It’s no big surprise that Bocas del Toro is one of the most popular destinations in the Central American nation of Panama. The Caribbean island chain sits off the west side of Panama’s mainland and offers some of the most stellar beaches in the entire country.
The minute you step onto one of the islands of Bocas del Toro, you immediately feel the Caribbean vibe. You’ll hear the palm trees blowing and the waves rolling gently onto the shore and smell the savory scent of frying fish. These idyllic islands represent a wonderful combination of authentic culture, adventurous experiences, and laid-back beach living.
While some choose to fly into the small airport on Bocas del Toro’s main island, Isla Colon, many more opt to get the real Caribbean experience by taking the 30-minute boat ride from the mainland to the islands. To get the boat to Bocas del Toro, you need to catch a bus or a private shuttle to the town of Almirante. From there, you can pay $10 (in United States currency or Panamanian balboas) and they’ll swing you right over to Isla Colon. After that, let the relaxation begin.
There are plenty of hostels and more upscale accommodations in Bocas del Toro so every traveler can find the right place to stay. You can stay at a party hostel and dance the night away; stay at a gorgeous bed and breakfast overlooking the ocean; or even find a hostel that offers surfing or scuba diving lessons.
After you find your accommodation, you can spend your whole vacation just lounging on your nearest beach. For those of you who are more activity-oriented, here are the five best things to do in Bocas del Toro.
1. Learn to Surf at Skully’s House
There’s this guy named Skully and you have to go to his house to learn how to surf. Just kidding. Skully’s House is a hostel, bar, restaurant, and surfing school located on a part of Isla Colon, the main island of Bocas del Toro.
The hostel is located on Playa Bluff, a beach on the east side of the island that many consider one of the best surfing spots in all of Bocas del Toro. Whether you’re an experienced surfer and you’re just looking to rent a board or you’re an absolute beginner looking for your first introduction to surfing, the Skully’s House surfing school, known as Escuela del Mar, is a great place to go.
One of the best things about Escuela del Mar is that once you finish a morning or evening surfing session, you can go back to their restaurant and bar to have some great food or a drink. If you end up staying at Skully’s House until nightfall, you’ll probably end up chatting with some fellow travelers at the bar and maybe even taking a dip in the pool.
2. Go Diving at Bocas Dive Center
If going surfing gave you a taste of adventure and you want more, head over to Bocas Dive Center and get ready for some scuba action. Whether you’re interested in getting a PADI certification or you just want to try diving for the first time, the instructors at Bocas Dive Center are patient and professional and will help you have whatever kind of experience you’re looking for.
If you need a place to stay during your diving adventure, Bocas Dive Center also has a beautiful boutique hotel called Divers Paradise with its own bar and restaurant serving three meals a day and sometimes featuring live music.
The calm waters have a high level of visibility so you can see the abundance of wildlife. Apart from the gorgeous coral structures, you can also see southern rays, spotted eagle rays, lobsters, nudibranchs, parrotfish, barracudas, squid, starfish, crabs, trumpetfish, seahorses, and pufferfish. If you’re really lucky you may even see a nurse shark!
3. Party Like a Pirate at Black Magic
If you take the boat to Bocas del Toro from Almirante, you’ll inevitably notice one very unique boat in the harbor as you arrive. Yes, there’s a giant anchored pirate ship in the ocean just off Isla Colon.
Depending on what time you arrive in Bocas del Toro, you may just see a bunch of people dancing around and drinking on that pirate ship. If you’re looking for one of the most unique nightlife experiences in all of Central America, you’ve found it with Black Magic, a floating bar dancefloor housed on a pirate ship.
If you want to get to Black Magic, you can ask for a water taxi to take you there. If you’re taking the water taxi from Isla Colon, it’ll only cost you $1 to get there and $1 to get back. Many people like to go in the early afternoon for a stunning view of the islands and then stay until nightfall when the party really gets in full swing. If you aren’t really into partying, it’s still worth a visit during the afternoon while it’s tamer to get the view and the experience of being on a pirate ship.
4. Visit Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos
One of the most gorgeous places in all of Bocas del Toro has to be Red Frog Beach, a part of Isla Bastimentos. To get to Isla Bastimentos, you’ll have to take a water taxi, which can take from 20 to 30 minutes.
Once you arrive, you’ll get to walk through a hiking trail that leads you to the bars and restaurants on Isla Bastimentos. Along the way, there’s a good chance you’ll see a sloth, a monkey, and, yes, maybe even a few red frogs.
There are plenty of hiking trails on Isla Bastimentos that are definitely worth exploring as well as the idyllic Red Frog Beach, which is the perfect place to lounge for an afternoon.
If you get hungry or want a drink to sip on the beach, head over to Palmar Beach Lodge for some top-notch food. There’s nothing like enjoying a freshly-caught fish taco while soaking up the sun on one of Bocas del Toro’s best beaches.
5. Snap a Photo at Starfish Beach
If you’re looking for that perfect photo for your Instagram or Facebook profile, head over to Starfish Beach on the northeast side of Isla Colon. You can either choose to get a taxi up there from Bocas Town or you can take the hiking path towards Bocas del Drago, another site in the same area. Once you arrive, sit among the starfish, and have your friend snap that perfect picture.
Aside from the obvious attraction of abundant starfish, the beach itself is covered in pristine white sand and the water is crystal-clear. There are plenty of restaurants, bars, and hotels lining the beach as well.
Of course, the real reason people go to Starfish Beach is to see the abundant giant starfish with their vibrant orange color. All you need to get a good look at them is a snorkeling mask, which you can rent all around the beach. Just make sure you don’t touch them or pick them up!