Bocas Del Toro, Panama is the archipelago located off the Caribbean coast of Panama, near the border of Costa Rica. It is made up of 9 main islands and over 200 small islets, with a mix of indigenous, Latin American, and Afro-Caribbean cultures. Bocas del Toro draws young travelers, backpackers, couples, and families for a vacation that is equal parts adventure and relaxation in its beautiful, untouched paradise. In my opinion, Bocas del Toro is an absolute must-stop on any Panama itinerary.
Bocas del Toro travel guide – Top things to do in Bocas del Toro
Naturally, the best things to do in Bocas del Toro include being in, around, and on the water. The most popular thing to do is to tour Bocas del Toro by boat and go island hopping, which will be discussed in more detail in this post. Aside from island hopping, in Bocas del Toro you’ll get to enjoy beautiful snorkeling or scuba diving, surfing, lounging on pristine beaches, dining on fresh seafood, and of course, partying if that’s your thing. More adventurous travelers can also enjoy activities such as zip-lining, ATVing, hiking, horseback riding and exploring the more rugged and uninhabited parts of the islands.
Bocas del Toro Tours
Island Hopping tours are the name of the game in Bocas del Toro. You’ll want to spend at least one full day exploring the islands, if not more. Tours range can range from $50 – $200+ depending on the type of tour, group size, duration, and time of year. Most tours include snorkeling and light refreshments. There are several ways you can easily set up an island hopping tour, and most of them can be done once you’re actually on the islands. They are:
- Through your hotel. Your hotel staff should be able to set up or a recommend an island hopping tour for you. You can even try contacting your hotel via Whatsapp before your arrival to see if they can recommend or set up a tour for you.
- In Bocas Town. In Bocas Town on Isla Colon (the main island on which you will arrive), you’ll find tourism booths and many people soliciting island hopping tours where you can sign up for one.
- You can book in advance with one of the many tour companies. I went with Castillo Charters and can highly recommend them. They offer both private and group, half or full day trips.
- Negoiate a full-day’s pay with a water taxi driver and DIY your own trip.
If you’re interested in sailing in Bocas del Toro or a catamaran trip, I recommend SurfnSail, which offers luxury sailing charters, surfing, fishing, and diving.
Bocas del Toro Islands and Places to See
There are 9 inhabited islands and over 200 uninhabited islands or islets in Bocas del Toro. You’ll get to see many different types of islands on your island hopping tour, and you can also take a water taxi to explore on your own. Of the inhabited islands, there are 3 islands in Bocas del Toro where you’ll find the most hotels, restaurants, bars, etc. They are:
This is the main island in the archipelago, and where Bocas Town, the main hub is on. Colon is the most happening island with the highest concentration of restaurants, bars, hotels, markets, shops, and things to do. If you want nightlife and great dining, this is where you’ll go. If you’re single, solo traveling, on a budget, or want to be in the center of action, Colon is a great island to stay on, if you don’t mind hearing the late-night music from your hotel room.
Bastimentos Island is one of the largest in Panama, though it is a lot less lively than Isla Colon. There are several options for hotels on the island along with some great beaches. It’s also home to the Afro-Caribbean Guari community in a neighborhood known as “Old Bank,” as well as Nivida Bat Cave which is part of the Bastimentos Marine Park. Hotels on this island are best suited for families and couples. Isla Bastimentos is located 10 minutes away from Isla Colon/Bocas Town by water taxi. The locals love to party on this island, so depending on where you stay, late-night music may be an issue here too (bring ear plugs if you’re sensitive!)
Caranero island is a small, laidback island with some nice seafood restaurants and beaches to hang out at. It’s located 2 minutes by water taxi from Isla Colon and you can hike around the whole island in about an hour.
I will give recommendations for restaurants, hotels, and things to do on these islands later on in this post.
Next, are the smaller islands, uninhabited/undeveloped islands, cayes, and other points of interest. Many are self-explanatory after the names of the wildlife that inhabit them, such as:
An uninhabited island with a wild landscape where sloths can be sighted up in the treetops or cooling off in the water.
Home to the rare red-billed tropicbird.
Where the dolphins hang out! This is the breeding ground for the Bocas Dolphins, who evolved as a specific breed of Bottlenose dolphins that are unique to Bocas.
A protected marine sanctuary and the most popular snorkel spot with tons of bright coral and lots of fish.
A shallow reef area accessible only by boat where you can spot tons of starfish. I would skip this in place of Starfish Beach, detailed below.
Bocas del Toro Beaches (Bocas del Toro Playas)
There are plenty of beaches in Bocas del Toro whether you want to lounge, snorkel, surf, or party. What’s most unique about beaches in Bocas del Toro is the variety. Below I will break down the top 3 beaches you must not miss:
Playa Estrella Bocas del Toro – Starfish Beach
As the name suggests, this beach is full of tons of big, bright starfish. There are also a few small beach bars here making it a great place to hang out for the day. You might visit Starfish Beach on an island hopping tour, but I think it is best visited on your own.
*Remember, starfish are living beings. Please do NOT under any circumstance touch the starfish and especially don’t bring them out of the water (even for a few seconds for quick photo.) They are extremely fragile and touching them can hurt or kill them.*
How to get to Starfish Beach (Playa Estrella):
To get to Starfish Beach from Bocas Town on Isla Colon, first, you must get to Bocas del Drago (which is a really pretty beach too!) You can reach Bocas del Drago from Bocas Town by either taking a taxi (about 30 minutes and around $15-20 one way), the bus ($7 and about 45 minutes), or a water taxi, (which also takes about 30 minutes but costs around $5.) From Bocas del Drago it is a few minutes water taxi ride to Starfish Beach, or a really nice 20-minute walk along the coast.
Tip: Arrive either early in the morning or before sunset to beat the crowds.
Cayo Zapatilla Bocas del Toro
Cayos Zapatillas, The Zapatilla Islands, or just “The Zapatillas” as they are all known by, are a pair of the two most beautiful, unspoiled islands in all of Bocas del Toro, where idyllic palm trees line the most crystal clear waters. Part of the Isla Bastimentos Marine National Park, these uninhabited islands offer nothing more to relax on the pristine beach of Cayo Zapatilla on Zapatilla II or walk through its lush nature trail. You will most likely visit one or both of these islands on an island hopping tour.
Tip: If you can, visit Zapatilla II before Zapatilla I, as many of the tours will do it in the other order.
Red Frog Beach
Named after the red frogs found in the lush parts of the island, Red Frog Beach is one of the most popular beaches in Bocas along with a popular bar to spend the day drinking, lounging, and swimming at the beach.
Two of the more secluded beaches you can check out on Isla Bastimentos are Wizard Beach, which is reached by a jungle path, and Polo Beach, with its calm waters and good snorkeling.
Bocas del Toro Scuba Diving
If you’re a scuba diver, diving Bocas del Toro is a must. It’s also a great place to get your PADI Open Water Scuba Certification as it costs less than $300, and two tank dives cost as little as $85. Of the best scuba spots are shipwrecks, caves, and around the island of Solarte for acquatic life, thanks to its diverse coral reef.
Divers Paradise Boutique Hotel and the 5-star professional dive academy at Bocas Dive Center is the place to be for all things scuba whether you’re a licensed PADI diver or going for the first time. They even offer free try dives to get your feet wet (hehe) if you’re scuba-curious!
Another PADI 5-star dive center is La Buga Dive & Surf, which offers both scuba and surf lessons for all levels.
Bocas del Toro Surf
Surfing Bocas del Toro is great whether you are a pro or want to learn. The surf season in Bocas del Toro is from December to April, with December and January offering the most consistent and largest waves.
- Beginners can surf the gentle waves off the beaches of Isla Caranero, such as Black Rock where the waves are soft.
- For more advanced surfers, Bluff Beach (Playa Bluff) is a popular spot with more challenging surf and a shallow beach break.
- The famous Tinger Tail surf break at Playa Plaunch is also very popular, too for seasoned surfers. Be sure to hit up the surf bar at Paki Point for lunch and a cold beer after your morning surf!
- For probably the most popular, Punta Caranero but expect it to get crowded!
Bocas Del Toro Restaurants
The types of cuisine offered in Bocas del Toro are not just limited to Panamanian/Latin or Caribbean. Here, you’ll find everything from sushi to Indian and everything in between, with the most variety being offered on Isla Colon in Bocas Town.
Best restaurants in Bocas Town on Isla Colon
El Ultimo Refugio: One of the best and most popular restaurants on Isla Colon/Bocas Town. They serve local Caribbean food with great drinks, too!
Raw Fusion: Asian-fusion ocean-front lounge and the best place to get sushi.
Falafel Bocas: Kosher falafel and Authentic Israeli food run by the Chabad House (Synagogue) in Bocas Town. If you are Jewish you must consider joining one of their lively Shabbat dinners here alongside up to a hundred of other Jewish travelers!
Om Cafe – A popular and highly-regarded restaurant serving Indian and international cuisine.
Amaranto – The best coffee shop + juice bar in Bocas Town!
Cafe del Mar – Right next door to Amaranto, This cute little cafe is great for breakfast.
Best Restaurants on Isla Caranero
Bibi’s on the Beach: A beach bar and restaurant with a great happy hour, seafood, and a swimmable beach.
Leaf Eaters Cafe – Vegan/Vegetarian restaurant with great salads, tacos, and more.
Omnia Coffee Shop – A cute cafe and bike shop (You can get your bike rentals here!)
Best restaurants on Isla Bastimentos
The Firefly – A romantic restaurant and great place to catch the sunset with a daily changing local and Thai-inspired menu.
Up in the Hill – The best coffee shop in Bastimentos up in the lush jungles on a chocolate farm.
Coco Hill Restaurant and Bar – The best vegetarian spot located in Old Bank serving fresh and local fare.
Bocas del Toro Nightlife & Partying
Many people come to Bocas del Toro to get their party on. Whether it’s day or night, you can find something social and happening to do in the islands. Here are the top activities for nightlife and partying.
Filthy Friday: Every Friday, this multi-island bar crawl takes place and is one of the biggest events in Bocas with live DJs, drinking, dancing, games, and surprises. Always a good time!
Black Magic Bocas: A boozy party cruise aboard a pirate ship! You’ll enjoy island hopping, swimming, lounging, drinking, and great vibes.
The Floating Bar: This is an actual floating bar and restaurant on the sea that offers a chill place to hang out, drink, hear music, and float on the water with one of their inflatabiles.
Bar Hopping: You can go bar hopping any night of the week in Bocas Town. The small stretch is filled with bars, live music, clubs, and plenty of other places to go drinking or dancing. Just wander around and follow the crowds!
When in doubt, there is usually always something going on and nightly themed parties at La Neta Caribe in the Selina Bocas del Toro Hostel.
Where to stay in Bocas Del Toro – Bocas del Toro Hotels
Part of the charm of Bocas del Toro is that there are no big chain or name-brand hotels to be found. Many accommodations are locally-run, and true luxury hotels are few and far between. That said, below are the nicest hotels to stay in.
Isla Colon: If you want to stay near the action of Bocas Town (or if you need to catch an early flight) The nicest options are: Playa Tortuga with its beautiful beachfront swimming pool (located just outside of Bocas Town), and Azul Paradise, which is in the center of the action (could be a little noisy at night) and has a well-loved onsite restaurant. Book a room on one of the top 2 floors for a penthouse.
If you’re solo or want a budget option, Selina Hostel is the most famous Bocas del Toro hostels and a real social spot.
Isla Bastimentos: Red Frog Beach Resort on Bastimentos Island is one of the most popular luxury options in all of Bocas del Toro. For a more unique type of stay with eco-luxury glamping and treehouse options, you must check out La Loma Jungle Lodge and Palmar Beach Lodge.
Lastly, for the ultimate, over-the-top luxury experience, there is the private island accomodation of Sweet Bocas.
Bocas del Toro Overwater Bungalows
Staying in an overwater bungalow resort in Bocas del Toro is a great way to get the experience at a fraction of the cost in places like the Maldives and Bora Bora. You can find them at all different price points ranging from very luxurious, to budget-friendly. The overwater bungalows I recommend the most are:
High-end: Bocas Bali – This is currently the nicest overwater villa resort (with the exception of Sweet Bocas mentioned above), though there will be a Viceroy opening in 2023.
Mid-range: Sol Bungalows is a great option especially given the close proximity to the other islands. For a further, more remote option, Azul Paradise is also a great choice.
Budget-friendly: The nicest most affordable overwater bungalows can be found at Eclypse de Mar. The hotel is lovely, though it is an eco-lodge so there is no electricity during the day and no a/c. (Though you really don’t miss these things that much while you’re there.) The upside is that it’s built on a private eco reserver where you can walk through to see sloths, monkeys, and tons of other wildlife.
Bocas del Toro Weather & Best Time to Visit Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro has a tropical climate that enjoys warm and humid weather year-round. There are two season in Panama in general — wet, and dry. The best time to visit Bocas del Toro is during the dry season, which is during the months of December, January, and February. The rest of the year is the wet, or rainy season. During the wet season, rain can be unpredictable varying from daily to intermittently, however it usually clears up with sunny skies in between showers. Most common weather apps don’t usually predict the weather in Bocas del Toro very well. For a more accurate read, look here.
Your winter break (December Holidays – New Year) may be a great time to visit to take advantage of the sunshine and liveliness of the islands. Alternatively, you may wish to visit during the low season of September/October, where the prices are most affordable and the islands are calmer without so many tourists.
How to get to Bocas del Toro from Panama City
Flights to Bocas del Toro from Panama City can be found daily with Bocas Air and Air Panama, departing from Marcos A. Gelbert airport (PAC). The flight time is about 45 minutes and lands directly on Isla Colon right around Bocas Town. Super convenient! Driving or taking public transportation is also technically an option, but the total travel time would be around 9 – 10 hours. There is a night bus available.
How to get to Bocas del Toro from Boquete
To get to Bocas del Toro from Chiriqui region (Boquete or David) you can travel by shuttle/bus taxi/driver, or you can pay for a one-way rental with National Car Rental from David Airport. You can also technically fly, but it would require backtracking to Panama City so it’s not really worth it. Many people like to take a shuttle from Boquete (such as Hello Travel Panama) and find it comfortable and affordable. The drive time is about 3.5 hours to the port at Almirante, then around a 30-minute water taxi to Isla Colon. From there, you will either stay on Isla Colon to be in Bocas Town if that is where your hotel is, or take another water taxi to your hotel.
Note: You can also take a car across with Ferry Bocas, though you really don’t need a car in Bocas and it would be a bit impractical.
Other Bocas del Toro Tips & Things to Know
- There’s only one bank/ATM for the entire archipelago, so bring cash.
- Water taxis are typically between $2 – $6, cash only.
- USD is the currency used.
- Spanish is the official language but English is widely understood.
- Don’t forget reef-safe sunscreen and bug spray.
- Bring Travelan for any travel-stomach issues (and read about why it’s my secret weapon here.)
- You can rent an electric bike at Bocas E-Bikes.
- You can rent ATVs at Flying Pirates.
- There are lots of little grocery stores found throughout Bocas Town if you’re looking for essentials, snacks, etc. For something more specific, Super Gourmet is a specialty grocery store in Bocas Town that offers a good selection of vegan, keto, gluten-free, kosher, and other specialty foods.
Looking for a destination that's a little same-same-but-different? You NEED to see Lake Atitlan in Guatemala!
Now you can see why Bocas del Toro is such an underrated gem of Latin America. Its unspoiled beauty and authenticity are what make it so unique, so it’s best to hurry up and enjoy it before everyone else does.
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