Getting to Bocas Del Toro
There are daily flights from Panama City and San Jose, Costa Rica into the Bocas, which is situated on Colon Island. Some stop first at Changuinola, a settlement nestled amid huge banana plantations on the mainland.
The Bocas airport is little more than a landing strip and a concrete shelter. Cab drivers will arrive with each flight offering their services into town, but it is literally only a few blocks of walking between the shelter of the airport and the center of town.
Flights from Panama City can run under $100 one-way, but consider that they save you at least six hours of travel by car or bus. Considering the value of a day of vacation, the flights often prove to be a relative bargain if your budget allows the expenditure.
If you take the land route, you'll still need to access a water taxi at the rather bleak town of Almirante, which is a port city about 15 minutes from Bocas by boat. Negotiate your passage before climbing aboard. Sometimes, you can make the trip for under $10 USD/person.
Whether arriving from Almirante after a land excursion or setting out from Bocas to explore the nearby islands, chances are very good that you'll be using water taxis during your stay.
While normally quite inexpensive, after dark you'll pay quite a premium. Because there are a number of services, the hours and terms vary. But generally, it's tough to find late-night taxis and when you do, you'll pay dearly for the privilege.
One of the more common runs is from Bocas to Isla Bastimentos, home to Red Frog Beach and other attractions. Luggage transit incurs a higher price for the 15-minute ride. It's generally quite enjoyable.
Beaches Near Bocas
Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos is a common day trip for budget visitors to Bocas, and you'll find a variety of services there, including a beach bar, surfing rentals and lessons and kayak tours. There is a usage fee of $3/person to spend the day here.
The namesake of Red Frog Beach is slowly disappearing, so if you see one, take a picture and consider yourself fortunate. Another natural phenomenon here is undertow. It can be quite severe. You might want to consider limiting your swimming or surfing activities. If you get into trouble, the odds of someone coming to help you are not favorable.
There are several other beaches within a short walk of Red Frog, and the benefit here is that crowds tend to be limited. Generally speaking, the farther you get from Bocas Town, the fewer beach-goers you are likely to encounter.
Dolphin Bay Excursion
Dolphin Bay is to the west of Bocas, between the island town and the mainland. It is a place with fairly calm waters, but you won't want to drop anchor and go swimming. The area is home to quite a few large jellyfish, which appear in large numbers in the morning.
Although you won't want to swim there, porpoises find it ideal territory for feeding and cavorting. Tour boats from Bocas come to the area and make slow circles to stir up wakes. Porpoises like to jump the wakes and tourists like to take pictures of the spectacle.
You can book a half-day boat trip to see the porpoises play. Expect the cost to be about $10-$15 USD/person. But if you also like to snorkel, it might be more economical to combine this trip with some snorkeling. Jampan boat tours in Bocas offers a combination trip for $25/person. It leaves about 9 a.m. and returns in the late afternoon.
Hostels in Bocas Del Toro
Bocas is one of those places that could be the perfect set for a movie about spring break. There are lots of hole-in-the-wall bars, hostels and budget hotels. In fact, Bocas has become one of Panama's top tourist destinations.
The problem is that Bocas does not have the infrastructure to handle the growth it has experienced. Water and electricity are sometimes in short supply.
So you might secure a hostel room for a few dollars per night, but find air conditioning in short supply. Nonetheless, you can go to Bocas on a very tight budget and survive. If you'll be going during the Christmas or spring break seasons, it's best to make reservations.
Red Frog Beach Villas
Red Frog Beach Villas are part of an upscale resort on Isla Bastimentos. Because there is still construction, prices are less than you might expect for a fully furnished two-bedroom home near the ocean with a private pool, full kitchen and utilities.
Villas here run more than $300/night, and sometimes much more. But if two couples share the rental, the luxury here is affordable if a bit of a budget travel splurge. .
Because electric power here can be a precious commodity, the management does keep careful watch on your usage and will make you pay if you exceed their reasonable maximums. It just means you need to turn off lights and turn back the air conditioning when you go out for the day.
Some of Central America's best snorkeling can be found south of Isla Bastimentos in the area around two islands bearing the name Zapatilla. The area is part of the Bastimentos National Marine Park, and therefore requires a $10 USD entry fee for visitors.
But if you can hit this area when the waters are relatively calm, the rewards can be great. Typically, day tours that hit three or four snorkeling sites can be secured in Bocas for about $25-$30/person. As we've mentioned, they'll sometimes throw in a Dolphin Bay stop as well.
Tour prices typically include rental of snorkel gear.
Bocas Dining Tips
When compared with the rest of Panama, restaurant prices in Bocas tend to be high. One possible explanation involves the logistics necessary to bring food to an island town.
Fresh seafood is available, and you'll find a few bistros that are designed to look exactly like what you might see in Caribbean resorts like St. Thomas or Barbados. But you'll save money and gain a unique dining experience if you look for restaurants that cater to the locals.
Names and locations change frequently in tourist towns such as this, but you can ask around and get some advice on where to find affordable meals. The meal shown here is fairly typical: fillet of fish, plantains and rice.
It's always nice to visit one of the three supermarkets in Bocas (one even offers gourmet fare) and pack a picnic to take with you on your daily explorations.
Zip Line Tour
The Zip Line tour on Isla Bastimentos covers seven platforms and induces speeds in excess of 40 MPH. At $55/person, it is more reasonably priced than many other Zip Line tours. There is even a tree-top challenge ropes course if you're ready for it.
Getting here requires a water taxi from Bocas. Look for the signs after walking up from the marina.
Taxis are limited, but distances are so short that it really doesn't matter. You might want to rent bicycles for a day. There are a few businesses that specialize in mountain bike rentals, but you'll also find hotels and even restaurants with rentals that start at less than $2/hr. or $10/day.
Coconut Hostel rents scooters and will also arrange day tours. In fact, many hostels and hotels will do that for you. Touts can be fairly aggressive as they promote transportation on the mainland or day trips. Don't go with the first person who approaches you. Find out the going rate before you agree to transportation or tour services.