Toro from San Jose, Costa Rica.
You can also come by bus or car from David or Panama City to Puerto Almirante on the mainland and take a "lancha" (boat taxi) or ferry to Bocas town on the main island. In Almirante there's a safe place to leave your vehicle for the duration of your stay in Bocas. You won't need a car in Bocas.
Bocas town is small and you can get to many places by walking. Bocas taxis are inexpensive-they will take you anywhere around town for less than a couple dollars. For beach excursion to Bluff Beach near town, you can arrange for a taxi to take you and come back for you at a later hour. If you are going to another island, water taxis ("lanchas") are plentiful and cheap. Bikes are also available for rent. If you are walking around late at night, stay on the main streets.
Where To Stay
Bocas has a hotel for every budget. There are hostels for back packers, eco-lodges for nature enthusiasts and romantic escapes for couples and family-friendly lodges. Most hotels are Bocas town on the main island. Several hotels have sea views but there are no beaches in town. Playa Tortuga Resort, just outside town has a private beach.
The nearby islands of Bastimientos and Carinero have various kinds of lodging and can be reached by a short water taxi. Punta Caracol and Al Natural offer extraordinary close-to-nature experiences and romantic seclusion. For more info including hotel websites, see our hotel list on the sidebar.
Where To Eat
Bocas' restaurants offer a surprising variety with reasonable prices. Popular excellent restaurants in town are El Pecado for French and Indian, Bibi"s for seafood, Lemon Grass for Thai and fusion, Buenavista for American food and Gringo's for Mexican. Guari Guari on a nearby island has delicious six course meals. Another popular restaurant is Om which offers East Indian food. If you are looking for a beach-picnic lunch, stop by the Super Gourmet Deli at the end of main street for good sandwiches and other treats.
For seafood in incomparable surroundings, take a water taxi to restaurant Coral Cay, which is perched on stilts over the sea. You can pick a live lobster from a sea cage and enjoy gorgeous sea-views all around as you wait for your dish to be prepared. Many tours will take you there as part of their route. This is a Bocas must-do.
What To Do
The islands of Bocas del Toro on the northern Caribbean side of Panama have some of the best surfing in Panama, with a wide variety of surf breaks with medium or big waves. Paunch, Bluff, Carenero and Wizard are popular surf spots, but there are plenty more. In Bocas Town you'll find surf shops, both for rental and repair, as well as cheap hostels for the budget surfer. The best surf for this area is from December through August.
Take a Bocas Highlights Boat Tour
The best way to get to know Bocas is to take a Bocas one-day boat tour. Boats can take you to Dolphin Bay to observe dolphins cavorting, beaches like Red Frog or Zapatillas Keys, mangroves teeming with life, lunch at Coral Cay in the middle of the ocean and the best nearby snorkeling spots. You can find boat tour operators on main street and the prices are reasonable.
Bastimentos Sky Rainforest Zipline Tour
Enjoy this thrilling zipline canopy tour with 7 ziplines, a Tarzan swing, suspended sky bridge and ropes course. Set in lush rainforest Bastimientos Island next to a national park. From the zipline enjoy stunning beach and rainforest views and go swimming at Red Frog Beach afterwards. See Bastimentos Sky Rainforest Zipline Tours for more information.
Red Frog Beach
Arguably the most beautiful beach in Panama-enjoy sparkling white sand, dramatic crashing waves, turquoise waters surrounded by lush tropical rainforest. To get there take the Red Frog Express boat on main street. On Red Frog beach, there's a good beach restaurant with hamburgers etc.and chairs etc for rent. On the short walk across the island to the beach, you see and hear the tiny famous red frogs that live exclusively on this island. Get wet but don't swim out since there can be a strong undertow.
Zapatilla Keys Beach
This beach is the postcard picture of tropical beauty. More than a dozen countries filmed their Survivor series here. Go here to sun bathe and take in the beach beauty. Take a water taxi to get there and bring your own drinks and food as there is nothing commercial here since this is part of a national park.
Diving and Snorkeling
The best places for snorkeling are Coral Key and Hospital Point. We especially recommend Coral Key- with a variety of brightly colored corals and tropical fish. A water taxi can take you directly or you can go as part of boat tour.
For diving, you'll find several PADI operators on main street. When diving in Bocas you see some of the best preserved hard and soft coral in the world. You will also may see sting rays, lobsters, several species of crabs and a wide variety of tropical reef fish.
Rent a Bike
This is inexpensive and fun. Bocas is the perfect place to run around by bicycle. You can bike around town and the adjacent neighborhoods and even go to Bluff Beach which is quite close. You will find several companies renting the bikes on main street.
Finca Los Monos
This is privately funded tropical botanical garden about 10 minutes from downtown where you can take a two hour tour and observe a wide variety of flowering trees and plants. There is a $10 entrance fee.
Smithsonian Tropical Lab Tour
The Smithsonian Institute of Tropical Research has a seaside laboratory and offers tours of its ongoing scientific projects and various nature exhibits including one where you can see some of the local frogs. This is a great activity when it is pouring rain.
River Tours/ Indian Village Tour
For something different, take a river trip that includes a visit to an authentic Ngobe Bugle Indian village. This indian tribe still leads a lifestyle that has changed little since the time when Columbus discovered Bocas. You'll see stunning jungle scenery and wildlife (you may even get a glimpse of a manatee- a large aquatic animals also known as a "sea cow").
With miles of mangroves and jungles lining the coast it is easy have a close and personal experience with nature in Bocas. One tour is to Bird Island, which has birds specific only to this island and another of a oceanside bat cave on Bastimientos Islands. We recommend Ancon Expeditions, Panama's premiere nature tour operator.
Bocas is a low-key and friendly town where it is easy to meet with fellow travelers and local people. As you stroll around town in the evening you'll find a number of local night spots where every night is a party. Buena Vista Deli & Bar, located right on the water, is known for its relaxed ambience and good food. For the younger crowd, Mondo Taitu is an ideal place to meet an international mix of young travelers and surfers, and offers a diverse menu of specialty island cocktails (think mojito with a twist), served by young, hip and friendly bartenders. Also fun is the newer La Iguana, right on the water. Don't forget to visit the famous Barco Hundido, also known as the "wreck-deck," which is a good place to get your dance moves on. Like anywhere, it is advisable to practice discretion and stay on the lighted main streets at night.
There are a surprising variety of restaurants to choose from including, seafood, Indian, Italian, American comfort food and local fare.
Souvenir shops can be found on Bocas' main street and hippies from all over the world can be found lining the main-street with their crafts and beautiful jewelry. Also, on the opposite end of the main street just before the end, there is a display of molas attended by the Kuna Indians. Panama is famous for its "molas" which are colorful reverse-applique cloth designs. This humble stand has the one of best selection of "molas" in the whole country. You have the added satisfaction of purchasing directly from the local Indians and knowing your dollar will go a long way toward helping these worthy people.
Bocas Butterfly Farm
On Colon Island just a few minutes by water taxi ($2), pass through thick mangroves to get to an island garden with a large mesh tent where you spot hundreds colorful butterflies and witness all stages of their life cycle from tiny egg to curious caterpillar and jewel like pupa.
Like cinnamon rolls? The German Bakery by the central park offers these and other freshly backed goods. Deli Gourmet at the end of main street also has a great selection of treats and staples.
The best way to learn a language is to be in a place where the language is spoken. Take advantage of your Bocas stay by taking a Spanish course at Spanish By The Sea, an excellent place to learn Spanish.