The next destination on my journey South after Pavones was Bocas del Toro, Panama which is a small group of islands in the Caribbean. I lucked out and hopped a ride with a local real estate agent that had to bring a clients Land Rover Defender to San Jose and it is a more direct route to go to the border with Panama first and then back to San Jose using the Panamerican highway. Some argue this is also the best way to reach Pavones despite having to back track and there are frequent buses that leave San Jose for the border with Panama.
It takes roughly one hour to reach the border from Pavones and the border town is called Paso Canoa. Most of this drive is on well maintained roads and at some points during the drive we were already in Panama because of how the road was built.
The worst border crossing ever…
Once in Paso Canoa I got dropped off and walked over to the Costa Rican immigration building and got stamped out of the country. This was an easy process like most of my experiences dealing with the customs officers in Costa Rica. There was no fee for the exit but if you are flying out of Costa Rica you will be required to pay a 15000Col/$29 exit fee.
Once I was stamped out of Costa Rica I walked a short distance to the customs office to enter Panama. This became what I now consider to be the worst run border crossing I have ever experienced and in addition the most strict for entrance requirements.
This is one of the few times in any of my travels that I felt completely unorganized and felt as if I didn’t do my homework. Luckily with a little quick thinking and persuasion I got myself out of what could have been a very big problem and resulted in me not getting into the country.
To enter Panama you need to prove that you have $500 US in cash or this amount readily available to you in a bank account. You also need to prove a return flight to your country of residency from Panama. In some cases having a bus or plane ticket that proves you will be leaving Panama will suffice but I wouldn’t count on it.
I tried showing the customs officer my flight itinerary and explained that I only have a return ticket from Lima, Peru back to Canada to use at the end of my trip. He didn’t seem to care and told me that these were the rules and it was up to me to figure out how to conform to them. He also told me there was a travel agency a short distance away that would gladly book me a flight home.
This was one of the biggest rackets I have ever seen and sometimes you just have to play the game. Me not being one of those people I decided I would first get an idea of how this operation worked. In short they offer to book you a ticket to your country of residence for a $52 fee that you could then cancel within 24 hours by calling the agency back and having them void the booking. Like most bookings they are only preauthorized and don’t become finalized for 24 hours so this travel agency works on this premise.
Using a little smooth talking I asked one of the travel agents if I could use one of the computers in the office to check how much I had in my bank account and send some emails. Once I sat down I accessed my bank account information and printed off a statement showing that I in fact had at least $500 in my account.
My next task was to go online and get as far along into booking a flight from Panama City to anywhere in Canada as I could without paying for it. Once I did this I printed out the forms, gave the lady a few bucks for letting me use the computer and printer and crossed my fingers that this would be sufficient.
After waiting in line another hour and seeing countless other travellers having to deal with the same headaches as I just did I was trying to stay optimistic. At the same time I realized that I could be in for more bad news and have to rethink my approach.
Once it was my turn to speak to the customs officer again I handed him my passport and the forms. He then passed them back to a lady at a desk behind him and told me to go stand somewhere off to the side. I stood there for almost 2 more hours before he waved me over. He then stamped me in, gave me my forms back and off I went.
As with most border crossings there are people that make their living by offering help to tourists. This can mean anything from helping you skip the line, carrying your bags or trying to hustle you into getting into a cab with one of their friends. Expect to see lots of these people at this border and in most cases these people are to be avoided.
One of the other problems with this border crossing is the fact that once you are stamped out of Costa Rica you have to remain outside of the country for a minimum of 72 hours. If you are not allowed in Panama then you are in a tough bind and will likely have to hang out in limbo in the meantime.
Onward to Bocas del Toro…
Once I cleared customs I walked over the border and was immediately greeted by a man offering bus rides to David. After David my next stop would be Almirante where I would catch a boat to my destination of the island group known as Bocas del Toro. This would be my first time on the Atlantic side of Central America this trip and I was looking forward to what this area had to offer.
I hopped on the bus and they charged me $2 for myself and an additional $1 for my board. This was a local bus and stopped at all the bus stops between the border and David and there was a constant flow of passengers getting on and off. It took us less than 1 hour to reach David and it went straight to the bus terminal from where you could connect to more local buses or start making your way anywhere in the country.
Once I arrived at the bus terminal in David I got off and made my way towards where the buses were lined up to find out what bus I would have to take to get to Almirante. I just made it in time and 5 minutes later my gear was loaded up on the bus and I was back on the road. The fare to Almirante was $8 for myself and an additional $2 for my board.
The buses in Panama are all minibuses which all have air conditioning and are fairly modern. I found these to have a comfortable ride and this was also helped by the excellent quality of roads in Panama.
The bus terminal in David. There were lots of food stands and vendors selling anything from pastries to chicks!
The minibuses lined up at the terminal.
At first Panama seemed flat when we left David but we were soon ascending the side of a mountain and this provided a great view of the Valle de Mina.
Some of the mountain and valley views I enjoyed on this drive that took us through jungle and cloud forests!
We also passed by the Fortuna dam and there was also a nearby nature reserve with the same name. This dam is used to control water used to power a hydroelectric power station that provides 30% of Panamas electricity.
Once we were meandering through the mountains there was no need for the AC to be turned on and most passengers opted to have the windows open to let the refreshing mountain air blow through the bus.
The whole way to Almirante was through the mountains and there were small villages high up in the hills. It was amazing to see some of these simple towns boasting some of the best views one could imagine.
Like most bus rides in Central America there are people that hop on the bus to sell things to the passengers and then get off a little further down the road and go back and forth depending on the bus routes.
The bus ride to Almirante took around 5 hours and was one of the most memorable drives I have ever taken. It was so good that I was almost already looking forward to when I would take the bus further onward to Panama City after my stay in Bocas del Toro.
Once we reached Almirante myself and a few others that were on the same bus from David decided to split on a taxi. This was less than $10 for all 4 of us and we were at the boat terminal in less than 10 minutes. There wasn’t much to see in Almirante and it wouldn’t be somewhere I would suggest spending much time. One thing that I noticed while standing on the dock waiting for the boat to depart was that each home that backed onto the water had its own boardwalk that led to an outhouse that sat overtop of the water. Needless to say they didn’t need to flush…
Once we arrived at the boat terminal we bought our tickets for the boat taxi and a short time later we were loaded onto the boat and motoring our way to paradise. This boat taxi takes people to the main island of Isla Colon which is one of the largest and most populated islands. It also also offers the most hotel, restaurant and entertainment options. This was a perfect choice for me after being in Pavones where there is nothing but empty beaches, waves and jungle.
The view from the dock at the boat terminal.
The Captain patiently waiting for the boat to fill up.
My surfboard loaded up on the stern.
The boat taxi took around a half an hour and it was very calm on the day we made the trip. There is a slight chance of getting wet riding the boat taxi but all my gear was loaded in the back by the engine and none of it had any water on it after the ride. I’m sure in rougher conditions this may have been a factor but not on the day we travelled. The scenery the whole way as amazing and it was like entering a whole new world with all the islands surrounding us and leaving the lush jungle and mountains of the mainland behind us for the tropical islands.
The scenery from the boat as we made our way to Isla Colon on flat calm waters!
A local travelling by traditional wooden boat and paddle.
From the moment I stepped off the boat taxi I could already feel the energy and liveliness of Bocas Town and knew I was in for a good time. There were water taxis everywhere offering rides to all the different islands in the area, for day trips and transfers depending on where you needed to go and when. I knew when I got there that there weren’t going to be any waves and that was fine with me as I had been surfing non stop for most of my trip and felt like this was the perfect place to party, eat well and chill on the beach.
The first thing you will notice is the Afro-Caribbean influence here mixed with the Central American and also a very large oriental population. The local population still speaks Spanish no matter what their background is although in most cases a lot of the locals speak relatively good English. Panama is also a very inviting place for foreigners to set up shop and there are also many people from other countries who now call this area home.
Bocas Town is located on the Southeastern tip of Isla Colon and the main strip follows the waters edge. All of the buildings on the water are actually built partly over the water on stilts with pilings holding them up, most of which have a private dock. This is a common way to build here and it wasn’t uncommon to see buildings with water running beneath them depending on the height of the tide and the time of day.
The town was mostly hotels, hostels, restaurants and tour agencies aimed at providing tourists with one service or another. There are also many large grocery stores which makes this area very convenient. One thing I found about Isla Colon is that with the availability of so many boat taxis to take you wherever you want to go at any given time you can have the best of both worlds. I liked taking off during the day to the surrounding islands and beaches and then being back in Bocas Town at night and enjoying all the options for restaurants, bars and clubs. To me this made Bocas del Toro a perfect destination for anyone.
The main strip in Bocas Town
Bocas Town as seen from the water.
Where to stay…
I stayed at Hotel Dos Palmas which was in a great location in a more quiet end of the main street. They have clean rooms, hot water, great security and there is also a back deck which has a seating area and a swimming platform. Me and a friend split on a room and it was $30 with hot water and AC. The front desk staff were very friendly and there was also a drink cooler which you could buy from at any time of night which was very convenient.
Hotel Dos Palmas.
My room at Hotel Dos Palmas.
Another option nearby is Hotel Olas which is next door and is a 3 story wooden building built over the water. They also have their own dock and restaurant which as excellent food although a little on the pricey side for some items. Rooms here start at $48 for a double room with hot water and AC which comes standard in all rooms.
If you are looking for a hostel and want a more social option then my suggestion is Casa Verde Hostel and Guesthouse. They have shared dorm starting at $12.50 per night and private rooms starting at $22.50 per night.
Located on Isla Carenaro less than 1 minute from Bocas Town is Aqua Lounge – Hostel and Bar. This is the party hostel in the area and is also a happening bar once the sun goes down and also offer free breakfast each morning. If you like to sleep then this isn’t the place to be! Dorms start at $12 per night.
Things to do…
For me the best part about this area was how easy it was to get around using the water taxis. At any given time you could hop on a speedboat and visit any of the surrounding islands. I think it’s the perfect place to do day tours and since everything is so close together you don’t have to wake up early to be able to get in on what the surrounding islands have to offer. This is a good thing as most people who come here can’t help but stay out late and take in the nightlife. I don’t think I was in bed before 2 am once my whole time I was there and most mornings I slept in until at least 9 am.
As everything was built along the waterfront here you could join in on the water taxis going pretty much anywhere at any given time. If you had a group of at least 4 people you could hire a boat to take you pretty much anywhere and split the cost. This same stretch along the water was filled with tour agencies not only offering rides to the neighbouring islands and attractions but also tours of various lengths for sightseeing, watersports or just exploring what the other islands had to offer.
Some popular activities were scuba diving, snorkelling, day trips to the other beaches in the area either on Isla Colon or the other islands nearby.
The highest rated tour company on Isla Colon was hands down Flying Pirates which offers ATV/Jeep rentals and tours, kayaking rentals and tours, as well as snorkelling gear. The best part about this company is that if you rent an ATV or Jeep from them you get access to a private acreage on the island as well as access to Bluff beach which is on the other side of the island and is one of the best surf destinations on the island.
Another popular outing is offered by the tour company Undersea Panama which offers a unique way to explore the coral reefs and sea life in the area. This tour starts with a boat transfer from Isla Colon to Isla Zapatillo which is the most Easterly of the islands. Their signature tour is called ‘Deep Boarding’ which is when you are towed underwater by a boat attached to a tow line that you hold on to and control your direction using a fin. This allows people that aren’t very strong swimmers enjoy an underwater experience which makes it popular with all age groups and people with various levels of confidence in the water.
This is about a 15-20 minute part of the tour and the rest of the time you are free to go snorkelling on your own. The strong currents in the area mean that depending on how strong of a swimmer you are you might find this intimidating so it is important to understand that you will be doing a lot of hanging around on the beach most of the day if you aren’t interested in snorkelling on your own. They also don’t provide fins because they say it can harm the coral when the tide is low due to the possibility of your fins coming in contact with the reef.
This agency can also help make travel arrangements and can sell you bus tickets after hours. I found this very helpful as I didn’t have much planned ahead of time for this part of the trip and decided on a Sunday that I would leave the following day.
The beautiful beaches of Bocas del Toro…
The Caribbean is synonymous with pristine white sand beaches and for me usually travelling close to the Pacific Coast it was a nice change to have some crystal clear waters and white sand beaches to enjoy. The surf in Bocas del Toro can be hit or miss and when I was there it was completely flat with no waves. Like most of the Atlantic Coast the waves pick up during hurricane season and often early in the year. As always you can never fully predict what time of year there are going to be waves and this past year has been amazing for the Atlantic coast and the Caribbean coast from Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica all the way down through Bocas del Toro.
Bocas del Drago and Playa Estrella – Isla Colon
My favourite beach on Isla Colon was Playa de Estrella(Starfish Beach) and it is named for the abundance of starfish you can see hanging out on the sandy bottom. The water here is crystal clear with hardly any current and is a perfect beach to laze around in and out of the water.
This beach is very easy to get to and doesn’t take much time at all from Bocas Town. The most direct and fastest option for getting there is by boat taxi. This was $5 per person with a minimum group of 4 which amounted to $20 total which was the flat rate. This took less than 15 minutes and brings you directly to the beach. These are frequent and are always coming and going throughout the day.
The other option is to take the minibus from in front of Simon Bolivar park that takes you to Bocas del Drago. This ride takes less than half an hour and costs $5 return. This was also a scenic drive and you got a feel for the other areas of the island. There is a small restaurant here and a few nice homes.
Bocas del Drago has one restaurant and the food is delicious.
One of the homes has a really well preserved traditional style wooden boat.
The dock in Bocas del Drago
Once in Bocas del Drago you can take a water taxi to Playa Estrella for $1 which takes less than 5 minutes. You can also walk the trail along the coastline and pass over a few small streams using a small bridge that is made from logs and some wood. This takes about 15 minutes and is a very nice walk and has a sense of adventure to it. There isn’t much beach to lay on until you reach Playa Estrella as the palm trees grow right up to the shoreline.
One of the nicest beach walks I had all trip was between Bocas del Drago and Playa Estrella!
The trail leads you along the shore and through thick palm trees that extend to the water.
One of the small bridges that you have to cross on the way to Playa Estrella.
One you reach the beach there are lounge chairs to hang out on and relax. I thought it was one of the best beaches to relax on and it was cool to go hang out in the calm waters with a drink in hand and check out the starfish at your feet. There is no reef nearby so you won’t see much for other marine life but there were dolphins swimming further out on both occasions when I was here.
Playa Estrella as seen from the water.
There are ample lounge chairs to relax in!
Once in Playa Estrella there are many small local restaurants to choose from. Only one of which has a bathroom which you can pay a small fee to use unless you eat there and then of course this is free. You can buy food, beer and other refreshments here but I noticed most people brought a foam cooler and packed it with ice and their drink of choice. I think the restaurants here have the best seafood on the island and also the best setting to enjoy a great meal while sitting on the shore of a beautiful beach!
On the water taxi back from Playa Estrella.
Red Frog Beach – Isla Bastimentos
Another great beach is located on Isla Bastimentos at the Red Frog Beach – Island Resort and Spa. This is only a short water taxi ride away from Bocas Town and is $3.50 each way. They have many options for accommodation here at the resort but are also open to the public for a small fee of $3 per day. I loved the long sandy beach and there was also really good snorkelling near the rock formations further out in the water. Expect a little more current here and choppier conditions at times as this is in a less protected area of the island.
They also have restaurants that offer snacks and refreshments all the way up to fine dining for both guests and visitors. This is a popular destination for people of all ages and it is nice to see resorts open to the public. I think this is due to the area being a conservation area and the owner being open minded. I think it is smart business to let other people get a feel for what is available and I’m sure lots of people who go there for the day end up either staying there in the future or suggesting it to others. This is a great option for those wanting a more relaxed atmosphere than Bocas Town while still being a short distance to any of the islands in the area.
The boardwalk that is an extension of the dock where you get dropped off from the water taxi to enter the resort.
The beautiful Red Frog beach!
The private marina at Red Frog beach is where many international visitors choose to spend time either short or long term.
Where to eat…
I thought the food in Bocas was amazing. There is plenty of fish and seafood available and as the people are mixed here so is the cuisine. You will definitely find lots of options for latin american, caribbean and oriental food here.
My favourite place to eat during my stay in Bocas Town was Restaurant Don Chicho which was located across the road from Simon Bolivar park in the hotel of the same name. The most popular way to order here was to go up to the food counter that had ready made items for either dine in or take away. They also have an excellent selection of fresh juices.
Most times my meal with a drink was under $6 and that would be more than enough food for most people. They also had made to order items like whole fish and if at any time something from behind the counter was sold out, you could order it off of the menu or wait for more to come out. This place was often packed at supper time and if this was the case I would get it to go and eat it in the park across the road..
I often ordered the fish or chicken with chow mein noodles or rice. Anyone that has been anywhere in the Caribbean knows that chow mein noodles are very common. On any given day at Don Chichos you can find chow mein cooked with a variety of different ingredients. This can be traced back to the Oriental influence on the islands that dates back a long time as many people of this descent call Bocas del Toro and other Caribbean islands home. They also had amazing in house made Caribbean style hot sauce which was made with Scotch bonnet peppers, mustard and turmeric.
A typical mixed plate from Don Chicho. Here I had fried chicken, fried fish, chow mien and fried plantain
With the large oriental population here there was great Chinese food to be had. This mixed with the availability of Panamanian produce and seafood being so easy to come by resulted in some of the best Chinese food I’ve ever had. Some of my favourite dishes were the fried rice noodles, fried rice, egg rolls and seafood soup. The food was consistent in most of the Chinese restaurants and you could expect similar food from all of them.
Fried rice noodles with shrimp.
Egg rolls with a side of ketchup. Caribbean or not you still know you are in Central America when they serve ketchup with everything!
The seafood soup. This one had crab, lobster, squid, shellfish and octopus!
Another great local restaurant was El Chitre. They also had great food for reasonable prices. The drawback was that the seating here was very limited and most times there was nowhere to sit.
The best meal I had in Bocas del Toro was actually from one of the small restaurants lining the beach in Playa Estrella. I can’t recall the name of the restaurant but it was the only one that had a washroom. On my first trip to this beach I had noticed a few people having a lobster feast sitting on the waters edge and although I had already ate that particular day I knew I would have to try the food here before my trip was over.
On the last day of my trip before catching the night bus I hopped a water taxi and went straight to this restaurant for what was arguably one of the best lobster dinners I’ve had anywhere in the Caribbean. The thing with the lobster in the Caribbean is that it is rock lobster which don’t have claws. I usually prefer claw meat but was eager to try this style of lobster.
I ordered the lobster dinner and decided on adding a second tail. The meal with one tail is $12 and with two tails was $17. This was served with rice, fried plantain and salad. I had one tail cooked in a Creole sauce which was a zesty mix of tomato, onions, cilantro and coconut milk. The other tail was a more traditional style and it was grilled with garlic butter and some herbs. Both were amazing and even better was being able to enjoy this meal from a table on the shore facing the water and in the partial shade of palm trees! This is one of the most memorable meals of my whole trip and if I’m ever in Bocas del Toro again I will be sure to eat here again!
One of the best party places so far on my trip was in Bocas Town. There are always lots of people in the bars and clubs around town and depending on what night it was you would see the same crowd at different bars on different nights. I spent a lot of time hanging out at La Iguana Bar. Every night is ladies night here and they have really good drink specials. I mostly stick to beer which was around $3 and cocktails weren’t much more expensive. This bar backs onto a dock which is constantly picking up and dropping people off. There is also an area of the patio cut out and its not uncommon to see people jumping in there fully clothed and in some cases with not much on at all! They also have live sports playing on a big screen and have a full menu. The pizza seems to be the big draw here but I found it too salty to eat and used to laugh seeing the face other people would make after taking the first bite! My suggestion is stick to the drink menu!
Another popular party spot was the Aqua Lounge – Hostel and Bar which was located on Isla Carenaro which is less than one minute by water taxi from Bocas Town. They charge a small cover here but that gets you one free drink. This place is best past 11 pm and the party goes all night. They have swing sets that launch the daring into open pools of water that are surrounded by the wooden patio. They also have a great dance floor. The restaurant is also supposed to be pretty good. I can’t imagine how anyone who stays in the hostel gets any sleep but if you want to party then this is the spot.
Go to Bocas del Toro!!!
All in all, I think this is one of the best all around places I’ve ever travelled to. Having done so many yacht deliveries and spent so much time in the Caribbean I came here with the attitude that it was going to take a lot to impress me with so many other islands to compare it to. This made me realize that this area is an excellent mix of culture with lots of things to do and a great place to relax, party or do both! I also liked how you could access other islands so easily to do day trips, water sports or just take in some new scenery. It is a very affordable as well as safe to walk around at any time of night especially after a night of drinking. I think people of any age would enjoy this area and the best part of it is that whether you are staying on a quiet island other than Isla Colon and Bocas Town you always have the option to take a quick water taxi ride there to do shopping, take in some nightlife and liven things up a bit. This also goes both ways for those staying in Bocas Town because it’s so easy to catch a ride to any of the other smaller islands for a more relaxing vibe. I’d go back here in a heartbeat and it is the type of place a lot of people plan to go for a few days and end up staying a few weeks!
Gone on a whim…