Bocas del Toro Hotspots

12 nights locked in before we’d even seen the place. We were 4 weary travellers all in need of a break. A break from the buses, a break from looking for accomodation, looking for things to do everyday, packing up our bags and lugging everything we owned again and again. So we took a gamble on this little group of islands in the north of panama in hope that it would be the right balance of things to keep us all happy, things to do and see, a place to relax, a bit of a vibe, nightlife and good food. Luckily Bocas surpassed our sky high hopes and came to the party on every front! Here are the places we enjoyed and the things we experienced…

Isla Colon is the main island and where you will find most of the restaurants. We loved the nightlife primarily because the bars rotate holding ladies night where women drink free for an hour so me and Shayna had a grand old time getting white girl wasted. The standard of food is good with mostly international options, we struggled to find local places so the usual budget was $10-15usd per meal including tax and tips. Bambu has nightly meal specials and happy hour till 8pm with beers only $1usd. We also loved the bbq chicken guy who is based behind the main park and grills up yummy chicken and veges for only $4usd from 7pm-1am.

Bastimentos is the other popular island with a colourful “old town” and  very rasta island vibe happening. Unfortunately it also has a dark side with high levels of crime. It pays to watch your things at all time anywhere in Bocas and try not to carry any valuables. Robberies at knife and gunpoint DO happen. It should only cost $3 each way from the main island.

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Walking down to Wizard Beach moments before we were robbed at gunpoint by the “Basti Boys” (Photo Shayna Robb)

Wizard beach is a 45 minute walk from old town and it is beautiful BUT we were robbed here. We had just sat down on the beach when 2 men with guns jumped out of the bushes and demanded we give them our money. Fortunately no one was hurt and they only got away with my bag so I’ve have had to use other pics for this blog, shout out to Shayna and Wiki photos. Learn from our experience. Don’t sit where there is nobody else. Don’t take valuables to the beach and try to have just a little bit of cash on you because that’s really all they are interested in. It’s pretty scary but no one was hurt.

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Sunny and very popular, Red Frog beach has the most atmosphere (Photo Wiki)

Playa Red Frog This beautiful beach is also on Bastimentos Island (or Basti to the locals). We were here just after a hurricane and some wild seas after the rainy season so apparently the sand and the beach had mostly washed away, but it’s still a pretty spot lined with coconut trees and kissed by the warm clear Caribbean sea. It’s within a national park and due to the water conditions we were dropped at an entrance where we paid $5 to take a path through private property. We weren’t sure if this was the norm or a stitch-up but when we got to the beach everyone had some kind of wristband on so we figured it was just part of the cost to visit. To get there costs $5 each way by boat and we also arranged with our skipper to come back and collect us at 6pm which worked out well.

Playa Polo This beach is a 45ish minute walk from Playa Red Frog through the rapidly developing estate, along a gravel road which although there are no cars here, is used by the many expats who are settling here with their golf carts. We had to ask for directions a couple of times but when we arrived we found a very quiet beach with fewer waves than Red frog and good snorkelling. We even saw an octopus! Which was amazing.

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The water ferries (Photo Felipe Valduga)

Isla Carenero is the island closest to Bocas town and although we heard mixed reviews of this little “sandfly island”, with its lovely calm bays, sunsets and quiet beaches, I rate it. Aqualounge is also here, a popular bar with a couple of natural pools out over the ocean where they have set up diving towers, swings, a trampoline and even a slack-line all over the pools. It’s well worth paying the $1 to get over there by boat. The food is tasty and well priced for Bocas with the delicious vege pad thai coming in at $5usd. Beers are $2 unless there is a beer pong tournament when they drop to only 75c or $1 during happy hour. It’s the most fun to be had on this little island.

Check out our fun video from Aqualounge here…

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On the path to Starfish Beach (Photo Shayna Robb)

Playa Estrella or Starfish beach is said to be the most popular beach on Isla Colon. To get there you can either take a boat for $5 each way, or bus for $2.50 each way, then walk 20 minutes to the main beach. We chose this option and it was really nice to see the rest of Isla Colon as the bus takes you right through its tropical green heart. You can actually ride a bike here, however you’ll need to be super fit and maybe slightly crazy because it’s far, it’s hilly and it’s hot! The walk from where the bus drops you to Playa Estrella is much more manageable and takes you around the coastline on a narrow path, through mangroves and coconut trees. Or you can take the beach path through the lapping waves and along the white sand beach. It’s all very picturesque, until you actually get to starfish beach that is. We found the main part somewhat disappointing. There is no sand to lay your towel out on, so you are forced to pay for a chair or buy something from one of the overpriced little stalls. But the worst part for us were the tiny little splinter prickles that stick in your feet and between your toes! Finer than hairs they snap off when you try to pull them out and are very uncomfortable. I think they have been planted by the shop owners so you have to sit down on their loungers to get them out. We preferred the little spots on the way to Playa Estrella, the snorkelling was better and the coast less crowded.

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Zapatillas even gives San Blas a run for its money! (Photo from Wiki)

Zapatillas is a little tropical paradise only reachable by tour. We did this on our last day through Salinas Hostel and paid $35 per person plus the $10 entrance to Zapatillas. You can take the same tour for as little as $28 including park entrance but the tour with Salinas included free rum and wake boarding which made it really fun. We also took our own beer which was good because the rum ran out before lunch. Zapatillas is where they filmed survivor and it really is a little deserted island with glorious blue water, fresh coconuts and powdery soft sand. The beach gets pretty full with all of the tour companies arriving at once but it was a fun party vibe so not to be missed. We also had our lunch included at Cora Coral which was a tasty fresh fish meal. Believe it or not, snorkelling under the restaurant was absolutely breathtaking! On each of the pylons under the house were striking colourful coral reefs. Each pylon had been turned into a stunning work of art by that kickass sculptor, Mother Nature. We also stopped in at sloth island to see a couple of lazy peresozos high up in the trees from the boat. Did you know sloths are actually pretty good swimmers? And they also have 4 stomachs so they only come down from the trees to poo once a week. We were learning while relaxing.

So, final conclusion?  Bocas is a colourful, vibing little place with lots of little spots to explore. BUT it’s also got a seedy underbelly and crime is super common. The police station was busy with other situations like ours when we went in to make our statement, and the police were not very helpful or friendly. We met 2 others who had been robbed at gunpoint, a woman who’d had her phone stolen off the counter in the bakery, a couple who had their bag stolen off the beach and another group who’d had their boat stolen. After talking with a few locals we found out that, yip, that’s Bocas. So enjoy the beauty, but have your wits about you.

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(Photo Shayna Robb)
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