Taste of the Island Life: Bocas Del Toro, Panama
When I was planning my second trip to Central America, I wanted to get a taste of the caribbean side.
I had heard the flavor was much different on the opposing coast – think calmer waves, clear turquoise water, tropical vibes and creole flavored dishes. You may even run across locals speaking a unique dialect of Jamacian Patios - yah man!
Plus, relaxing on a crystal clear beach sounded like a great follow up to an action-packed road trip along the pacific coast of Costa Rica.
I immediately began devouring travel blogs on my quest to find the perfect spot to soak up the eastern sun rays. I came across some amazing places, such as Puerto Viejo and Limon, but when I stumbled upon a cluster of Panamanian islands located just south of the Costa Rican border, I knew I had to visit.
“Magical.” That was the single word that fell out of my mouth when I Googled “Bocas Del Toro, Panama.”
Comprised of several distinct islands, ranging from party towns to uninhabited paradises, I decided this would be where I’d spend my last five days in Central America.
My friend and I ditched our rental car in San Jose, Costa Rica and booked tickets with Caribe Shuttle. The eight-hour trip included an air-conditioned shuttle ride with free WiFi, assistance at the border and a boat ride to the main island. After my earlier experience driving through the cloud-capped mountains of La Fortuna in the dark, I relaxed at the thought of someone else behind the wheel for this portion of our trip.
When we finally arrived on the main island, the vibes were even better than I had imagined they would be. The slow-paced feel was kicking in and we quickly settled into the Bocas mindset.
Along the edge of Bocas Town, a small, vibrant city on the main island that is sprinkled with restaurants, bars, shops and hostels, we searched for a water taxi to take us to the island we’d be staying at. Yup, a boat that shuttles you from island to island for only $1-$8.
The narrow dock entrances don’t particularly stand out, but you can always find drivers hanging around the street asking where you want to go. After a couple rides you get the hang of it, and there’s plenty of people around to redirect you if needed.
We threw our packs in the back of the boat, strapped on our life jackets and enjoyed the scenic water ride to Isla Bastimentos. Bastimentos is one of the larger islands and is home to a rainforest reserve, several picture-perfect beaches, the very small town of Old Bank, and a large community of the indigenous Ngobe people.
After unloading at the dock, we had about a 10-minute walk through the Bastimentos National Marine Park before we’d reach our eco-friendly hostel, Palmar Beach Lodge. Walking along the sandy path, surrounded by mangroves, flowers and wildlife, we knew we had made the right decision for lodging.
Palmar Beach Lodge sits on the shores of the popular Red Frog Beach and has a full-service restaurant and bar. The dorms were clean and spacious, and nestled along the back of the property right next to the toilets and showers.
Almost everything you would you need or want was there. Most people could probably spend the entire five days in glamping paradise. We, on the other hand, are not the best at staying put and were excited to start exploring all of the islands. So, we mixed our days on the beach with a few excursions.
We kicked off our first full day with an “island tour.”
For about $30 a person, we watched dolphins swim at Dolphin Bay, spotted sloths in the mangroves of Sloth Island, captured photos of the red starfish along Hollywood beach, spent hours exploring the clearwater beaches of Zapitallo island, snorkeled through the coral reef, and stopped at a local lunch spot for fresh seafood.
It was a jam-packed morning of sampling the vibes of each island, and worth every penny.
We were dropped off at the main island and finished the day wandering through the eclectic shops in Bocas town and stopping in the many different restaurants along the strip. The town is also known for its high-energy nightlife.
We had opted to stay out of the heavy party scene, but did spend a night enjoying live music at a Monday night jam session at the Lost Boys Blues Bar.
My favorite excursion was our trip to Up in the Hill Coffee House and Organic Farm. Javier, originally from Argentina, had purchased the then cattle farm 20 years ago and transformed it into lush, tropical organic farm.
He explained the importance of permaculture and taught us how the practice helped him create an environment where exotic fruit plants, coffee bushes and native wildlife flourished. At the end of the tour, we were treated to a full tasting of the farm’s harvest (obviously, the best part).
On our final night in Bocas, we were lucky enough to witness the bioluminescent magic of the water.
The water is filled with a phytoplankton that glows when you agitate it. However, the sky has to be dark enough for your eyes witness it. Typically this means waiting for a new moon, but we scored with a late-rising full moon.
We gathered a group of our new friends from the hostel and spent the night sipping drinks and kicking our feet along the dock. It was a glowing end to our trip.
When traveling, it’s easy to feel at home in the places you visit. You find comfort living out of your bag, grow attached to the new friends you meet and get used to waking up each day to a new, wild adventure.
Leaving the island was a sad departure, but I am grateful to have gotten a taste of this beautiful section of the world. If you’re looking for a chill, relaxing escape and want to get a taste of the island life too, look up Bocas Del Toro, Panama and start planning your experience.