Located on the north end of Panama in the Caribbean Sea, Bocas del Toro archipelago is a picture-perfect group of islands. It’s one of the most touristy spots in Panama but don’t let that discourage you from visiting.
Bocas del Toro
Even though Bocas del Toro is the name of the province, the archipelago and the main town, when people say they’re going to Bocas, they usually mean the small tourist town on Isla Colon. Bocas del Toro town is a hub of activity. The town is a hodgepodge of budget hotels and hostels as well as western restaurants and cafes. It’s also the main port for water taxis taking tourists to the mainland and tours to other islands in the area. Although a laid-back atmosphere prevails, it becomes a party at night. We didn’t stay in Bocas del Toro town, but we stopped for lunch and loved the vibrant atmosphere. There’s a lot more to this area than this busy, loud centre.
This large island is only a 10 min water taxi ride from Bocas town, but world’s away in terms of luxury, convenience and atmosphere. The community of Old Bank on Bastimentos is as laid back as they come. The one sidewalk is also the only road in town. It’s lined on both sides with ratty buildings that are mostly homes, with a few very basic hostels and diners. The local people are very friendly but try to keep to themselves in the middle of their growing tourist town. They are decedents of the Antillean labour brought to Panama as slaves to work in the banana plantations. They speak a unique form of creole called Guari-Guari, a dialect of Jamaican Patois. It’s so interesting to listen to them speak. You feel like you can or should understand as it includes many English words, but the longer you listen, you realize that you don’t understand it at all.
On the other side of the island from Old Bank are amazing white sand beaches that would rate high against the most famous beaches in the world, yet they are completely empty. It takes 20 minutes to walk from Old Bank through the jungle to the other side of the island. Emerging from the jungle you reach a gorgeous stretch of sand called Wizard Beach. It’s a long gorgeous white sand beach, fringed on the edges by palm trees and book-ended by large, hostile looking rocks. The waves are strong, but not too aggressive to swim.
After spending time at Wizard, we walked between small beaches isolated by interesting coastal rocks and a dense jungle. The scenery was spectacular.
Within forty minutes of walking along the coast we arrived at the famous Red Frog Beach. This long beach is phenomenal. It has a good surf in areas, but plenty of quiet places to swim so there is something for everyone. The sand is perfectly white with tall palms on the side for shade. At the far end of the beach is a small bridge over a stream which houses a lone caiman. She is full grown at about 2 m long and is frequently seen here and doesn’t seem to mind posing for pictures. Inland from the beach are a few luxury resorts so you don’t have to stay in Old Bank to enjoy these amazing beaches.
There are many other islands in Bocas archipelago that we didn’t have time to explore, but this trip has piqued our interest. We can imagine spending more time in the area to see what other perfect spots we can find.
In the mountains in northern Panama is the small ex-pat community of Boquete. It’s a cute town located in a valley below Volcan Baru. Set in the mountains at 1200m, it has a moderate climate and many fun mountain activities. From hiking and ziplining to coffee and chocolate tours, you will be busy for a few days. Because of the large ex-pat community here there are a number of good restaurants and coffee shops making it a great spot for tourists as well.
Lost Waterfalls Trek
This popular hike near Boquete takes you to a gorgeous group of waterfalls. The hike to the Lost Waterfalls is on private property. The family who owns it has done a little trail maintenance, but it’s mostly a narrow, slippery trail through a dense mountain jungle. We keep saying, we’ll never go back to another jungle and yet, here we are again. From where the bus dropped us off, the trail follows a small road, crosses the river on a hanging bridge and then climbs up a hill to the private farm. You reach a large garden filled with tropical flowers and lovely views of Volcan Baru. This beautiful setting tricks you into thinking that the hiking trail will be well maintained. Once you leave the garden though, the trail becomes a muddy mess climbing up and down the jungle covered mountain. After 15-20 minutes we reached the first waterfall. It’s incredible; a rush of water emerging from the jungle 20-30 m above and dropping straight down into a deep pool. It was mesmerizing. We were only allowed to get to a viewpoint across from the waterfall as there is a sheer cliff between the trail the falls.
After the first waterfall, we got back on the slippery trail and headed up hill to the next one. There are a few steps and handrails so although slippery, it’s not difficult. We heard waterfall 2 before we saw it and walked down to the river for a glimpse. Between the trees, at the end of the quiet river was a perfect jungle waterfall. Up close, it was even better. Spread across a large rock face, the rushing water takes multiple tracks as the it drops over the edge. Surrounded by dense jungle it has a wild look. It was our favourite waterfall. You can swim in its pool, but the temperature is already pretty chilly at 1400 m so we just admired it from the rocky beach.
The hike up to the third waterfall is on the worst part of the trail. It goes straight up a steep muddy trail covered with slippery wet rocks. There are a few bannisters and ropes to make sure no one gets hurt, but its more treacherous than the rest of the trail. The hike was worth it though. Waterfall 3 is a beautiful site as water dramatically drops from high above into a small pool. A small ledge behind the waterfall let’s you get an inside view. There’s a pool below this waterfall too and a flat area with boulders and rocks where you can sit and enjoy the view.
Getting to/from Bocas de Toro
To/From Boquete – There’s a direct shuttle from Boquete that takes you right to the harbour in Almirante ($30 USD, 3.5–4 hours). A cheaper option is to take a bus to David ($1.75 USD, 1hr) then a bus to Almirante ( 3.5-4 hrs, $8 USD). In Almirante, head 1 km to the harbour ($1 taxi) where water taxi ($6 USD) companies will fight for your business. If you buy a return ticket from the same company, its cheaper, but you’re stuck with that water taxi and their hours for your return.
To/From Panama City – From the Albrook Mall Terminal in Panama City, catch a bus to Almirante (10-11 hrs) and then follow the above direction to Bocas by water taxi. Or a shorter way is to fly to Bocas del Toro airport.
Getting to Bastimentos – Several water taxis leave from the ports on main street in Bocas Town for many of the islands including Bastimentos. ($3, 10 minutes)
Getting to Boquete
To/From Bocas del Toro – see above
To/From David – There are frequent buses ($1.75, 1 hr) leaving from the David bus terminal hourly and arrive at the main square. They depart back to David on the opposite side of the square in Boquete.
Getting to the Lost Waterfalls Trek – Mini-buses leave every 30 minutes from the main square in Boquete and take you directly to the start of the trek for $2.50 USD each. Or take a taxi for $10 USD. It’s a 15-minute drive with nice views of the surrounding mountains. Take the bus back, or if you’re lucky, as we were, a taxi will be dropping others off and you can share the taxi with other hikers. At the garden entrance to the Lost Waterfalls Trek, there is a small hut where you pay $7 entrance fee.
Coming Next: Costa Rica: A Whale’s Tail and a Jungle Safari
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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