I’d heard a lot about Bocas del Toro in Panama on the Central American gringo grapevine.
Stories of quiet islands engulfed by still, crystalline turquoise waters. Untouched lush jungle and tangled mangroves sprouting from the silky Caribbean ocean. Colourful coral and starfish as intriguing and tranquil as the sloths in the trees above.
They were tales I knew I had to experience for myself and quickly added Panama onto my Central and South American itinerary.
Floating just off of the Costa Rican/Panama border, Bocas del Toro is an archipelago made up of approximately 250 islands and islets, which can be easily reached by boat from the nearby town of Almirante.
You can reach the islands in around 6 hours from Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica and can stay on a number of different islands, which all offer an abundance of jaw-dropping beaches, jungle and wildlife to uncover.
I spent just over a week in Bocas del Toro, spending four nights on Bastimentos Island and four on the main island, Colón.
If you’re planning a trip to this slice of Caribbean paradise, here are my five spots not to miss!
Stay at Palmar Beach Lodge on Red Frog Beach, Bastimentos
For our first 4 nights in Bocas del Toro we stayed at Palmar Beach Lodge on Red Frog Beach on Bastimentos Island, which I would highly recommend ($16.50 a night for a bed in a dorm room).
Situated directly on the beach yet, nestled in Bastimentos’ dense jungle, Palmar has a real primitive feel about it but with the addition of all the amenities you need for an extremely comfortable stay. They offer bungalows, dorm rooms, private tents, yoga, a high-quality restaurant, a free shuttle from the main island twice a day and free entry to the island ($5 if visited on a trip). Palmar Beach Lodge is like a luxury retreat but at a backpacker budget.
Due to its rough and dangerous tide, Red Frog Beach isn’t the postcard-perfect Caribbean beach you see in all the pictures (don’t worry you’ll find these later). However, it is home to the island’s famous poisonous red frogs, which are best spotted at dusk and dawn.
Polo Beach, Bastimentos
After searching long and hard for ‘that’ beach that would give me a true Caribbean experience, I well and truly found it on Polo Beach on Bastimentos.
Located around a 40 minute walk from Palmar Beach Lodge, Polo Beach will blow you away with its contrast to Red Frog. Still blue water spattered with inky patches of coral, dusty white sand and only a few other faces in sight, it was the exact beach bliss I had been searching for.
Despite this beaches beauty, its true selling point is its local resident, Mr Polo himself, who will undoubtedly introduce himself and welcome you into his home for a lunch of whatever fresh fish he has in that day. We were lucky enough to indulge in a delicious helping of lobster, mussels and rice, washed down with an iced cold beer, all for a bargain $6.
If you’re on Bastimentos Island, a visit to Polo Beach is a cultural experience you don’t want to miss.
Visit Old Bank, Bastimentos
If you’re after a true taste of the Caribbean culture in Panama, Old Bank on Bastimentos Island is the place to go. A small town with very little in terms of tourism, Old Bank is a great place to just wander around and observe the day-to-day lives of the locals who call this tropical island home.
Team a walk around the town with a trip up into the mountains to visit organic farm and cafe, Up in the Hill. A homemade brownie and iced coffee will be well deserved after the sweaty walk up and all ingredients used are freshly grown there themselves.
Starfish Beach, Colón
Starfish Beach is quite possibly the most beautiful beach I have ever laid eyes on.
Located around a half an hour drive from Bocas Town on Colón Island, Starfish Beach (aka. Playa Estrella) is renowned for its perfectly clear, gentle water and its abundance of starfish visible through the translucent sea.
Shuttle buses run from the square in Bocas Town and cost approx $2.50 each way. Hop off the bus and weave past pristine deserted beaches shaded by drooping palm trees until you reach Starfish Beach around 10/15 minutes from the drop off point.
There are a few seafood restaurants and bars on the beach for when you’ve worked up an appetite/thirst for a beer however, the octopus dish we tried was rather overpriced for what we had so choose your restaurant wisely.
Go on a boat trip
A trip to Bocas del Toro would not be complete without taking to the water at least once.
There are lots of different companies in Bocas offering boat trips to different islands within the archipelago. Most trips include a visit to a spot where you can see dolphins, a mangrove entwined with sloths, the famous deserted Zapatilla Island, snorkelling opportunities and lunch (around $25-45 depending on the company).
We went on a day trip offered by Selina hostel, which was $30 each and included all the above as well as, beer and rum – a nice lil’ addition when we were sprawled on a deserted Caribbean island channeling our inner Jack Sparrow.