I’ve really struggled with how to put our thoughts on Bocas del Toro, Panama into words.
The truth is, blogging about destinations is much easier when we fall in love with them–it’s a far simpler task to rave about a place than it is to discuss why you didn’t particularly like it–especially when “not particularly liking it” doesn’t mean that we hated it… just that we didn’t quite get the destination.
That’s the quandary I have with Bocas del Toro: we spent almost two weeks there, and while we didn’t despise it… we didn’t really love it.
Plenty of other people have waxed poetic about Bocas del Toro, though, which leaves us wondering: maybe we just didn’t get it?
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The Basics of Bocas del Toro, Panama
Bocas del Toro is a province in northeast Panama (just a couple of hours south of Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica) that is technically comprised of a small piece of the mainland and an archipelago of islands.
When travelers are referring to going to Bocas del Toro, however, they typically mean that they’re headed to Isla Colón (home of “Bocas Town”, the main tourist town and the biggest population center on the islands) or Isla Bastimentos (a smaller, more rural island a quick water taxi away from Isla Colón).
Most of Bocas del Toro’s best beaches are spread across less populated islands, and therefore, tours to access the different areas are very common.
Fun Things to Do in Bocas del Toro
Want to see live starfish in their natural habitat? Come to Bocas del Toro!
At Starfish Beach, we spent an entire afternoon swimming with dozens of starfish, who were happy to hang out under the shallow water as tourists peered at them.
Just don’t be one of the jerks who pick them up despite a dozen signs begging you to look and not touch!
Jeremy and I may have the tiniest sloth obsession (and penguin obsession, but that’s a story for a different day), and seeing them in person is definitely among the best things to do in Panama as far as we’re concerned.
Lo and behold, Bocas del Toro is home to a place called “Sloth Island”, which we were able to approach via boat and check out sloths in the wild!
True, we couldn’t actually get on the island itself and the sloths were quite content to hang out high in the trees and far away from us–but that didn’t stop me from squealing in delight every time we spotted one (usually with the help of our guides).
Deep Boarding is one of those strange, tourist-friendly sports that gets thought up when locations want an attraction of their own… and it is lots of fun.
The theory is basically this: you hold onto a plastic board with both your hands, using your forearms and wrists to guide yourself up and down.
You then attach this board to a boat by a piece of rope, the boat pulls you through the water… and voila! You can dive to the bottom of a (shallow) section of water and come back up fairly easily.
It’s unusual, to say the least, and we’re never ones to say no to a fun new water activity–after a few minutes of getting the hang of it, we ended up having a great time during our time deep boarding.
Also, be sure to wear a bathing suit that is secure: more than one woman in our group was stripped of part of her bikini during the ride!
The Downsides of Visiting Bocas del Toro
The Weather in Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro averages more than 130 inches of rainfall every year–and there is no predictable dry season.
As a comparison, famously rainy Seattle gets roughly 38 inches per year!
It rained on more than half of our days in Bocas del Toro, and when it was dry, 90% of the time thick clouds hung in the sky, robbing the bulk of the beauty of the Caribbean beaches the area is known for.
I must admit, we didn’t really research the weather in Bocas del Toro before going, and it wouldn’t have stopped us. When backpacking through multiple countries, the weather isn’t always going to be ideal, and it’s not something we will change our plans for.
Bocas del Toro makes logistical sense as a backpacker stopover, there are plenty of fun things to do there, and starfish are a big draw (though we’d definitely never set off on a day trip around Bocas del Toro without a dry bag).
Would we ever consider taking a more standard one-to-two-week vacation there, or suggest others do the same? Never.
Why would we, when there are so many more places that give you similar experiences with more reliable weather?
The Logistics of Visiting Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is not really a walkable place: wherever you choose to stay, likely only a handful of attractions (if that) will be within walking distance–and most are a boat ride away.
We stayed in Bocas Town, the most populated, connected area… and other than one small beach, none of the natural attractions were within easy reach.
We did, however, have easy access to plenty of water taxis to get around, tour companies to book from, restaurants and grocery stores for food, as well as souvenir shops if we wanted them–not all of which were readily available to people who stayed further out of town and closer to some of the natural highlights (which were themselves spread out).
Is Bocas del Toro Worth Visiting?
While we’re glad that we saw Bocas del Toro and really enjoyed aspects of our time there (looking at you, sloth island and rare sunny weather)–we can say pretty firmly that we don’t plan to go back.
With literally hundreds of other locations to consider in Latin America and the Caribbean, Bocas del Toro just didn’t manage to grab us the way that beach locations like San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, Isla Holbox, Mexico, and Utila, Honduras grabbed us during this trip… or how we hope spots like Little Corn Island, Nicaragua or even other destinations in Panama might grab us in the future.
It’s hard not to feel biased, though, making that call (which of course all people inherently are): would we have come to the same conclusion if we had lucked out and the sun shined every day we were in Bocas del Toro?
Considering how much our moods are impacted by the weather, it’s a fair question.
What about if Bocas del Toro was one of our first stops in Central America instead of one of our last? Or if we stayed right on a beach, access to food and tours be damned, and soaked in the natural beauty of the place?
It’s impossible to say. I would never make the judgment of saying, then, “backpackers should totally skip Bocas del Toro!”… because there are a lot of reasons that backpackers might decide Bocas del Toro is worth visiting, including as part of a longer Panama trip that builds in stops to places to like the San Blas Islands and Boquete.
For standalone vacations, though, that are short and only include one or two destinations?
Well… personally, knowing the weather in Bocas del Toro, we can quite confidently say that we wouldn’t feel comfortable taking the risk.
Where We Stayed in Bocas del Toro
Bocas Condos & Rentals — Other than the fact that the location wasn’t perfect (which no place in Bocas del Toro is), we were completely satisfied with our studio.
The kitchen was well-stocked, the apartment was kept very clean, we were within easy walking distance to the restaurants/shops/tour operators of Bocas Town, and the a/c worked very well.
We definitely wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this place to anyone passing through Bocas Town!
88 thoughts on “Our Conflicted Feelings About Bocas del Toro, Panama”
Great to read your honest thoughts. The photos you posted from when it was sunny make it look amazing, though.
Thanks, Jenna! When the sun came out, the beaches were definitely wonderful.
Lol, there is only an average of 200 rainy days a year in Bocas Del Toro.
We weren’t so lucky, it rained every day we were there.
When were you there? Was it in late June?
Maybe you were ambivalent because Bocas Town is filthy and depressing. Why do no travel writers note that the city is dirty, the buildings largely ugly and trashy, and that stray dogs roam everywhere around the town? Sure, the remote beaches are beautiful. But what a squalid little town.
Yes. As a potential customer-I would rather know how things really are and if the local population might enact some new cleanup standards and get the town to show more respect and get the locals interested in beautifying their littlepart of theworld.When people throw their trash into the streets and the shallow waters off the shoreline-it indicates to me they have no pride in their community even though the natural beauty is what draws tourists there.I guess when tourists stop coming,maybe it will finally wake Bocas up. Everybody thinks its someone elses duty to do something!!!! Take a couple garbage bags and spend an hour picking up trash. You just might set a good example for other locals to follow. We are all Stewards of this planet!!!!!
Also, I am wondering how many days you were there?
Hi, Kimberly! We were in Bocas del Toro for just under 2 weeks in April of last year.
We went to Turks & Caicos in May. It was the most beautiful water. I highly recommend y’all go!
It looks amazing! We haven’t done many Caribbean islands yet, but we’d love to see more in the future.
Bocas del Toro is amazing! Don’t ruin it
Glad you think so! Have fun there. 🙂
You two don’t look like the water living or loving type. Bocas is for the salt water enthusiasts. Fishing, diving, spear fishing etc. you probably didn’t see 90% of what you could have by not renting a boat for the time you were there. If you don’t like bocas I can assure you that you won’t like any Central American coastline.
It depends what you like to do. I’ve traveled all over the Panama/ Costa Rica on both sides, and look for places that are off the beaten path, around the Chiriqui coast Pedasi, and up in Costa Rica around Puerto Jimenez, and south of Limon, and you cant get me out of the water or hitting up a Cafe for some snapper, plantain ,and rice ,with a couple cold beers. The same thing over in DR or the virgins. We spent time in BDT and it definitely is not my favorite area. To busy and to well known. But I agree with you 100%,that being on a boat, your only going to see a minute portion of the beauty. You being a fisherman would probably love Pedasi for the Tuna.
I totally agreed!!!
You were pretty hard on Bocas, did you get the opportunity to meet the wonderful natives that actually live there, before you formed your negative post? I have been to many, many places, and this year will mark my 11th trip in 8 straight years, to this wonderful island, I now call my second home. It is all about the flavor of the local establishments, and the people who live on the island. Blessed to call so many my friends now.
I agree, Micki! My husband and son are seasoned world backpackers. Tours and tourist places are not on their radar. They loved their remote camp off the grid. They met a local villager a few days in who walks their side of island at night looking for turtle poachers (there are no other camps where they are). He picks them up at night now to hike with him. They have been to invited to family dinner and visited the small village school. They are eating a lot of coconut fresh off the tree and fish. The best part of packing is getting off the grid away from tours and tourists. It feels like Gilligan’s Island and they LOVE it. Next on stop on this trip is the roadless jungle of the Darien Gap.
Month here in Bocas and yes the town is dirty, poorly maintained.. We are spending time on eCh main island and deciding if a move is coming.. but plans for larger airport are funded, the ghetto park of Bacas town is being relocated…paving the road all around isla colon… but just don’t feel the vi e here like yucatan…
It’s a rainforest – expect rain. And there’s an ocean too! And orchids and bromeliads hanging from the trees and bird of paradise and ginger of all varieties and the musical oropendulas, rufous bellied hummingbirds and red lored parrots and black hawks and pelicans and crabs of all persuasions. And a wonderful mix of tasty hip food at cool restaurants over the water. Town can be gritty and not glamorous but authentic and if you are a painter- full of images to paint.
Of course, if your not- surfing! It’s all in how you see.
I have not been to Bocas, but you’re describing so many places in my wonderful country. It is a rainforest paradise
Thank you for your honest review! I always appreciate honest blog posts about far off destinations.
Thanks, Pam! We appreciate you stopping by to read. 🙂
Oh, man, this is my favorite place in the world. I know that’s saying a lot, but it is. I really DO NOT LIKE Bocas Town, or Isla Colon (commonly called by either name). I haven’t been for quite a few years, so it may have changed, but when I was there it was always kind of dirty and a bit seedy, IMHO. If you’re looking to party, that’s the island to be on. But if you’re looking to soak up the beauty of the islands and the water, don’t stay there. Look around for another island and a place that meets your preferences and budget and ENJOY! Undoubtedly, sunny days cannot be beat, but for me, even a rainy day on Isla Carrenero, which is where I’ve always stayed, eating good food that I didn’t have to cook, looking out at the water, reading a book, playing with the dog, chatting with the nice owners … eating some more good food … playing cards with whoever’s there … is real close to heaven.
I loved the Bocas, though time of year you visit is super important. September/October and Jan/Feb have the best weather. Very similar to Hawaii where it rains once or twice per day.
It’s a tough spot to visit if you are on a tight budget. A luxury style vacation is the best way, especially since it’s SO much cheaper than other locations. We stayed in a 2 bedroom over the water eco villa in Dolphin Bay on Isle Cristobal. It was 400 per night including a private chef, and we split it with another family member and stayed for a week. We had a mile long reef out our back door with 4x the amount of starfish you will see at starfish beach. Mana rays, giant conch, barracuda, 20 different species of coral and dolphins that swim right by the back deck every morning made it a magical experience. The howler monkeys and sloth were in our front yard as well, didn’t have to go anywhere to see all that Bocas has to offer. That being said, we had our own water taxi that took us where we wanted to go whenever we wanted to go. We enjoyed Zapatillas, Red Frog, the chocolate farm, and Boca Del Drago at our own pace. Our tour guide knew the best spots and times so we’d beat the crowds and didn’t have to worry about the weather. We caught our own dinner a couple times too!
To have the same type of vacation in the British Virgin Islands, Turks, or even Hawaii would be 2x (or more!) the cost. The abudance of wildlife is unparalled because there aren’t that many people on the outer islands.
I would not have enjoyed your vacation either, I don’t care for Bocas Town. We typically do budget vacations but Bocas is much more enjoyable when you spend the $$s.
Agree with Kate. We are staying at Popas Paradise with a private sandy beach, pool, great food, and love it. The snorkeling is some of the best we’ve done as is the relaxing. It has gained a few times then the sun comes back out. I prefer some rain to relentless sun. The charm of only traveling to small island installments by boat is very cool as well.
Liz, can I get the name of that place on Dolphin Bay?
I can highly recommend Dolphin Bay Hideaway.
I’d like the name of the place you stayed. That vacation sounds like the style of travel my wife and I like. Would love to hear more about that vacation.
Hope to hear from you. Thanks.
Hi Liz, Can you give me the name of the place you stayed? thank you
Hi Liz! Thank you for your review! What website did you use to reserve your room? Which villa? I’m guessing this is all inclusive?
What is the name of the place that you stayed?
Bocas del Toro has lots to offer. No doubt it is in a rain forest so plan on having some rainy days. We love it for its unspoiled natural beauty, nice people, laid back lifestyle. Great waves for surfers, clear water for diving and some of the nicest unspoiled beaches I have ever seen. Bring a book to read when it rains but have your bathing suit close by for those incredible sunny days!
Happy to see some varied opinions coming in here! There’s definitely somewhere for everyone, and while we still have no intention of revisiting, I’m glad that some of you have had fabulous vacations there. 🙂
The next time we personally hit up Caribbean islands in Panama, we’re pretty certain we’ll head to the San Blas Islands, which we are incredibly excited to see one day!
what time of year did you travel there??
We were there for about 2 weeks in late April 2017.
Hi !! This is exactly the main issue. We do have a summer season in Panama beginning in January and ending by April. If you travel during the rainy season, your experience is obviously NOT going to be as good. During summer time you get plenty of sun and fresh winds every day and night.
We just went to Bocas Del Toro this past December, and I do get what you mean about not loving it. While we loved spending time together as a family and enjoying the gorgeous untouched scenery, it wasn’t a place we felt too sad about leaving. We stayed 3 nights and felt that 2 would’ve been perfect as we did luck out on fantastic weather. Next go down to the Pacific side and check out Isla Palenque!
We just may do that! We loved most of our Pacific Coast spots in Mexico & Central America–there’s so much wild beauty on that side.
We’re also dying to make it to the San Blas Islands for that classic Caribbean experience. 😉
Just came across this post and to be honest I’m quite surprised. Last year I spent 3.5 months in Bocas, when originally I was only supposed to stay 33-days. For me, Bocas was paradise! On one side, there’s a beautiful island with tons to do. Surfing, ATV riding, fishing, diving, ect., but it sounds to me like you’ve might have been duped by the locals trying to make a quick buck and sell you on tours.
A close friend of mine from there described Bocas the perfect way; he said, “Bocas is the line between heaven and hell. On one side there tons of bars, parties, and drugs, but on the other side there’s great food, great surf, beautiful nature, awesome Yoga/Meditation, and amazing people.”
The thing with Bocas is you need to know where to look. My daily routine was not the hot tourist spots, but the places off the beaten path. One Love Crepes and Coffee, Paunch for an morning/afternoon surf, and Munchies for dinner. If you act like a tourist in these types of places, you’ll be treated like a tourist. If you’re there for the culture and open to the people, then you’ll figure out that there’s much more beneath the surface.
I too have traveled all over the world. Bocas is in my Top 3.
Ps. Learn to surf, and it will make these island towns a lot more enjoyable.
I’m glad you liked it, Kyle!
Bocas wouldn’t even make our top 50, but that’s part of the beauty of travel–we don’t all like the same places, which is ultimately great for spreading the crowds a bit.
Hope you continue to have the chance to return to a place you clearly enjoy!
I spent two years (2016, 2017), from Jan/Feb through July/August in Bocas del Toro for volunteer related services. But, I also traveled throughout Panama to the other regions with their own different climates as well. Panama is very different from Costa Rica as it still retains it’s natives’ cultures. But their beaches and waters have absolutely no comparison to many other Caribbean Islands, Thailand, Maldives, etc. Bocas del Toro has ecologically thriving mangroves, coral reef colonies, and uninhabited secure land designated to parks/reserves. Unfortunately, but also necessary, it is very expensive to stay in the areas with this total raw beauty.
Interesting perspective, Donna. I can’t say I found Bocas del Toro that expensive–actually found it a bit more affordable than Costa Rica, for a nearby example–but the mangroves and reefs certainly are beautiful.
We’ve been living in Costa Rica for 10 years. Visiting Bocas for 7. It’s considerably cheaper and We LOVE It there! We are selling our home here in CR and buying there! Outside of Isla Colon, it’s amazing!!!!!
I whole heartily agree with your assessment, however you left out Dolphin Bay which is only accessible by those water taxis on a day tour. The snorkeling wasn’t all that good with the tide constantly moving through the islands, but I could have touched a Ray if I didn’t know better, and the biggest surprise other than the food on Bocas Town’s nearest island (Isla Carenero), which Bocas Beach Club was phenominal, was just a short walk towards the surfing areas nearby was nearly tripping on a Sloth as it went to feed on a tiny shrub along the waters edge.
I would have loved to have seen that sloth up close!! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Graham!
so in a nutshell your disappointment came from the mistake of booking a two week vacation in a far away remote place that should have only been a two day excursion OR side trip in a country where there was so much more to see.
No. But thanks for your thoughts.
I would have to agree with you. It is definitely remote. You travel there by a small plane. My husband and I went for two weeks mid May of 2021 and stayed at Bocas and another smaller island. We did our research for almost a year and knew that it was just at the start of their rainy season. It was a lovely island with so much to take in. We knew what we were getting ourselves into though so it wasn’t a shock to our system. I would suggest staying in Panama City for a couple of days and booking a private sailboat to take you to all the remote islands Panama has to offer. You cannot go wrong with Panama.
Thanks for the honest opinion. I got a couple friends opening a small resort there (bocas town) next month and a chance to go if I want. They say its great but I’m not so sure. Like most people reading this stuff I’m pretty well traveled, especially tropical. 3 months all over Costa Rica, All throughout the Caribbean , American and British Virgin Islands ,southern Thailand,lived the last 11 years in Hawaii mostly on Oahu but spent lots of time going to Maui and Kauai,(ps it does not rain twice a day), Now Im in Key West . Been here a month and can’t wait to leave. Anyway, from all the videos I’ve seen Bocas looks super touristy. Me personally, not into crowds or partying. I do like rustic and rural and natural beauty….I’m here in till Dec. (6 mnths) then off again.I,ve been to Panama but not bocas.
It’ll be interesting to see what you think when you get there! As you can tell from the comments, it’s a pretty contentious place–people seem to either love it or just not “get” it, like us. I do think Bocas has something to offer… but personally, we’ll be booking (many) flights to essentially everywhere else on your list before going back. 😉
Reccomend Contadora Island, it is not a party town.
It is Beautiful.
Kate. Thanks for your blog about Bocas del Toro. I’m panamanian,but I’ve never been there. Im planing to visit my family soon and go to Bocas my husband and
I will spend about 3 days, which is prefect. We just dont want to get bored if we stay longer. There are so many beautiful places like San Blas as well, well visit for 2 days there. Then Isla Grande in Colon 2 days, fishing and river rafting on Chagres river in Colon.Finally relax watching animals and birds on isla Barro Colorado.
Hope you guys have a fantastic time in all your destinations!! We’re personally planning on heading to San Blas the next time we get to Panama. 🙂
Joe and Bill,
I believe the name of the place Liz stayed at is Casa del Mar or maybe Casita del Mar. You can check either of them out on VRBO. I have stayed over the water in Bocas and totally agree with what Liz had to say but can see where Kate is coming from too.
I’ve to Panama but not No as or San Blas. Since you all sound well traveled I need some advise. Looking for a nice place right by blue calm beach, with some kind of access to good food and basic fun but mainly just peace safety and quiet and a nice place to sunbathe and swim. Any advice in Central America? Thanks
Hmm… well, it’s not in Central America, but the first place that comes to mind with that description is Isla Holbox, Mexico! It’s fairly easily accessible if you fly into Cancun.
We also loved Utila, Honduras, and spent a couple of weeks soaking up the sun and diving there. It was a great place to kick back.
Honestly, we think Mexico has the best food in the region, so even though it’s not in Central America, it’s where I would head based on your criteria!
Look into Contadora Island.
Transportation and the area, is better than Bocas.
I’m on Isla Colon as I write this. Been here a bit over a week, have 3 weeks remaining. Arrived in September, weather has been genrally fantasic. This is the “low season”, which is also the “dry and very hot season”. To be real – Bocas town can be viewed as a town with many faces. If you look you can easily see people living a “third world” existence, or you can see the party town, or you can see the rest of Isla Colon – from Drago and Starfish to Bluff Beach and Scully’s and other “off beat” places. I have a condo on Saigon bay (Santuarios del Mar) I picked up via VRBO.for just over $40 a night (when renting for a month). As a “jumping off place” it’s great! I don’t mean via the tours, either. Use the water taxi’s. Ask around and you can sometimes find a private boat that will do a private half day with you for under half the price of the tours. And yes, you need to use cabs and busses to get around. A taxi from Saigon Bay to Bocas Town is 60 cents. It’s a “shared taxi” concept as the driver will pick up / drop off others as you take the short ride onto town. Bus from Bocas to Drago / Starfish (30 minute trip from one end of Isla Colon to the other) is $5 round trip. Get into the culture, meet expats and natives and make some friends and learn the tricks. Bocas Town can become your hub. It also has a host of decent restaurants, and some GREAT “street chefs”. Just yesterday I found a fellow with a huge wood fired grill selling a large portion of chcken or pork with sides – a very large meal – for $5, Dinner and today’s lunch for $5, cool. Anyway – my point is yes, it is based on a very diverse culture, including the poverty evident on many larger islands (like St. Thomas and St. Criox in the USVI for example) but without the crime prevelent on those 2 islands. This is a safe place to be. I’m a 69 year old gringo and no one – no one at all has tried to take advantage of the “old white tourist” in any way. at all.
Anyway – I’m enjoying it, and will continue to do so for the entire month before heading north into Costa Rica. Will I ever be back? Probably not because there are far too many islands / beaches yet unseen, from the Caribbean to Thailand. Would I suggest it to anyone? Certainly – depending on the someone! Approach it with an open mind, embrace the culture for what it is without judgement, use Bocas Town as your “hub” – and have at the entire archipelego. Thanks for this article, by the way – and I suspect you may be onto something when you say that perhaps it was because it was the end of your trip. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to other places you been recently, but it’s great if you can always see each place as a unique experience!.
The “dry season” depends on where you are in Panama. In Bocas the dry season tends to be October to March (less rainy than the rest of the year). 120″ of rain? Yes – it rains most every night starting around 10 to 11. It is a rain forest, you see.
Well – I wrote the above comment two years ago and now must admit – I lied. I said I would probably not be back – but by the time I finished that trip 3 years ago I had discovered that a piece of Bocas stays with you and just cannot be denied. If you take the time to hike the rain forest on Basti, walk the beaches on the Zap’s, work on an ocean clean up day, eat some fresh Lion fish to help reduce their numbers and most importantly – get to know the people – expats and locals alike – you will be back. I am now on my 3rd journey to Bocas. Also been to the “other world” islands I love – The BVI, Aruba, St. John, sailing and eating seafood off the coast of Rhode Island in summer. Love ’em all (all MUCH more expensive), but here I am back in Bocas. When my Visa runs out I’m looking at the Azores in March and perhaps Bali from there. Live on the cheap everywhere I can. Have a wonderful Casita here for $650 a month in a closed compound. Have been given many good inexpensive B&B names in Bali as well. Please – do NOT discount Bocas because of an incomplete review by two tired travelers who really never looked deeper into Bocas than Bocastown itself.
Do you recall the rental contact information your casita?
Well said Dana. going there in a few weeks and it will be my hub. From Maui. It’s the same I tell all tourists. It’s a space to store then explore….
I don’t think any beach area is going to be lots of fun without sunshine. We love visiting Panama during the dry season Dec 15th thru April 15th.
We went once during the rainy season. Too wet, humid, and the flying blood suckers are everywhere. Headed back in mid-January.
I took the family to Bocas on an “adventure” vacation. I don’t do sit by the pool all day vacations. My two youngest kids, one friend, my wife and I. We stayed 7 nights just a bit north of Bocas Town at a b n b called La Casitas run by a couple (the Cotrell’s I believe) and their boys from Wisconsin. Very reasonable cost for the most gorgeous setting anyone who loves a private beach villa and wildlife galore could ever ask for. It was rainy and cloudy about half the time we were there. Loved it regardless. We have a all the sunny Caribbean beach pictures you can ever ask for but the best ones are of us hanging outside a grocery store in Bocas Town under the awning in the rain. It stopped and we made our way back to the Casitas as the sun started to burn off the clouds. Phenomenal experience to hold one of the locals kids as they jump into your shared taxi. I had to tell myself “get over it you spoiled Mid western American”.
Slow down in Bocas, take your time, enjoy the people… the happiest people I’ve ever met wether they were obviously transplants working the tourists or locals living in a dirt floor house with no windows.
If you want to see the place and feel the place become part of it a bit… Ask around town for Wes. You’ll know him when you see him. Think Tom Sawyer as your personal tour guide in a third world country. Tell him to take you to the caves… “totally safe”! Oh and please tell the local whose house is at the landing that the “Family” says hi! Have Wes take you for the day to Zapatilas (not the Survivor one, the other one next to it). He straight out snuck us on the island, and set up a beach volleyball match for us with the “security” guards. They eventually kicked everyone else off the island so they could keep playing with us. We ate fresh mango and pineapple on the beach and talked shit to each other in different languages about who was the better player until almost dark. Then Wes (Tom Sawyer) motored us back across the water to the big island as the sun set. Not a bad day!
I would go back in heartbeat, probably stay in town next time so we’d could just walk to the store, restaurants (fav. was La Buga), tour guides (there are other ones than Wes but he’s the best) , scuba shops (see Eddie at Bocas Dive Center) and jump in a water taxi to go anywhere else you want to. Red Frog Beach was way too touristy – we did the tree tops ropes course there, made us actually wear safety gear and watch like a safety video (felt like Disney that was weird). Hit Scully’s and Paunch Point on Colon, see the sea turtle nesting areas on horseback and soak it up.. Rain or sun.
Great post, Jon. La Bugas just reopened a week or so ago! The Buga Burger is the best in town! For current travelers the COVID case count on the islands at this time is in the single digits (I think 4). Not on Isla Colon alone, but on the entire archipelago.
Your observation about Bocas weather is spot on. The first time I went was January 1999 during the dry season. There was some rain and clouds but also some sunshine. We were there for one and 1 and 1/2 days before we flew back to David. I thought it was a magical place and vowed to return. We went back August 2005 and stayed for 5 days. It rained the entire time and was so humid that we could never get our swim suits and clothes completely dry. After that experience I vowed to never go back.
You sound like you didn’t really experience Bocas Del Toro. We spent 5 weeks there, and can’t wait to get back. From Red Frog Beach, Zapattia Island, Isla Solarte, Caranaro. You missed a lot.
The rain didn’t both us, it is a lot like Florida where we live. The nightlife and people were amazing.
Bocas is one of my favorite spots in the world. My wife and I had almost the opposite experience as you did. The last time we went we stayed a few weeks in August, a few years ago. It rained during the day only two times. We did our research and stayed at an Airbnb on the edge of the jungle, right next to the beach. Solar power when the sun was out, otherwise none. About 1 hour walk from town. Had a spectacular visit.
We didn’t pay a dime for tours or rides.. made friends with locals and they gave us insight into the best spots and things to do. Speaking Spanish or at least some creole (Panama has its own but it’s pretty close to beliezian creole if you want to learn) will really help with that. Walked to town or borrowed a motorbike or bicycle when we needed anything. Lots of other small islands like San Cristobal are about an hour away by water taxi.
The non town side of the island is full of Pristine hidden beaches and jungle. We took some gorgeous hikes through jungle, saw sloths in the jungle close enough to hit with a stick, saw howler monkeys, etc. Snorkeled on a reef less than 2 minute walk from the house , swam with giant manta rays, reef sharks, spearfished parrotfish and redfish for supper, cut coconuts from the trees and drank coconut water and coco locos with locals. Avoided town for the most part. I’ve been all over the world and the off the beaten path Bocas experience was one of my very favorites. I’d go back in a heartbeat.
I just got back from Bocas and scuba dived half of the time, the other half just walked around town. Me and my husband are trying to figure out how to live there half of the year. Doing a trial run later this year. Loved it.
Tanya – planing my return as well. Finding there are a LOT of good rentals (1 and 2 bedroom) for $650 to $890 a month (furnbished, the higher priced ones with all utilities). Some on Carenero also. I really like Carenero because it’s a 5 minute water taxi to Bocas Town ($1 each way yet a lot more laid back for the most part. Some of the best adds I found were on facebook: I know it says for sale but it’s rentals. I’m selling everything I have and heading out as soon as sale of my car, harley, furnoture, etc allows it. I’m exited – getting back on the road at 70. OH – stop at Toro Loco bar and grill in Bocas Town and tell the motley expat crew Dana said hi, and that they aren’t rid of me yet….. unless I beat you down there.
I stayed ner Paki point. AMAZING. we went at the end of December and did a four wheeler experience with sexy pirates. Wow. The town was your typical town. Im kinda sad you didn’t stay in the better side of the island. Airbnb is always better. Btw end of November was the best time with AMAZING weather.
Also its called body boarding…not very unusual where I’m from in florida but yall are young. Thats good you had some fun. Btw red frog Beach is also amazing. We stayed 2 nights at Palmar. AMAZING place again.
Glad you had a great time, Brittany! I spent quite a bit of time bodyboarding in FL as a kid myself, and this is definitely not the same thing–or at least, not what we called it. Our version of bodyboarding didn’t involve being pulled by a boat!
Sorry you didnt like it. But I believe you are right when you said you didnt get Bocas.
To compare a tropical rainforset to Sestrle rainfall is just silly. Granted not every place is for everybody.
It’s interesting how people experience or have an affinity for a place over another. I love Bocas del Toro but just finished a week in St. John’s in the VI and despite having a wonderful time overall have to say, ‘ I don’t get it’.
One piece of advice for BDT is that Bocas Town is fun for a one night layover but stay on one of the other islands. We stay in Dolphin Bay and it is GLORIOUS!
Thanks for your honesty, Kate. I couldn’t agree more. I wish I had stuck around Little Corn Island in Nicaragua for longer rather than coming down to Bocas.
The San Blas Islands are much better than Bocas. Go there next time and you’ll “get” what’s special about Panama.
Hi guys, thanks for making this post and while I appreciate all of the information, I have to say that you went at the wrong time to a beach destination as it is currently winter time and winter season in Panama while it doesn’t get cold means rain and severe thunder and lightning storms every single day!
I wish you’d reconsider coming back during the beginning months of the year when it’s summer and conditions are amazing over there. Hit but the beaches are nice and much more enjoyable.
An update for those traveling during covid. Most nice resorts/big rentals have taken many precautions, and make a significant effort to keep guests safe. This was refreshing, coming from USA where everyone is pretending the pandemic is over. I think the comments say it all. You didn’t see BDT the way you should have. Spending some money for a big rental or resort on not isla colon is the way to go. I found bocas town to be chaotic and dirty compared to everywhere else I went. This was one of the most beautiful and unique places I have ever visited in my life. I hope you consider returning and staying on a different island next time, during a different time of year.
My new wife and I absolutely loved Bocas del Toro. If you’re looking for the tropical beach style vacation- your favorite drinky drink catered to your cabana and all that, I can understand why you might be underwhelmed. We’re older, not looking to party, and very interested to talk with locals. The attractions to us were authentic, warm and friendly locals, and Mother Nature. Personally, as much as I love the ocean, I was really taken by the jungle and the wildlife. If that’s something you enjoy, you will love BDT. If you’re looking for Cancun, go to Cancun.
Having been to Panama nearly a dozen times and 7-14 day sojourns to Bocas on each trip, I’m definitely sure you “didn’t get it.” Especially if the rain was causing you so much of an issue… there ARE seasons with less rain, but something my family has also enjoyed about Bocas is the LACK of rain that last entire days. If there is rain it comes down in buckets for an hour and then the day clears up. You rarely have a whole day with rain and no sunshine, it is fairly easy to take it easy in the morning during the rain shower and then get back to your day of plans… Good grief, if that is your qualm the rainforest isnt a good pick. Additionally, visiting islands does mean water taxis… I’m not sure how you wouldn’t be prepared for that OR enjoy the beauty of each of those trips. Put me in a water taxi for transportation any day of the week!
I hope your other trips are more fun for you, but it’s really too bad you missed out on falling in love with Bocas.
Hi, I liked your article. Too many travel blogs are glorifying every destination which in reality turn out very different such as dirty and polluted. Has anyone who likes snorkeling and surfing in Bocas researched where all the host and tourists” sewage goes? Happy snorkeling!
I’m in Bocas now and would surely welcome some rain. It is so very hot. I would tend to agree with the article. I came specifically for yoga training and expect to love it but will probably not return for a vacation. So many more pleasant places!
Hi Kate & Jeremy,
I guess going to so many nice places some people can get jaded or sometimes things just don’t line up. For a first timer in Bocas I brought my beautiful and rather picky wife. We travel/lived in hawaii and Indonesia and many other locations. First of all the travel was ez and seamless with a high level of service from both Intl and inter island airports but flights are limited although increasing soon.
We stayed at Playa Tortuga Hotel and although you said there was no perfect accommodations my picky better half found it to be perfect with 3 huge pools, private beachfront, over the water restaurant and every room has a beachfront room! Besides a super nice staff and great food what more could you ask for? We got 50/50 sun/overcast rain but our skin couldnt handle even that much sun time. Also the Turtle Beach is only 2 km away with great surf there is an advances surf spot only 1 km from the hotel. It’s about 2 km out of town too so close enough to enjoy town for a $2 cab ride or water taxi! It was super fun laid back but amazing food and soo much to do we can’t wait to go back! We know the owners now so if you come back to Bocas you should atleast visit Playa Tortuga Hotel I think it may change your mind. Azul Paradise is another gem with over the water bungalows on their resort or modern small hotel in Bocas with amazing water taxi views. And La Correlina is pretty nice too. All should be on your list to check out in Bocas and not for you average backpacker but not going to break the bank either! And compared to Hawaii cheap! The thing I like most is it seemed everyone is conscientious about preserving the environment and that it is a valuable resource. If you didn’t dive or snorkel the UNESCO dive site you really missed one of the best parts of Bocas. We loved it Picky Nicky said it was one of the best trips and birthdays ever! We can’t wait to go back probably will in 2-3 months and we will always stay at Playa Tortuga it’s a little dated but we heard they are starting a remodel so by this time next year it should be modernized in an eco friendly way that sounds like the perfect place to chill the whole vacation or as a base to do so many things Bocas and the surrounding areas offer. Many other beautiful places but Bocas is special now but may change when they complete the Intl airport in 2 yrs!
Blessings and Safe Travels
I completely understand your reasons for not giving an enthusiastic thumbs up. But you make such a great case for why African American travel websites, books and bloggers are so important. The largest concentration of Afro Panamanians are in Bocas de Toro. That’s the epicenter for travelers interested in black history and culture – especially food and dance.
I’ll admit, I wasn’t able to visit Bocas de Toro when I vacationed in Panama City, recently (my boyfriend sprained his ankle and we kept to the hotel mostly.) But I was able to take an Afro Panamanian walking tour through black communities in Panama City. I learned so much, and the tour guide told us that Bocas de Toro and specifically Colon were the best places in the country to experience black culture.
Did you visit any places, restaurants, neighborhoods of color? Might you have had a different experience if you were black and intentionally seek out communities of the African Diaspora in your travels?
Stay at The Firefly on the most beautiful island of Bastimentos. No tourist shops, the nest beaches in Bocas, a permaculture and cacao farm, sloths, monkeys and mangroves….you really missed out by staying in dusty Bocas Town. The Firefly really gets it.
I haven’t been back there for 7 years. But my mom had an inn There for 25 years and I love the diversity and nature and temperament of the weather. We still have. Alittle house on caranero that we rent monthly. If anyone looking for a longer stay 😉
I’ll also be traveling in April @Kate or anyone on this thread. Can anyone reccomend places in the Caribbean like Bocos – sleepy beach town with jungle – but less rain?
Maybe a country further north?
Thanks for your help!