Enjoy this guest post by Drew Berger, a Bocas Expat since 2015, avid surfer, and owner of Sol Bungalows – a new overwater bungalow experience located on Isla Solarte in Bocas del Toro, Panama.
Bocas del Toro has amazing beaches, incredible jungles, unique experiences, surfing, diving, and a slow-paced small-town vibe. There are cheap Overwater Bungalows and Jungle Hideaways, and the boating lifestyle permeates everyday life. This off-the-beaten-path island archipelago has been referred to as what Hawaii and Bali were like over 30 years ago. If you are a seasoned traveler, then you know that is the kind of place you are looking for!
We made this list of the top 10 reasons we believe Bocas del Toro should be on your travel bucket list. While Bocas del Toro certainly isn’t for everyone; those seeking an undiscovered, undeveloped and authentic travel destination should definitely check it out!
The Top 10 Reasons Bocas del Toro should be on your Bucket List
- Amazing Beaches
- Incredible Jungles
- Unique Experiences
- Laid-Back, Small Town Vibe
- The Boating Lifestyle
- Great Surfing and Great Diving
- Overwater Bungalows and Jungle Hideaways
- Bocas del Toro is Safe
- Real Culture and Rich History
- Great Food and Nightlife
1. Bocas del Toro has Amazing (and empty!) Beaches
Bocas del Toro has over 20 beaches that are scattered throughout the Archipelago. The two most popular beaches are Starfish Beach and Red Frog Beach. They have tons of great food and drink options, beach volleyball, and usually a lot of tourist action. However, just because they are the most popular beaches and where most of the tours go, doesn’t mean they are the best ones! The trick to Bocas del Toro is to dig a little deeper than what is just on the surface!
Here is a secret… The least popular beaches in Bocas del Toro are actually the best ones! Wizard Beach, Mimbitimbi, Polo Beach, those beautiful little beaches out past Bluff and to the far east – Kusapin and Escudo de Veraguas! Parts of the Zapatilla Islands can also be found completely deserted. These are where you will find wild and raw coastlines free of resorts, hotels, and suns-out-guns-out tourists. They are difficult to get to and have little if any options for food or drinks aside from the fish you can catch and coconuts in the trees.
Our Favorite Beach is Polo Beach
Our favorite beach in all of Bocas del Toro is Polo Beach on Isla Bastimentos. This is where we “escape” to on a Sunday for some spearfishing and beach grilling. Polo Beach has no development on it aside from a few local style huts including Polo’s house.
Polo is a 74(+) year old local man from Isla Bastimentos who ran away from home when he was only 15 years old. The story goes that he ran away due to a broken heart and then settled on the beach that is now named after him. He loves when visitors come to see him and he is almost always cooking up creole style lobster, octopus, or fish for lunch. Meeting and having lunch with Polo is an attraction in itself. He is, like many people from the town of Old Bank, unapologetic for his often ludicrous actions…
After you have your fill of his amazing cooking you can go snorkeling along the vast shallow reef in front of the beach. A troop of Capuchin Monkeys also patrols the jungle around the area. Sloths are also a common sighting in the low hanging sea grape trees that line the beach!
2. Bocas del Toro has incredible jungles
Bocas del Toro has amazing beaches and it also has incredible jungles. In fact, many of the best beaches in Bocas del Toro are only accessible after hiking through the jungle! Each island’s jungle seems to have its own character and style. Hiking on one island can be a totally different experience than the next one! We love hiking on Isla Solarte to Hospital Point and through Isla Bastimentos to Wizard Beach, or even all the way to Polo Beach.
Bocas del Toro has a Tropical Rainforest Climate and it does rain a lot and often very heavily. This is also why our islands are so green and full of life! Bocas del Toro has been called, “The Galapagos of the Caribbean,” for its biodiversity both on land and in the sea. We have tropical birds, sloths, monkeys, ant-eaters, poison dart frogs, sea turtles, and even our own uniquely evolved bottlenose dolphin species!
We highly recommend you experience the rainforest while you are here. Staying in one of the many jungle hideaway accommodations or going on a hike through the islands will give you a better appreciation for the majesty of the jungle. Hiking through the jungle is a good rainy day activity and there is nothing quite like sleeping in on a rainy morning while being surrounded by rainforest!
3. Bocas del Toro offers Unique Experiences
Travelers are constantly seeking out new and unique experiences and Bocas del Toro has plenty of them! Some of the best activities in Bocas are ATVing through incredibly rough island terrain, or exploring the jungle by horseback, or following a local indigenous guide through a particularly extreme bat cave.
We also have Zip-Lining, World-Class Surf, super cheap scuba diving, deep-sea and inshore fishing, spearfishing, cacao and cultural tours, island camping, party pirate ships, and world-famous island-hopping bar crawls!
Bocas del Toro is not dominated by big hotel chains and resorts who have gentrified all of the tour options. What you find here are unique characters that are passionate about what they do and how they share it with the world. We have real people, both local and international, who are trying to make it in paradise doing what they love! The result is an abundance of unique experiences, accommodations, food, and stories all ready to be shared with you!
Check out our guide: 29 Awesome Things To Do in Bocas del Toro for the full rundown of activities!
4. Laid-Back, Small Town Vibe
The Bocas del Toro Archipelago is like a small town where everyone knows each other. Most of the locals went to school together as kids, played soccer or baseball with each other, went to the same church, and shared stories in the same central park or restaurant their whole lives. You hear the words, “Brother, Aunt, Uncle, Grandma, or Grandpa,” when people greet each other in the street. When you get to know someone here they will remember you and your name long after you have forgotten theirs. People here help each other without asking, respect their elders, and put on their best clothes when they go to town for the day. It’s the kind of small-town vibe you might find in the deep south of the USA 50 years ago.
Saying that the people in Bocas del Toro are laid-back is almost an understatement. Bocas is an island archipelago – in the Caribbean – in Panama. So not only do you have the pace of island life; it is a Caribbean island, in one of the most chilled-out countries in the world.
In Bocas, “Ahora,” means later, and, “Mañana,” could mean never. What you have planned for the day largely depends on the weather. The erratic nature of the skies forces you to go with the flow. Although not true for everyone, there are many local people who I have met that have truly mastered the art of living “in the now,” probably without even noticing it.
5. Bocas del Toro is the Boating Lifestyle
It is not #YachtLife however, and that’s how we like it. Bocas del Toro is often referred to as the Venice of the Caribbean. The archipelago’s main islands are all closely packed together so catching a water taxi between them is easy, cheap, and quick. The coasts are either lush jungle and tropical beaches or lined with overwater businesses and homes. Only the main island has roads and cars. The rest of the island communities rely on the Panga – the mainstay local style fiberglass boat – or the traditional dugout canoe called a Cayuco.
Island Hopping in Bocas del Toro is an every-day occurrence both for tourists and locals. Buying groceries, going to work, or visiting friends often requires traversing the channels between the islands. The water-taxis run all day and all night and there is nothing quite like coming home from dinner in Bocas Town and seeing deep space above you and bioluminescent water below you.
The boats are, of course, also used for exploring the many beaches, islets, reefs, and waves around the archipelago. You can cheaply (like $25 per person or less for a group of 4) hire a private boat to take you wherever you want for the whole day. This is the side of Bocas del Toro you need to seek out while you are here!
6. Bocas has Great Surfing and Great Diving
Did you know that Bocas del Toro is said to have more surf-able waves in a 2 mile stretch of coastline than anywhere else in the world? We have point breaks, reef breaks, beach breaks, massive big wave slabs, and tons of fun little waves in between. Many are accessible by land but the preferred method of rocking up to the spot is by boat.
There are spots that are perfect for beginners or those just learning and we have a huge variety of Surf Schools to choose from. You can find high-quality board rentals in town, private surf guides, and private surf photographers. Bocas is a surfer’s paradise!
Bocas del Toro is world-famous for surfing, but the Dive scene is almost bigger! There are more diving-related businesses in Bocas than surfing ones. There is a huge variety of dive spots with reefs, ledges, walls, caves, sunken ships, and more to be explored. Bocas has 95% of the world’s hard and soft coral species and is a heaven for micro divers.
PADI Open Water Dive Courses are cheap, like $280 cheap. You can also find Freediving Courses, Tec Diving, and complete any level of Dive Certification that you require! When the sea is calm and the waves are flat – go diving, and when the waves are big – go surfing!
7. Bocas del Toro has Cheap Overwater Bungalows and Jungle Hideaways
Overwater Bungalows are on everyone’s travel bucket list and Bocas del Toro has some of the cheapest Overwater Bungalow accommodations in the Caribbean. Bocas is becoming known as a top choice to stay in a luxury overwater bungalow for way cheaper than you would pay in the rest of the world. Choosing the overwater bungalow option will immerse you in the island-style of life here.
Once you have had enough of the sea and sun, you can experience living in the rainforest! Bocas has a wide variety of accommodations tucked into the jungle. You can find luxury jungle accommodations and also more rustic, open-air style ones that will fit most budgets.
Bocas is not as cheap as some backpackers would like, but it is still a very cheap option for those looking for luxury but not at an alarming price tag. In general, a night out at one of Bocas’ best restaurants can cost between $15-$30 per person with drinks, food, and tip. You can also stay in some of the top accommodations for around $200 per night or stay in an overwater bungalow for between $200-$300 a night. Water taxi trips range from $2-$5 per person with land taxis being about the same.
8. Bocas del Toro is Safe
Bocas del Toro is a safe vacation destination. Crime is low and the most common crime is petty theft. We have very little violent crime and many residents believe they are safer in Bocas than they would be in a city in the United States.
The biggest dangers to a visitor’s health and wellbeing are more along the lines of a sunburn, big hangover, or dehydration. Bocas del Toro is malaria-free and zika free, but we do have some cases of Dengue Fever each year. The nature of the ocean and the jungle pose their own risks but following some simple safety guidelines can keep you out of trouble. Check out our blog post on How to Stay Safe in Bocas del Toro for everything you need to know about safety in Bocas!
9. Real Culture and Rich History
Bocas del Toro has a distinctly Panamanian-Caribbean culture and a very rich history. The local population is a mix of people with Spanish, European, African, Chinese, and Indigenous heritage. Each of these groups has a different story as to why they first came to Bocas del Toro and many still hold on to their cultural heritage and traditions.
Old Bank on Isla Bastimentos Offers a Unique Cultural Experience
The town of Old Bank on Isla Bastimentos has a primarily Afro-Caribbean population. It is considered to be one of the last remaining places in the world where you can find an authentic Afro-Caribbean population. Their native language is a Creole mixture called Guari Gauri and many also speak English.
Old Bank is raw Caribbean. Run down, brightly painted houses, kids running and playing in the streets, and loud music thumping almost 24/7 without a single thing you can do about it. Some of the best local food in Bocas del Toro can be found in Old Bank where Lobster, Octopus, Iguana, and Pig Tail are local specialties.
The Ngäbe (pronounced: “No-Bay”)
The Ngäbe Indigenous group is the largest indigenous group in Panama and the largest population of people in Bocas. Ngäbe villages are scattered all throughout the islands with some having populations of 800 or more people. They traditionally survived off of subsistence farming and fishing and most still do today. It is said that the Ngäbe people were the fiercest warriors in Panama and were the only indigenous group capable of kicking the Spanish out of their lands.
Many of the Ngäbe in the islands have lost some of their traditional cultures as they try to assimilate into the modern world. However, many people are working to preserve their culture and there are plenty of Ngäbe cultural tours to be explored. We recommend looking up Rutilio Milton from Tomorogo for a unique Ngäbe bat cave experience!
Panama’s Colonial History is still evident in the architecture around the islands. Brightly colored everything isn’t just a trend here, it is a tradition. Houses, buses, boats, clothing, and even government buildings are all brightly colored in classic Caribbean style. Combining the bright Caribbean hues with the Colonial Architecture, all along the water, gives Bocas a unique appearance unlike anywhere in the world. This classic style is one of the top reasons Bocas del Toro is worth visiting!
10. Great Food and Nightlife
The mix of people in Bocas has also created a unique local food culture. You find the traditional rice, lentils, chicken, and patacones, but also spaghetti and meatball, chow-mein, fish rondon, pig-tail stew, and fire-roasted iguana. Many local restaurants are cafeteria-style. They serve up fresh-cooked delicacies to the local workforce who happily spend a few of their hard-earned dollars on a home-cooked style meal during their lunch break.
Expats from all over the world have also opened some amazing restaurants in Bocas. We have Indian Food, Burgers, Italian Pizza, Seafood, Sushi, Vegan Food, Argentinian Steak, and Mexican Tacos. Lobster, Octopus, Red Snapper, and Spanish Mackerel are caught daily to land on your dinner plate at night. Panama is also famous for its Ceviches and Bocas is no exception. There is something for everyone’s belly in Bocas and with the cheap prices, you can’t go wrong!
The reputation that precedes all others about Bocas del Toro is that of it being a wild party destination. And, well, it’s true. Bocas del Toro parties non-stop and does have incredibly fun nightlife and day-party options. Filthy Friday is a now world-famous island-hopping bar-crawl that includes three islands, floatie races, and fire shows. There is even a Pirate Ship that you can party on and a Floating Bar! If you love to party then Bocas del Toro should definitely be on your bucket list. Most of the festivities are located in Bocas Town and can also be largely avoided if it isn’t your thing!
Is Bocas del Toro Worthy of Your Bucket List?
We love Bocas and think it should be on your bucket list if you are looking for a unique destination and a special travel experience. Come prepared to try new things, have an open mind, and be ready to go with the flow. Bounce around a few islands and accommodations, try different restaurants, experience the jungle, beach, and warm Caribbean sea. Take a surf lesson and an intro to scuba diving course. Relax in your overwater bungalow and watch the sun go down over the mountains across the bay.
Check out our blog on The Best Time to visit Bocas del Toro to learn about what season is best for you to visit!