No trip to Panama would be complete without a visit to the Caribbean islands of Bocas del Toro, near the Panama-Costa Rica border. We had the chance to visit twice while we lived in Panama City, the first time during the country's Carnival celebration and the second time when we needed a break from city life. We got some nice photos while there so in case you're thinking about visiting, here is a virtual tour.
The island where the main town is located is called Isla Colón. The main town, Bocas Town, is connected to an island by an isthmus and surrounded by water on three sides.
If you arrive by water, the first thing you'll see see is a mass of docks and restaurants jutting over the waterfront. Once you get off the boat you'll find a street full of colorful, weather-worn shops, designed to appeal to tourists.
Since it’s a tourist attraction Bocas Town has quite a few nice hotels. If you don't speak Spanish, no worries. Bocas is your type of place because English is widely spoken.
It also has more good restaurants than you’d be able to try in a month. And there are plenty of cheap places to eat (and drink) as well. Nightlife spots are open late into the night, if you're into that.
There are plenty of diving, snorkeling, surfing and tour outfitters based here. (The snorkeling in Bocas del Toro is so good that we did a whole photo post about it.) You can even take surfing lessons.
In Bocas Town itself, the houses aren't much different from the ones in Florida. But as nice as they look, the residents miss out: The town is so built up that there are no nice beaches nearby.
Bocas is a great vacation destination, but it’s not the most ideal place to retire, at least not for us. Later that night, as we vainly attempted to sleep to the full-volume beat from a nearby nightspot, we decided that Bocas Town deserves its reputation as Party Central.
We prefer local entertainment to loudspeakers. But that's just us.
Once outside of town, Bocas del Toro is beautiful
That said, the beaches are just as stunning as those Caribbean islands you see in glossy cruise brochures. Which stands to reason, as Bocas is a Caribbean archipelago!
We boated to other islands and wandered around to see what was there.
We found restaurants …
and deserted areas.
As you can imagine, life is a bit rustic on these islands. There are supermarkets but no mega-marts anywhere to be found. Cell signal and internet were fine in Bocas Town but we didn't check either while we were on the other islands.
If you want to escape the island, five minutes and a $2 boat taxi fare to ride from Bocas Town brings you to Isla Carenero. This is a nearby island that is much calmer than the main city of Bocas Town on Isla Colon. Isla Carenero has several restaurants, bars and secluded beaches within walking distance of the boat dock.
Actually, the island has no roads, so everything is within walking distance. Isla Carenero is small and is ideal for those who want a more rustic experience than they can get in Bocas Town.
We thought the forested island was a good option for our next stay, especially when El Faro del Colibri Acqua Lodge caught our eye. We were intrigued. The vivid yellow and red cabanas certainly stood out above the bright blue sky and the brilliant aquamarine water.
By the way, unlike the ones in Bocas Town, Isla Carenero hotels are a good option for anyone who wants to go snorkeling in Bocas del Toro. The water is much clearer and there isn't nearly as much trash.
So what do you think? Would you like to retire here? Or visit? Chime in below.
Getting there: There are no bridges over to Bocas. The only way to get there is by air or by water. We've done both. Let me tell you, if budget allows, air beats water hands down. The flight only takes an hour and costs less than $100. If you prefer to drive from Panama City, it will take 5-6 hours and you will encounter long stretches of road with no restaurants, toilets or gas stations. Also consider the cost of fuel, parking at Almirante, and water taxi.