Bocas Del Toro is probably the most famous tourist town in Panama after Panama City (which most people visit just to see the canal). Many people who visit Bocas Del Toro are backpackers coming across the border from Costa Rica and it definitely has a backpacker vibe. I stayed here for four nights, which was at least two nights too many (sorry, Bocas-lovers!). I found it very touristy and not exactly as portrayed online in Bocas Del Toro travel guides.
When I say this is a small town, I mean really small! The main town is on Isla Colon and that is where they run a lot of the popular Bocas Del Toro tours from. Basically, every shop is a travel agent. You don’t have to stay on this island, though, and before arriving it can be confusing trying to decide which area/island is best for you – as well as deciding if you need to be close to the airport or main island for early morning departures! These were things I couldn’t really find information on and I want to kind of sum up my top Bocas Del Toro tips and also just tell you what to expect when you visit here and a peak of the vibe I got from it – and honestly, why I didn’t really love it.
13 Things to Know Before Visiting Bocas Del Toro Panama
1. Getting there is easy and cheap but the shuttles are jam-packed
We took a tourist shuttle from Boquete to Bocas which should have taken an hour less than it did – we stopped for an HOUR long coffee break on a 3.5-hour trip. Who does that? The shuttles are packed full and luggage goes on top. It poured rain the whole way for us. Luckily we had hard-shell bags but those with backpacks had put them in trash bags before going (they still got wet). Alternatively, you can hire a driver. We had used a private service from Boca Chica to Boquete which was $70 per person. We decided not to use them from Boquete to Bocas Del Toro to save money. They quoted us $172 in total and you can contact them here: email@example.com.
2. Isla Colon is a backpacker’s zone and party-place
if you’re over that, older, or more of a quiet person you might want to stay on Bastimentos (Red Frog Beach) or Cristobal Island. On Isla Colon, it’s a small town with backpacker hostels dotted around. There is where your transportation will take you. Remember, it’s an island. That means, the shuttle can only take you to the port where you will catch a boat to Isla Colon and from there you will go to the island you are staying on. Make sure you include the boat cost in the cost of the shuttle you book. The airport and main town is Isla Colon. Here is a map.
3. Booking online is a must so that they can offer you complimentary transportation if off-island
There are water taxis between islands but this can add up. You’ll want to book ahead so that the hotel will pick you up from Isla Colon and drop you back off. There are offices for the hotels off-island. So, when you arrive to Isla Colon, you need to look on a map to find the office of your hotel and go there. They will then put you on a taxi to your hotel.
4. These are the best boutique hotels there:
On the map above I added to these hotels, too, so you can see where they are. Keep in mind, almost all of the nice hotels are on islands other than Isla Colon since that is the backpacker place. Don’t let this put you off. If you aren’t going to party, you will want to stay off the main island. Even going for a day of shopping and food or to take a tour is enough and it’s just a 10-20 minute boat ride that is usually $5 to go back to Isla Colon. Basically, Isla Colon isn’t all that so think of Bocas as a place to relax and chill – because of that, this is a good place to splurge a bit on a nice boutique hotel in paradise and just chill out there.
Urraca Private Island – This is secluded and beautiful.
Red Frog Beach Island – This is more of a resort and where I stayed. Full review coming soon!
Bluff Beach Retreat – Closer to the main island and Bluff is meant to be the nicest beach.
La Loma Jungle Lodge and Choco Farm – Only open from Tuesday to Thursday and you have to stay at least two days. We weren’t here on the right days or this would have been a place we stayed for two nights.
Casa Cayuco – This was my number one choice for a hotel but as it was off-season they had different hours and were closed. This is by far the prettiest boutique hotel in Bocas Del Toro.
Finca Vela Lodge – This is the place that was our second favorite choice but was booked up when we got there. Such a bummer because it was beautiful.
Monkey Tree Retreat – At this hotel, you have treehouse style vibes, which could be cool and has easier access to town but it was roughing it a bit for me after being off the grid in San Blas and Chiriqui just before.
If you want to stay in the main town at a modern hotel, then go to the Tropical Suites Hotel for $100 a night or less. It’s right in Bocas center, less idyllic but since you’re in town it will save money because you can eat at the local places instead of resort restaurants.
5. There are some crazy amazing Airbnb options
There are some very cool Airbnb listings in Bocas Del Toro, from treehouses to hipster homes, to hideaways in the jungle where people staying get to see sloths from their balcony. You can see all the listings here. If you’re new to Airbnb, you can sign up with this link and get $40 off your first booking.
6. Cat-calling is a thing all over Panama
While cat-calling itself isn’t really a big deal and I felt totally safe in Panama, I really wouldn’t go out alone at night here or away from the main areas. We also had some expats warn us not to head out on our own at night – so not really sure what the situation is for safety, but better to be a little cautious and not over-drink.
7. You can rent a bike for the day
Many places are offering bike rentals for just $5 for the day and that is a great way to get around town. It was, unfortunately, raining when we visited, but on a sunny day I’d go for this!
8. The water is not as clear or stunning as San Blas
If you come to Bocas Del Toro after spending time in San Blas, you’ll be kind of disappointed and not want the island tours because it’s just not as stunning. It’s still gorgeous of course, but it’s not really “paradise” as much. There is an island on Bocas Del Toro called Zapatillas Island which you can take day tours to. This is the prettiest island on Bocas Del Toro and it is the “San Blas” scene. If you haven’t been to San Blas this will be your number one place to visit/tour to take. If
9. If you visit Boquete or Chiriqui first, you won’t want the “jungle” vibe tours either
So, basically don’t do Bocas Del Toro last unless you are cool with chilling at your hotel and relaxing to end your perfect trip (which is what we did). The tours are all cool but they are repeats of what you’ll be offered all over Panama. If you don’t take tours there really isn’t anything to do but wander around and chill, which is the point of staying there. Drink, party, mingle with other travelers. Something else to keep in mind is that the main island hotels don’t have beaches. The main island has like a dock and you can’t swim there. So to chill at the beach, you need to take a tour out to another beach.
10. Expect things to be slow-paced
…. and maybe a little unorganized. We had a hotel cancel on us. A lot is closed off-season. Even our hotel shuttle early in the morning to catch our flights went like this: halfway on the boat to the main island, they realized they forgot two people so we had to go back – then once we reached the office where we were meant to take our complimentary shuttle to the airport, there was no one there and it was locked. So, a guy finally came who paid for a taxi for 3 of us and then had the taxi come back from the airport to get the other 2 people. I guess it’s the chill island vibes and it’s a small laid-back place so it’s not a big deal but worth noting I suppose.
11. Yes, you can see a sloth here on a tour but…
they are on an island called “sloth island” and you are on a boat looking at them. You don’t get on the island with them. We were lucky to see a sloth on Red Frog Beach crossing the road!
12. There are some good places to eat!
In backpacker places, you usually find yummy westernized food and this is no exception. You also have cheap street food and food trucks. There are also oddly A TON of grocery stores. We cooked in two of the nights we were there which was really nice. Just look at TripAdvisor and start by trying the top-ranked ones. We weren’t disappointed with our meals at all.
13. The airport is TINY and you don’t need to be there very early
Staying off the main island is okay for the early flights and hotels off the main island will have transportation arranged – however, if you are staying at an Airbnb, I would go back to Isla Colon and stay the night before your flight. There are two flights to Panama City with Air Panama at 740 and 10 o clock in the morning. We took the earliest one and you really don’t need to be at the airport until 45 minutes before your flight.
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