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An Insider's Guide to Bocas del Toro

An Insider's Guide to Bocas del Toro

If you haven't been to Bocas del Toro, Panama yet, it's likely that this little archipelago where the white sand beaches and clear blue seas create the backdrop for a perfect blend of indigenous culture and Afro-Caribbean vibes is on your bucket list. If not, it should be. Bocas isn't where you go to "find" yourself, it's where you go to lose track of time.  

This is a guide for those who want to truly get the full Bocas experience beyond the travel guides and off the resort. Make sure to keep this map handy as you read. Without further ado if you want to experience the real Bocas del Toro, here are the things you cannot miss:

1. Begin at Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach)

starfish beach panama

Any respectable trip to Bocas Del Toro begins with an excursion to Starfish Beach, preferably over the weekend.  The water  here is so pristine that you can count the starfish that dot the bottom of the sea.  For $2.50, a local bus takes you from the park in town to Bocas del Drago where awaiting water taxis drop passengers off at Starfish Beach for $1.50.  You can also walk from Drago to Starfish, but the view from the water taxi itself is an experience.  There, DJ booths provide the soundtrack for your day at the beach as people snorkel, swim, sunbathe, or eat fresh seafood from the local stands. The atmosphere never fails to feel like a party, no matter when you arrive. Starfish is the place to be and be seen- families, couples, singles, tourists, and locals alike share the warm waters with the starfish. However, you can just as easily walk down the trail to find a secluded spot and have a beach all to yourself when you want to get away from it all.

2. Swing in the Sea Hammocks At Blue Coconut

blue coconut bocas

Blue Coconut Restaurant on Isla Solarte is a 15 minute water taxi ride away ($10 RT) from Isla Colon (the main island). Essentially a bar in the middle of the ocean bordered by mangroves, Blue Coconut is what dreams are made of. The hammocks swing above water so blue it reflects the sun. The service here is so notoriously slow that, while you wait, it's a good idea to grab one of their free snorkels or just hang out in their hammocks with a beer in your hand.  Although there is a reef nearby, I've found that right under the restaurant itself is an awe-inspiring variety of fish to behold. 

3. Slay at Red Frog Beach

After a $3 water taxi to the Red Frog Marina on Bastimentos Island and a $5 entrance fee, a trek through the dense Panamanian rainforest leads you to Red Frog. As you walk, don’t forget to look up for sloths and down for the red poison dart frogs from whom which the beach acquired its name! Red Frog is so beautiful and untamed that it’s humbling to experience. Rows of tourists idle under thatched beach umbrellas facing the eerily beautiful turquoise ocean. As much as I love frolicking in the water, the beauty of the ocean at Red Frog belies its actual power and one must pay very close attention to the signs posted with rip tide warnings. Instead of swimming, Red Frog is perfect place to "slay for the 'Gram", meaning if you want to take photos in Bocas' untouched natural beauty, strolling the beaches to the left of Red Frog gives you ample opportunity to capture wild jungle, blue seas, and  fallen trees washed white by the power of the waves. If you're up to the challenge, make the 30 minute hike from Red Frog to Polo Beach, where the waters are more tranquil. 

4. Watch the Surfers Brave the Waves at Paki Point

Bocas is synonymous with surfing. It's impossible to spend enough time there without winding up on a surfboard yourself. The restaurant at  Paki Point is a perfect location to both spend the day watching the surfers, and to rent a board and brave the waters yourself. Unlike the powerful waters of Bastimentos, the waves at Paki Point are manageable for a beginner. You can rent a surfboard for $10- $20 here. There are also many surf schools in Bocas that provide lessons. Also, with wifi, lounge chairs, and a view of the ocean, I loved bringing my laptop and camera to Paki Point and working from there.  Paki Point is accessible via a 30 minute bike ride alongside the ocean (but it gets rough towards the end) or a $3-5 taxi cab ride.

5.  Rent a Bike to Get Around 

There are actually a lot of places in Bocas that you can rent a bike, but the guys at Panther Bikes are my favorites because they're simply cool and entertaining guys to chat with. This family owned business buys, rents, and repairs bikes, surf boards, and skateboards.  Bike rentals are $5-7 p/d.

6. Try Home-Made Alcoholic Popsicles at Bocas Lick It

The popsicles at Bocas Lick It are made of natural ingredients, and some speciality popsicles are made with alcohol- I really shouldn't have to say any more than that. The popsicles here capture the essence of Caribbean fruits. When I had the piña colada popsicle, I found myself smiling because it brought to mind childhood memories of my father picking coconuts and sharing the meat inside with my siblings and I. Bocas Lick It is  a small stand right across from the park on the main street in Bocas.  

7. Buy Fresh Fruits and Veggies

I was actually surprised at the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in Bocas' supermarkets. The best alternative to the grocery stores is the small, white  fruit stand around the corner from Bocas' only Bank. Although not cheap by Caribbean standards, here you are guaranteed to find fresh and delicious fruits and vegetables, both local and imported.

8. Where to Eat in Bocas

This could be an entirely separate post in itself. Instead, let me summarize it for you:

  • Best Cheap Eats- For less than $5, you can get an entire Panamanian meal of rice, beans, and meat at Resaurant Chitre behind the park. No frills, just food.
  • Best Fried Fish- The bright green food shack beside the park has THE BEST fried fish I've had in Bocas.  If you're not in a hurry, place your order there and go wander around the main street while the ladies season and fry your fish for you. The food isn't pre-cooked here so be prepared to wait about 30 minutes for her to present you with a plate of fried fish, rice and plantains for $7.
  • Best Burgers- Next to Selina's Hostel  is Capitán Caribe, a small outdoor burger spot that you can easily miss if you aren't looking for it.  Caribe doesn't open until 5pm, but the burgers  infused with all the tastes of the Caribbean and served on coconut bread are worth the wait... I'm drooling just thinking about them.
  • Best Tacos and Sandwiches- Behind the park and somewhere between a surf school, convenience store, and a hostel lies Hungry Monkey, another spot you can easily miss if you aren't looking out for it. They make a glorious octopus taco and so many other dishes that you could likely eat here every day just to try them all. However, Taco Tuesdays with $2 tacos at Taco Surf can't be missed.
  • Best Splurge for Dinner- Right on the water, in the evening, El Ultimo Refugio comes alive with twinkling lights and a live band. The ever-changing menu here can best be described as a unique Italian-Caribbean fusion with plenty of pasta and seafood dishes. At about $25 for a meal and drinks, it's more expensive than eating at a local spot, but worth the splurge.
  • Best Late Night Eats- If you're like me, you want something to eat after a night of dancing. My 2 favorite options are the Columbian hamburger ($3) stand that pops up in front of Bocas Bookstore and the white fried chicken shack around the corner from BarCo on Avenida Central. Here you can get a brown bag full of plantains and 2 pieces of fried chicken for $2 in the wee hours of the morning. There is no other bliss like eating fried chicken out of a brown paper bag at 3 am...

9. Buy Fresh Seafood

You're going to have to trust me when I tell you that the best place to buy seafood at rates that feel like highway robbery is the house next door to Capitán Caribe. Walk to the back of the house and ask for the fisherman. Usually, he's there in the afternoons with a freezer full of fresh fish, lobster, etc depending on the catch of the day. For example, I've paid $4-5 for 5 medium sized fish here!!

9. Visit Carenero Island and BiBi's for Happy Hour

In general, Carenero Island, right across from the main island of Bocas del Toro,  is a great place to unwind on any day. The beach there is beautiful and rarely ever as packed as Starfish. Another great thing about Carenero is the happy hour from 5-7pm at BiBi's on the Beach. Get there early because they sometimes run out of piña colada- the horror! 

 

10. Take a Class At Bocas Fight Gym

(This should actually be entitled "Let Esther Kick Your Butt at Bocas Fight Gym".)

If you want to work off all those popsicles and Caribbean food, Esther's morning Strength and Fitness classes are, hands down, the most intense work you will ever have anywhere. This isn't your usual gym class where you barely break a sweat as a disinterested instructor calls out instructions. Never without a smile and encouraging word, Esther takes the gym's motto of "walk in and crawl out" seriously with a 50 minute routine that your muscles will curse you for for days afterwards. For $5, you can drop in on a class Monday- Saturday at 8 or 9am. 

There is also a fun Booty Jam class  on Wednesday's from 5:15- 6pm if you rather move your hips as you sweat. 

11. Watch the Bocas Baseball Team Practice

Even if you're not a fan of baseball, the communal atmosphere in itself is a good reason to go to one of the free baseball games on the airport field every Sunday. People of all ages gather around to drink beers and cheer on the home team. It's a lively occasion that's as much about the baseball as it as about sharing the latest neighborhood gossip. And, who knows, maybe the next Sammy Sosa is right there in Bocas...

12. Dance the Night Away

Every night is essentially a great night to party in Bocas del Toro; however, Saturday nights are the nights you live to remember with people you may forget in the morning. The nightlife doesn't usually begin until midnight here. I'd recommend starting off at Iguanas Surf Bar for Top 40s with lively tourists before making your way to Barco Hundido (also called BarCo) for a more local crowd. The DJ at BarCo spins the best of Latin music with the simple goal of keeping you on your feet all night. Come prepared to dance!

13. Shop Local

Bocas attracts artists, painters, wanderers, dreamers, and thrill-seekers alike. Thus, there are many people around selling hand-made crafts, artwork, and other items. When you get to Bocas, you'll notice the "Sweet Love Bocas" graffiti tagged around town. You can find the work of Kunda, the artist behind the catch-phrase, and  others at Kakao Culture. Jessica, an expat from California, has also brought Cali style with her back to Bocas with the opening of her vintage and consignment store, Haight & Ashbury. The hot pink mini-store is filled with beautiful clothes for the fashionista in you.

14. Go Deep Boarding

I'd never heard of deep boarding before I came to Bocas. When it was described to me as "extreme snorkeling", I went into town the very next day  to find out where to sign up and dragged 6 other people with me.  At Under Sea Panama, a boat equipped with an instructor will  take you out into the ocean. You hold on to a specially designed board as the boat pulls you across the ocean, maneuvering the board to go down deeper and come back up as you please. It's absolutely thrilling to snorkel this way- like a mermaid- rather than  the traditional way. It's $15 for 25 minutes, day trips to Zapatilla available also. 

15. Swim with Bio-lumniscent Plankton

It's mesmerizing to watch the water light up underneath a sky full of stars  as you move. Diving Pirates does an interesting tour to the bio-luminescent lagoon in the archipelago. The bilingual guide provides an in-depth description of the science behind the bioluminescent before you take  a dip into the water.

16. Where to Stay

I won't spend a lot of time on this topic because everyone's lodging needs differ. However, if you find yourself spending an extended period of time in Bocas, the best place to look for a place to stay is essentially Facebook. There is a group called Bocas Property for Sale, Rent, Wanted that is ideal for medium to longterm rentals.

17. Hang out in Bastimentos

A $3-5 boat ride from the main island is the less touristy, but no less interesting,  Bastimentos Island. Here the Afro-Panamanian descendants of Jamaican laborers and indigenous people speak a patois intertwined with Spanish called, Guari-Guari. The park in front of the dock is a great place to simply hang out with la gente and pick up some words in Guari-Guari. Also, if you're looking to get your hair braided, ask anyone in town to point you in the direction of Mary's (pronounce Maori) house.

18. Go Wild at Aqua Lounge

Aqua Lounge's day parties that go on into the night are legendary. Right across from Isla Colon on Carenero Island, Aqua Lounge is like a nonstop party. The bar/restaurant boasts a DJ and many excuses to leap into the ocean while the crown cheers you on- what more could you ask for?!

 

19. Finish off with a Day Trip to Cayo Zapatillas

In one word, Zapatillas is breathtaking. The turquoise water that washes ashore appears prepared to engulf the secluded islands at any moment. However, these two remote  and uninhabited islands remain favorites for all day excursions that cost approximately $35-45. Make a picnic out of it and pack your own lunch and a good book to take with you to  Zapatillas, or place an order at a restaurant along the way. This is the place to experience the untouched beauty of Panama at its best. No trip to Bocas is complete until you've visited Zapatillas.

 


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