The journey from Panama City to Bocas del Toro feels more like a bus ride than like an actual flight. Operated by the national airline Air Panama, the small propeller planes take off from the tiny airport of Albrook, in the greener area of the capital, and land about 50 minutes later in Bocas Town on Isla Colón. With few seats and little space for luggage, the flights usually transport adventurous families, curious travellers and surf-lovers who are looking to wander off the beaten track.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bocas del Toro is Panama’s first National Marine Park and a magical destination for eco-tourism. The tropical island chain is made up of nine main islands and thousands of islets and preserves much of its raw beauty thanks to a balanced and thoughtful development that includes jungle eco-lodges, beachfront hostels, bed and breakfasts and luxurious resorts.
Bocas del Toro is a natural sanctuary whose raw beauty is hard to describe. With dolphins swimming next to the shores and lush thick green vegetation, you wouldn’t know what else to wish for. Playa Estrella, located on the Island of Colón, is a postcard-like beach where you can spot starfish under the crystalline waters, while Isla Zapatilla, a UNESCO heritage site, will blow you away with its coral reef and exotic underwater life .
Island hopping is a must in Bocas del Toro. If you want to get to know the archipelago, get on a lancha (a wooden motorboat) in Bocas Town on the main island of Isla Colón and spend a day at Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach). Cruise by the shores of Isla Bastimentos, where the warm waves meet the mangroves or out in the ocean heading towards the dreamy beaches of Isla Zapatilla.
Built by the United Fruit Company (a banana trade company known today as Chiquita), Bocas del Toro feels like an archipelago lost in time, with an overwhelming natural beauty that you won’t find anywhere else in the country. The island is home to a large community descending from Jamaicans and West Caribbean people who came to work in Bocas and never left. As such, the laid-back atmosphere, the music, the food, the colourful wooden houses and the people carry a distinct Caribbean vibe that makes up Bocas del Toro’s unique charm.
The Ngäbe-Buglé is one of the three largest indigenous groups of Panama. Located in the provinces of Chiriquí, Veraguas and Bocas del Toro, the group is present in the archipelago and more specifically on Isla Bastimento. The village, located in the jungle, is reachable by boat through a canal that cuts through the mangrove forest. The Ngäbe-Buglé live out of agriculture in wooden roofed huts with no electricity of running water. They transport themselves in handmade canoes, so don’t be surprised to see a boat full of children in their uniforms as they reach the shore where the local school is found.
Isla Bastimentos is home to many natural wonders, including Nivida, a massive bat cave with a subterranean lake reachable by canoe across the jungle. The actual visit of the bat cave requires some courage. After gliding through the mangroves for half an hour, you will need to step into the water up to your waist and walk with a headlamp in between the narrow entrance of the cavern, with swarms of bats and vampires flying over your head. Once inside, you will be staggered by this hidden gem and by the crystalline waters of the lake.
Bocas del Toro is becoming an increasingly popular destination among selective surfers. Largely undiscovered, it leaves lots of space for surfers to explore a wide array of waves, from reef breaks to beach breaks and more. With lots of surf schools around, solo travellers are well catered for when visiting Bocas. The only warning: beware of invisible rip currents, especially on Red Frog Beach, which can be lethal even to the most experienced swimmer.
The cultural legacy inherited from Jamaica and from the West Indies is best preserved in Bocas del Toro’s patois: the Guari-Guari. The dialect, which does not have the status of an official language, is similar to other patois in Central America, like Bermudian or Jamaican English and Bajan Creole. If you are familiar with Panama City, you will be struck by the radical cultural and ethnic differences you’ll find as you wander among the islands of this idyllic archipelago.
When visiting Bocas del Toro, you shouldn’t miss the chance of snorkelling. With an exotic marine life, there are lots of breathtaking snorkel spots, though the absolute best ones are to be found around the Zapatilla Islands. Not all captains will want to take you there, but if you manage to, make sure you get to Cayo Coral, where the particularly calm, clear and sheltered waters have led to the development of a fine and colourful coral that attracts a varied underwater life.
Though visitors mainly travel to Bocas del Toro in search for a seaside holiday, there are a bunch of really exciting things that you can do away from the beach. One of them is a horseback ride in the beautiful countryside of Isla San Cristobal. Surrounded by thick vegetation and panoramic views, the trail will take you to a Ngöbé village where you will discover their crafts and culture. You can also take a tour to visit the Green Acres Chocolate Farm, a privately owned and operated chocolate farm with botanical gardens that produces some of the finest chocolate in Panama. Besides the bat cave, Isla Bastimentos is home to a group the Canopy Ziplines. As you climb the stairway of the platforms and launch yourself through the air, you will pass by trees, birds, monkeys, iguanas and other exotic animals.
Bocas Town is the main town of the archipelago as well as the most convenient place for young and solo travellers to stay. Made up of colourful wooden houses on stilts, the village is full of hostels, small hotels, surf and diving schools, bars, restaurants and little shops. With a mixed community of latinos, West Caribbean descendants and a few gringos who left it all to live the dream-life in Bocas del Toro, it offers some nightlife options to younger crowds as well as the chance of making new friends. Besides, all boats and tours leave from Bocas Town which is great if you are planning to take day trips and hop from one island to the other.