Bocas del Toro is the backpackers Venice of the Caribbean. This Atlantic archipelago of islets has become a travel hotspot in Panama. With its water taxis, colorful cabins on stilts, island hopping, consistent surf and Rasta pirate culture, Bocas has become one of the top draws for those trekking across Central America. Bocas del Toro has maintained enough of its gritty sailor charm to stand out from other Central American cities and serves as a playground in paradise for backpackers, surfers, and scuba enthusiasts. This is the only Bocas del Toro travel guide you’ll ever need, cluing you in on all the best things to do in Bocas del Toro!
Selina Hostel is truly radiant 🌈
How to get there:
- Bocas del Toro often completes the backpacker trail across Costa Rica as it’s located just across the border from the funky Tico surf town of Puerto Viejo. You can reach Bocas on an overnight bus from Panama City, which will take between 10-12 hours – let’s hope you have your sleep mask!
- The most common way backpackers enter or leave Bocas is via the Costa Rican border crossing at Sixaola Bridge. If you are arriving by this route you will have to pay a $4 entry fee and provide proof of departure within 90 days of entrance. Aka, Bocas del Toro is so nice they know you won’t want to leave!
- Among the transport options to or from Puerto Viejo, Caribe Shuttle, has become the standout service for providing comfortable and reliable daily shuttles on both sides of the border – with the added bonus of A/C and wifi! This also includes a customs guide, and a speed boat to take you straight to Bocas Town for approximately $30.
- For those on more of a ‘flashpacker’ vacation or limited timeline, there is also a small airport just outside of Bocas Town that offers daily flights via San Jose, Costa Rica, Panama City and select other airports.
Boat to paradise 📷: @_ashleighbanks
Things to do in Bocas del Toro:
1. Island Beaches
Lovely little lighthouse 😍 📷: @egyptianswhotravel
Being that Bocas del Toro is a series of islands, nine to be exact, the best way to explore the area is by sea. Whether it’s a sailboat, catamaran, booze cruise or small fisherman’s boat, every trip to Bocas del Toro should include a day or two on a boat!
While Red Frog Beach is one of the most popular beaches for those looking for a quick day trip, Starfish Beach is truly breathtaking and a must visit. As soon as its palm tree-lined sandy shores come into view over the shallow turquoise water, it’ll be difficult to imagine a more picture-perfect paradise. Local traders selling cold Panamanian beer and freshly caught fish await you on the shores of Starfish Beach, which is far less crowded than Red Frog Beach – so no need for the elbow work!
There are plenty of party-boat day trips you can take to Starfish Beach for all levels of revelers. The Jade Dragon Catamaran is a true party boat with two dance floors spread out over two decks and a waterslide off the back into the cool waters! The Odin Trimaran is absolutely legendary and was originally built to hunt for treasure in the 60s, so also has a really cool vibe.
2. Coral Surfing
Look at those clear waters! 📷: @nos_carnets_de_voyage
While Bocas remains a popular spot for scuba diving, the frequent surf swells often reduce the visibility causing less than ideal conditions. This can create a dilemma for a backpacker keen to explore underwater but also save their budget for the best day trips. Luckily, Bocas is the birth place of a cool and cheaper alternative: deep boarding AKA coral surfing!
Deep boarding comprises of holding onto a shield-like board with a snorkel and mask and being pulled slowly behind a boat. The shape of the board makes it easy to navigate and barrel roll over the coral life and sea floor below. We imagine it’s exactly how dolphins feel! The best spot to go to is Hospital Point which boasts colorful coral and a private bay to swim or snorkel in while you wait for your turn behind the boat.
3. The nightlife
Aqua Lounge heating up as the sun goes down! 😏
As chill as life might be around Bocas del Toro, there’s no doubt that things get a little crazy after dark and there’s no shortage of a party scene!
Whether it’s the happy hour at Selena’s Hostel, the live music (or barstool Nintendo) at The Bookstore Bar, or the late night sweaty dance floor of Iguana’s Bar, Bocas is the prime hotspot for backpackers to let loose in the Caribbean. Notorious nights out in Bocas del Toro are Wednesdays and Saturdays, and we guarantee you’ll end up at Aqua Lounge Hostel and Bar! Your $5 cover fee not only includes a heavy-handed free pour cocktail but also your entrance to the fantastic gong show in one of the world’s most famous party hostels. Expect a trampoline, swing sets, and dive platforms hovering over the ocean with a DJ spinning all the top hits in this funky adult playground.
With the local expression ‘Hocus-Pocus-Bocas-broke-us!‘ you can imagine the severity of your inevitable hangover!
4. The food
Ceviche with a view at Bibi’s on the beach 📷: @feed_me_blondies
Cuisine in Bocas del Toro perfectly embodies island life, and you’ll find incredible and super fresh seafood. Typically, a fish filet or whole fried fish with Caribbean rice and beans, and side salad will only set you back around $8-$12 – how fintastic! Bibi’s on the Beach is a favorite spot for locals and travelers alike, and is only a one minute water taxi ride away. Bibi’s also has the best ceviche in the area made with lime and passion-fruit and served with plantain chips.
For the best food in Bocas Town head to El Último Refugio, a gorgeous restaurant outside of the main center. Don’t forget to try the staple Bocas hot sauce, made locally and served on nearly every table in town. Just don’t let the bright yellow color fool you…it’s muy Picante!
5. Explore the islands
Slidin’ into the ocean 📷: @gabydaoust
While the parties and hammock siestas are often the main call beckoning travelers into Bocas, don’t forget to explore beyond Bocas Town’s main road and around the other islands. Being in the Caribbean, it’s mainly English spoken so if you only speak un poco espaniol, you won’t have to worry!
Bocas locals definitely embrace the relaxed island lifestyle. Whether it’s playing football, watching the kids play in empty water tanks or joining Calypso Joe for an impromptu jam under a palm tree, you’ll be able to immerse yourself into the local pace and chilled-out vibe. Bocas del Toro has such a rich lifestyle, which is why it’s an ever-growing backpacker destination.
About the author:
John is an award-winning travel author with a wild new book, Tales Of The Modern Nomad – Monks, Mushrooms & Other Misadventures. It delves into the crazy details of his decade of backpacking over 30 countries via stories, sketches, quotes and over 220 photos. It covers all the travel insight you won’t get in a guide book. To learn more, or order a copy or ebook visit www.modernnomad.ca or on Instagram @johntearly.