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Bocas Del Toro is an archipelago of islands off the northern Caribbean coast of Panama, close to the border of Costa Rica. While the island is most well known for being a backpacker party hot spot, there’s more to it than just that. There are so many amazing things to do while backpacking Bocas Del Toro. It’s an incredible place to see marine life, tons of water sports including snorkeling, diving, and surf, as well as pristine beaches to relax on and jungle to explore.
Bocas Del Toro was the first place I visited while backpacking Panama. After spending a week on the island, it only made me want to discover more. I did that just that later on at the San Blas Islands, which is another island that you can’t miss in Panama. If you’re looking for the best things to do in Bocas Del Toro, this post has you covered.
How to Get to Bocas Del Toro
Bocas Del Toro is an archipelago on the northern Caribbean coast of Panama, easily accessible from other parts areas of Panama or Costa Rica.
Panama City to Bocas Del Toro
The easiest way to get to Bocas Del Toro from Panama city is to fly. Air Panama has a few flights daily from Panama City to Bocas town, search on Skyscanner. You can also take a bus from Panama City to Bocas but it’s a 10-12 hour bus journey. If you do decide to travel via bus, I recommend breaking the ride up by spending a few days in Boquete.
Boquete to Bocas Del Toro
If you are coming from Boquete, there are also direct tourist shuttles that go from Boquete to Bocas Del Toro. You can also DIY by getting a bus from Boquete to the town of David which leaves every half-hour or so. There you can get a bus from David to Almirante, which is just a couple minutes walk from the ferry terminal to Bocas Del Toro. It takes about 3.5 hours and cost me $8.50 USD in 2018.
Costa Rica to Bocas Del Toro
The first time I visited Bocas Del Toro I was only coming for a week but I actually flew into San Jose, Costa Rica instead of Panama City because the flight was so much cheaper. Although it’s a different country, getting from San Jose to Bocas Del Toro is not that complicated. The easiest way is to fly via Nature Air, but you can also book a bus transfer online or DIY.
From San Jose, grab a bus at the main terminal to Sixaola, which is the border town in Costa Rica. Tell them you are going to Panama when you buy your ticket. You will likely have to transfer busses in Limon. If you are in Puerto Viejo, Sixaola is just an hour away.
From there you cross the border from Costa Rica to Panama, which is one of the easiest border experiences I’ve had in Central America. Once you’re in Panama, you’ll need to catch a mini-bus to Almirante, which is about an hour away.
The cram the mini-busses full so be prepared to wait until there’s enough people to go. On that ride, the shuttle was jam-packed with me and a group of surfers who all had their boards with them. They jammed the boards on top, then as we were driving they fell off. This took hours to resolve and as you can imagine, no one was happy about the situation.
Once you’ve arrived in Almirante, you can catch a water taxi to the main town of Bocas for a couple of dollars. In typical Central American fashion, the boats don’t really have a set schedule. We took ours at sunset and I got the impression it was the last one, so plan to get there before dusk if you want to make it to the island that night. The boat ride takes about half an hour and will bring you to Bocas Town.
Where to Stay while Backpacking Bocas Del Toro
The boat will drop you off right in the town of Bocas, where most accommodations are in walking distance. If you are staying in another island, you can get a water taxi or arrange transportation with your hotel in advance.
Where you should stay in Bocas del Toro depends on what kind of experience you are looking for. Since the archipelago is made up of nine islands, there are a number of places to stay all offering different experiences. The three main islands people stay are on are Isla Colon, Isla Solarte, and Isla Bastimentos.
The main town on Isla Colon is Bocas Town, which is where most people stay. It’s a backpacker’s paradise and party place. The upside is that there are tons of bars and restaurants nearby, as well as tour operators to take you around. If this is what you’re looking for then it’s great, but if not then you may want to stay somewhere quieter such as Isla Bastimentos.
Hostels & Hotels in Bocas Town
Budget: If you want to stay in Bocas town and party then Selina is a great budget option. It’s right next to the main pier and has an on-site bar which is one of the main places for nightlife in town, so it’s a great place to meet other backpackers. I love Selina’s and stayed in them all through Costa Rica.
Another great hostel to stay is Bambuda Lodge on Isla Solarte. It’s owned by the same guys that run Bambuda Castle in Boquete, which was one of my favorite hostels in all of Central America. It’s a beautiful lodge with a pool and 150 slide into the ocean. It’s only five minutes from Bocas town and they offer transportation for free twice daily.
Mid-range: Casa Coco offers private units with sea views at an affordable price. It’s in a peaceful area in Bocas town and has excellent reviews.
Higher-end: If you’re looking for something more private in Bocas town, Azul Paradise Bocas is a great option. It’s a 4-star hotel right on the pier, so you can have the water outside your bedroom door.
Hotels on Isla Bastimentos
If you’re looking for a quieter stay, head over to Isla Bastimentos. It’s a more secluded location where you can get more privacy. It’s also where most of the luxurious hotels are. On the downside, most of the restaurants are in Bocas Town so you’ll have to go back if you want to eat out.
Budget: Selina has another location on red frog beach on Isla Bastimentos. This Selina has a much chiller vibe while still being a great place to meet other travelers.
Mid-Higher range: Another great option in Bastimentos is Azul Paradise which has overwater bungalows. I’ve always wanted to stay in one of these!
One really unique place to stay is La Loma Jungle Lodge and Chocolate Farm. This place looks amazing! It’s an organic chocolate farm dedicated to the sustainability and care of the environment.
Luxury: If you’re looking for a luxurious stay, check out Red Frog Beach Island Resort. It has a beautiful private bungalow, an outdoor pool, and a full-service spa. If you plan to just stay at the resort, this is a great option.
Best Time to Visit Bocas Del Toro
Bocas Del Toro is a tropical destination that averages more than 130 inches of rainfall every year. There is no guarantee of not getting any rain, but the dry season runs from December to early April. This is when you’ll get the clearest skies and least chance of rain.
The wet season runs from late April to November, where there are many overcast days and a high chance of rain. Honestly, I visited in May and it was not that bad. It did rain every day, but usually, only in the morning for an hour or so and then for the rest of the day it was sunny. Whatever time of year you visit, it’s going to be tropical and lovely.
The Best Things to do while backpacking Bocas Del Toro
Drago and Starfish Beach
Drago beach is a beautiful stretch of beach on Isla Colon. To get there from Bocas town you can hire a taxi, take a water taxi, or grab a shuttle bus which takes about 45 minutes. You can also rent a bike and ride it from Bocas but it’s about 18km. There are also fun speed boat tour which take you there as well as some other beaches.
From Drago, you can take a $1 water taxi ride to Starfish beach or walk 20-minutes. This is not a deceiving name! The beach is flooded with big, colorful starfish. Grab your snorkel and spend the day relaxing on the beach and swimming with starfish. The beach is remote so it’s a good idea to bring snacks and water with you.
Yes, this is exactly what it sounds like. An island full of cute, sleepy, smiling sloths hanging around the protected mangroves. The island is located just off Isla Colon and boat tours run from Bocas Town daily. Of course, they don’t guarantee you will see a sloth, but I hadn’t met anyone on the island who didn’t see them. After all, where are the sloths going to go?
Note that you won’t actually be walking on the island, you will just admire the sloths from the boat. Many tour operators combine sloth island this with a day trip to Zapatilla Island for an all-day adventure.
Rent an ATV and explore the Jungle
If you want to explore Isla Colon outside of Bocas Town then you will need an ATV to see most of it. The road ends at a certain point out of town and it becomes a lush jungle only accessible by ATV. On the ATV trails, we found amazing swimming spots, old ruins, and beautiful beaches! It was so much fun driving through the jungle.
If you’re going to rent an ATV, you should rent them from Flying Pirates as they own and maintain the trails. We didn’t know this and rented from another ATV company in town, and then ended up being locked out of one of the trail sections.
We were able to access it by paying a fee to the guy who owns flying pirates, but just save yourself the hassle and go through them from the beginning. He owns a bar near where the trails start and it’s a great place to hang out – with floating beds over the water.
Go Snorkelling and Diving (day & night!)
Snorkeling and diving tours run daily from Bocas Town and will bring you to Bastimentos National Marine Park, where you can snorkel in the clear Caribbean waters. Some marine life you may see are angelfish, parrotfish, groupers, butterflyfish, and moray eels. There are also combined snorkel and dolphin spotting tours.
One of the coolest snorkeling experiences you can do in Bocas Del Toro is to go snorkeling at night to see the glow of bioluminescence plankton. This was my first time even seeing this phenomenon and it completely blew my mind.
The light is created through a biological process by living organisms. Sounds complicated, but basically all you need to know is that you will be swimming through a pitch dark ocean lit up by thousands of sparkly little sea creatures. The more you move, the more they glow. It’s magical. I wish I could show you photos but my camera can’t pick it up. It’s just something you have to see.
Mangrove Boat Ride & Caving
A fun way to spend the afternoon in Bocas Del Toro is to take a boat ride through the mangroves. You may see wildlife from the boat such as sloths, birds, and red frogs. Plus the boat driver didn’t seem to mind me bringing my own drink.
This tour was a little last-minute decision and I wasn’t prepared for what we were going to do. After the boat ride, we got off and walked through a muddy path to a cave. As you can see, I had barely finished my beer at this point and was not in hiking gear! At least he gave me a head lamp.
We went inside the cave which was pretty dark and spooky, but at the end of it, there is a ledge you can jump off into the cave water. Luckily, I was wearing my swimsuit under my clothes. The jump is a very refreshing way to beat the humidity of Bocas Del Toro! I’m not sure how common this tour is, we kind of just went with it when a local offered. But it was a fun way to spend an afternoon.
Relax at Isla Zapatilla
Located in Panama’s Bastimentos Island National Marine Park, Zapatilla Islands look like they came straight out of a postcard. As they are only accessible by boat the best way to visit is to book a day tour from Bocas Town.
It takes about 30 minutes to reach the islands. The ride is scenic and dolphins are frequently seen along the way. Once on the island, you have free time to soak up this tropical paradise. It’s an ideal spot for snorkeling, with beautiful coral reefs right off the beach. Otherwise, you can just relax on the gorgeous white-sand beaches or head inland to explore the jungle.
Whale Watching & Dolphin Tours
Bocas Del Toro is one of the best places to go whale watching in Panama. The waters are teeming with marine wildlife; Bocas is actually called the Galapagos of the Caribbean! The best time to see whales is from July to October, as this when the humpback whales migrate to the area.
Bottlenose dolphins can be spotted year-round in Bocas Del Toro. Laguna Bocatorito, or more commonly known as Dolphin Bay, is the best place to see them. It’s a 20-minute boat ride from Isla Colon. You can book dolphin tours online.
You may also just see dolphins while on other day tours from the boat. On our way to Zapitilla island, we spotted dolphins jumping in the water.
Red Frog Beach
Another beach worth checking out in Bocas Del Toro is red frog beach on Isla Basimentos. It’s got a gorgeous beach to relax on where you can go swimming in the warm Caribbean water. It’s also home to the red frog nature reserve where you can spot the poison dart frogs. They are tiny, so lookout!
This town is a backpacker’s favorite for a reason. Bocas del Toro notoriously ranks as one of the top 5 party destinations in Central America along with Nicaragua’s Sunday Funday. Some popular clubs bars are Aqua lounge, Selina, and La Iguana Surf Bar. Look out for ladies’ nights where you can drink for free!
Bocas is famous for Filthy Fridays, an island-hopping party that happens every Friday. You will go across three beautiful tropical islands alongside piles of other backpackers. Prepare for a heavy day of drinking. The party starts at 11:30 am and goes until 9:00 pm. If you’re not in the mood to drink, this may not be the party for you.
If you’re looking for something a bit more low-key but still want to drink, check out the floating bar. It’s just a 5-minute water taxis from Bocas Town, where you can enjoy cocktails while floating in the middle of the Caribbean. It also has delicious food!
Take a surf lesson
On an introductory surf lesson you’ll start on the beach and cover the basics of safety and paddling techniques. Once you’ve tried practicing the movement a few times on the beach you’ll head out to the water to try and catch a wave! The best season for surfing in Bocas is from November to February.
Plastic Bottle Village
Fed up with the plastic bottle waste he was seeing on the island, Robert Bezeau decided to do something about it. The result is plastic bottle village, which is exactly what it sounds: a village containing fulls-sized structures made up of millions of bottles. Guests can visit and even stay in the village!
Essential Items for Bocas Del Toro
- Cash is king. Credit cards are not widely accepted here but America dollars are. Bring extra cash.
- Sun protection – sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses!
- Since water taxis are so common, bring motion sickness tablets with you if you’re prone to seasickness.
- Given the constant humidity, a rain jacket is a good idea.
- Like most of Central America, you can’t drink the water here. If you want to save money and avoid buying plastic bottles, get a steripen, which is a portable water purifier. These things are magic, and yes they really work.
- Snorkel and Mask for snorkeling in the water. Tours will provide them, but they aren’t always the best quality.
- Dry bag. This will keep all your items safe from any water! This is so useful when taking water taxis between the islands.
- Beach Towel
Bocas Del Toro often gets mixed reviews, but I loved my time backpacking here. It’s a fun island with great opportunities for seeing marine life. Have you visited Bocas Del Toro before? What did you think?
Planning a trip in Panama? Check out these posts!
- A Guide to Visiting the San Blas Islands
- The Lost Waterfalls of Boquete
- Stay in this amazing castle in Panama
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