I just got back from an amazing two-week trip with the family (plus sister-in-law and her husband) to Panama.
We covered a lot of ground with the first week being in Bocas del Toro and the second driving along the Pacific Coast for some surfing in Santa Catalina.
At the tail end of the trip we stayed in the amazing Casco Viejo for a couple nights before flying out.
But let’s focus on the Bocas del Toro part of the trip for now.
About Bocas Del Toro
Bocas del Toro is the chain of islands on Panama’s Caribbean coast near the border with Costa Rica.
It is also the name of the main island in the chain, so it is easy to get confused when people say Bocas for both the island and the region interchangeably.
The main island of Bocas del Toro also includes Bocas Town, the airport and the main ferry arrival from the mainland.
Bocas island is known for a couple of famous beach breaks for surfing – Bluff Beach and Paunch Beach.
Boat tours in the area are also sure to take you to Starfish Beach on the protected west side of the island.
Bocas Town is known for its party scene and variety of hotels, restaurants, hostels, and locals touring around on bikes.
However, our Bocas del Toro vacation took us to Isla Bastimentos, another large island in the chain that is, however, much less populated.
Isla Bastimentos is mostly made up of the protected Parque National Isla Bastimentos but also consists of a small town at Old Bank and the growing development at Red Frog Beach.
We stayed at the amazing Hotel Eclypse de Mar Acqua Lodge which is a group of huts on stilts across the bay from Old Bank.
Getting to this secluded spot required a ten-minute water taxi ride from Bocas Town after about a ten-minute walk to the water’s edge from the airport.
Water taxis in Bocas del Toro are as ubiquitous as New York City.
There are certain docks in town where they hang out, but they are also possible to just flag down.
We found that it was best to have one water taxi that was suggested by the hotel on WhatsApp and just work with him for the rest of the trip.
Even if he couldn’t make it he would send someone to pick us up wherever we happened to be.
Once we left land from Bocas Town on the water taxi, it seemed as though we rarely touched it again for the rest of our stay in Bocas del Toro.
We were surrounded by water in our little home on stilts at the Eclypse, we water taxied everywhere or were on the dive boat at the Bocas Dive Center, or taking a boat tour around Isla Bastimentos and the Zapatilla Islands.
If you’re looking for a completely immersive ocean experience, it is hard to get more so than this aside from living on a boat.
In fact, we basically felt as though we were on a boat without the motion (which worked just fine for my sea-sickness prone wife).
Surfing in Bocas del Toro
Isla Carenero Surf
December is an epic time for surfing in Bocas del Toro.
While I’ll save most of the surfing info for our surfing guide to Bocas, let’s just say that while taking the water taxi back and forth between Bocas Town and Isla Bastimentos, the waves breaking on the reef at Carenero Island that rests in the channel between the two were looking pretty epic.
It was hard to stay calm as I nursed an injury from my last surf trip to Costa Rica, but I have vowed to return.
Even from my little patio at the Eclypse I could see the head-high sets rolling through and hitting the reef across the channel.
Oh well. Next time.
Scuba Diving Bocas del Toro
In light of my inability to surf and the fact that it isn’t the most beginner friendly place for the kids to paddle around, we focused on scuba diving for some of our days in Bocas.
The afor-mentioned in-laws are big divers and really encouraged this as well.
So we registered with the Bocas Dive Center on the recommendation of a friend who frequents the area and were not disappointed.
The Bocas Dive Center is a really amazing operation where people are coming from all over to obtain higher levels of dive certifications including Dive Master and instructor levels.
Therefore they have all of these extra resources to throw at their guests to make the trip better.
While I didn’t really know the difference, the more experienced divers in our group were consistently blown away by their experience here – great dives without a long boat ride, lots of help in the group, a real attention to detail.
For me and my two kids, this meant a great experience to get our Basic Diver course rolling.
We registered with PADI and did the e-learning course ahead of time, then did two days of confined water instruction and a couple of open water dives.
One of my kids had a little trouble, so we took it slow. Otherwise it would have been possible to achieve our Open Water Diver status on the trip.
However, the way our instructor negotiated the different levels of comfort within our group while still encouraging everyone along really spoke to their experience at this shop.
Additionally, their cafe was a great place to hang out for anyone not actually diving.
Win for all!
Bocas del Toro Boat Tours
One of the best days we had during out Bocas del Toro stay was the guided tour (by boat of course) that explored the mangroves and islands on the protected side of the islands, included some snorkeling and the infamous Panamanian amphibian board, and a trip out to the Zapatillo Islands for some swimming and exploration of these pristine areas.
This full day trip evolved a little due to weather so tours can include some different spots to avoid choppy days on the boat or cater to your timeframe or home base.
Since we were already over on Isla Bastimentos, we headed east through the mangroves along that island. The area that is a narrow channel between Bastimentos and Isla Solarte showed off the local knowledge of the boat driver as he sped through the narrow openings.
We then placed our order for lunch at a restaurant on stilts before heading out for some snorkeling.
Finally, after an amazing lunch at Restaurant Jasmin and some amphibian boarding, we headed out across to the Zapatillo Islands.
The boat trip is a can’t miss experience during your stay in Bocas.
Any hotel should be able to set it up for you and you’ll also see signs for boat excursions if you walk along the docks in Bocas Town.
Finally, it was time to pack it up, water taxi back to the main island, and walk over to the airport for our Air Panama flight back to Panama City.
There was plenty more to explore that we didn’t get around to.
Our full scuba days took up time that might have been spent exploring beaches, but we had no regrets about spending all our time on the water.
After all, the second half of our trip up to Santa Catalina promised plenty more beach time ahead.