Built by the United Fruit Company in the early 20th Century, Bocas Town (Isla Colon) is home to most hotels, restaurants and grocery stores. This once sleepy backpacking destination has transformed into a gathering place for travelers of all ages from locations around the world.
Bocas, like all of Panama, is outside of the hurricane zone and has never had a recorded hurricane. This means that boaters are abundant in the area, staying for weeks, months or even years at a time. Visitors to the outer islands enjoy solitude and life off of the grid in a diverse ecosystem including white sand, mangrove estuaries, lush jungle, incredible wildlife and endless ocean.
Isla Colon is the northernmost and main island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. The capital city of the province, Bocas Town, is located on the island and is one of Panama’s main tourist attractions. Most of the hotels, restaurants, bars, tour operators, and businesses are located on Isla Colon, as is the Bocas del Toro International Airport.
Bocas Town is the busy center of tourism and commerce in the islands, but is still relatively small and easy to get around. Most hotels, restaurants, and bars are located close to or over the water. In the center of town is the Simon Bolivar Park and the Bocas del Toro municipal building. Taxis cost less than $1 to pretty much anywhere in town, but the best way to get around is by bicycle. There are many bicycle rental options throughout town; most owned and operated by local residents:
Bars and restaurants in Bocas Town, offer a wide variety of cuisine and the opportunity to meet fellow travelers from around the world. Most establishments offer daily specials, a relaxed atmosphere and spectacular views. At night, Bocas Town lights up for dinner, music and dance offerings as well as a friendly and lively atmosphere in the street.
Isla Colon is home to some of the best beaches in the archipelago.
Bluff Beach (Playa Bluff)
Bluff Beach is among the most beautiful beaches anywhere; a true surfers’ paradise. Visitors must use extreme caution when swimming at Bluff Beach, as the currents and large waves can cause strong riptides that pose a serious danger. It is recommended that people only swim at Bluff Beach when the water is nearly flat.
Bluff Beach is a protected nature reserve and turtle nesting beach. If you are lucky enough to visit during the turtle nesting season, there might be the opportunity to witness a mother turtle laying her eggs. Both Leatherback and Hawksbill (Carey) Turtles lay their eggs at Bluff Beach. During nesting season (March until September depending on the species), turtles can arrive at any time during the evening.
There are several small B&B’s in the neighborhood of Bluff Beach and four restaurant-bars. Taxis run to and from Bocas Town at all hours for $15 total per trip and there is also a public bus that runs from the park in the center of town to Bluff and back every half hour or so until dark for $3.50 per person. The ride is a scenic trip along a sandy beach road and takes around 20-25 minutes by car or 45 minutes by bicycle.
Starfish Beach (Playa Estrella)
One of the most popular beaches in the archipelago, as well as one of the most beautiful, is Starfish Beach (Playa Estrella). Playa Estrella is beautiful and scenic as well as host to a daily party! It is a great option for snorkeling, relaxing, or joining a game of beach volleyball. Buses and taxis arrive from Bocas Town to Boca del Drago (entrance to Playa Estrella) at the Yarisnori Restaurant, serving up some of Bocas del Toro’s best seafood. From Yarisnori you may walk (20 min.) or take a water taxi to Playa Estrella. Water taxis can also be hired here to take a tour around Bird Island (see below).
Boca del Drago and Starfish Beach are located on the far side of Isla Colon from Bocas Town and can be reached for $5 on a public bus that leaves from the park in the center Bocas Town each hour starting at 10:00 a.m. Visitors to Playa Estrella may also take a collectivo taxi that leave from the park once they fill up (inquire about the rate), or a private taxi for approximately $20.
Bird Island is a small rocky outcropping just off the coast on the northern tip of Isla Colon. Sea birds such as terns, frigates, shearwaters, and gulls circle around the island while smaller forest dwelling birds fly in and out of the dense canopy. This is the only place in Panama you can see the Red-Billed Tropicbird, identifiable by their long ribbon-like tail feathers.
To visit, take the bus or a taxi from Bocas Town to Boca del Drago where you can hire a water taxi in front of the Yarisnori restaurant.
Other Notable Locations:
Playa Istmito (Feria Grounds) – The closest beach to Bocas Town, Playa Istmito is a great place for a stroll to take in the local flavor. Many local bars and restaurants are located on the beach, and there are daily football (soccer) and volleyball games between the local athletes to watch! This area is also home to the Feria del Mar (Fair of the Sea) during the month of September.
Playa Paunch – One of the most accessible surf spots from Bocas Town, can easily be reached by bicycle or taxi. The waves break both left and right and tend to vary in size, making it perfect for every level. Be aware, though, that a coral reef lies just beneath the surface – surfers are advised to take care!
Saigon Bay – A mostly residential area just outside of Bocas Town, Saigon Bay is also home to many guest houses and B&Bs located over the sea. Saigon Bay is an excellent place to launch a kayak or a paddle board; with many popular snorkel spots an easy paddle away.
In addition, many swimming spots can be accessed by riding along the road from town.
Carenero Island is the closest of the outer islands to Bocas Town. Only a few minutes by boat, it’s easy to get to, and fairly small. Carenero is the perfect place to spend an afternoon away from the hustle and bustle of town. The sandy path can be followed around most of the island in about an hour, with many food (town side) and beach (far side) options along the way.
Other activities to enjoy on Carenero are surfing, snorkeling and stand-up paddle boarding. Carenero Point (Punta Carenero) is one of the longest lefts in Bocas del Toro and can offer perfect surfing conditions. A couple of surfing schools can also be found on Carenero.
Isla Bastimentos is one of the larger islands in the archipelago and home to the town of Old Bank, the Salt Creek indigenous community, and the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park including the Zapatillas Cays. You will also find the Red Frog Beach development and some postcard perfect beaches on Bastimentos.
Old Bank is a small one-sidewalk town of several hundred inhabitants. Old Bank can be accessed by water taxi for about $5 in less than 10 minutes from Bocas Town. Bastimentos locals speak a unique form of creole called Guari-Guari, which is based mostly on English with a heavy patois accent with Spanish and local indigenous dialects (Ngöbe and Buglé).
Isla Bastimentos has perhaps the most stunning beaches on the islands, however all of the beaches are prone to riptides. Caution levels are often indicated by colored flags on the beach warning swimmers of potential danger.
Red Frog Beach is easy to reach year-round. Catch a boat from the Bastimentos dock in Bocas Town and walk across the island to the beach for $5 per person. Red Frog beach is the place to go if you want to take in some sun and do some people watching. There are a number of local spots to eat and drink directly on the beach in addition to the Red Frog Beach Resort.
The closest beach to Old Bank is Wizard Beach. Wizard Beach is a long beach with no development about 45 minutes outside of Old Bank by foot. Polo Beach is only accessible by boat, depending on the weather and the season, a boat can be chartered to this pristine beach behind a protective reef that is a spectacular place to snorkel or scuba dive. Long Beach is an important ecological site for the endangered leatherback sea turtles.
The Bastimentos Island National Marine Park occupies 13,226 hectares of land and sea. Of these, the Zapatillas Cays attracts many visitors. Zapatillas Cays are two beautiful islands on a coral platform that are surrounded by reefs. The two islands are 34 and 14 hectares respectively. They offer beautiful beaches, clear waters, coral reefs and small, shady forests.
The western island, Zapatillas Minor, is sometimes the base for scientists researching the marine turtle. The leatherback and the hawksbill turtles come to lay their eggs, in season, on these beaches. Full day tours to Zapatilla Cays depart every day from Bocas.
Isla Solarte, just south of Isla Bastimentos was called Nancy’s Cay for centuries as English-speaking pirates, traders, and settlers came to the region. The far west of Isla Solarte is named Hospital Point because of its history as the site of the region’s primary hospital, built by the United Fruit Company in 1900 and serving the area for many years. Isla Solarte was also the headquarters of the Colombian Conservative forces during the War of a Thousand Days as they launched raids on the Liberals’ base on Bastimentos Island.
Today, visitors seek out Isla Solarte as one of Bocas del Toro’s best snorkeling and scuba diving spots. The sea wall at Hospital Point offers divers and snorkelers incredible views of sea life as the turtle grass and lettuce coral make way to a wall that drops 12 to 15 meters.
Very few traditional accommodations are present on Isla Solarte, however there a number of eco-lodges and vacation rentals to choose from.
Isla San Cristobal
San Cristobal Island allows opportunities to get close to nature on horseback, visit indigenous communities and learn about a different way of life. There are chocolate farm tours, and several options for vacation rentals peeking out from the mangroves.
Most visitors will make a stop at Dolphin Bay to visit the bottlenose dolphins living here!