Bocas del Toro Panama
A quick 50 minute flight from Panama City and we found ourselves in the tropical Caribbean paradise of Bocas Del Toro (a.k.a. Bocas). There are two regional airlines with daily flights to Bocas – Aeroperlas which is part of the Taca group and Air Panama.
Note: Currently (2012) the cost for a one way flight to/from the city is $110. Be sure to read my Special Report: Getting Around Panama” for all kinds of tips on how to get around the country.
Bocas del Toro is an ‘Archipelago- which means ‘a chain or cluster of islands’. On the Isla Colon you will find Bocas Town, the largest island community in the archipelago. In this town instead of a car most people own and get around by boat. I’ve heard Bocas referred to as ‘Venice of the Caribbean”. Although the only similarity I notice is the getting around by boat part! I would describe Bocas more like the Wild West than Venice. In fact, when we arrived in Bocas is was a little intimidating. Although there are a number of restaurants and bars in the town of Bocas, on Isla Colon, there is really little to do, especially for a family with kids. If you are not planning on getting away from the main town don’t bother going. That said, getting out into the protected waters of the Bocas archipelago is a real treat. Once you leave any of the Bocas del Toro Hotels you will experience: beautiful blue Caribbean waters and white sand beaches; wildlife including the famous Red Frogs of Isla Bastimentos and the Porpoises of Dolphin Bay, to name a few and even some of the best surfing in the Caribbean.
Check out this impromptu jam session we caught at…
Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos part of the Bocas Archipelago
Bocas del Toro is one of the only parts of Panama where we encountered a bit of ‘street hustle’. As we stepped out of one of the Bocas del Toro Hotels we were tempted by one of the local tricks – more than one fisherman, through with his morning catch, approached us and offered his ‘private boat’ for the day. He promised to take us to the same places as the tour operators for the same or maybe even less money, he was willing to negotiate. It sounded like a bargain especially when he talked about the tour company filling their boat with strangers and how nice it would be to have his boat to ourselves. Fortunately, we had received some good advice to avoid these ‘private parties’ and just said ‘No thank you’. We learned that a private boat often turns out to be a leaky boat with no protection from the sun and it’s not uncommon for the captain to pick up “friends who just need a lift” i.e. other unsuspecting tourists. (There are other little tricks like this about Bocas del Toro that we learned the hard way. Watch for those tips in my next Bocas letter.) So, we followed another piece of advice and went directly to the well known pro in Bocas, JJ’s Tours. Their reputation is well deserved. It truly is the best place in Bocas del Toro to go on a snorkeling or island tour. We spent an entire day in and around the islands chasing dolphins and snorkeling with our bilingual guide. We even stopped for a lunch of fresh caught seafood at a restaurant built on pilings in the middle of the mangrove.
There is this great Bocas Hotel, the Swan’s Cay, right on the main street but away from the dock where the water taxis come and go. It’s quieter back here. The wood work in this little inn is incredible and they make a pretty good pizza too! Although I’ve stayed at other lodgings in town I do tend to like the Swan’s Cay the best.
The town of Bocas del Toro has a Jamaican flavor. The restaurants in town are plentiful. One favorite, the Reef, serves to tables right on the dock and we enjoyed fresh caught Pargo Rojo (Red Snapper) which is so big it hangs over each side of the plate and all for under $10! The real estate bargains appear to be everywhere here as do the real estate street vendors… “PSSST, hey mister. Want to buy some land, cheap!” Bocas has a well earned reputation of being the shadiest part of Panama and I don’t mean from the Palm trees. It’s tough making smart decisions here. The people are so friendly and the waters so lovely – the emotions kick in and before you know it you may just have a piece of paper saying you own island but later discover you can’t get dead or title to it. So, beware there is little law enforcement to protect you from the unscrupulous. I was fortunate to have my lovely wife with me. After almost signing on the dotted line I bowed to my wife’s intuition and narrowly escaped a $100,000 Teak & Noni farm scam. Without proper guidance many a life’s savings have been lost in these magical waters.
After a couple of days of snorkeling and exploring the wonders of the rain forest we were off in the air again. This time north to the Pacific and into the highlands of Chiriqui and the quaint mountain village of Boquete.
Quick Tips – Bocas del Toro is an island community. Like most islands the interesting stuff is typically not out the front door of your hotel. Although Bocas del Toro Hotels have some excellent restaurants and night life it’s not a place you want to hang around all day. Get out and explore! Rent a bike (there are plenty of bike rentals around) and explore Isla Colon. It’s safe and you can see some amazing wildlife plus find some incredible beaches. Also, be sure to get out on a boat tour. Even if you’re not into snorkeling go down to JJ’s and take a tour of the archipelego – you won’t regret it!
Watch your inbox for my next “Letter from Panama” and discover everything we learned and continue to Learn about Panama.
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