Bocas del Toro, Panama is one of the country’s most visited travel destinations. The archipelago extends from the mainland cloud forest mountains to the tropical island chains, and counts 9 main islands, 52 cays, and thousands of smaller islets.
Bocas del Toro is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Panama’s first National Marine Park. The archipelago is called the ‘Galapagos of the Caribbean’, because it is also one of the most biologically diverse places on earth.
Unlike most overcrowded tourist destinations, Bocas del Toro has just the right amount of urban development, coupled with large areas of untouched nature. Whether you choose to stay at a luxury hotel or at a small bed & breakfast, you will be able to discover the islands on a sailing trip, zipline through the rain forest canopy, scuba dive in some of the most biologically diverse tropical coral reefs of the region, learn to surf in warm Caribbean waves, and much more. In Bocas del Toro, it is still possible to enjoy deserted beaches with wild coconut trees without any other Humans in sight. Under water, discover the colorful coral reefs housing an abundance of sea critters, swim with manatees, or spot one of the endangered monarchies on the American continent. Bocas has too much to offer for just one visit, which is why it’s no surprise to see so many returning guests in town.
Bocas del Toro is considered the ‘Galapagos of the Caribbean’ because of the diversity of its marine life. In Bocas, you will find an array of dive shops to choose from, offering all levels from discovery diving to dive instructor. Stay at Saigon Bay B&B at a discounted rate for long term stays, and learn how to dive in Bocas.
Exploring the surrounding islands by boat is a must when you visit Bocas. There are many different types of boat tours available during which you get to see various places. Other types of boat tours are sailing tours, which visit less places, but stay longer at each one allowing you to snorkel or swim for a longer time period. These are generally more enjoyable because they are less crowded than regular motor boat tours. Sailing tours are also much more eco-friendly, and don’t pollute the water or injure dolphins.
CHOCOLATE FARM TOURS
Visit different cacao farms throughout Bocas. Just like Boquete is known for its world class coffee, Bocas is known for its organic cacao production. During your visit, you’ll learn how cacao is grown, harvested, and transformed into what we all know as chocolate, ready to be exported to the European market.
Panama is a great birding destination with almost 1,000 different bird species in the entire country, and over 500 species in Bocas del Toro only. There are several bird watching tours to choose from, and there is a bird watching tower on Bastimentos island at Tranquilo Bay.
Bocas del Toro is a paddling paradise. At Saigon Bay you’ll be able to explore mangrove channels, reefs, sunken ships and much more. Saigon Bay B&B puts kayaks at their guests’ disposal free of charge. Almirante Bay offers a fun downwinding run for more experienced paddlers, and when the wind comes from the right direction, you can downwind all the way from Starfish Beach towards Saigon Bay. The hosts of Saigon Bay Bed & Breakfast also have a rudderless Tahitian v1 for experienced paddlers, and offer lessons to first timers. If you are interested in learning how to paddle, talk to the owners about private one-on-one lessons.
Dolphin Bay – Laguna Bocatorito
Observe Bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat while cruising through the mangroves. Contact us for the most eco-friendly tour operators in this area. You want to choose a respectful company with captains who will not chase the dolphins and put them in distress, but observe them from a distance with their engines turned off.
Crawl Cay (Coral Cay)
You’ll make a stop here to enjoy this great snorkeling spot, followed by a hearty Caribbean style seafood dish at a local restaurant on the water.
These paradisiac cays are one of the favorite attractions of the archipelago, and are part of Bastimentos International Marine Park. This means that they are protected by the government and guarded to make sure that everything remains unspoiled by Humans. It is a magnificent snorkel spot thanks to the surrounding reef and mangroves. Thanks to their white sand beaches and turquoise water, these small islands are true postcard material. They also happen to be one of the main spots for Leatherback and Hawksbill turtles to come and lay their eggs.
Red Frog Beach
This pristine white sand beach with turquoise water allows you to swim and surf, and is located in a natural reserve park on Bastimentos island. This is the perfect spot to spend an entire day. It will take you about 10 to 15 minutes by boat from Isla Colón to get there. Once you arrive at the dock, you’ll be asked an entrance fee of $5 which goes to maintenance. After a quick 10 minute hike through the jungle, you’ll arrive at the beach with wide stretches of white sand. You’ll have several restaurants and bars to choose from, as well as long chairs and umbrellas for rent for some shade. This is one of the most popular beaches in Bocas, so if you’re looking for something a little less crowded, you’d be better off walking towards Wizard Beach.
As you may have guessed, this beach got its fame due to the fact that starfish come to feed at this particular spot. Of course, this phenomenon has attracted lots of visitors, and over time, several local restaurants have set up shop on the beach serving seafood and playing music. The beach is paradisiacal, however an increasing number of tourists touching the starfish and taking them out of the water for selfies coupled with loud music from local businesses, has shied the starfish away. Some unethical restaurants and tour operators will go pick up starfish in the ocean in the morning, and place them close to the shore for tourists to see. So if you decide to visit, please keep note that animals are only to be observed from a distance. Please don’t touch the starfish and don’t take them out of the water. If you see anyone who does, please tell them to read the many signs asking tourists not to do so. Starfish beach can be reached by bus which leaves from the central park in Bocas Town every half hour.
Bird Island (also called Swans’ Cay) is a paradise for bird watching adepts, and the only known nesting place in the Caribbean of the Red-billed Tropical Bird (Phaethon aethereus). On a boat tour, the captain will typically stop and let you observe for a while. This little island is usually not the main destination of a tour, but rather a stop on the way to other places such as Starfish Beach (Boca del Drago). Depending on the time of the year, the sea can be a bit rough so make sure to ask first.
Solarte Island: Famous for Hospital Point, Solarte is one of the several untouched islands without any cars, shops or roads. This makes it a great place to hike through the jungle on one of the many available paths, and for birdwatching. You can also observe how the Ngobe indigenous communities live there. This island has a nice little hidden beach with a great snorkel spot, which you should enjoy in the morning hours in order to get some sun. Solarte is also the home of the famous Nivida bat caves which you can visit when the tide is low.
Bluff Beach: It’s the longest stretch of golden sand on Isla Colon (5km long) and the best spot if you enjoy nature without seeing anyone else around. That being said, there are a handful of restaurants and hotels also if you need to eat or drink something. Swimmers need to note that this beach can be quite dangerous due to strong currents, and on a wavy day it’s not recommended to swim at all. You can surf at Bluff, but only if you’re very experienced. During some periods of the year when there aren’t any waves, the ocean can be flat like a lake. Bluff is also a turtle nesting spot, which means that it is not allowed to use ATV’s there.
Bastimentos: On Isla Bastimentos, we recommend checking out Old Bank, also called the town of Bastimentos which has restaurants and some hostels/hotels over the sea, You can visit the point, and hike up to a place called Up in the Hill. The owners there offer eco-lodging options, grow their own food and offer tours. You can also hike to Wizard Beach from the town of Bastimentos, as well as to Polo Beach, or go ziplining on Red Frog beach. For surfing, we recommend Long Beach (Playa Larga). The island of Bastimentos has a different vibe compared to the surrounding islands due to its Afro-Caribbean population, who in addition to using Spanish and English also speak their local dialect called Guari-Guari. Other activities on Bastimentos include an indigenous village tour in Salt Creek, and bird watching tours at Tranquilo Bay where you can observe tropical birds from a watch tower. Last but not least, it is worthwhile visiting Punta Vieja which faces the Zapatilla Cays for an unforgettable nature experience.
Carenero Island is the smallest inhabited island close to Isla Colon, so close you could almost swim over. There are no roads or cars, which makes it a great place to simply hike all the way around it and stop anywhere to swim in the shallow transparent water. Carenero is ideal if you like to swim, snorkel, SUP or kayak, as there are no waves and is therefore a favorite among parents with small children. Carenero also has a great selection of restaurants as well as the perfect surfing spot for complete beginners called Black Rock.