Bocas del Toro is the kind of place leaves most travelers wanting to return for more. Despite being one of the most popular tourist destinations in Panama, much of it is undeveloped, and there’s a super laid-back feeling wherever you go. Add to this the indigenous culture still alive and well in this part of Panama, and there’s much to reward visitors to Bocas del Toro.
I spent two full weeks in Bocas del Toro during a 3-month trip to Central America. While I did not fully enjoy my time there, I can certainly testify to its beauty and I have a recommendation or two that will help you make the most of your time there.
Continue reading to discover the best things to do in Bocas del Toro, and for lots of practical information to plan your visit.
Where Is Bocas Del Toro?
Part of Panama’s Bocas del Toro Province, the archipelago of Bocas del Toro (literally “Mouth of the Bull” in Spanish) punctuates the nation’s northwest Caribbean coastline a stone’s throw from Costa Rica to the west. To the south lies the Chiriqui Province, while in the east it’s Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca — one of five indigenous regions in Panama.
This group of islands is one of the main attractions for anybody looking for sun, sea and sand in Panama. And there’s a lot to choose from: the archipelago spans an area of 250 square kilometers (97 square miles).
Bocas del Toro is home to around 13,000 people, the majority of whom live on Isla Colon, the most populated of the archipelago. It’s here that you’ll find the town of Bocas del Toro itself, as well as the airport that serves the region, Aeropuerto Internacional José Ezequiel Hall.
Other islands of its seven main ones include Isla Bastimentos, one of the largest in Panama, as well as the small, forested Isla Carenero. There are dozens of tiny islets and cays besides, with many of them falling within Panama’s oldest marine park, the Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos.
Weather In Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Being a prime vacation destination in Panama, you can expect these Caribbean islands to have warm, sunny weather. And they do — almost all year round. The average daily high for Bocas del Toro sits between 30°C and 31°C (between 86°F and 90°F), with lows never (or rarely) dropping below 20°C (68°F).
The coldest months are January and February, but it’s not exactly what you’d call freezing; highs at this time of year can still reach 31°C (almost 88°F), with average lows of around 20°C (68°F). Temperatures in Bocas del Toro are at their highest in June, when the mercury soars to 32°C and above (over 90°F), with lows of 22°C (71.6°F).
While warm weather is pretty much always on the cards, there is also a dry and a wet season to consider. Though the wet season in Panama falls between mid-April and early December, Bocas del Toro doesn’t necessarily follow suit; September and October tend to be much drier than the rest of the country.
Rain can pretty much happen any time – it certainly rained almost every day when I visited in February, and it is said that Bocas del Toro gets around 130 inches of rain per year. Steady rainy days in Bocas del Toro do set in around April, with the wet season peaking in November and December — it can be cloudy for weeks at a time.
March is the driest month of the year for the archipelago. This is also a good time of year to visit Bocas del Toro because of the calmer seas, making it easier to get around. But whatever time you decide to go to Bocas del Toro, it’s best to expect at least some rain at some point during your stay.
Is Bocas Del Toro Worth Visiting?
To be fair, I didn’t fall in love with Bocas del Toro. Back in the day when I was new to blogging, I had a really spontaneous blog where I’d share anything that came through my mind, including impressions of the places I was visiting. I remember writing a post – that is no longer live, I am afraid! – where I spilled all the truth that guide books were not sharing about Bocas del Toro.
I think my not liking it was however due to a combination of factors. I found the islands, and especially Bocas Town, to be terribly dirty – when I visited there was garbage everywhere – so don’t go in expecting a pristine place like I did, as it’ll be a major disappointment.
A big part of my disliking Bocas was due to the fact that I was not traveling with the right company. In fact, my travel companion back then was what you’d call a real idiot, and it made me so sour that literally anything I saw or did was sour too. With hindsight, I’d have been way better off traveling alone.
The weather when I visited was mostly bad – it rained a lot. And finally, I got sick with food poisoning and a throat infection (which led me to have a tonsillectomy once I got back home in Italy).
Having said so, whike I have no immediate plans to visit again, I still think Bocas del Toro is worth visiting. This archipelago can be an incredible destination. It’s a popular backpackers’ hangout, which means it gets very busy with tourists. But if you go prepared knowing what to expect, it’s great.
If you explore with the right mindset, you’ll find Bocas del Toro to be a beautiful collection of islands, serving up a serious helping of unbelievably blue waters, luxury living and an abundance of nature to explore. It’s here that people come for lazing around on the beach, catching some waves, and enjoying the scenery as you explore.
Best Things To Do In Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Visit the Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos
Founded in 1988, Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos is Panama’s first (and foremost) marine park. This protected area covers 132,000 square kilometers (50,965 square miles) and encompasses 130 islands.
The park is a safe haven for a wide array of animal and marine life, including 28 species of amphibians and reptiles, as well as sloths, cayman, monkeys and crocodiles, and over 250 marine mammals and fish species.
Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos also plays an important role in protecting the vibrant coral species that thrive in the waters around the islands. There are more than 80 different coral species that can be found here, with some parts of the reef estimated to be around 10,000 years old!
Needless to say, a visit to this sprawling natural treasure is a must for any traveler to Bocas del Toro. Trips and tours can be arranged through your accommodation; you can even opt to camp in the park for a small fee per night, allowing you front row seats to nature in all its glory.
Spot the turtles at Playa Larga
Located within the boundaries of the marine park, Playa Larga is a stunning six-kilometer (3.7-mile) stretch of sand on the southeast side of Isla Bastimentos. The island itself boasts a rugged interior and sheltered mangroves on the west, while this beach provides an important nesting ground for sea turtles.
From April through to September, it’s here that various different species of sea turtles arrive to lay their eggs, including green, leatherback and hawksbill turtles. Those who wish to see the sea turtles can spend time camping out nearby, or hike with a guide during the night; this sort of tour can be easily arranged through the accommodation you’re lodging with on the island.
There’s good surf to be had at Playa Larga, too, but this isn’t a spot for beginners; three breaks produce waves over 12 feet and long tubes. Because of this, it’s not a good spot for swimming however!
See the frogs at Red Frog Beach
Also located on Isla Bastimentos is the popular Red Frog Beach. This beach takes its name from the rana rojo, aka the strawberry poison dart frog, which lives here. The tiny frog actually draws crowds in high season, with many tourists traveling here to search out the amphibian curiosity. Nearby there are resorts and upscale villas to stay in, too.
Go to Playa Bluff
This is one of the most popular beaches on the Caribbean side of Bocas del Toro, located in Isla Colón. You can easily get there in one hour by bike – but you can also take a taxi or a bus – from Bocas Town (hence the popularity), in fact there are some good accommodation options in the area too.
The beach is gorgeous – long and with beautiful fine sand – but the currents are actually quite strong, which means it’s not the best place for swimming.
Check out Starfish Beach
Many say that visiting Starfish Beach is one of the unmissable things to do in Bocas del Toro. It certainly is great to see these gorgeous animals living in their natural environment – the water is very calm and shallow here, so they are easy to spot. But remember you should not touch them, and by all means never take them out of the water as they are really delicate and they may die as a result.
To get there, you can take a taxi or ride a bike from Bocas Town – taxis will drop you off at Drago Beach, from where it’s an easy walk.
Explore Isla Carenero
Just a stone’s throw from the main town of Bocas del Toro, Isla Carenero is one the smallest of the archipelago’s seven main islands. Getting here is a simple matter of hopping on a boat from town, and then you’ll be ready to lap up the easygoing atmosphere of the road-free island.
I mentioned that it was small, but in fact Isla Caranero is so small that you can walk (or kayak) around its entirety in around one hour. Travelers who want to experience a chilled-out vacation can spend longer on this sleepy island, thanks to a collection of hotels that overlook beaches that surround it.
Step inside Nivida Bat Cave
This truly enchanting natural wonder is located on Isla Bastimentos, within the borders of the marine park. Nivida Bat Cave is enormous and, as the name suggests, it is home to a colony of thousands upon thousands of bats. Visiting is a fun thing to do in Bocas del Toro, provided you are not afraid of bats!
Bat cave tours (around USD $45 per person) are the best way to see this impressive slice of Bocas del Toro. Including boat ride, wading through water and donning a helmet with a head torch, it’s quite an adventure.
Dine in the paradisiacal surroundings
You may expect cuisine in such a far-flung destination to be on the simple side, but as the archipelago is a popular destination for tourists from around the world, it’s home to a surprisingly good selection of gastronomic delights.
Top restaurants such as Firefly offer up rustic, relaxed surroundings, with Caribbean-style eats on the menu. For a more local atmosphere, head to the easygoing El Último Refugio; located in Bocas del Toro town, you can expect friendly service and a selection of Caribbean seafood dishes to sample.
The open-air Yarisnori is a favorite among locals, a beachside spot strung with hammocks and shaded by palms that serves up beans, rice and freshly caught fish. Regardless of the exact place you go to, however, one of the best bits about dining out here are the exquisite views and the scenery.
Surfing is actually one of the best things to do in Bocas del Toro. There are several places where you can catch some good waves.
Playa Bluff – the above mentioned beach in Isla Colon gets regular waves on particularly windy days and is suitable also for beginners surfers.
Red Frog Beach – another great place for surfing, this one is located in Bastimentos. Once again, the presence of waves really depends on the wind.
Black Rock – this beach is on Isla Caranero and is the one that gets the most consistent surf, so your best best if you are keen on surfing. It’s a great place for beginners too.
Go diving or snorkeling
One of the best things to do in Bocas del Toro is diving. Fans of scuba diving and snorkeling will get a lot from a trip to the islands, not least for the marine park and countless dive spots. In fact, 95% of all coral species that grow in the Caribbean can be found in Bocas del Toro, meaning a whole array of tropical marine life to discover, including stingrays, nurse sharks and bioluminescent plankton.
Diving is at its best between February and April and September and October – that’s when there’s the highest visibility. I visited Bocas in February and it actually rained (it’s the tropics!) and the visibility wasn’t actually as good as I’d have liked.
Make sure to ask around at your hostel or hotel, or in Bocas Town for the most reputable diving centers. Prices are actually quite good too!
Take a boat tour to Isla Zapatillas
Easy to reach from Bocas Town, Cayo Zapatillas is a gorgeous uninhabited island with nothing in the way of services – there are no restaurants, bars and the like. It’s close to Isla Colon, but feels a million miles away from its crowds.
You can get there on guided tours that usually offer snorkeling experiences too, or by a private boat ride or tour that has the advantage of taking you there before everyone else arrives. Just make sure to bring whatever you need for the day – water, sun block and food.
Go to the Plastic Bottle Village
One of the most unique things to do in Bocas del Toro is visiting the Plastic Bottle Village. The name itself is a clear explanation of how the “village” (a castle, a jail and a house) was created – by recycling the many plastic bottles found on the island.
I personally find it a very interesting solution to the terrible garbage and plastic issue that sadly affects Bocas del Toro. There’s a small tour to enter and you’ll be offered a short guided tour. You can get there by bike or taxi from Bocas Town.
How to get to Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is actually easy to get to from other places in Panama and even from Costa Rica. Below are the main options.
Fly from Panama City
This is the most expensive way of getting to Bocas del Toro. From Panama City, you can simply catch a flight from Marcos A. Gelabert Airport to Bocas del Toro’s Aeropuerto Internacional José Ezequiel Hall, which is located on Isla Colon. The flight takes 45 minutes; once you arrive it’s easy to arrange a boat ride or taxi to your accommodation (unless you’ve already arranged a shuttle).
Take the bus + boat from Panama City
Another – much cheaper – option is to take a bus from Panama City to the port of Almirante. This is way longer though, taking around nine hours, so it’s only a good option if you’re on a tight budget and you’ve got time on your hands. From there, the public ferry to Isla Colon takes a further hour and a half, but a private boat will take around half an hour.
How to get to Bocas del Toro from Costa Rica
I actually traveled to Bocas del Toro from Puerto Viejo, in Costa Rica, and it was fairly easy – as long as you are prepared for the border crossing with proof of onward travel. From Puerto Viejo, catch a local bus to the Sixaola-Guabito border crossing.
Once you get there, you’ll have to cross the border – get your passport stamped out first in Costa Rica, then walk along the bridge and get your passport stamped in Panama. Buses to Almirante depart regularly, bus there also are quicker and more comfortable shuttles for very reasonable prices. Once you are in Almirante, just take the private boat or the ferry to Bocas Town.
Guided tours of Bocas del Toro, Panama
While it’s fairly easy to simply rock up at your accommodation in Bocas del Toro, to be fair, one of the best things to do in Bocas del Toro is a boat tour around the archipelago. Organizing a guided tour offers up a chance to see more of the archipelago and get a deeper insight into the nature of the islands.
Tours range from simple shuttle buses that will take you around certain areas, all the way to more tailored activities.
One option is this full-day tour on a speedboat, which takes you around the archipelago from Bocas del Toro town. You’ll head to dolphin bay to see the marine mammals playing around, and head into the jungle to see sloths on Sloth Island, plus you’ll get to stop off at paradise beaches along the way.
There are also things like tours of cacao farms and even the chance to charter a luxury sailboat to see the islands.
Where to stay in Bocas del Toro, Panama
To decide where to stay in Bocas del Toro, consider the kind of experience you want to have. If you prefer to have easy access to lots of restaurants, bars and a wider choice of accommodation options, you may want to opt for Bocas Town in Isla Colon.
I spent about a week there and I found it too chaotic. Bastimentos (where I spent the rest of my time in the archilepago) and Isla Caranero have less accommodation and dining options but are immensely quieter and quainter.
Here are some good accommodation options.
Surrounded by lush tropical rainforest, Bambuda Lodge is the ideal place to stay for those who want to really be immersed in nature. It features an array of different accommodation choices, from dorm rooms to jungle cabins, meaning there’s something to suit everyone’s budget and travel style.
But it’s the location that really steals the show here. The property at Bambuda Lodge actually comes complete with its own dock, which is surrounded by coral reef. You can rent kayaks and snorkeling equipment here, or propel yourself from the 150-feet water slide that leads from the bar into the sparkling sea!
Selina Bocas del Toro
Part of the international chain of much-loved hostels, Selina is a compact beachfront property that has everything you need for an amazing stay in the archipelago. Located in Bocas del Toro town, and boasting its own coworking space, it’s the perfect jumping-off point for exploring the rest of the islands.
Here travelers can lay back and soak up views of the sparkling blue sea from its waterfront deck, sip cocktails at the bar, and whip up their own food in the communal kitchen (but there’s also an onsite restaurant). There’s also an in-house travel agency for all your adventures in Bocas del Toro, too.
Eclypse de Mar Aqua Lodge
This upscale accommodation is the perfect choice if you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Bocas del Toro with an amazing location. For one thing, the thatched roof bungalows here literally sit over the water itself. That means you can spend your days spotting marine life right under your feet while lounging on your private terrace or swimming in a hammock.
Located on Isla Bastimentos, right on the border of the marine park, you can spend your days going on tours and excursions here — namely, diving, snorkeling and hiking around. When you’re not out exploring, you can enjoy meals at the hotel restaurant and lap up sunsets with a drink at their bar.
For guidance in planning your trip to Panama, make sure to also read my posts:
- 15 Best Things To Do In Panama
- A Guide To Portobelo, Panama
- A Guide To Sailing San Blas Islands, Panama.
- Latin America Border Crossing: What You Need To Know