Bocas Del Toro is situated along Panamá’s northern coastline. A coastline donned by palm trees, surrounded by warm waters and saturated by humidity. My hair, skin and body soaked up the morning mist and by the end of day one within the archipelago, I could tell my hair and skin had found its happy place.
Bocas Del Toro is a province in northeast Panamá that is comprised of 10 main islands each offering various types of activities to indulge in, sleeping accommodations for budget, regular and luxury travelers and various restaurants, street vendors and quick eats.
The city most typically referred to as Bocas Del Toro, or Bocas Town is located on Isla Colón. The two post popular islands for tourism are Isla Colón (Bocas Town) and Isla Bastimentos. Isla Bastimentos is a quick 5-7 minute boat ride from Bocas Town. Water taxis are small, shallow and make frequent trips between Bocas Town and the neighboring islands. In order to get from our B&B on Bastimentos to Bocas Town (where I was completing my PADI Open Water Scuba Certification), I would walk out on the sidewalk path to the main boat dock, wave my arms franticly to get the attention of a water taxi, and take the 5 minute trip into town.
We spent 4 days in Bocas Del Toro, sleeping on Isla Bastimentos and traveling to Isla Colón (Bocas Town) each day for my scuba course, to have dinner and to hang out. In the end, I grew tired of paying $3-$5 each time I wanted to travel to Bocas Town, and more so wished we simply stayed on Isla Colón, however the Afro-Caribbean vibe of Isla Bastimentos and our accommodations more than made up for the trips we had to take between the two islands.
Isla Bastimentos is inhabited by Afro-Caribbean descendents of Jamaican immigrant workers hired to work on the banana plantations in the early 1900s. Bastimentos is extremely laid back and you almost feel the dependency on time fleeing as you interact with the island. Everyone relishes in and takes their time living. The local language – Gauri Guari – sometimes referred to as Creole English is a blend of Jamaican patois, Spanish and Guayamí. It was nice to walk about and see so many people that looked like me and sounded like my family.
I booked accommodations at a beach-front B&B I found on TripAdvisor, and it couldn’t have been a better choice. The Firefly is located on Isla Bastimentos, tucked behind Old Bank and is a 3 minute walk from the main boat dock. The B&B is truly a gem on the island. We rented “Room 2”, a small ocean front bungalow with a private ocean front deck. For $110 a night ($55 each) we had our own room with an amazingly comfortable 4 poster bed, ceiling fan, hot water shower, ipod dock and safe. Above all, Ryan and Lauren, the owners of Firefly are a gastronomical gem. I cannot recommend The Firefly enough. We arrived 5 hours before check in, and since our rooms were ready we were able to settle in. Breakfast was also included and contained more than cereal and tea. We were given Johnny cakes, yogurt, eggs, roasted potatoes, a smoothie and the freshest fruit.
Dinner was available as their B&B doubles as a restaurant. Lauren is an amazing cook and on our first night I ordered her sesame noodles, pork belly and soft boiled egg. This was one of the tastiest dishes I’ve had, anywhere.
Always knowledgeable about what to do on the islands, Ryan gave my bf tips on what to do as I spent most of the day (9am-6pm) out in the ocean diving. He traveled to Red Frog beach, walked about Isla Bastimentos and generally got to relax. We got incredibly lucky in finding availability and securing the Firefly and I couldn’t image finding better lodging, hosts or food on the island.
Each morning, I arose to the sounds of waves crashing and serenity of life on an island. I begrudgingly made my way out of our bungalow and tiredly walked to the dock to hail a water taxi into Bocas Town. I would stay in Bocas until sunset, tired, worn and exhausted after a day of diving. In the evenings, I returned to our B&B, catch up with the BF and head back into Bocas Town for dinner.
We initially dined at El Pirate; satisfied with dinner of fresh fish curry, patacones (also known as tostones or banan peze depending on where your heritage lays) and made our way into the streets of Bocas Town.
Unbeknownst to us, it was Carnival season and folks were out in the proverbial streets, crunk and red devils roamed the streets searching who to flog. Finally, music pumping out of sound speakers reminiscent to the Labor Day Parade along Flatbush Avenue. We walked around for a bit, stopping to pick up wifi and ended up meeting cousins (an expat in Panamá) and her bestie and the four of us hung out the rest of our time in Panamá. There’s something about meeting another black person abroad, it mostly stems from the fact that you know people like you travel, and you simply wish you see more of each other out and about. Bintu gave us her opinion of blackness in Panamá, offered suggestions on what to do in Bocas, and I found happiness talking to another sista who made the decision to live life abroad.
On our last full day in Bocas, since I had no pre-set agenda the bf and I decided to finally spend some time together. We hung out in Basti for a bit then decided to explore Red Frog beach since I never visited it. We caught a water taxi from Bastimentos to the other side of the Island, where we paid the $3 entrance fee, walked through the hottest of hot weather and made it to a dashing shoreline. When we arrived at the small bay that was the entrance to the beach, it was beautiful as expected. This is a popular destination with Panamanians, so we were not surprised to find people and a number of pristine beach selections (i.e. tree shade) occupied. Because we were leaving that evening and had no place to shower, we opted to have lunch at the beach bar rather than go for a swim. I searched and searched for agua de pipa (fresh coconut water) but came up empty handed- perils of Island life. Our afternoon was nice and mellow, albeit extremely hot.
We spent a total of four days in Bocas Del Toro and at the end of our time at Red Frog beach had to pry ourselves away from the picturesque waters and laidback lifestyle. On the last day, we made it back onto a boat which would take us to a bus back to Panama City. With the beautiful mountain ranges directly surrounding us we bid farewell to the province which gave us the opportunity to relax and for me to knock off another item off my bucket list.
If you’re planning on visiting Panamá, I recommend you schedule 3-4 days to visit Bocas Del Toro.
Here are some helpful tips for visiting Bocas Del Toro:
Language: The official language of Bocas Del Toro is Spanish. Learn a few phrases before you arrive.
Currency: The USD is Panamá’s national currency.
Credit Cards and Banking: Credit cards aren’t typically accepted in Bocas Del Toro. Plan to bring as much cash as you will need for your time in Bocas. Also bring small denominations ($1 and $5 bills). The only ATM in Bocas ran out of cash while we were there, so really plan to have enough cash to cover your entire trip to Bocas.
Climate: Tropical with high humidity, warmth and rain all year long.
Accommodations: Bocas is stereotypically one of those provinces that could be the perfect set for a movie about spring given the high amount of backpackers it receives. At the same time, Panamanians also flock to Bocas Del Toro during Holidays and school breaks. If you’re travelling during the Holidays or when Panamanian children are on break, plan on booking your accommodations and purchasing your bus tickets in Panama City and in Bocas ahead of schedule.
Things to Do: Boat trips, sailing trips, scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing trips are all abundant. It is best to first speak with your lodging place to see if they can get you a deal and arrange excursions. If that’s not your thing, make your way into Bocas Town and barter with any man yelling out to you with information on various excursions.
Where to Eat: Food in Bocas wasn’t the cheapest, in fact it was on par with what you pay to eat in the States. Lobster dinners for one = $25ish, catch of the day for $15, mixed drinks were reasonably priced at $4-$6. To save money and remain within your budget, book accommodation that provides breakfast. In Bocas Town, there is a small red shack located to the left of the boat dock called “Fonda Anic Flor” which offers rice, meat, beans and a cabbage salad for $4. There are also street vendors selling empanadas and plantain chips for $0.50. A cup of sugar cane juice will run you $0.75. Street smoothies are also available for $5 if like me there is only so much fried food you can take.
If you are thinking of travelling to Panama and need more suggestions on which island to stay on, how to get from Panama City to Bocas or general information/my experience, feel free to reach out in the comments or send me an email!
Until next time Bocas, I’ll always remember how well the humidity, kindness of strangers and open waters fared me well.