Leave Costa Rica to the tourists. Try Bocas del Toro instead.
Hop off the rickety aircraft, step onto the tarmac, and take off your shoes. We’re in Bocas.
Bocas del Toro is a province of Panama, consisting of several islands off of the Caribbean coastline. The main island is Isla Colón, where you’ll find most visitors, shops, and restaurants. As you walk down the busy streets of Bocas Town, you may see fruit shops where owners slice pineapples with machetes, hostels decorated with surfboards, and coffee shops that hang dream catchers, lanterns, and colorful swing chairs from the ceilings. The sun will follow you everywhere. The sea salt will stick to your skin. It is a place that full-heartedly embodies island time. Take it easy as you navigate these twelve Bocas del Toro essentials.
12 Things Not to Miss in Bocas del Toro Panama
1. Explore Bocas Town
Bocas Town is the bustling center on the south end of Isla Colón. Head on over to the Bri-Bri gift shop for artisan work or the Guna shops for handicrafts and jewelry. The center comes alive at night with reggae bars exploding with sound and visitors pre-gaming for the Full Moon party. Plan to swing by Barco Hundido, an open-air bar, for a drink by the water.
2. Drink a smoothie at Bocas Blended
Bocas Blended is an old blue school bus decorated with vibrant colors and personality. The owner’s name is Jess, and she moved to Bocas del Toro from NYC to learn how to surf and speak Spanish.
Along the way, she managed to turn an abandoned bus into a wrap and smoothie hub. Expert tip: “Wrappy Hour” is daily from 4 PM to 5 PM.
3. Surf at Red Frog Beach
Red Frog Beach is on Isla Bastimentos, known for its clear, turquoise waters. You can take a boat from the main island, Isla Colon at the Red Frog dock ($3.50-$5.00). Red Frog Beach is a nature reserve, so it will also require a $3.00 entrance fee. Saunter over to Red Frog Bungalows for an optimized surf experience. The staff at RFB have superior knowledge about the surrounding waves and encourage visiting surfers of all levels to find the experience they are looking for.
4. Visit Sloth Island
Just off the coast of Isla Colon, Sloth Island is sanctuary to the world’s entire population of critically endangered pygmy three-toed sloths. While you will only be able to enjoy them from the water, it’s a quick and delightful sail, with cruises running daily.
5. Learn to Scuba Dive
Bocas is known for its biodiversity, giving divers a bit of variety in diving locations. It’s an ideal region to pursue a scuba education because of the calm conditions and competitive pricing. While visiting Panama, I received my scuba certification through Outward Bound. They aren’t always accessible in specific locations; other options include La Buga Dive & Surf or Bocas Dive Center.
6. Take a Water Taxi to the Acqua Lounge Bar
If you find yourself in Bocas del Toro on a Wednesday or Saturday evening, splurge on the $1-2 water taxi and take a quick ride over to the Acqua Lounge. The hostel & lounge is known for their boisterous DJ sets, trampolines, hammocks, slack lines, and natural pools. Expert tip: bring your swimsuit and a waterproof phone case.
7. Experience Carnival
Carnival is an annual, five-day celebration where traditional Panamanian music is played so powerfully it sounds as though the music is coming from the sky itself. People are dancing. Devil masks are worn. Bells are jingling. Some costumes, typically made of paper mache, cloth, and plastic, are so elaborate they can weight between 20-30 lbs. The religious festivity rejoices the end of evil and encourages mass participation, even if one is not affiliated with the religion. The carnival takes place every February, and sometimes in March.
8. Rent a Bike
The best way to get around Bocas Town and explore the vibrant, narrow streets is by renting a bike. Bike rentals only cost about $1-2 an hour or $5-8 per day. Not to mention, it’s a great way to contribute to your sustainable travel goals this year.
9. Take a Spanish Class at Habla Ya
Habla Ya is located on Isla Colón and conveniently placed amongst Bocas del Toro’s favorite restaurants and bars. Habla Ya has a variety of class options, including the Basic Spanish for Travelers Crash Course. The course is a 1-5 day intensive program consisting of 4-30 hours of lessons. Que estas esperando?
10. Practice Yoga at Bocas Yoga
Bocas Yoga was started by Laura Kay who uses Vastu Shastra principles to inspire her offered practice. After a spiritual stretch, you can take advantage of Laura’s full-body, relaxing massage (sorry boys, ladies only). If after your yoga class and full-body massage you are feeling too relaxed to leave, not to worry. You can rent a guest room in the studio.
11. Spend the Day at Starfish Beach
Starfish Beach is known for its sandy beach, calm waters, and many starfish. You can get to Starfish Beach by going to Central Park and taking the collectivo, a passenger bus. It takes about 30 minutes and will cost $5 round trip.
12. Taste Panamanian Chocolate
Cacao trees are native to the tropical rainforests of South and Central America because of the nutrient-filled soil of the region. Indigenous farmers and chocolate artisans throughout Bocas del Toro have produced delicious and rich chocolate over the years. A few well-known organic Caribbean artisan chocolate and cacao brands include Island Cacao, Dorothy’s Own, Oreba, and Green Acres.
13. Volunteer at a Hostel
Are you looking for a reason to stay a while longer? Volunteer at a hostel. Workaway is one of my favorite sources for volunteering with benefits (think room & board). Be careful. You may end up finding an abandoned bus, turning it into a radical food truck, and never leaving the island.