North America > Central America > Panama > Caribbean West > Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro (aka Bocas Town aka Bocas) is a town in the Caribbean West of Panama. The town has an interesting mix of islanders, ex-pats and backpackers and is the most developed in the region. The town boasts an abundance of restaurants, hotels and bars. Bocas has developed a reputation for being a party town with a number of bars and clubs that sit on the stilts over the water.
Bocas Town is on the southern tip of Isla Colón and is part of the Bocas del Toro archipelago of islands.
Further afield on the island of Colón, are a number of white sand beaches and nature reserves. Bocas also makes a good base for doing tours around the other islands. Other islands accessible by water taxi from Bocas Town include Carenero, Bastimentos, Cristóbal, and Solarte.
|Bocas del Toro|
|Climate chart (explanation)|
From San José International Airport Aerobell Airlines, Sansa and Skyway Airlines offer daily flights starting from US$99 each way plus US$26 international departure fee and $12 for a Panamanian entry stamp.
It is possible to take your vehicle on the island using a car ferry. The ferry leaves Almirante port every morning at 08:00 Monday to Saturday (no service on Sundays). Cost per car is $15 and there is an extra $1 charge per passenger. The same ferry goes back to the mainland on the same days at 16:00. If you wish to leave your car on the mainland, there is a secure parking available next to where the water taxis leave in Almirante. Cost is $3 per day.
By bus and boat
The town is on Isla Colón and you'll need to take a boat to access it. Boats departs frequently from Almirante. There is no service anymore from Changuinola. Locals pay $4 for the boat each way (25 min). With some haggling even as a tourist you can manage to pay $5 and get a voucher to pay only $3 on the way back. There are three operators, all offering the same service. The one in the middle at the docks (Transporte Torres) is the most inexpensive one and open for bargaining. On return tell them you used them to come to Bocas and at Almirante they promised the return trip for $3 (or $4). But you can probably also try this argument with the other two companies.
From David look for buses to Changuinola and ask a driver to stop in Almirante ($8.45, 4 hr). In Almirante, get off before the bus terminal at the turn, otherwise it is a very short walk to the docks (1–1.5 km). Many decide to take the taxi ($2), which is why they do not stop near the docks.
Ignore the guys who want to walk you there as this will increase the price of your ticket to the island.
From Changuinola the bus might stop near the dock ($1.45).
By private shuttle
From Boquete you can also take a private shuttle for the 4-hr journey to Almirante, and then the water taxi, which is included in the ticket price, to Bocas del Toro. Two companies in town offer the daily shuttle: Reservations are recommended ($30-35). From Boquete they leave at 08:00 from Hola Panama in the Mamallena Hostel, or 09:00 from the Transport Company in Plaza Los Establos on Main Street.
There are a few other companies also offering private buses and shuttles to Bocas from many destinations including Puerto Viejo, Panama City, San Jose and others. To check pricing, schedules and availability one can check on their websites: Caribe Shuttle or Panama Shuttles [dead link].
Bocas del Toro is a popular place for sailboats to stop and stay for awhile, with plenty of easy anchorage and a marina, and it is an authorized port of entry to Panama. If you are arriving from another country, immigration officials will come to your boat to do an inspection once you contact them upon arrival, and the crew is not supposed to leave the boat until this process is complete (though you are unlikely to be penalized if you make a mistake). If you do not have your own boat and cannot afford to charter one, it may be possible to find crew opportunities for boats coming here from elsewhere in Panama or the Caribbean.
From Costa Rica
From Sixaola in Costa Rica you get to pay a $7+1 exit fee and a $4 municipality fee to enter Panama. The border in Panama closes at 5PM local time. The Panamanian officials frequently ask for printed proof that you are going to leave the country again. If you can't provide any such documents you might be required to buy a $14 ticket to San José. From the border there are $10 shuttles to Almirante, or you can take a bus to Changuinola ($1, 15 min) and from there a mini bus to Almirante ($1.45, 40 min).
Bocas town is small enough to walk all over. If you need a ride, cabs are plentiful and usually only cost 60 cents or so to get around town.
By water taxi
Not necessary for getting around the town itself, but water taxis are the main means of transport to other islands or farther-flung beaches. Fares are always charged per person, not per group, and start at $1 (from the Bocas Town waterfront to Aqua Lounge on nearby Carenero Island). Agree on the price beforehand. You can also pay before getting in if you want to make sure to get your change.
Bicycle rentals run approximately $2/hr or $10/day. The roads are flat and in good repair, which makes getting around on a bike very easy.
Scooters can also be rented, for approximately $70/day. ATV are also available and popular.
There are two bus companies that provide service between Bocas town and Drago beach (for the starfish). They run every full hour for $2.50. If you get off a little earlier, it is $1 less (see the price sign in the bus). In case you stay along Bluff or at Skullys, entering later than the town they still demand $2.50. If you are confident, you can argue with them. At least on the way back, you can refer to the price sign.
- El Istmito
- Big Creek
- Bluff Beach – There are several hotels/restaurants in middle. Swimming can difficult but come here for unspoilt sometimes private feeling beach. Surfing is popular. About $15 taxi from town. Otherwise take the bus to the junction towards Drago ($0.50) and walk the rest.
- Starfish Beach – Take the hourly bus to Drago (45 min) and walk another 1.5-2 km from there (20 min).
- Mimitimbi Beach
- Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute Tropical Research Station – A world-class marine science research station, offering free guided tours Thursday and Friday afternoons. Located a bit outside of town.
- Finca los Monos – A private botanical garden, also just outside of town, known for its good birding and good chances to see wild monkeys and sloths. $25 admission.
- Sloths – Wild three-toed sloths can be seen anywhere in the Bocas del Toro archipelago if you're lucky, but tours offer visits to "sloth islands" where your odds are supposedly better. Package tours that only include a boat ride past the islands are unlikely to result in sightings, but more focused tours that land on the islands are more likely to be worthwhile.
- Dolphins – There is a lagoon a few miles away from Bocas Town with a resident population of wild dolphins. Many day tours of the islands include stops here, and it's also possible to take a water taxi.
- Scuba Diving. Most operators offer identical dive options at the same price, with the same types of boats. The diving may not be adventurous enough for seasoned divers as most of the dives are fairly shallow (15–20 m) and the wildlife not as rich as some of the more mainstream Caribbean dive destinations. There is also another scuba operator on Isla Bastimentos. They do not hire contract dive masters. All dives are lead by the owner. About $60/two tanks, all equipment included. Certification courses from $199.
- Horseback riding. Horses are a way of life in Panama. It is not unusual to look out the window of your casita, and have a horse looking back. Horseback riding in Panama is mostly Western horses and Western saddles. Privately owned horses can vary from Quarter Horse to a mix of Columbian or Peruvian Paso. By breeding the two, you get a larger horse, than the traditional Paso Fino, with the smooth and lovely gait of the Paso. A great area for riding are the beaches of Bocas del Toro near Dolphin Bay'.
- 1 Starfish Beach (take a bus to Drago and walk another 20 min from there: follow the people). Although very touristy, go here for seeing starfish. Bring a snorkelling set. The amount of starfish can be very low, maybe you will only see 10-20 different ones. If you are keen free-diving, check out the sea weed area where also other maritime life can be found including lion fish.
- Zapatillas Day Tour. Even though it is very crowded and many boats go there, it can be worth it. Apparently, it also includes a visit to a starfish place with much better sight than Starfish Beach. $50-70 (?).
- Laundry (Don Chicho) (2 houses left of Heike hostel). $3.50 per load.
There are plenty of places to eat lining the main streets of Bocas Town. Just walk around and check some out. Expect to pay about $3–5 for a cheap meal, though of course it is easy to find places where you will pay much more. Food carts can be either fairly expensive or pretty cheap, usually depending on the location and target clientele. Specialties are empanadas or fried chicken and patacones.
- El Ultimo Refugio. Fresh seafood, steak, and variations on Norte Americano-style dishes. It has moved from the southern end of town (as of March 2019) to the northern end, so your map app may lead you to the wrong place. Ask around for the new location, or walk to the north end of the main street until you see the signs. From $35 for two.
- [dead link] Om Cafe (Indian food), Avenue E and Calle 2 (upstairs from the surf shop). Breakfast really shines here with the wide variety of juice blends and shakes they offer, plus a very unique eggs vindaloo dish that is a must try. $30 for two, with drinks.
- La Ballena. Gourmet pizzas and European wines by the glass, which you'll pay dearly for. This may be the most expensive restaurant in all of Bocas town. The pizzas are large with generous toppings, and come in many interesting variations. Wine selection is impressive, though expensive. From $40 for 2.
- Bongo's Cafe (On the main strip). Popular bar/restaurant run by a charming Cuban woman named Giselle (known around the island as "La Cubana") who is also the liaison between the public and the police. The seafood soup (Sopa de Mariscos) served there is simply delicious and Bongo's seems to be the only restaurant that freshly squeezes the fruit right in front of you. With all this and attentive staff, Bongo's Cafe is a real gem.
There quite a few bars in Bocas Town, and all the restaurants serve beer as well. It's not uncommon for backpackers to buy beer at one of the many small grocery stores and drink while walking down the street, though this is probably illegal.
- Selina. The waterfront wooden deck bar for the massive Selina Hostel, on the first floor and open to the public. Just walk right in, or use the smaller side door through the passageway on the right later at night. As of March 2020, this seems to often be where the party is, especially before midnight.
- Barco Hundido. A disco, built on a wooden deck, above the water with a wrecked/sunken ship under the water just beyond the deck, illuminated by bright lights. Probably one of the better bars in town, and the one that most of the town winds up at by the end of the night.
- Summer. Another late night party place on the waterfront. $5 cover.
This section lists accommodations within Bocas Town. For more (and quieter) options within a short water taxi ride of Bocas Town, see Isla Carenero. There are also places to stay on the slightly-farther Isla Bastimentos, Isla Cristóbal, and Isla Solarte, still accessible by water taxi from Bocas.
- Twin Fin Hostel. Pleasant, airy budget hostel. Pretty basic, with cold showers and light air conditioning in the dorms at night only. Small bar and tables downstairs. Breakfast (two small pancakes and some fresh fruit) is included. Dorm beds from $12.
- Cliff's Hostel. Budget hostel with a reputation for good value and a very friendly and helpful owner.
- Selina Hostel. This is Bocas's big, slick corporate party hostel. Reputedly well-maintained. Has a hopping bar downstairs.
- Calipso Hostel, ☏ . On the main street, it offers excellent dorms and private rooms. Rooms are clean with a/c and private bathroom. A shared kitchen, internet and cheap tours are available. The place is run by an extremely friendly and helpful lady.
- Try Mondo Taito or Heike twin hostels in the town. Dorm beds are available from $10 with kind of gross shared bathrooms. Run by a group of American ex-pats. They do not take advance bookings, it is very noisy, not all that clean and not on the water, but if you are up for a party you will probably have a great time. Cheap Spanish lessons available.
- Hostelluego, Avenue G (one block beyone Mondo Taito), ☏ . Chilled out place 40 m from the party hostels. Very nice and clean, very safe. Nice chill out area, Free laptops, Wi-Fi, pancake breakfast and all rooms A/C. $10 per person dorm, $24 for a double private
- Hotel Angela. Run by Claudio, a US expat from California. The hotel is clean and safe, located a block off the main avenue and away from traffic noise. The hotel also has its own restaurant and bar over the water. Happy hour 15:30–17:30: 2-for-1 drinks. The staff are extremely courteous and friendly.
- Punta Caracol. A hotel of overwater bungalows a 15-min boat ride from Bocas town. Nine bungalows sit on stilts over the water, and wrap around verandas give each bungalow direct access to the water. Rates start at $285/night in the low season for the smallest bungalow, and run up to $600 for the largest bungalow in the high season. Rates include breakfast and dinner.
- Tropical Suites, Calle Primera (Bocas Town), ☏ . Check-in: Flexible, check-out: Flexible. Tropical Suites is in Bocas Town on the waterfront. There are activities all around you. The 16 large suites have a complete kitchen, breakfast bar, a large Jacuzzi and balconies. Excursions can be arranged with the reception. Boats can be moored at the hotel docks. Rates start at $140/night, including breakfast and free Wi-Fi internet, with promotional discounts during the season. Deals are available for longer stays, weekly or monthly.
- Dolphin Bay Hideaway, Dolphin Bay (Bocas del Toro), ☏ . A small Bed and Breakfast on the shores of Dolphin Bay on the Island of San Cristobal, a 20-min boat ride from Bocas town. It is a very quite and secluded hideaway offering personalized service. 3 beautifully decorated rooms. Meals are prepared using fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables. Room rates start at $115 and they include full breakfast and transportation to and from Bocas town.
- Hostel Hansi. Check-out: 11:00. Extremely clean German-run hostel with fans in every room. Some rooms also have a balcony. Spacious kitchen facilities and plenty of room in the fridge. The focus is on a family-orientated hostel, rather than a backpacker hangout centered around a bar. Free Wi-Fi. Use of facilities after the checkout incurs a $2 surcharge. $25 double.
- Hotel Olas, calle 6ta (Take a left out of the launch dock, keep with the road as it curves right. Pass a small playground, the hotel is on the left.), ☏ . Check-in: 13:00, check-out: 12:00. Hotel built in 2004. Clean, spacious rooms fitted with AC, wiFi, private hot showers, TV and balconies. Waterfront bar below. Bicycles, kayaks and snorkelling equipment for rent. Various island tours and expeditions can be arranged. Cake and coffee offered every morning. Great deck with hammacs to chill out. Good location. $40-60 double rooms, high season $48-68.