To initiate the start of my blogging career, I wanted to begin with something fresh and familiar to me that concerns my most recent travels to Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama this past 2013 Summer. I just recently had a friend ask me about what I recommend she do with her three extra days between flying into Costa Rica and flying out of Panama City. She had mentioned wanting to visit a place called Bocas del Toro, a popular island in the VERY northeast corner of Panama. A place that definitely offers a little chunk of paradise if you go searching for it.
Bocas del Toro is an island on the Panama coast that thrives off of tourism. It is one of the most interesting places I’ve visited because of its mix of inhabitants from all over the world, its major strip where all of the nightlife happens, and the awesome day tours you can do to other keys or cities. It is definitely a little melting pot of culture in itself, having a huge caribeño influence and with tourists that turned into locals by never leaving after they fell in love with its unique atmosphere. They run on a currency called balboa (which is also the name of their trademark beer!) that is actually equal to the american dollar in this tourist-dense area of the country. But don’t worry! If you’re traveling on a backpacker’s budget like I was, you can surely afford a couple days there while seeing some gorgeous beaches that look like your average dream vacation of tropical paradise.
Bocas is quite a mess of a place to get to, especially if you’re coming in from one of the other neighboring countries. I started in San Jose, Costa Rica and it took a taxi, a bus, a van, a walk over the border (a very sketchy bridge over troubled waters I might add. Don’t drop your passport through the missing slots of wood! There’s no getting it back.), another van, and a water taxi to get there, all of which is a full day of travel if you play your cards right with the transportation systems.
When you finally make it to Bocas, you’ll find yourself on this runway-like strip of road with restaurants, hostels, and tourist shops lining the street. This main strip is the most popular part of the island on a constant basis, day and night. You’ll find great accommodations all along here, but we decided to move inland to see if we could snag a cheaper hostel. We ended up staying at a place called Hostel Heike that had basic but good rooms, community bathrooms and showers, and even free pancake breakfast everyday! Score! We came to find that most hostels had this free pancake deal though. The best part about Heike’s location was having a bus/van stop right outside of it that can take you to one of my favorite beaches called Playa de las Estrellas – Starfish Beach. You can pay your van driver in advance for roundtrip pick up to and from the beach so that you can spend a day walking along its beautiful island shores and admire the colorful sea stars that love to inhabit these shallow waters. Start your trek back to where the van dropped you off and have a late lunch at the only restaurant right there. You can enjoy a pretty ocean view while eating authentic food like patacones (kind of like little plantain pancakes, but not sweet at all!) . While waiting for your van back to the main strip, take some time to digest on a hammock by the salty waters in eye sight of the van stop.
If you want to do something REALLY awesome on your full day there, go on one of the boat tours that takes you out from 9am- 4pm to three different keys. You’ll find multiple places to sign up for these tours close to where the water taxi dropped you off. I recommend going to each one and getting the best price (our price was lowered with some friendly banter and finagling!). The first stop on the tour is to Cayo Delfin, where you’ll cruise around, following pods of dolphins in an area surrounded by little islands covered with vegetation. The next stop is to a large bungalow overhanging the clear blue water where you can order food and admire fish swimming from your table. I would suggest buying food from the grocery store or local bakery before the tour and having that for lunch if you are wanting to save some money. The lunch menu is pretty spendy, but the food looked delicious all the same. While almuerzo is cooking they take you back out into the water to go snorkeling in the shallow reefs close by. Come back, have a traditional caribeño lunch (or food brought from Bocas), and then cruise on over to the last part of the voyage, which is my personal favorite: Cayo Zapatillas. This place feels like a true, undiscovered, exotic island that you have always imagined when looking at those dreamy tropical advertisements. It’s such a tiny island that you can walk the whole perimeter in around 20 minutes and see other neighboring keys on all sides. The water: absolutely breathtaking. Pristine, clear, aqua marine waters with soft white sand that you get to play in for a couple hours until it’s time to go back to reality: the main island of Bocas (which isn’t exactly a bummer either!). I still wonder if I was actually dreaming this place up or not!
Really, you can’t go wrong anywhere. All of the places we ate were good, the only difference being price range.
- Raw Sushi + Martini Bar: Good, but probably our most expensive meal. If you go during happy hour they have great deals on specific rolls for around 4 dollars and 1 dollar beers. Find them on Facebook!
- La Buguita Cafe: We ate a couple different times at this place located close to the water taxi. Venture down to the end of its dock to visit their pet parrot that mimics you. I would suggest going there for dinner. There were four of us for the meal and everyone had amazing dishes, along with their incredible brownie and ice cream dessert after! Find them on Facebook!
- Ultimo Refugio: One place I wanted to get to but sadly missed the opportunity because of it being closed on Sundays. We were told while we were there that they have some great dishes and supposedly their peanut butter pie dessert is to die for! Find them on Facebook!
Every hostel was filled to the brim when we visited because it was Mother’s Day weekend in Panama, so I wanted to name another that we would’ve liked to stay in before finding Heike: Hostal Internacional. The guys that ran it were extremely nice, the rooms were even more basic than Heike, but it is right there on the main street with EXCELLENT location to everything and cheap pricing. Honestly, everything is in walking distance, but you could sit on the upper balcony of this place and do some major people watching. That alone is an extreme plus for me, but if you like a quieter setting for sleep time, Heike was a better choice by being off of the noisy Bocas strip.
Keep Bocas del Toro in mind for Spring Break!