Have you ever heard the saying it doesn’t matter where you’re going, it’s who you have beside you? Well my recent trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama was the best of both worlds; as I embarked on a trip of a lifetime to a tropical paradise with a group of my closest friends.
Normally I’m a planner, as I’m sure you can tell by my travel itineraries, but this trip was different. All I had was a flight from the states to Panama City, a puddle jumper ticket to some island I’d never heard of, and a bed promised at a local hostel run by a friend of a friend I was traveling with.
The best way that I can think of to share Bocas with you is through a list of “Must Do’s” and some very important “Must Don’ts”, which will hopefully provide you with what you need (and don’t need) to plan your own escape to paradise!
Do: Plan a trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama. Plain and simple. Bocas del Toro is an archipelago of 9 islands off the northern Caribbean coast of Panama full of raw natural beauty. It’s a 1 hour flight via AirPanama from Panama City; book your flight early, as the planes are very very small and fill up quick! Protip- Consider spending a day in the city first to see the famous Panama Canal before jetting off to Bocas.
Don’t: Don’t let the airline lose your luggage when flying from the US to Panama City…because they will have no idea how to get it to you in Bocas del Toro and you’ll have to buy all new things when you arrive on the island bagless. Also, the shopping scene is very minimal so if this does happen, be prepared to wear “I love Bocas” tees for the duration of your trip. (True Story)
Do: Once you arrive at the Bocas Airport you’ll find yourself in Isla Colon, the most popular of the 9 islands and a great home base. The island is small enough to walk all over and you can start exploring by walking straight outside the airport doors! Walk to your hostel/hotel, walk to get a bomb breakfast taco, or walk straight to the beach. Paradise awaits!
Don’t: While walking from the airport (or anywhere really), you’ll see many stray animals. If you see two cats fighting don’t try and break them up, you will get bit. When you do get bit, your hand will swell up to the size of a tennis ball. You’ll probably freak out and walk to the hospital next, but nobody there will speak English and they won’t know what “Tetanus Shot” means. (Fact)
Do: Stay at Hostel Mondo Taitu, it’s a 10 minute walk from the airport and 5 minutes from the main drag. Cheap accommodations including a tree house suite, daily happy hours at the Mondo Bar, themed party nights, and a great place to meet other travelers. I’ll also note that Mondo made the list of top 50 party hostels in the world, just a fair warning of what you’re getting yourself into.
Don’t: Don’t be surprised by the “free rainwater”. It is drinkable, you just have to pump it out yourself. Besides offering free rainwater and pancake breakfasts, you’ll find typical hostel accommodations at Mondo; bunk beds, shared rooms, cold showers, no AC, a shared kitchen, common area, etc.
Alright enough about logistics, now let’s talk about the fun stuff and all the activities Bocas has to offer!
Do: Take a Quad Adventure trip with the Flying Pirates through the jungle. Yes, it’s as amazing as it sounds. Pro trip- once you’re deep in the jungle take a break, pull over, and rev your engine; then wait for the monkeys to reply because you just challenged them to a hooting and hollering contest. Be on the lookout for sloths too, they are rarely active during the day but you might get lucky and see one awake like we did. Oh and wear your bathing suit too, as you’ll surely be tempted to hop off the ATVs at La Piscina or the Blue Lagoon to take a dip!
Don’t: Riding in the jungle is great, but it’s important to note that these ATVs aren’t for the faint of heart; the terrain is rocky and muddy so be prepared to get stuck and/or lost. Once you’re out of the jungle remember that there may be cars, so drag racing isn’t the best idea despite the allure of being on a paved road again. If this happens, you may get in a head on collision with a taxi cab and then owe said taxi cab $$$ in repairs. (True Story)
Do: Take a boat ride! Walking along the main drag, you’ll come to the marina full of sailboats, water taxi’s, and even people offering boat rides from their own personal boats. If you happen to run into a man named Echo- go with him! They may ask you where you want to go- Red Frog Beach, Playa Estrella, Dolphin Bay… all of the above! Depending how many days you have in Bocas I’d advocate for a day (or half day) at each.
Do: Playa Estrella- translates to Starfish Beach. Here you’ll find a beautiful sandy beach, crystal clear water, and as the name hints starfish! You can easily spend a day soaking up the sun here. If you’re lucky like I was, you may even see the speedboat that drives along the beaches offering rides on its inflatable hotdog. (Fact)
Don’t: Don’t pick up the starfish, once lifted out of the water they can only survive 10 seconds. The crystal clear water allows you to enjoy them without laying a finger on them; bring a pair of goggles along so you can see them closer. Regarding the hotdog, take the ride but don’t be surprised if you lose your bathing suit bottoms when you fall off!
Do: Dolphin Bay- This is the cove where the dolphins hang out. It’s about a 20 minute boat ride away from Isla Colon; be sure to have your camera’s ready.
Do or Don’t your choice: Red Frog Beach- this is named as the nicest beach in Bocas, however it is touristy which is how they get away with charging a $10 entrance fee. The only way to get here is by water taxi and a walk through the rainforest, making the trek to the beach part of the fun. Here you’ll find zip ling, snorkeling, sunbathing, and surfing.
Do: Stand up Paddle board
Don’t: Fall off into the sea of jellyfish beneath you.
Do: Spend an afternoon at Isla Carenero. This is the closest island to Isla Colon, less than 5 minutes away via water taxi. Here you’ll find a sandy beach, paddle board rentals, and Bibis’ Beach Bar offering killer pina colodas!
Don’t: Don’t get eaten alive by sand fleas. These pesky bugs are native to Central America and especially abundant on this island; wear bug spray and you’ll be fine.
Do: Horseback ride along the beaches and through the tropical rain forest. Didn’t get enough of the jungle with the quad bikes? Here’s your chance to go back, on horseback (get it?). Don’t forget to be on the lookout for sloths and monkeys too.
Don’t: When horseback riding along the beach, your horse may decide it needs to cool off and throw you off its back in order to do so, you’ll forgive him though and take a makeup selfie together. (True Story)Do: After taking full advantage of the Mondo happy hour, take a water taxi across the way and spend a night dancing at the Aqua Lounge. This bar is built entirely over the water and makes for a unique venue complete with water swings and dipping pools.
Don’t: Don’t leave the Aqua Lounge to go to the beach at the night. You may find you’re not alone and an indigenous jungle man may run up and steal your stuff while you’re splashing in the water. (Unfortunately another true story)
Do: Looking for something to do on a rainy day? Check out the Bocas Brewery! A little day drinking never hurt anyone.
Don’t: Don’t be surprised if the sun comes back out though as the weather is constantly changing. Just because it rains during the day doesn’t mean you won’t have an amazing sunset at night.
Do: Have an amazing week in Paradise.
Don’t: Forget to tell me all about it!