Tips for the lovely Bocas del Toro in Panama

Bocas del Toro is a beautiful archipelago on the Caribbean coast of Panama, and it’s a great place to spend a few days relaxing, surfing, and enjoying cocktails. The islands have lots of nature and unique wildlife. Bocas Town is a small village on the main island, Isla Colón, where the houses are painted in bright colors. There are plenty of nice places to eat, and the atmosphere is friendly and Caribbean. There are many other islands to visit besides Isla Colón, and I’ll tell you about the special things I experienced on three different islands in this article. 

How to get to Bocas del Toro?

Most people travel to Bocas del Toro from either Boquete or Puerto Viejo (Costa Rica). Below you can read how to travel to Bocas del Toro from these two destinations.

From Boquete to Bocas del Toro

By bus + ferry: You have two options to travel this route. With this bus + ferry combination, you can complete the journey in 4.5 hours. You can also go on your own and save some money, but then you will be traveling for at least 6.5 hours. If you still want to do this, take the bus from Boquete to David and take the bus from there to Almirante. From there, take the ferry to Bocas del Toro.

From Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro

By bus + ferry: If you are traveling from Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro, you will have to cross the border. A comfortable way to travel is with this minivan + ferry combination, which takes you to Bocas del Toro in 3.5 hours. You can also go on your own and save some money, but then you will have to make frequent transfers. Take the bus from Puerto Viejo to Sixoala, which will take you to the border with Panama. Cross the border and take the bus to Almirante. For the last part, take the ferry to Bocas del Toro.

The islands of Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro consists of more than 200 islands, of which only a few are inhabited. During your stay, you can choose to stay on one island or sleep on one island for a few days and then a few more days on another island. With the water taxi, you can easily go to another island for a day trip. These are the three most popular islands of Bocas del Toro:

Isla Colón is the main island in Bocas del Toro, Panama. This is where you arrive from the mainland and find the lively center of Bocas Town. Despite being the largest island, it has a small downtown area but with plenty of accommodations, cozy restaurants, and bars. In the evening, you can always find a fun place to grab a drink.

Isla Solarte is a small island located just a five-minute boat ride from Bocas Town. The island is mostly covered in jungle and has a few lodges on the water, like the unique Bambuda Lodge. While there are no beaches on Isla Solarte, you can still take a swim in the sea from the lodges.

Isla Bastimentos is a beautiful island located a ten-minute boat ride away from Bocas Town. Part of this stunning island falls under the Bastimentos National Marine Park. The island is full of gorgeous beaches, mangroves, and is home to small red poison dart frogs that you can spot.

What to do in Bocas del Toro?

There is so much to do and see in Bocas del Toro that many travelers end up staying much longer than expected. I’d love to share my tips for exploring Bocas del Toro with you!

Look for fun at Aqua Lounge

In Bocas del Toro, you’ll find many accommodations and restaurants on or near the water. Aqua Lounge Hostel & Bar is one of these places, and it’s just a one-minute water taxi ride away from Bocas Town. During the day, you can relax with a drink or take a dip in the natural pool from the diving board. At night, there’s often parties with a fun atmosphere.

Cycle to Bluff Beach

A fun way to explore more of the main island, Isla Colón, is to rent a bike and ride towards Bluff Beach. You can rent bikes from many places in Bocas Town. From there, you can take a scenic route along the coastline and reach Bluff Beach in about an hour. The road to Bluff Beach is mostly a dirt road with sand and stones, but most bikes you can rent in Bocas del Toro are suitable for this terrain with wide tires and good grip, making it easy to navigate.

On the way to Bluff Beach, you’ll come across several nice food stands and bars, so it’s fun to spend an entire afternoon doing this activity. These spots are often cozy and you can take a dip in the sea at many places. However, be careful not to go too far into the water without a surfboard, as there is often a strong current.

Tip: You can rent bikes at many places in Bocas Town. If you don’t want a regular bike, you can also rent quads or e-bikes at Flying Pirates, but it will cost you more.

Party at Filthy Friday

Every Friday in Bocas del Toro, there is a big party called “Filthy Friday,” where you can visit three different islands and have fun. You can buy tickets in Bocas del Toro or online, and the ticket includes entry to the locations, water taxis, some shots, and merchandise. The party starts at the first location at 11:30 am, then a few hours later, you’ll take a water taxi to the second location, which is the most fun according to many. The tour ends with a big party at Aqua Lounge. If you’re still not ready to stop partying after that, you can go to one of the afterparties in Bocas Town, like the one at Selina Hostel.

If you think partying all day is too much, you can take a water taxi to Aqua Lounge by yourself in the late afternoon. You can pay a reduced entrance fee if you do this.

Let op: During Filthy Friday, some people take advantage of drunk tourists. Water taxi drivers may charge high prices for rides, or items may be stolen when left unattended. Make sure to be extra careful with yourself and your belongings.

Visit Starfish Beach

Let me start with the bad news: There aren’t many starfish left to see at Starfish Beach. However, it’s still one of the most beautiful beaches in Bocas del Toro with extremely clear and calm water.

To get to Starfish Beach, take the bus heading towards Boca del Drago from the main square in Bocas Town. The bus runs every half hour and the ride takes 45 minutes. From there, it’s about a 20-minute walk to Starfish Beach, which is a beautiful walk along the coast where you can see lots of colorful crabs. Starfish Beach has a great atmosphere with many local food vendors and music. Take a break halfway and enjoy a drink at Happy Life or choose a beach chair to relax and soak up the Caribbean sun.

Tip: Be sure to walk all the way past the restaurants because it’s more relaxed there and you have the best chance of seeing starfish. Remember not to touch or disturb the starfish!

Cocktail drinking at a floating bar

One of the iconic features of Bocas del Toro are the floating bars. These bars are not built on stilts or attached to the land like Aqua Lounge, but instead they float on the water and can only be reached by boat. It’s a must-visit spot to chill for an afternoon. I spent an afternoon at the Boya de Vida floating bar and highly recommend it to everyone. This cozy bar offers delicious cocktails, and the Italian owner serves a delightful tapas platter. The water around the bar is crystal clear blue, so if you get too hot, you can take a refreshing dip in the sea. It’s a perfect spot to relax and enjoy!

Surfing in Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is a well-known surfing destination in Panama. The water is warm and there are good waves all year round. Experienced surfers like to go to Bluff Beach and Paunch Beach. If you’re a beginner and want to take surf lessons, you can find several surf schools in Bocas Town. They’ll take you to beaches with calmer waves.

A daytour to the paradisiacal Zapatilla islands

The Zapatilla Islands are uninhabited, full of palm trees, and surrounded by a rich underwater world. You can only visit these two paradise islands on a day tour. During the tour, you’ll visit various places, including Sloth Island, where you can spot sloths. We saw a sloth eating, which was amazing! Then you’ll head to Dolphin Bay, where you can see dolphins from the boat and go snorkeling in a beautiful place with different colored corals. You’ll also visit Zapatilla Beach, a paradise where you can relax and have lunch. The whole tour lasts about six hours and can be booked in Bocas Town.

Although all these places were beautiful, I found this tour to be too touristy and not as informative as I had hoped. The captain pointed out a few things along the way, but nothing was explained in depth. Additionally, there were too many boats at Dolphin Bay, which made the dolphins seem agitated. This might have just been a one-time occurrence, so I still wanted to mention this beautiful place in my article.

Spot red poison dart frogs at Red Frog Beach

Red Frog Beach is a beautiful, wide beach on Isla Bastimentos where you can see red poison dart frogs. You can spot the frogs in the jungle around the beach, mostly during the day, but you’ll need to look for them carefully. It takes about ten minutes by boat from Isla Colon, followed by a 15-minute walk to the beach through a scenic nature trail. The sand on Red Frog Beach is incredibly soft, and there are a few beach tents where you can get food and drinks.

Tip: It’s fun to walk from Red Frog Beach to Polo Beach. Polo Beach is a beautiful beach to relax on, and there’s a man named ‘Polo’ who lives there. You can buy a Coco Loco (a coconut with rum) from Polo, and sometimes you can eat what he’s cooking on the BBQ. It’s a fun experience!

Diving or snorkeling in Bocas del Toro

Put on your diving mask because the underwater world of Bocas del Toro is stunning. You can go snorkeling by yourself from the beach, but with a tour, you can go to the best spots for snorkeling, which are not always reachable from the beach.

Best restaurants in Bocas del Toro

I have tested a lot of restaurants and would love to share my favorites with you. All these restaurants are located in Bocas Town, unless otherwise described.

Octo – This is a cozy place where they serve delicious Caribbean food. The dishes are beautifully served with a banana leaf.
El Patio – Here you can enjoy healthy fruit and vegetable bowls, tacos, burgers, and tasty smoothies all day long.
Skully’s – This is a cozy bar and grill restaurant with tasty burgers and seafood. They regularly organize events and you can play a game of pool. Skully’s is located on Isla Colón, 5 km away from Bocas Town.
Leaf Eaters Cafe – This vegetarian restaurant serves your daily dose of vegetables. Leaf Eaters Cafe is located across from Bocas Town, on Isla Carenero, and is one minute away by boat.
Cafe Amaranto – This is a cozy spot with delicious coffee, fruit bowls, and smoothies.
Café del Mar – In this hip café, you can enjoy delicious breakfast and lunch.

Which islands to choose as a base for Bocas del Toro?

If you have some time, I suggest staying for a few nights on Isla Colón and either Isla Solarte or Isla Bastimentos. You can have fun doing different activities on Isla Colón, then relax at the tranquil and distinctive lodges on Isla Solarte or Isla Bastimentos. You can find out about the variations between these islands at the start of this article, and I’ve listed three outstanding lodgings where I’ve stayed on all three islands below.

Tip: The four major islands of Bocas del Toro are situated close to each other, and you can easily hop between them by taking a water taxi. The water taxi ride is short and inexpensive. However, the evening fares for water taxis are slightly higher than daytime fares.

Our favorite places to stay in Bocas del Toro

My best tip is to stay a few nights at Bambuda Lodge on Isla Solarte. This unique eco-lodge offers both beautiful rooms and a dormitory. It has the characteristics of a boutique hotel and the coziness of a hostel. There’s a lovely pool, a 45-meter slide that ends in the sea, and a great atmosphere. The location is amazing with plenty of flora and fauna, such as various flowers, hummingbirds, and sometimes even sloths or monkeys. Palmar Beach Lodge is also a fantastic eco-lodge located on Isla Bastimento, right on Red Frog Beach. You can choose from a variety of accommodations, including tipi tents, bungalows, luxury apartments, and dormitories. The lodge is surrounded by jungle, so you wake up to the sounds of birds and monkeys. If you also want to stay a few nights in Bocas Town on Isla Colón, Bambuda Bocas Town is a great choice. This cozy accommodation is located by the water and offers many exciting activities such as yoga and salsa lessons. Although it’s not a party accommodation, it has a pleasant atmosphere and is an excellent place to meet other travelers.

Looking for more affordable options? Selina Bocas del Toro on Isla Colón offers cheaper rooms or beds in shared dorms, and if you book early, Selina Red Frog on Bastimentos also has some budget-friendly rooms available. Keep in mind that they also have more expensive rooms, and the price you see may vary depending on availability.