Guide To Bocas Del Toro & Beautiful Isla Bastimentos, Panama

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Driftwood tree on beach in Isla Bastimentos, Panama

All I wanted was a beach that wasn’t littered with a million other British sun worshippers elbowing each other for a sun towel-sized patch of sand. And I found it in Bocas Del Toro.

I first visited Bocas in 2011 as part of my Round the World trip. It was a couple of weeks of bliss that imprinted so firmly on my mind that when I hit the road again, back to digital nomad life after my mum died, I made a beeline for the islands. It was just what the travel doctor ordered.

Note: I first wrote this article in 2011. I’ve since re-visited, fully rewritten this guide, and therefore updated the article date.

Where is Bocas del Toro

Google map of the bocas del toro archipelago.

Bocas del Toro is an archipelago (collection) of small islands off the northeast coast of Panama. Set within the Caribbean and hard enough to reach to keep most vacationers away, the islands truly feel like paradise lost. Palm trees lie where they have fallen, coconuts roll to a stop and remain untouched. Starfish. Translucent water and, most importantly, only a smattering of beach go-ers. The archipelago offers a little slice of Heaven.

There are nine islands in total. However, most visitors focus on the main island, Isla Colon. Confusingly, Isla Colon is also known as Bocas del Toro since Isla Colon is home to the main town: Bocas Town. Got it?

For me, the best part of visiting the Bocas archipelago is taking a short boat trip to one of the neighboring islands. My absolute favourite is Isla Bastimentos but Isla Solarte and Isla Cristobal are also popular. The remaining islands don’t (currently) hold much for tourists.

Summary of the main tourist islands in Bocas del Toro:

  • Isla Colon – the main island, often called Bocas del Toro. Home to Bocas Town
  • Isla Bastimentos
  • Isla Solarte
  • Isla Cristobal

To give you a bit of context, Bocas Town sits around 382 miles / 615 km from Panama City, Panama’s Capital. However, it’s just 68 miles / 111 km across the border to the popular beach town of Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica. I’ve got a more detailed map below together with details of how to get to Bocas del Toro from Panama City and Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica.

Fun fact: Using my mediocre Spanish, Bocas del Toro translates as mouths of the bull. No clue why – is that what the islands look like on a map? Tell me if you can see it!


Isla Colon – Best things to do

Coffee with view of bright yellow Caribbean style house Bocas Town.

Isla Colon is the main island and is likely to be your first experience of the archipelago. And, if you’re in search of diamond-white beaches or abundant nature, landing in Bocas Town on Isla Colon can be a mighty come down. Don’t let your heart sink. Plan your trip, aim to hit at least one other island, and get out of Bocas Town for the best sights.

Bocas Town

Honestly, I kinda love Bocas Town. Sure, it’s been developed without real thought which has led to streets of cafes, bars, and hotels sandwiched next to each other. And many tourists use it purely as the jumping-off point it’s become. But it’s still got that great Caribbean clapboard vibe. Grab a coffee and spend an hour people-watching, have lunch in one of the over-the-water restaurants, befriend a stray dog, and ease into the slower pace of island life.

Starfish Beach

Starfish Beach on Isla Colon cloudy day.
Starfish beach without the starfish on a cloudy. Yeah, it can be like that. Still pretty.

If you only have time for one beach on Isla Colon, make it Starfish Beach on the west coast of Isla Colon. The first time I visited (yes, over a decade ago), there were just six of us on the beach – me and my five new travel friends. We tried (and failed) to open a wild coconut, lounged around on the sand and, of course, were wowed by the bright orange starfish lying in the shallows.

Spotting starfish: Sadly, tourism has increased which means seeing starfish is not guaranteed. If you do, be kind. Don’t pick them up or prod them. It’s bad for the starfish and bad for the rest of us who just want to look at them in awe. Remember, leave only footprints and good travel karma will come your way.

Boca del Drago

Boca del Drago connects to Starfish Beach via a 15-minute wild walk. It’s a good place to chill as there is a bit more sand (though also more people). It’s a good spot for free snorkeling if you’re packing your own snorkel or have borrowed one from your accommodation.

Playa Bluff

Head to the east coast of the island and you’ll find Playa Bluff, the longest stretch of sand that Isla Colon offers. It’s become pretty popular with surfers, which should alert you to the fact that the water is rougher than the bath-like shallows of Starfish Beach. It’s a good alternative to Bocas Town if you want to be based at the beach and are happy with just a few places to eat and drink. Just note that the bus back to town isn’t so frequent and taxis are expensive. A water taxi is probably your best balance of fast and cheap (but still around $7-$10 per person one-way).

Beware Turtles: the beach is home to hatching turtles from around March. Even if the beach isn’t closed or protected, do your good human thing and care for the wildlife by leaving them alone. Like turtles? Check out my guide to visiting Tortuguero National Park in Costa Rica.

Surf

Like Santa Teresa on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, Bocas del Toro is famous as a place to learn to surf. Many of the hostels or hotels can either loan you a board or there are dedicated surf schools in the town. Rock up for the best prices. Winter (December to April) has the best waves for surf in Bocas while September to October has the least.

Take a snorkeling tour

Where there are tourists, there are tours and the most popular option out of Bocas Town is a day’s snorkeling. It’s a great way to go beach hopping with most tours stopping at Dolphin Bay, Crawl Cay, and Hospital Point & Red Frog Beach (both on Isla Bastimentos). However, if you’re visiting Isla Bastimentos where you can snorkel directly from the beach, I’d suggest saving your dollars because the snorkeling can be cloudy and therefore disappointing if you pay for a day tour.

Go diving (maybe)

Just because there is a dive shop (and there are many of them in Bocas town), doesn’t mean the diving is excellent. While I can’t dive, I’ve snorkeled in the Caribbean a lot and the visibility in the Bocas archipelago is not that great. I believe it’s because a lot of rivers merge into the waters here, bringing silt with them. Take out a snorkel and see for yourself before you sign up for an expensive diving course. Still, if you simply love being below the water line, go for it.

Take Spanish classes

If you plan to hang around for a while, either in Bocas, Panama, or Central America in general (why not, it’s paradise on earth), it pays to speak some local lingo. Bocas has a couple of well-established Spanish schools – Habla Ya and Spanish by the Sea. I took a week of classes with Habla Ya in Boquete (rhymes with ‘spaghetti’) and a friend of mine tried Spanish by the Sea and loved it. So, either is a safe bet though Habla Ya has since moved to 100% online courses.

Filthy Friday & Bocas Town nightlife

Filthy Friday sign on Isla Colon.

By day Isla Colon has a hippy beach bum vibe. Come night, a whole different side of this island materializes. Like Mogwai in The Gremlin movie, you should not feed this island thirsty tourists after midnight. And Friday is the most raucous of all with a well-established and well-organised bar crawl called Filthy Friday. Dubbed Central America’s only island-hopping day party, Filthy Friday runs from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and takes place across three islands. You have to book tickets ($40 per person) but you get transport, DJ sets, shots, and a T-shirt.

Sure, I partied like a demon my first time in Bocas Town – lots of Reggaeton, Latin dance moves, and falling into bed after sunrise. But on my second visit, I headed back to my guesthouse come nighttime (because age does that to you) and I didn’t hear a peep.


Isla Bastimentos – Best things to do

Leaning palm tree on red frog beach isla bastimentos.

Having partied too hard in Bocas, and fast realizing it wasn’t the castaway experience I’d come to Bocas for, I quickly hopped on a water taxi to Isla Bastimentos. From there, I picked my way along a trail, past the mangroves to my accommodation, and finally reached a retreat that was a small guesthouse with barely anybody there.

That was over a decade ago but I’m delighted to say that even though the island has developed, you can still have a remote experience on Isla Bastimentos. I even pulled out some old pictures and found the same old barren spots, utterly undisturbed. A place of rainforest, wildlife, wild beaches, and sweeping sea views, this island is one of my favorite places across the over 75 countries & territories I’ve visited around the world. In short, if you visit only one place in Bocas del Toro and you’re on the trail of R&R, visit Isla Bastimentos.

Palmar Beach Lodge

I don’t usually recommend a place to stay as a thing to do but I’m making an exception as Palmar is an experience all in itself. Located right on Red Frog Beach, Palmar Beach Lodge is a place to go and unwind. Having won Eco Awards, this beach-front lodge feels like it sits as much in the rainforest as it does on the beach and you get to experience the best of both worlds. At night, listen to the tree frogs and howler monkeys. By day lounge in a hammock or on the sand. There is a yoga shala and twice daily classes, massage, island tours, and an on-site restaurant and bar. Every evening has a themed activity but it’s all pretty low-key (no Filthy Friday here!).

As a digital nomad (while I was there), I’d wake early and head to the restaurant for granola with yogurt, coffee, and a morning of work. By the afternoon, I flopped on the beach or explored the island before hitting the evening yoga class. I launched online bookings for my Italian Prosecco tour business from Palmar, all with views of the sea. Happy memories, indeed.

Red Frog Beach

Red Frog Beach is so named thanks to the red-colored strawberry poison dart frog that inhabits the beach. Most of the time you won’t come across one because they’re not so keen on tourists. Perhaps, with the right (and respectful) guide, you might track one down. Otherwise, enjoy a peaceful day on the beach. Palmar Lodge is opposite the beach with open access if you’re not staying there – great for lunch and drinks.

Indiana Jo relaxing at Palmar with beach views
Chilling after a day of work with this view. Bliss.

Wizard Beach & Playa Segunda

While Red Frog Beach might be the most famous in Bastimentos, Wizard Beach has the most beautiful sand with the fewest people. But there is a reason for that. Zoom out on Google Maps and it looks like you might be able to walk to it from Red Frog Beach. People certainly have but it’s a rough slog for the adventurous through unmarked trails, mangroves, and swamp areas that require proper footwear. Better: grab a water taxi. Or walk as far as Playa Segunda and flop there instead.

Bat Cave

Nope, not kidding you. Located in the Bahia Honda part of the island, you can visit an underground cave. Be aware, the cave is filled with water so pack your water shoes. You almost certainly have to book a tour to visit (unless you have your own boat).

Sloth and wildlife spotting

Venturing out with a day pack, snacks, and no destination in mind, I came across some of the best and most natural encounters with wildlife in Panama. Sloths and capuchin monkeys are pretty abundant on the island. Just take a wander. Wildlife spotting on Bastimentos was second only to spotting the Resplendent Quetzel in Boquete (and that day in Caña Negro near La Fortuna, Costa Rica).

Bioluminescence

Bioluminescence is magical to see. And, best of all, it’s visible from Isla Bastimentos. What is bioluminescence? It’s a chemical reaction that causes certain organisms like fireflies and plankton to glow. I first experienced bioluminescence by accident on Isla Holbox in Mexico during a late-night beach walk and then on a dedicated night kayaking tour in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Both times were magical but as with nature, it doesn’t show up on demand. It’s only really visible at night on a New Moon when the sky is darkest. Even then it can range in brightness. It’s best to book a tour since your guide will have all of the right kit (kayak) and know where to go.

Red Frog Deli Gourmet Brownies

I have a personal rule: Sunday is my day for drinking coffee and eating cake. And after a week of being at Palmar, one of the staff suggested I take a wander to Red Frog Deli to get one of their brownies; and wow was it worth it. Freshly baked, it oozed good-quality chocolate. They sell other foods too but I was focused purely on the baked goods. It’s in a nice location on the marina.

Old Bank

Old Bank is where the locals live, where you’re most likely to find an Airbnb, and with the largest choice of bars and restaurants. For me, it’s Bocas Town over a decade ago and not what I came to Bastimentos for. Still, it’s on the brink of the rainforest and a good enough base on the island for exploring and tours.


Where to stay in Bocas del Toro

Dark wood interior of dorm at Palmar Beach Lodge Isla Bastimentos.
The dorm at Palmar Beach Lodge.

There are many places to stay but I’m just going to list the places I’m familiar with.

Isla Colon (Bocas Town)

Surfari BocasI stayed here on my second trip and it’s perfect if you want a clean, low-key budget private room. It’s in the centre of Bocas Town a street or so back from the main road. Decent kitchen and a nice communal courtyard with friendly staff. Price: Around $45 a night for a private room.

Bambuda Bocas Townthis over-the-water lodge in Bocas Town is stunning in wood and white soothing tones. But it has a price tag to match: around $135 for a basic twin room. Dorms are cheaper, around $22 for a (very nice, curtained) bed in a dorm. Bambuda hostels are big in Panama. I stayed at the Bambuda in Boquete and the quality is so high. Don’t be confused with Bambuda Lodge which sometimes shows up on booking sites with the name Bambuda Bocas. It’s on a different island. See below.

Selina Bocas del ToroI’m probably just too old these days to enjoy the Selina chain of hostels which are found throughout Central America. In short, they’re party hostels. And once upon a time I’d have been right there at the bar, encouraging shots. If you’re already booking for Filthy Friday, this is probably the place for you. Privates and dorms are available. Take earplugs (I swear by Macks brand). Price: Dorms around $35 a night and private with en-suite $95.

Isla Bastimentos

Palmar Beach Lodge – I’m in love with Palmar Beach Lodge. It’s reason enough to go to Bocas. I’ve written more about it above. As for the accommodation, there are a couple of dorms with solid wooden beds, some teepee tents, and private rooms. I stayed in a dorm. Friends who stayed in the tents said they were a bit musty (it’s a rainforest!) so private rooms are better if you don’t want to share. The showers and toilets are outside for dorms and tents, which is a bit annoying if you need to pee in the night when it’s raining. However, by day the outdoor showers with the free eco-coconut liquid soaps and hair products are a dream. There is an on-site bar and restaurant and a small number of local eateries nearby. Palmar books months in advance so plan ahead. Price: Around $25 a night for a dorm bed. Tents are around $140 and private en-suites from $160 a night.

Selina Red Frog – Bucking the Selina-Party-Hostel trend, Selina Red Frog is an excellent alternative if you can’t book a room in Palmar. Unlike Palmar, Selina has a kitchen as well as an on-site restaurant but do bring food with you (a bag of pasta and oatmeal, maybe?). Otherwise, it’s a trek to Palmar and the nearby restaurants. Price: Dorms around $27 and private en-suites from $94 a night.

Isla Solarte

Bambuda Lodge, Isla Solarte – Bambuda Lodge is to Isla Solarte what Palmar is to Isla Bastimentos, i.e. an affordable jungle retreat. There is a slide and net in the pool so expect a lively daytime but otherwise it’s pretty chilled. Be aware that you are a food hostage, having to eat at the on-site restaurant unless you take a water taxi to Bocas Town ($6 each way). Price: Dorms around $25 a night and privates from $135.

Want more? Here are all the accommodation options in the Bocas del Toro archipelago on my go-to booking sites: Booking.com and HostelWorld.

Where to eat in Bocas del Toro

Trattoria Pane e Vino outside at night in Bocas del Toro Town.

It happens at least 3 times a day (more on a hangover), right? So, I ate a lot when I was in the Bocas del Toro islands. There are plenty of grocery stores in Bocas Town. Off Isla Colon, you’ll have more limited options for restaurants, cafes, and stores. Here are my favorite places.

Bocas Town

  • OM Cafe – It’s rare to find good, traditional Indian food outside India. But, to my surprise, and thanks to an Indian owner, I got a divine traditional thali (platter with a variety of curries, pickles, and bread).
  • Rosa Blanca Pizza y Jardin – This excellent foot stall used to be little more than a hole in the wall with outdoor dining. It’s had an upgrade with some fancy lighting but the food (Italian-style pizzas and pasta) is as good as ever. Previously known as Para Llevar (meaning take away).
  • Super Gourmet Deli – where there are tourists, there are tourist sandwiches, salads, cakes, and veggie options. The sarnies here are large and the coffee strong. Great if you want a break from chicken, rice and beans.
  • Red Snapper Caribbean – my boat landed near here and after getting a glimpse of the food, I went back for a divine fish sandwich. Highly recommended.
  • Trattoria Pane e Vino – I was clearly hankering for Italian food in Bocas (I’d been eating the local fish, rice and beans for months). And here I found a divine lasagna. So divine, I returned a few days later.
Thali curry in Bocas del Toro Town
Om cafe thali. I could eat this again right now.

Isla Bastimentos

  • The Point – Just up the road from Palmar Beach Lodge, this local eatery is literally on the point of the island. It’s a small wooden deck with sea views. I can vouch for the yummy shrimp, rice and plantain but international food like pizza is available. Expect USA prices ($25 for a main meal and soft drink).
  • Palmar Beach Lodge – decent prices (relatively speaking), a wide menu, veggie and vegan options, and a great spot on Red Frog Beach. I ate here a lot!
  • Red Frog Deli Gourmet Brownies – I’ve already mentioned the gooey brownies (above). You can also get deli sandwiches, cakes, and other groceries.

Bocas del Toro versus San Blas Islands?

Beach on Isla Bastimentos with palm trees
The beaches in Bocas del Toro are more than good enough.

I’ve visited both Bocas del Toro and the San Blas Islands in Panama and, if you have the time and the budget, the obvious choice is to visit both. But what if time and money are limited, or you only want one beach destination on your trip? Let me help you decide.

Bocas del Toro

  • Easier to reach with a well-established network of shuttles and water taxis to get around.
  • Cheaper since it’s easier to book it yourself.
  • Better if you don’t like long or bumpy boat rides.
  • Well located for jumping into Costa Rica just up the coast.
  • Home comforts are available with well-tended lodges and independent restaurants and bars.

San Blas Islands

  • Remote island hopping with fewer tourists and a true castaway feeling.
  • Visit tiny islands that you can walk across in less than half an hour – out of this world stunning.
  • Package tours are the best and easiest way to visit from Panama City. They can run to hundreds of dollars but include transport, accommodation, and food.
  • You can book directly but the ‘home base’ islands are less remote and island hopping (included in package tours) is part of the beauty.
  • Islands can be very rustic (think: concrete toilet and shower blocks). Chicken, fish, or vegetables with rice are the main food choices
  • Great way to get to Colombia, so long as you don’t mind several days at sea.

If I had to recommend one, I’d say San Blas for remote island beauty if you don’t mind roughing it and have the budget to take a package. But if you prefer some comfort or are on a budget, Bocas is beautiful enough.


How to get there

Bocas del Toro water taxis.
The style of boat that travels around Bocas del Toro.

Flying to Bocas Del Toro

There is a small landing strip, ahem, an airport in Bocas Town (Airport code: BOC). It’s actually pretty cool to watch the planes from so close. You can fly to Isla Colon from Panama City, David, and San Jose in Costa Rica with Air Panama. I use Skyscanner to check schedules.

Taking the bus and boat to Bocas

Almirante on the mainland is the jumping-off point for reaching the archipelago.

By public bus: You can reach Almirante by public bus from most places in Panama. If you catch the bus, note that the bus station is in Almirante itself rather than at the dock. It’s about a 20-30 minute walk but having done this after a night bus myself, you might want to splurge on the 10-minute taxi from the bus terminal.

By shared shuttle (minivan): For some routes, you can book a private shuttle that offers door-to-door service to Isla Colon/Bocas Town. As well as taking you directly to the dock in Almirante, the price included the boat to Isla Colon. The most popular routes are to/from Boquete and Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica. Hello Travel Panama is my all-time favorite shuttle company in Panama. Good quality, safe buses with a reliable schedule. Nope, no commission from them. I just utterly recommend them. Caribe Shuttle is also good (I’ve taken both shuttles).

By boat: From Almirante, you have to take a boat to Bocas Town on Isla Colon ($6 per person one-way). From Bocas Town, you can take a boat to reach the other islands. The dock can get very busy. Pack snacks in case you don’t get on the first boat. The ride is $6 one-way.

Panama sign outside yellow house
You can easily book shuttles at local travel agencies in Bocas.

Getting there from Panama City

By Bus: The road from Panama City to Almirante skirts the opposite coast of Panama turning this route into a 10 – 12 hour journey. As such, you’re stuck with a choice of night buses, but at least they are direct. There are a few buses leaving between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. from Albrook Bus Station. Take the later bus otherwise, you risk arriving before the first ferry to Bocas.

Whatever you do, wear all your warm clothes on these night buses. I’ve suffered more than my fair share of inhumanely cold night buses, but this one had me stepping off at 2 a.m. to get a coffee just to reassure myself my hands hadn’t fallen off.

By Air: If you decide to fly to Bocas, note that the flights leave from the smaller Albrook Airport (PAC) not the main international Tocumen Airport (PTY). They’re about 30 minutes apart by car. Keep this in mind if you plan to land in Panama and bounce straight on to Bocas.

By Shuttle: Due to the distance, there are no private shuttles that run this route. However, you can pick up a shuttle from either David or Boquete. If you have time, I’d recommend adding one or both to your itinerary to break up the journey. Personally, I loved Boquete.

Getting to Isla Bastimentos and Isla Solarte from Isla Colon

Before you start planning your onward travel to the other islands, check what your accommodation offers. Many, including Palmar Lodge, include a free water taxi, followed by a guided walk through the mangroves to the lodge. Otherwise:

  • For Isla Bastimentos – boats leave from the dock on Calle 3 (near Red Snapper Restaurant) and cost around $10 per person. The journey takes around 15 minutes. There is a $5 fee for entering Isla Bastimentos (see my tips section below).
  • For Isla Solarte – A slightly shorter ride at 10 minutes but around the same $10 price per person. Bambuda Lodge doesn’t offer a boat service but they direct customers to catch a boat from next to Taxi-25.

Getting to Puerto Viejo (Costa Rica) from Bocas del Toro

With less than 100 miles between the beach islands of Bocas del Toro and the Caribbean coastal town of Puerto Viejo, it seems a shame not to cross the border. There are two main ways to do it: via a shuttle (less time and stress, more money) and via local buses (more time and stress, less money). I’ve done both and which you go for will come down to budget.

Taking the shuttle: The shuttle includes the boat from Isla Colon to Almirantes and you’ll be given a time for your boat. From there you board a shuttle to the border (some border crossing tips below). You then walk across the border and get picked up by another shuttle which will take you to your accommodation in Puerto Viejo, nearby Cahuita (or other places along the coast). The best shuttle companies for this route are Hello Travel Panama and Caribe Shuttle. I’ve used both and while Hello Panama is my favorite (nicer vans), Caibe Shuttle is good enough. They’re the same price.

The shuttle prices are quoted at $35 but come in at $40 (tax!). The estimated time is 4 hours from Bocas to Puerto Viejo but the border crossing time can increase that.

Taking the public bus: First, catch the boat back to Almirante from Bocas and either walk or taxi to the Almirante bus station (details above). From Almirante, you need to take two buses – first to Changuinola then to Sixaloa-Guabito (the border). Cross the border. Then you can catch a local bus to Puerto Viejo (bus stop on the Costa Rica side near the border). Within Puerto Viejo, the bus station is within walking distance of most central accommodation. There are minibuses to speed things up either at Almirante (to Sixaloa) and from Sixaloa to Puerto Viejo.

Taking the bus comes in around $15 – $30 depending on whether you strictly stick to the cheap buses or find yourself getting frustrated and add in the occasional minivan or taxi along the way. Timings can vary greatly but I’d plan for it to take all morning and most of the afternoon.

Crossing the border – if it’s your first land border crossing, don’t worry. The process is very simple. You need to do two things – get an exit stamp from Panama then get an entry stamp into Costa Rica. There will be two lines. Join one (exit stamp), then walk across the bridge. I love this bit as you’re technically in no-man’s land. Then join the second queue (entry stamp). Unsure? Go where the other people go. You’re all there for the same reason.

The later you get to the border, the longer the queue so travel early, especially if you’re on public transport. Have your sunscreen handy because there is no shade. The border between Panama and Costa Rica is technically down the middle of the Sixaloa River making this a pretty border crossing because you walk across a bridge.

Exit tax – it always amuses me that many countries require you to pay a fee to LEAVE, yet that’s how it is and it’s no different when you leave Panama. The rate is $4, which is much cheaper than the $40 for leaving by air. Have cash available.

Change of currency: remember, the currency changes from USD to Costa Rican Colones when you cross the border. Don’t worry, you can still pay in dollars to get to Puerto Viejo if you’re going by bus. If you book a shuttle, it’s all included (apart from your exit fee). There are plenty of functioning ATMs in Puerto Viejo when you arrive.

Map

I’ve created a map of Bocas del Toro which includes all the places listed in this article.

Map of things to do in Bocas.

Is Bocas safe as a solo female traveler?

I traveled around Panama and Costa Rica on my own and generally felt safe as a solo female traveler (I took some extra precautions exploring Panama City outside the old town but that’s for another article).

There are lots of warning signs up in Isla Bastimentos about walking alone, especially at night. Risk: theft. I wandered the island by day without problem. If I was crossing from one lodge e.g. Selina to Palmar after dark and under the influence of booze, I’d take a friend. Not least because there isn’t any street lighting.

In Bocas town, I stayed central and the streets felt busy and safe enough to walk back to my guesthouse after dinner. Be careful if you take part in Filthy Friday. There’s no specific risk or reports of attacks beyond people getting messy on too much booze in the sun (been there, and got the scars). And whatever you do, don’t end up in a Prison in Panama (like my friend Tim did).

Indiana Jo’s tips for visiting

Grocery story in pink colours in Bocas Town.
Plenty of stores and a friendly vibe in Bocas Town.

Here are a few of my stand-out tips for visiting Bocas del Toro.

  • Tap Water: While the tap water is safe to drink in most of Panama, that’s not true in the islands. Water is cheap to buy and there are plenty of stores. However, take a reusable water bottle as most hotels and hostels have free or very cheap refill stations. Plus: good for the environment.
  • Buying water: There is a large, public water refilling station in the center of Bocas Town if you’re staying for more than a few days.
  • Entry fee for Bastimentos: There is a $5 fee to visit Isla Bastimentos. This is usually included in your accommodation booking if you’re staying on the island. Keep your email and get ready to show it when you arrive.
  • Booking shuttles: it’s as easy to do in person within the islands (at a travel agent or at your accommodation) as it is online. Plan at least a couple of days ahead if you must travel at a certain time or date.
  • Weather: The weather in Bocas can be changeable (surprising to many). I visited in peak season and was soaked by rain on the boat back to Bocas Town. Wear quick-dry clothes and a raincoat for the crossings if rain is likely.
  • Currency: Like the rest of Panama, the currency is US Dollars.
  • Visas – this really depends on the country that issued your passport. Many visitors (including from the UK, USA, and Europe) can enter for 90 days without needing a visa. However, you might be asked to show an onward ticket and proof of funds in the bank ($500) or access to a credit card. I’ve never been asked for these but it can happen. Find out more from the Panama Embassy.
  • Onward ticket – if you’re traveling on a loose schedule, you can pay $12-$15 for an onward ticket. In short, the company buys you a refundable ticket which they later get refunded. You pay for the service. I’ve used Best Onward Ticket.
  • Electricitypower is pretty reliable in Bocas del Toro so you don’t need to pack extra battery chargers unless your phone has an especially short battery life.
  • Dengue Fever – catching dengue fever from mosquito bites can be an issue in Bocas del Toro. I’ve had dengue (got it in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico). I survived it but wouldn’t recommend it. Apply repellent. There are no dengue prevention pills. Malaria is rare in Bocas.

What to pack

Bridge over water in Isla Bastimentos
Trails rather than roads outside Isla Colon: skip the big suitcase/luggage.

I love a packing list. If you do too, here’s my Ultimate Printable Packing List and my list of Long Haul Flight Essentials. But each country and area benefits from some specific items to make your trip easier. Here are the items I suggest taking to Bocas del Toro.

  • Backpack-style luggage or travelpack – buses, shuttles and boats are geared for backpacks rather than hard-shell or large luggage. I traveled with a great hybrid, a soft-sided backpack on wheels by Kathmandu with integrated backpack straps I can zip away. Find out more about my best backpack recommendations. You might also like my tips for packing lighter.
  • Refillable water bottle – I pack one by Contigo. I’ve dropped this so many times and it lived. Plus, it doesn’t leak.
  • Raincoat – I’ve been packing the same The North Face windbreaker since 2010 and it’s still going strong.
  • Mosquito repellent – I’ve got a full guide to The Best Mosquito Repellent.
  • Snorkel – I don’t pack one but I know some people don’t like to use the communal ones. This snorkel packs well for travel. Go for the older style separate mask and tube. The newer full-face snorkels will be bulky for travel.
  • Travel towel – a cheap travel towel on Amazon is handy for beach days and sudden downpours. They dry super quick.
  • Water shoeswater shoes are thin rubber-soled shoes that makes walking on stones in water less painful and give good grip, but not generally good for hiking.
  • Head torch – pack a head torch, especially on islands like Bastimentos and Solarte. Saves your phone torch battery and keeps your hands free
  • Travel binoculars – I bought a cheap pair of travel binoculars from Amazon a few years ago and I can’t believe I didn’t buy them sooner. Especially good for wildlife spotting in Panama and Costa Rica (or reading the menu board from the beach, haha.)
  • Travel yoga mat – this is about as personal as packing a snorkel but as an avid yogi, I can’t go a few days without my downward dog. Yes, I pack my Manduka yoga mat every trip but it folds small and is lighter than my Macbook Air.

That’s my guide to visiting Bocas del Toro. Drop me a comment if you have any questions.

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Author - Jo Fitzsimons

Hi, I'm Jo, the writer behind Indiana Jo. In 2010 I quit my job as a lawyer and booked an around the world ticket. As a solo female traveller, I hopped from South America to Central America, across Asia, the Middle East and Europe. It was supposed to be a one-year trip but over a decade later, it's yet to end. I've lived in a cave, climbed down a volcano barefoot, spent years as a digital nomad, worked as a freelance travel writer, and eaten deadly Fugu. Now I'm home, back in the UK, but still travelling far and wide. You can find out more About Me.

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