Bocas del Toro was our first introduction to Panama and it is located conveniently close to the Costa Rica border. They are an archipelago of islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Its main selling point is that it offers beaches and a cool Caribbean party vibe.
Carnival Parade in Bocas Town
We paid for a tourist shuttle ($30 USD per person) from Puerto Viejo because we had heard that the border crossing was complicated. It was but nothing too complicated in truth, just don’t forget that you need proof of leaving Panama! You get the shuttle to the town of Almirante and from there you have to wait for your ferry across to Bocas Town (included in the shuttle price).
We stayed on Bocas Town which is the main town on the archipelago. Some people stay on Bastimentos island for a more rural and quieter stay, but we chose Bocas so we could have options when eating and to visit supermarkets if we liked. We had a problem when we arrived on Bocas however – it was Carnival! As such nearly everywhere was booked and so we had to stay in Hostal Del Mar, a lovely and convenient place, just waaay over our budget.
Carnival in Panama may excite most people but for us we realised what it meant – that Bocas was going to be thronged with people. It was busy and also REALLY loud, dance music pumping until 5am. Sounds like a dream for most people, and we would have indulged except Panama has another problem – its relatively expensive. So paying for an overpriced hostel and expensive beers meant we weren’t in the party mood. Alas there are still some things to do on the islands:
One of the few Starfish left on Starfish Beach
Starfish Beach (Playa Estrella) is located on the same island as Bocas Town, Isla Colon, but it is on the other side of the island. To get there you can get a local bus, we got a bus at 10am from just off the main square for $2.50. It took 1.5 hours and upon arriving you need to walk about 20 minutes along the coast until you reach Starfish beach. Here you are greeted with a host of different restaurants and lounging options. We skipped by all these and put our towels down near the end of the beach. One thing to note about Bocas is that, like the rest of the Caribbean, the weather is very changeable. We had grey skies the day we went to Starfish beach so not much tanning took place! There are some starfish in the water, but rumour has it that there used to literally be hundreds, whereas now there is only about 10. From sitting on the beach that day I can see why the starfish have gone, time after time again people were going into the sea, touching and taking the starfish out of the ocean, and all for a photo. This despite numerous signs around explaining how doing this is bad for the starfish and could kill it. Watching this unravel made it very frustrating for us and so at 3pm we got in a bus and headed back for Bocas Town! So please, if you go here, don’t touch the Starfish!
How to take a picture with a Starfish without killing it..
One of the many tourist boats pulling into Starfish Beach, alongside people picking up Starfish – sums up this beach!
Red Frog Beach
Red Frog beach is the most famous beach on Isla Bastimentos and became famous because from the poison red frog that can be found nearby the beach. We didn’t go here, to get the ferry and pay the entry fee to Red Frog was $15 each. It was a cloudy and we just couldn’t spend that much on going to a beach on a cloudy day!
Carenero Beach and Aqua Lounge
Carenero Island is the closest island to Isla Colon (we could see it from our hostel) and you have to just pay $2 each to get a boat across. When there we relaxed on the beach for awhile, which was much quieter and relaxed than Starfish Beach. We then walked for 10 mins or so Aqua Lounge, which is a famous bar and hostel that has an internal jumping platform in it. When we arrived on a Sunday it was $1 beers until 4pm, but suspiciously when we came to order 4 beers at 3.50pm they took the $5 I paid and gave me no change. When I asked why the guy behind the bar said that the boss told him happy hour was over. It still didn’t explain why we didn’t either have to pay more or get our $1 change back! It is still worth a visit however and you can get a boat back to Bocas town from right outside the Aqua Lounge.
The Aqua Lounge – a jumping platform and beers, a good combination!
Our overall thoughts on Bocas Del Toro are not exactly glowing. Doing research before we came I kept reading how it was backpackers heaven. It isn’t – prices are really, really high here. It is definety more aimed towards people who are on holidays and dont have to travel for many more months! The weather when we were there wasn’t idyllic either which explains why paying $15 to get to Red Frog was always going to be a no go for us.
There is a cheap restaurant located in the market – Tom’s Restaurant and it is delicious.
Try and cook as much as you can, price and quality in Bocas are not great!
Buy your beers in the supermarket and have them in your hostel to save money.
Skip the dolphin watching tour, we have heard that the boats get very aggressive with the dolphins and circle them non stop.
If you don’t like swimming and partying with Panamanians who have arrived from the city then avoid Carnival.
DO NOT book a combined ferry and bus ticket to Panama City with your hostel. You can easily do this on your own and you don’t have to pay your hostel $3 per person for the service of walking you to the port to buy your ticket for you!