Where have 18 countries film their Survivor series? The answer is the exotic Bocas del Toro Archipelago off Panama's Caribbean coast.
Bocas is one of Panama's top tourist attractions. Where else can you can relax on glistening beaches with scarcely a soul in sight and hike through rainforests so nature rich that Lonely Planet Guide calls them "a biologists fantasy"?
Bocas is part of an archipelago aqua blue waters, palm-lined white-sand beaches and dense rainforest jungle.
You can choose from lodging in Bocas town on Colon Island or on one of the many nearby islands. The town of Bocas is laid back and has a surprising variety of restaurants and nightlife spots. It's a friendly place and most of the locals speak English.
Lodging on a nearby island means intimate experiences with nature, ecotourism, romantic getaways and fun families vacations.
Bocas is also considered mecca for surfers for both beginners and experts.
The most popular activities are boat tours to islands for beaching, snorkeling, diving,a canopy zipline, dolphin observation, rainforest treks, a bat cave tour and indigenous villages.
Lodging starts from $14 a night at a hostel, with middle range hotels in the $40 -$80 range. The best upscale option in Bocas town is Palma Royal Hotel. Just outside down Playa Tortuga Resort,is the only hotel set up for meetings. Set on a private beach it's just 10 minutes from downtown Bocas. For premium close-to-nature experiences, the best places are Punta Caracol with cabins over the sea and Al Natural. For luxury accommodations with ocean views, Red Frog Villas are outstanding.
How To Get There
You can fly to the town of Bocas, on one of the several daily flights from Panama City that Air Panama provides. Round trip tickets from Panama City are around $230. You can also fly to Bocas del Toro from San Jose, Costa Rica on Nature Air.
You can get there by bus or car from David or Panama City. From David,take a bus to Puerto Almirante and then take a "lancha" (boat taxi) or ferry to Bocas town on the main island. In Puerto Almirante there's a safe place to leave your vehicle during your stay in Bocas. No car needed in Bocas. Regular and water taxis will get you everywhere fairly cheaply.
In Bocas you can get to many places by walking. Taxis are inexpensive-they will take you anywhere around town for a couple dollars. The best nearby beach excursion is to Bluff Beach. You can go by bus or a rented bike. You can also arrange for a taxi to take you and come back for you at a later hour-but that may cost you $60-$80 round trip. If you are going to another island, water taxis ("lanchas") are plentiful and cheap. Walking aroundtown late at night, stay on the main streets- Bocas is safe but it is best take some care.
Where To Stay
Bocas has a hotel for every budget. There are hostels for back packers, eco-lodges for nature enthusiasts and romantic escapes for couples and family-friendly lodges. Most hotels are Bocas town on the main island. Several hotels have sea views but there are no beaches in town. Playa Tortuga Resort, just outside town has a private beach.
The nearby islands of Bastimientos and Carinero have various kinds of lodging and can be reached by a short water taxi. Punta Caracol and Al Natural offer extraordinary close-to-nature experiences and romantic seclusion. For more info including hotel websites, see our hotel list on the sidebar.
Where To Eat
Bocas' restaurants offer a surprising variety with reasonable prices. Popular excellent restaurants in town are El Pecado for French and Indian, Bibi"s for seafood, Lemon Grass for Thai and fusion, Buenavista for American food and Gringo's for Mexican. Guari Guari on a nearby island has delicious six course meals. Another popular restaurant is Om which offers East Indian food. If you are looking for a beach-picnic lunch, stop by the Super Gourmet Deli at the end of main street for good sandwiches and other treats.
For seafood in incomparable surroundings, take a water taxi to restaurant Coral Cay, which is perched on stilts over the sea. You can pick a live lobster from a sea cage and enjoy gorgeous sea-views all around as you wait for your dish to be prepared. Many tours will take you there as part of their route. This is a Bocas must-do.
What To Do
The islands of Bocas del Toro have some of the best surfing in Panama with a wide variety of surf breaks with medium or big waves. Paunch, Bluff, Carenero and Wizard are popular surf spots/ In Bocas Town you'll find surf shops for rental and repair, as well as cheap hostels for the budget surfer. The best time of year to surf for is from December through August.
A Must Do: A Bocas Highlights Boat or CatamaranTour
The best way to get to know Bocas is to take a Bocas one-day boat by boat or Catamaran tour. We recommend the Catamaran tour. Most tours take you to Dolphin Bay to observe dolphins cavorting, to picture perfect beaches like Red Frog or Zapatillas Keys,past mangroves teeming with life and the best nearby snorkeling spots. You can find boat and catamaran tours offered on main street and the prices are reasonable. Best to book the day before.
Bastimentos Sky Rainforest Zipline Tour
Enjoy this thrilling zipline canopy tour with 7 ziplines, a Tarzan swing, suspended sky bridge and ropes course. Whix through the lush rainforest Bastimientos Island adjacent to a national park. The zipline ride has stunning beach and rainforest views. Before or after your tour, go see Red Frog Beach. See Bastimentos Sky Rainforest Zipline Tours for more information.
Red Frog Beach
Regarded by many as the most beautiful beach in Panama-enjoy sparkling white sand, dramatic crashing waves, turquoise waters surrounded by lush tropical rainforest. To get there take the Red Frog Express boat on main street. On Red Frog beach, there's a restaurant with hamburgers etc.and chairs etc for rent. On the short walk across the island to the beach, you see and hear the tiny famous red frogs that live exclusively on this island. Get wet but don't swim out since there can be a strong undertow.
Zapatilla Keys Beach
This beach is the postcard picture of tropical beauty. More than a dozen countries filmed their Survivor series here. Go here to sun bathe and take in the beach beauty. Take a water taxi to get there and bring your own drinks and food as there is nothing commercial here since this is part of a national park.
Diving and Snorkeling
The best places for snorkeling are Coral Key and Hospital Point. We especially recommend Coral Key- with a good variety of brightly colored corals and tropical fish. A water taxi can take you directly or you can go as part of boat tour.
For diving, you'll find several PADI operators on main street. When diving in Bocas you see some of the best preserved hard and soft coral in the world. You will also may see sting rays, lobsters, several species of crabs and a wide variety of tropical reef fish.
Rent a Bike
This is inexpensive and fun. Bocas is the perfect place to run around by bicycle. You can bike around town and the adjacent neighborhoods and go to Bluff Beach. You'll find several companies renting the bikes on main street.
Finca Los Monos
This is privately funded tropical botanical garden about 10 minutes from downtown where you can take a two hour tour and observe a wide variety of flowering trees and plants. There is a $10 entrance fee.
Smithsonian Tropical Lab Tour
The Smithsonian Institute of Tropical Research has a seaside laboratory and offers tours of its ongoing scientific projects and various nature exhibits including one where you can see some of the local frogs. This is a great activity when it is pouring rain.
River Tours/ Indian Village Tour
For something different, take a river trip that includes a visit to an authentic Ngobe Bugle Indian village. This indian tribe still leads that's changed little since the time when Columbus discovered Bocas. You'll see jungle scenery and wildlife. You may even get a glimpse of a manatee- a large aquatic animals also known as a "sea cow".
With miles of mangroves and jungles lining the coast it is easy have a close-to-natre experience in Bocas. One tour is to Bird Island, with birds specific only to this island and another to an ocean side bat cave on Bastimientos Islands. We recommend Ancon Expeditions, Panama's premiere nature tour operator.
Bocas is a low-key and friendly town where it is easy to meet with fellow travelers and local people. As you stroll around town in the evening you'll find a number of local night spots where it seems every night is a party.
Buena Vista Deli & Bar, located right on the water, has American food and is hang out for Expats. For the younger crowd, Mondo Taitu is good place to meet an international mix of young travelers and surfers, and has diverse menu of specialty island cocktails (think mojito with a twist), served by some hip, friendly bartenders. Also fun is the newer La Iguana, right on the water. Don't forget to visit the famous Barco Hundido, also known as the "wreck-deck," which is a good place for some dance fun. Like anywhere, it;s advisable to practice discretion and stay on the lighted main streets at night.
There are a surprising variety of restaurants to choose from including, seafood, Indian, Italian, American comfort food and local fare.
Souvenir shops can be found on Bocas' main street and hippies from all over the world can be found lining the main-street with their crafts and beautiful jewelry. Also, on the opposite end of the main street just before the end, there is a display of molas attended by the Kuna Indians. Panama is famous for its "molas" which are colorful reverse-applique cloth designs. This humble stand has the one of best selection of "molas" in the whole country. You have the added satisfaction of purchasing directly from the local Indians and knowing your dollar will go a long way toward helping these worthy people.
Bocas Butterfly Farm
On Colon Island just a few minutes by water taxi ($2), pass through thick mangroves to get to an island garden with a large mesh tent where you spot hundreds colorful butterflies and witness all stages of their life cycle from tiny egg to curious caterpillar and jewel like pupa.
Like cinnamon rolls? The German Bakery by the central park offers these and other freshly backed goods. Deli Gourmet at the end of main street also has a great selection of treats and staples.
The best way to learn a language is to be in a place where the language is spoken. Take advantage of your Bocas stay by taking a Spanish course at Spanish By The Sea, an excellent place to learn Spanish.