All activities can be organized through the various tour operators on the islands. Water taxis are less expensive and make exploring the islands on your own a more affordable option. If you plan on a more leisurely exploration of the islands, sailing may be the best option for you.
The Bocas del Toro region is part of the larger La Amistad area, which holds Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site statuses for its rich ecosystems, including the reefs of Panama’s Bastimentos National Marine Park. The waters are inhabited by a wonderful variety of tropical reef creatures including starfish, sting rays, nurse sharks, lobster, angel fish, parrot fish, damsel fish – the list is endless. Dive schools regularly visit up to 15 locations with depth ranges from 2 to 18 meters inside the bay area. Many centers offer try-dives, open water courses and education right through to dive master. Some dive sites include Crawl Cay, The Wreck, Hospital Point, Buoy Line, Playground and many more. The best time of year for diving is April-May and Sept-October but there is good visibility year round.
Bocas is one of the very few Caribbean surf spots with good sized waves. There may be better and bigger waves in the Pacific, but here, when you surf, you do it in turquoise waters, while you ride above colorful coral reefs or white sand. There are beach breaks, point breaks and reef breaks, lefts, and rights for all tastes and preferences. You can find breaks three minutes away from Isla Colon. The preferred surf spots are Wizard, Bluff, Punch, The Point at Carenero and Tiger Tail. It is important to visit these spots with somebody who knows the area, especially if you will be surfing over a reef break.
Bocas Del Toro is home to some of the best cacao farms in the world and chocolate artisans are flocking to the region to grow, harvest and create chocolate libations to satisfy any sweet tooth. Tours are readily available to learn about the process of farming and producing cocoa.
Bocas del Toro is one of Panama's best places for birding. According to the Audubon Society, one can spot 300+ species of birds in a day. Bird Island is named for its glorious abundance of birds and can be accessed easily by boat when the water is calm. Bocas in general is a paradise for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts. Planned birding tours include a preparatory talk about the geography and bird life in the area of Red Frog National Park. During the tour you'll have the opportunity to see and hear trogons, ant birds, forest wrens, puff birds, tanagers, parrots, mot-mots and many other bird species. You can also visit other hot spots in the region on some of the other islands. • Carenero • Bastimentos (Red Frog) • Bird Island
Hire a boat captain at the Bastimentos boat dock on Main Street or arrange a tour with a tour operator and they will navigate you up the Bahia Honda River. You will then hike for about 20 minutes before reaching Bocas' most spectacular cave located in the Bastimentos National Marine Park. There’s a guide from the Bahia Honda community who will take you through the cave. The water comes up pretty high so expect to get wet. There are other bat caves in the area but not as impressive as Nivida.
If you’re looking for a different side of Bocas, you’ll find it hidden in the indigenous villages tucked away in the forests on every island. The indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé and Naso continue to live without modern luxuries such as running water, electricity and medicine. They know how to get around the forests of the islands and speak their own language, make their own clothing and crafts, and cure illnesses with local plants prepared by medicine men known as curanderos. To learn more about living in the wild in these unspoiled communities, book a tour with an operator or if you’re staying in a remote hotel, ask the owners, there may be a village nearby.
Some hotels have their own kayaks including Lula’s and Cocomo but if you want to see the islands and surrounding reefs up-close in a boat, you can rent one at BiBi’s on the beach in Carenero. Ask any boat driver to take you there from Isla Colon. Kayak rentals are based on hourly rates. BiBi’s also rents Stand Up Paddle Boards and offers lessons hourly.
This beautiful farm located on Isla Colon has large collections of heleconias, gingers, palms, flowering trees, fruits, spices and ornamentals. While hiking through the finca you may see howler monkeys, sloths, iguanas, and tiny colorful frogs. There is a wide variety of fruits such as cacao, guava, mammee also known as mamey, nutmeg, passion fruit, pineapple, papaya, tamarind, and nine varieties of bananas, among others. A wide variety of birds call the farm home drawn by its abundance of fruit and flowers.
Isla Carenero is a one minute boat ride from Isla Colon. The beach is on the back-side of the island with shallow clear waters welcoming swimmers. Near Bibi’s beach, there is a large shallow area called “the kiddie pool” by locals which is a great place to hang out in the water and wade in shallow pools. Ask the boat driver to drop you off at Bibi’s or Peter Kent´s for dock access. All beaches are public.
This beach is located on Bastimentos Island and is one of Panama’s most beautiful surf and swimming beaches. This is the only place in the world where the red poison dart frog lives in its natural habitat. Food and drinks are sold in the recently refurbished bar. There are high-end rentals available as well as a hostel for budget travelers, a deep water marina, and soon to open zip lines.
This small island near Bastimentos is a perfect snorkeling destination where you can spot all kinds of coral and fish. This is one of the few places where you can grab a meal while out on a day tour and therefore is almost always a regular pit stop for most boat tours.
Cayos Zapatillas offer some of the best skin diving in the marine park, windward from Crawl Cay. The variety of underwater ecosystems includes fan gardens and coral reefs. Choose from a variety of depths and currents to suit your skills. More intrepid and experienced divers can explore a series of nearby caves at a depth of 40 feet and require underwater lights.
The sky canopy tour on Bastimentos Island is a great rush for adventure seekers. You can spend the morning relaxing at Red Frog beach and hike over to the canopy tour for the ropes course and tons of treetop ziplining. There are seven zip lines and excellent tour guides that are knowledgeable and friendly. Kids are welcome but will have to meet weight and height restrictions.
As in any coastal destination, seafood is the star in Bocas del Toro. From high-end to popular local street vendors, Bocas del Toro offers a little bit of everything. Popular dishes are “pulpo” (octopus) and “patacones” (fried plantains) among other Caribbean specialties. Many restaurants are on the water making the experience a scenic and entertaining one.
The Cosmic Crab Cafe located on Carenero features fish and seafood appetizers and entrees, as well as an extensive menu featuring dishes like Mango Chutney Barbecue Ribs, and Jerusalem style Hummus. Crab cakes with a spicy remoulade is a Cosmic Crab Signature dish. It certainly has the most extensive and original cocktail menu in Bocas. Joan Crabtree, Cosmic Crab owner and top mixologist, serves up fabulous tasting cocktails such as Hot & Dirty Martini or Sex in the Mud. The Margarita family at the Cosmic Crab is worth trying: Razzarita, Minty Maggie, Mango Margo, Passionate Rita, and the Hot Passionate Rita - a jalapeño infused tequila with fresh passion fruit.
When the sun goes down, the music pumps up and Bocas del Toro becomes a party town. There are many night clubs and bars on the water, cozy lounges, taverns and the streets are packed with people going places until the wee hours. The atmosphere is beach casual and people from all over the world mingle with the friendly locals.
Built in 1905, it is one of Isla Colon’s oldest historic buildings and was constructed to accommodate the main offices of the United Fruit Company, today known as Chiquita Brands International. Conveniently located close to all the main attractions on Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Gran Hotel Bahia offers 18 spacious and comfortable rooms, all of them with air conditioning, cable TV and private bathrooms with hot water. Its relaxing and friendly atmosphere makes you feel at home. After the latest renovation, the new Deluxe Plus rooms are available on the upper floor, each with a king size bed, full sofa bed, mini-fridge and flat panel TV. There also is a remodeled room on the lower floor to meet the needs of guests with impaired mobility, with two double beds and all the facilities required for their convenience.
The bus station in Panama City is located at Albrook Mall – tickets to Almirante, Bocas del Toro can be purchased at wickets in the terminal or by phone. Tickets from Panama to Almirante cost $28.00. Once you have reached the Almirante port, take a water taxi to Isla Colon also known as Bocas. A one way trip to Bocas is approximately $4.00 for tourists and $3.00 for locals. Boats depart every 30 minutes to Bocas starting at 6:00 a.m. and finishing at 6:00 p.m. If you arrive at the port after 6 p.m., you will have to stay overnight in a nearby hotel which is not ideal. The boat ride from Almirante to Isla Colon takes about 25 to 30 minutes.
To reach the nearby islands and beaches, you can hire taxis operating motorized boats. As a general rule, you should always sort out the rate beforehand, and clarify whether it is for one way or round trip. From Isla Colon to most destinations on Carenero, rates range between $1.00 and $2.00. For longer trips, the rates will be higher. For example, to Old Bank Bastimentos, the rate will run around $4.00; boat trips to Red Frog, approximately $6.00 while distant destinations like Zapatilla will cost around $25.00 to $30.00 per person. Try to negotiate nicely and remember the drivers are not trying to rip you off, they are providing a service and trying to support their families.
There are 2 ATMs on Isla Colon, both located in Banco Nacional on the way to the airport. Currency related: Although credit cards are accepted in some businesses, many restaurants and tour operators have a cash only policy. Make sure to use small denomination bills, especially when dealing with water taxis.
The most developed island is Contadora with its luxurious villas and a handful of hotels and restaurants. In the days of the Spanish conquistadors, the island was used to store and count gold (hence the name which means bookkeeper in Spanish). It remained relatively undisturbed until the 1960s, when construction began on a large resort, and Contadora became the choice getaway spot for wealthy Panamanians and foreigners, including Jimmy Carter, Julio Iglesias and Iran’s exiled Shah Reza Pahlavi.
There are two ferry services traveling to Isla Contadora, Ferry Las Perlas leaves from Trump Ocean Club with a round trip rate of $95.00 per person, while Sea Las Perlas departs from the Balboa Yacht Club on the Amador Causeway and charges $90.00 per person round trip fee.
Sailing has long been popular in the area, although there have been some problems between the charter companies and the Kuna congress, so charters are less common now than they were previously. Private yachts, however, are still common in the area. These are mainly seen around Chicheme, Cayos Holandeses and Green Island, where there are good anchorage points.
There are 2 museums in the region, one in Carti and one in Porvenir. The better of the two is the museum at El Porvenir, which features information about the Kuna Congress, an exhibition of molas, tinajas (bowls for carrying water-plant pot), and more. There is also an interesting video about the Kuna culture made in 1980 but since it lasts 1.5 hours, most tourists don’t get a chance to see it.
Since the Kuna economy is based largely on tourism, the islanders urge visitors to purchase their handicrafts, whether it is a mola, woodcarving or palm-woven basket. Opportunities to purchase molas and other handicrafts are in no short supply. You will find Kunas selling their wares almost everywhere.
Air Panama has daily flights from Panama City to Achutupo, Carti, Corazon de Jesus, El Porvenir, Rio Sider and Playon Chico. Be aware that the airplane service to this area operates like a bus service, and flights are rarely direct, usually landing and taking off on various islands before reaching your destination.
Always bring your passport and if you are Panamanian be sure to have your ID with you. San Blas is close to the Colombian border and there are many sailboats coming from the Caribbean islands so there is a chance that government authorities may ask for your ID and if you don’t have it, you will be asked to go and get it and that can be highly inconvenient.
Most of the islands do not have banks or ATMs so it is important to bring enough cash for your trip. There are just a few hotels and restaurants that do accept credit cards so it is important that you are prepared for cash transactions. Also, it is not advisable to bring $100.00 or $50.00 dollar bills as people may not have change for them, preferably bring $20.00, $10.00, $5.00 and plenty of $1.00 bills.