Bocas del Toro
The archipelago of Bocas del Toro in Panama is situated on the northwestern coast of Panama in and around the Bay of Chiriqui. International travelers have only recently discovered this isolated region of Panama. It is for this reason that much of the island chain remains in pristine and untouched splendor. It is a diver and outdoorsmanís paradise with unspoiled coral reefs, deep-sea fishing, boating, kayaking, snorkeling and long sandy deserted beaches. Traveling to Bocas, as the locals call it, can either be as simple as taking a 50 minute flight from Panama City or as adventurous as going over land by bus and water taxi. Either way it is a destination unlike any to be found elsewhere in Panama.
The people of the province are made up of mainly indigenous tribes, many of which still live in small isolated villages scattered throughout the islands. Add to this a healthy mix of people originally from West Indies and you have an atmosphere that is more closely aligned to the islands of the Caribbean. The pace of life is slow and relaxed with nobody seeming to be in much of a hurry. Locals travel between the islands in dugout canoes, some with motors, but most without. These canoes, or pongas as they are called, litter the waterways and channels, especially in the morning when everybody is either going to the main island or the mainland. During this rush hour, most adults are traveling to the mainland to work in the banana fields and the children are going to the schools on Isla Colon.
Located on Isla Colon is the province's capital city, Bocas del Toro. This was the headquarters for United Fruit at the turn of the century and was an important shipping and receiving port. With the movement of the companyís center of operations to the mainland in the mid nineteen fifties, Bocas townís importance to what would later become Chiquita Bananas faded. It still remained the center of government in the province with the governor's mansion, hospital, schools and church. The 1991 earthquake that separated many of the old wooden structures from their foundations capped the slow slide into unimportance and decay.
By the early-nineties Bocas began to feel the effects of the Central America Peace Accord. With the regions increased stability, the area become more accessible to the adventurous traveler. The first visitors to show up were the backpackers, who came to the area because of its inexpensive lodging and to explore its untouched beaches. As the years progressed, more and more tourists began to appear and the word of mouth began to spread about this uncut gem.
Over the last few years the entire province has seen the beginnings of a tourist boom, with a number of middle range hotels and restaurants being opened in and around Bocas town. The town now boasts of three different PADI dive shops, many different styles of restaurants, a deep sea fishing outfit, numerous sailboat and catamaran cruises, mountain bike and moped rentals and a lot of fabulous seafood. Various half, full and multiple day trips can be arranged that combine different elements of what is available in the region.
A good example of the type of excursion one can find is a very popular day trip that takes place on a 34-foot catamaran that cruises tourists throughout the archipelago through deeply vegetated islands and coral reefs, stopping along the way at different spots to snorkel and scuba dive. Once they reach their destination, a secluded and deserted white sand beach on the island of Bastimentos, the picnic baskets are unloaded and a typical Caribbean lunch is served with white rice, beans, fish, fruit and juices. After resting and swimming in the light crystal blue waters, it is time for the jungle hike into the island's nature preserve. Sloths, howler monkeys, toucans, parrots, iguanas and tiny, brightly colored, poison dart frogs are among the island's different animal inhabitants. The day trip ends with another cruise through the islands with one more stop for snorkeling and then pulls back into Bocas town just before sunset.
Deep-sea fishing is a fairly new addition to the different excursions available in the region, but that does not mean that it isn't world class. For years locals have been fishing in the province's warm and bounteous waters catching all types of fish and seafood including the local delicacy, langusta, or lobster. For the avid sports fisherman there are sailfish, blue and black marlin, shark, barracuda, red snapper and snook. Half and full day trips are very inexpensive when compared with other sports fishing destinations such as Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica.
Scuba diving in Bocas del Toro is in some of the best and most diverse waters in all of Central America. The cost however is about half what you would expect to pay in places like Roatan, Honduras. You can find over two dozen different types of corals, hundreds of species of fish, kelp forests, shipwrecks, caves and reefs all within an hour of Bocas town. With so many different types of diving experiences to be had, it is the perfect place to spend a couple of weeks exploring them all. One popular destination for divers and snorkelers alike, is Hospital Point. At only five minute by boat from Bocas, this point is easily accessible and a great place to get your feet wet. The water is warm and clear and it is possible to see many different examples of coral such as brain and elk. For those on a budget, a mask, snorkel and fins can be rented in town for as little as $12 for the day. They can then hire one of the many locals along the wharf to take them over by boat and then pick them up later in the day for no more the three dollars.
While the sea and the water are Bocas del Toro's main attraction, the islands themselves offer their own unique and interesting experiences and adventures. The islands are teaming with life of every kind from the top to the bottom of the rain forest canopy. Troops of howler, white faced and spider monkeys inhabit all of the larger islands of the group. Three and four toed sloths are very common sights as well as numerous different kinds of reptiles, birds, amphibians and sea turtles.
One of the most interesting and unique creatures to be found on the islands is the poison dart frog. These pint-size frogs are no bigger than a mans thumbnail and have a myriad of different color patterns. Lime greens, day glow oranges, fiery reds, deep purples and bright yellows to name just a few of the different colors. These amazing little creatures get their name from the poison that they excrete from their skin and its use by native Indians to tip their spears and darts in Pre-Colombian times. They are not really a danger to humans, as the poison has to be injected into the body because it cannot penetrate the skin.
A fun and distinct excursion to take on Isla Colon is to rent mountain bikes in Bocas town and cycle into the interior. There is a dirt road that goes from the town all the way through the heart of the island to its other side. Many areas of this 20-mile long and 8-mile wide island are still primary and secondary rain forests with a number of pastures and small pueblos of thatched roofed huts. It is in one of these villages along the road in the middle of the island where you can find one of Bocas hidden treasures.
Across the street from the town's lone soda (small store) is a plain cement walkway that veers off the road and down the slope of a hill. Nestled to one side, at the bottom of the ravine, near the mouth of a cave and a fresh water spring is a shrine to the Virgin Mary. The area is shaded by a grove of trees and is quite cool even at midday in the middle of summer. Situated at the entrance to the cave, and placed all around the statue, are dozens of different colored glass candles. As you enter into the cave, the light from these candles flicker and bounce off the walls in a kaleidoscope of shifting colors. Further into the cave, it is possible to look up and see thousands of small fruit bats sleeping upside down and hanging from the ceiling. There is a quiet serenity to the place that allows visitors to relax and enjoy the beauty of its surroundings.
The unique cultural mix along with its relative isolation has made Bocas del Toro a wonderful option for visitors to Panama. Spending time among the secluded island beaches and diving in the warm Caribbean waters helps to make one forget the hustle and bustle of the outside world.
This beach is situated just 7-10 kms. north of the town of Bocas del Toro, on Island Colon. The beach is frequently by surfers and sun bathers alike. You can ride your bike there or take a taxi, which costs approximately $6.00 each way.
This beach is situated on the opposite side of the main island of Isla Colon, approximately 14-17 kms. from the town of Bocas del Toro. There is a public bus that serves this side of the island, however, it only operates on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and costs $1.25 per person. It is said to depart Playa Drago at 7:00 a.m. and departs Bocas del Toro at noon. The price of a taxi is said to be $25.00. You can ride a bike there, which should take no more than 1 hour and 15 minutes. As you enter Playa Drago there is a split in the road, at which you should go left; going right will lead you to a new tourism development. Continue left along this road until you reach the very end, where you will find a restaurant and cabinas. The beach in front of the restaurant is beautiful. If you want you can hire a boat in Playa Drago to take you to Isla de Los Pajaros (see below), which is only 15-20 minutes away by boat. The cost of this tour is much less expensive from here than from Bocas del Toro.
Isla de Los Pajaros (Bird Island)
Situated just off the northern coast of Isla Colon, this island serves as a very important nesting/resting site for several bird species that migrate between North and South America. The island itself is comprised of large rock faces and lush green landscape, with birds often clearly visible from the boat; at certain times of the year it is possible to see offspring. The island contains one large tunnel, which is often used for photographs depicting the island.
Bastimentos Island (National Park)
The western tip of Bastimentos Island lies just east of the town of Bocas del Toro, clearly visible from the waterfront. The island of Bastimentos is approximately the same size as Isla Colon, however, very little of it is accessible. In fact, much of the island has been designated as a National Park. The largest community on the island is located on it's western tip, which has several small pensions and restaurants. You could easily base yourself here, which would place you within walking distance to some of the nearby beaches including Red Frog Beach (see below). The eastern side of the island faces the Caribbean Sea, which tends to be a bit rougher and less accessible by boat; several of the beaches can't be accessed if the sea is too rough. Almost all of the beach are located on this side of the island. The island's western side is lined with mangroves and enjoys calm water. If you venture to Crawl Key or Zapatillas Island your tour will most likely access these points via the western side of the island. The island itself contains a healthy supply of wildlife, however your exposure to them is somewhat limited. White faced and Titi monkeys are common, as are sloths and the ever so poplar red poison arrow frogs. Bastimentos is by far the areas most popular tourist destination, with most companies offering full day tours to multiple locations, i.e. Crawl Key, Red Frog Beach, Hospital Point.
Red Frog Beach (Second Beach)
This beach got it's name thanks to a small, red poison arrow frog which inhabits the far end of the beach. In fact, these frogs can only found here, and more specifically on a small hill that rests at the far end of the beach. It is almost impossible to miss them, as they are walking all over the place, and well as situated in the underlying brush. Great photographic opportunities. Red Frog Beach is one of many beaches on the far site of Bastimentos Island, and is certainly the islands most accessible beach. The best way to reach the beach is to be dropped off at Magic Bay, which is located on the opposite side of the island, and then walk along a well defined trail for 5-10 minutes in order to arrive at Red Frog Beach. The other beaches, both north and sought, can be reached by hiking, however, they are not as accessible or popular. In order to reach the southern beaches you have to walk along the beach, or on a trail that runs parallel to the beach; often the trail is not marked but you shouldn't have too much of a problem.
This is one of the most frequently visited destinations in Bocas del Toro, located on the far side of the Bastimentos Island. Most photographs of Bocas del Toro include a photograph of the restaurant that is located there, which extends out over the water. Most full day tours to the Zapatillas Islands and Crawl Key include lunch there. You can also snorkel just in front of the restaurant.
Just minutes by boat from the town of Bocas, this island point has some of the areas best snorkeling. The ocean floor is predominantly comprised of coral and soft sponges, while the water is normally clean, warm and shallow. Sea urchins, sea cucumbers, Angel fish, Parrot fish and other colorful tropical fish are common sightings. Most tours include Hospital Point as part of their full day tour, usually saved for the end of the day. Tours to Hospital Island can be arranged at the dock.
Mountain bikes on Bocas del Toro can be rented either by the hour or by day. There are several companies offering this service, as well as restaurants and hotels. They both charge $1.50 per hour, however, their daily rates vary somewhat, with neither charging more than $10.00 per day. The bikes are quite heavy, but for the dirt roads on the island the bikes are just fine. You can ride to Playa Bluff, which take approximately 45 minutes or to Playa Drago, which requires around 1 hour and 10 minutes. The roads are relatively flat, clean and are dirt/gravel; the road to Playa Drago has some hills but nothing substantial.
Scuba Diving / Snorkeling
There are several companies on Bocas del Toro that offer snorkeling and diving tours, in fact, most tours to the beaches include snorkeling; some tours include fins and mask while others charge additional, ask first. For those interested, dive instruction is also available, as PADI certification is available at all levels. The quality of snorkeling and diving very heavily depends on the weather, with dryer weather much preferred; heavy rains tends to cloud the shallow waters surrounding the islands. Some of the better diving is enjoyed off the Zapatillas Islands, which are part of the National Marine Park, as there are caves there. There is a fee of $10.00 to visit the islands. Also, there are small wrecks and other shallow sites just outside of Bocas town. The diving is relatively shallow and not technical, with the average depth between 40-75 ft. (13-25 meters).
IPAT (Tourism Office)
IPAT has recently opened a new office in Bocas, which is located adjacent to the Police Office. The building is set on the waterfront, and is quite large. The hours are 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., however, the office is new and often understaffed; in fact, they lack much in the way of promotional material. They have recently come out with a new map of the Bocas del Toro region, which should be available at the office.
Getting to Bocas del Toro
You have two options when deciding to visit Bocas del Toro. Flights are available daily from Panama City aboard Aero Perlas Airlines. The cost is approximately $100.00 round-trip, with stops common in Changuinola and/or David; direct flights from Panama City are available on certain days and times. The flight lasts around one hour. The landing strip on Bocas is just outside of Bocas town, and is easily within walking distance to most hotels and restaurants. At times, mini-bus taxis are there and will shuttle you to your final destination for about $1.00. Ferry and Cargo service is available from Chiriqui Grande, Changuinola and Almirante, however, the hours are not always set. It is suggested that you call prior, and arrive well before the departure time is scheduled. The ferry leaves from Bocas at the end of the main street, which is walking distance from anywhere in town. You can take a bus from Panama City to Chiriqui Grande for $18.00, which departs Panama at 11:00 p.m. and arrives at 6:00 a.m. At that point you can take the ferry. Unless you are really on a budget it is well worth it to spend the extra money on the flight.