Posted by: vivalatinamerica | March 22, 2011

Bocas del Toro – Panama’s Caribbean Coast

The Bocas del Toro Archipelago is a group of islands on Panama’s Caribbean coast. And within it is an island to suit all types of traveller aspirations.

We arrived onto Isla Colón, the biggest and most populated island, to discover that it was carnival. This meant that everywhere was booked solid. We looked around for a few hours to find a bed and jumped at the first one that came along, and by that point I’d seriously started eyeing up park benches. Unfortunately the room shared a wall with the bar of the main party hostel in town. The noise finally died at 04:00. But we had at least got a bed and it was a private room but we were charged the price of a dorm.

The next day we headed to a quieter side of the island, Bluff Beach. Our accommodation was only a two minute walk, so a great location. At this time of the year the waves are large and we were told to swim with caution. For this reason I let Stuart get dunked by the waves and toy with death while I cooled down in the little streams that run down the beach, like a little kiddies’ pool. Bluff Beach is well worth a visit as most people staying in Bocas town rarely make it this far.  It requires a taxi or hiring bikes and a difficult cycle round to the bay. For this reason there are few people on it and walking along the wide bay in relative isolation is a real pleasure.

One great option if you decide to make it all the way to Bluff beach is to treat yourself to some amazing cuisine at La Carolina. It is about 1km back toward town from Bluff Beach and is a wonderful stop-off for lunch or an early dinner. They can also call for taxis so you don’t need to worry about your return journey. Food at lunchtime starts at around US$5-6 and is a really tasty treat – I highly recommend the nachos. The restaurant has beautiful views over the beach and you could also benefit from a massage in their day spa (you need to book ahead for this). If you decide to stay, accommodation is designed to cater for all with beautiful suites down to rooms with shared bathrooms to ensure everyone can have the opportunity to stay in this glorious place. With plenty of hammocks and a swimming-pool and jacuzzi being planned for the future, this is a beautiful way to complement either a day visit or a longer stay in the Bluff Beach area. (; Tel: 507-6788-8992,

After running away from the noise and crowds of Bocas Town we decided it would be wrong not to try and get into the carnival spirit, so we pre-booked (before leaving for Bluff) a couple nights in the north of town.  On the first night we made the most of having a kitchen and cooked in and listened to the fireworks from the relative safety of our hotel room.

The next day it was up early for a tour. First stop was ‘Dolphin Bay’ where we were able to spot the obligatory dolphins that appeared on the surface briefly then dived again. After seeing this repeated a few times it was off to the next location despite my frustration at not getting ‘the perfect shot’ – too many other boats in the way. We stopped in Crawl Quay to order a very overpriced lunch and have a snorkel off their pontoon. This was rather nice as the fish under the huts were larger than I’d seen in a while.

After going to another snorkelling spot we returned to Crawl Quay for lunch. After this it was time to head over to Red Frog Beach, on the way we pulled over at a mangrove island and had the opportunity to sloth-spot. I was rubbish and couldn’t find one, but in the end other people pointed them out and way up in the trees we saw three or four of the uniquely weird creatures. For Red Frog Beach you will get dropped at one side of an island and can either walk or catch the free 4X4 ride to the beach itself. We started walking, not knowing there was transport, and jumped on the truck halfway to the beach. With only limited time at the beach it was the right choice: as crowded as Red Frog was, it is beautiful. Lying on the sand, I blocked out the crowds by listening to the live band playing in the bar. The sea was fairly frisky and definitely had a few waves that truly dunked and removed bikini tops but then there were others that you could happily bobble over in a more relaxed style, a fun combination. All in all a very typical tour with lots of people on other tours doing the same thing, but it was nice to get out and about.

That night it was time to hit the town. We went to an Indian restaurant first called ‘Om’ which was very tasty, then headed toward the party. Well, I have to say I might sound old and crusty, but I wasn’t impressed. The name carnival evoked images of colourful processions and ladies in sparkly costumes. This should more aptly be referred to as a street party as there are no processions, just a few guys in devil costumes that whip the unsuspecting. We’d asked about a procession and the time earlier in the day and were told there is no real procession and certainly not one that ever has a start time. A bit of an anti-climax as all there was were a lot of vendors selling beer and booze and some very loud speakers blaring out music. Maybe I’m just getting old!

The next day we headed to Isla Bastimentos. This is a much quieter island with options for truly remote accommodation. It was beautiful and we spent the afternoon lazing on our balcony, and then we kayaked and snorkelled over to a reef. Much to my pleasure and Stuarts disappointment, our kayak journey back to the hotel turned into a full-on race, and I won, oops.

If true isolation isn’t quite your style but you want somewhere quieter than Bocas town, but still remaining near to the fun, try Isla Carneros. We didn’t go but it is only US$1 for a taxi across the water and into Bocas town – the best of both worlds if that is what you are looking for.

Alice Bevan

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  1. The reason why Carnival was so slow this year was because of the massive protests that were happening with the Native Americans in Panama. Since they shut down the main road that was coming to Bocas, a lot of tourists skipped Bocas when they were travelling. However, Carnival is a great event in Bocas, just ask some of the locals.

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