Bocas del Toro is located near Costa Rica and it’s a very unique place to go in Panama. It’s known as a destination for great surfing, partying, and is full of European backpackers passing through or have chosen to make it their home.
I’ve been to Bocas twice, once in 2009 during my first trip to Panama and again in 2011 during Fiestas Patrias. I had a friend from England that used to live in Panama visiting so when he wanted to go to Bocas I was in!
This trip was extremely unplanned compared to my last ones. Normally we stay in a hotel that’s somewhat nice but this time I wanted to have the hostel backpacker experience. I researched a few hostels online and Hostel Heike, Casa Verde, and Mondo Taitu looked to be the best. Problem was that all three I called said they didn’t accept reservations (backpackers tend to not be reliable), but they said to stop by when we arrive to see if there are rooms available. So alright, let’s embrace the hostel backpacker experience and arrive with nowhere confirmed to stay and hope it works out.
Bocas is pretty far from Panama City, about an 11 hour bus ride or a 1 hour flight. Since we were just doing a weekend trip we decided to take a flight there and then the bus ride back. The Air Panama flight can be taken from the local airport by Albrook and costs $132.47.
For people interested in taking the bus, you will want to take the Panama – Bocas del Toro bus and it leaves Panama City at 8 pm and costs $27.80. Once you arrive there you will need to take a $1 per a person taxi ride to the water taxis and then it’s a $5 water taxi ride to Isla Colon, which is the main island in Bocas del Toro. If you opt in for the plane ride, it lands directly on Isla Colon so no need to use the water taxi.
Once we arrived to Bocas we set out to find a hostel. My friend from England and two of his friends arrived to Bocas the day before and they had found a place to stay we just needed a place that had room for three more people. We stopped at my first choice Hostel Heike first but they were completely full. So we called the other two and luckily Mondo Taitu said they only had the tree house available, which sounded pretty cool.
Mondo Taitu has a really neat vibe: there’s a bar at the front, communal kitchen, and everything is very relaxed and island feeling. The shirtless guy at reception showed us the treehouse and it was very basic – two mattresses, a hammock, and it’s own bathroom – but it met all of our needs and was only $36 a night ($12 a person since we had a group of three) and included a make-your-own pancake breakfast. There isn’t any air conditioning in the tree house but between the fans and the breeze at night we were actually a little chilly.
By the time we were settled in, it was time for dinner and then going out. We just grabbed a quick bite to eat at a nearby pizza place, then climbed back up to the tree house to get changed for the night. Bocas is a place where you don’t need to be dressed up when going out: shorts, a t-shirt, and flip flops are standard.
Our hostel has a really good happy hour with .75 cent beers and $1.50 mixed drinks so we hurried down to take advantage of that before heading out. When we climbed down from the tree house all of the employees and a few backpackers were all dressed in tarzan jungle outfits”¦apparently it was jungle night and they even had some Jungle Juice to go with it. Definitely a fun way to start the night.
After having a few drinks we headed to a bar called Iguana’s, which is supposed to be a good place to go on Fridays. The bar was pretty cool and had a dance floor and a dock overlooking the water. For some reason our drink of the night ended up being Jager Bombs and we went a little crazy with those. People started leaving Iguana’s around midnight to head to Barco Hundido (Sunken Ship) and we followed.
The reason this bar is called Barco Hundido is because there is a sunken ship in the middle of the bar surrounded by a dock. It was packed with people and after a few minutes of being there my friend from England jumped in the water where the sunken ship was. At first I thought he was crazy but it looked fun so I took my shirt off and hopped in with my shorts”¦when in Bocas.
The next morning we made our included pancakes and mine turned out to be scrambled pancakes, but it tasted the same.
Today we would be checking out Red Frog Beach, which is one of the highlights of going to Bocas. It’s supposed to be a really nice beach with big waves that are great for surfing. But I would not recommend going on the tour that we did to get there. It was $15 and they took you to an overpriced place to eat (everything was $15 to $30), there was some snorkeling next to it and then they take you to Red Frog Beach. Instead just go directly to Red Frog Beach for $8 and they have a much more affordable restaurant there with great food.
Here’s a video I took of some of the highlights of Red Frog Beach:
While we were there something unexpected happened and my friend started screaming! She had been stung by a Jellyfish. The cure for a Jellyfish sting is urine so I did what any friend would do and peed on her leg. I don’t think either of us will ever forget that moment.
On our way back from Red Frog Beach we decided to stop at Aqua Lounge which is one of my favorite places in Bocas del Toro. It’s a hostel and lounge right on the ocean with a dock around the water forming a natural swimming pool. There’s a swing set and trampoline for jumping into the water a few hammocks to sit back and enjoy the surreal atmosphere. It’s a very cool place to hangout and enjoy a few beers or play a game of beer pong. We passed the rest of the day there until it got dark and then headed back to our tree house to change and go back out. Also, it’s a $1 boat ride each way from Aqua Lounge to the main island.
Here’s a neat video I made jumping off the swing at Aqua Lounge:
We ended up going back to Aqua Lounge that night and again on Sunday because it’s such a cool place to hangout.
Originally we were supposed to go back on bus Sunday night but when we tried to book the bus Sunday morning it was completely booked. I would recommend to book the ticket a day in advance just to be safe. Luckily it was a holiday weekend so Monday was off work and we were able to catch the morning bus and get back to Panama City around 6:30 pm on Monday.
Here is a photo of the building where you need to buy the bus ticket and it’s also where the water taxi is located:
The cost is $27.80 and it leaves at 8:30 am. But remember you need to take a $5 water taxi ride back to the main land and then a $1 taxi ride to the bus stop so I would recommend getting on the water taxi at 7 am so you don’t miss the bus.
Final thoughts on Bocas:
– I think that at a first glance Bocas can look like a slum. There is a lot of garbage everywhere and many of the houses are in despair. But once you get past this it’s a really unique and cool place to go full of backpackers, hostels, bars and easy island life.
– Eating out and drinking there is really affordable compared to Panama City. Most of my meals eating at a restaurant were around $7 and beers were an average of $2.
– Stay in a cheap hostel when you go because it’s a good experience and you really don’t spend much time in a hotel room for it to be worth it.