Bocas Del Toro, Panamá
By Udodi Okoh
Panama is the type of country you can explore through a moderate 8-12 hour layover or spend days getting to know the country’s unique cultural makeup, exploring jungles located a short distance out of the country’s most populous city, mountain ranges, or trying to figure out which beach is your favorite. To be candid, prior to visiting Panama in my mind didn’t attract the fanfare I know neighboring Costa Rica typically received, but after spending 10 days exploring the isthmus, I now know those who visit the country either hate it or love it, and I have unashamedly fallen into the latter category.
Bocas Del Toro in particular is situated along Panamá’s most northeastern coastline.A coastline donned by palm trees, surrounded by warm waters and saturated by humidity. My hair, skin and body soaked up the morning mist and by the end of day one within the archipelago, I could tell my hair and skin had found its happy place.
I arrived at Bocas Del Toro after a 5-hour direct flight to Panama City, a six hour layover in Panama City, a ten hour bus ride from Panama City to Almirante a thirty minute boat ride from Almirante to Isla Colón and another 5 minute boat ride from Isla Colón to Bastimentos. I was absolutely exhausted yet happy to check into to a quant ocean-front oasis where I was instantly drawn into island life. It felt good.
Bocas Del Toro is comprised of 10 main islands each offering various types of activities to indulge in, sleeping accommodations for budget, regular and luxury travelers and various restaurants, street vendors and quick eats. The islands are reflective of a myriad of color entrenched in any description of the Caribbean.
Various shades of green.
A hint of pink.
The city most typically referred to as Bocas Del Toro, or Bocas Town is located on Isla Colón. The two post popular islands for tourism are Isla Colón (Bocas Town) and Isla Bastimentos. Isla Bastimentos is a quick 5-7 minute boat ride from Bocas Town. Water taxis are small, shallow and make frequent trips between Bocas Town and the neighboring islands. In order to get from the B&B on Bastimentos to Bocas Town (where I was completing my PADI Open Water Scuba Certification), I would walk out on the sidewalk path to the main boat dock, wave my arms frantically to get the attention of a water taxi, and take the 5 minute, $3 trip into Bocas town.
I spent 4 days in Bocas Del Toro, sleeping on Isla Bastimentos and traveling to Isla Colón (Bocas Town) each day for my scuba course, to have dinner and to hang out. In the end, I grew tired of paying $3-$5 each time I wanted to travel to Bocas Town, and more so wished I simply stayed on Isla Colón, however the Afro-Caribbean vibe of Isla Bastimentos and our accommodations more than made up for the trips between the two islands.
Isla Bastimentos is inhabited by Afro-Caribbean descendants of Jamaican immigrant workers hired to work on the banana plantations in the early 1900s. Bastimentos is extremely laid back and you almost feel the dependency on time fleeing as you interact with the island. Everyone relishes in and takes their time living. The local language – Gauri Guari – sometimes referred to as Creole English is a blend of Jamaican patois, Spanish and Guayamí. It was nice to walk about and see so many people that looked like me and sounded like my family.
Each morning, I arose to the sounds of waves crashing and serenity of life on an island. I begrudgingly made my way out of the bungalow and tiredly walked to the dock to hail a water taxi into Bocas Town. I would stay in Bocas until sunset, tired, worn and exhausted after a day of open water scuba diving. One particular night, I initially dined at El Pirate; satisfied with dinner of fresh fish curry, patacones (also known as tostones or banan peze depending on where your heritage lays) and made the way into the streets of Bocas Town.
Unbeknownst, it was Carnival season and folks were out in the proverbial streets, crunk and red devils roamed the streets searching who to flog. Finally, music pumping out of sound speakers reminiscent to the Labor Day Parade along Flatbush Avenue. I walked around the main streets of town, stopping to pick up wifi and ended up meeting cousins (an expat in Panamá) and her bestie and the four of us hung out the rest of our time in Panamá. There’s something about meeting another black person abroad, it mostly stems from the fact that you know people like you travel, and you simply wish you see more of each other out and about. She gave us her opinion of blackness in Panamá, offered suggestions on what to do in Bocas, and I found happiness talking to another sista who made the decision to live life abroad.
On the last full day in Bocas del Toro since I had no pre-set agenda and decided to finally spend some time exploring Red Frog beach. I took a short water taxi from Bastimentos to the other side of the Island, paid the $3 entrance fee, walked through the hottest of hot weather and made it to a dashing shoreline. Arriving at the small bay there was the entrance to the beach, it was beautiful as expected. Red Frog beach is a popular destination with Panamanians, so unsurprisingly the beach was packed and a number of pristine beach selections (i.e. tree shade) occupied.
I spent a total of four days in Bocas Del Toro and at the end of our time at Red Frog beach had to pry myself away from the picturesque waters and laidback lifestyle. With the beautiful mountain ranges directly surrounding, I bid farewell to the province which gave me the opportunity to relax and to knock off another item off my bucket list.
If you’re planning on visiting Panamá, I recommend you schedule 3-4 days to visit Bocas Del Toro.
Here are some helpful tips for visiting Bocas Del Toro:
Language: The official language of Bocas Del Toro is Spanish. Learn a few phrases before you arrive.
Currency: The USD is Panamá’s national currency.
Credit Cards and Banking: Credit cards aren’t typically accepted in Bocas Del Toro. Plan to bring as much cash as you will need for your time in Bocas. Also bring small denominations ($1 and $5 bills). The only ATM in Bocas ran out of cash while we were there, so really plan to have enough cash to cover your entire trip to Bocas.
Climate: Tropical with high humidity, warmth and rain all year long.
Accommodations: Bocas is stereotypically one of those provinces that could be the perfect set for a movie about spring given the high amount of backpackers it receives. At the same time, Panamanians also flock to Bocas Del Toro during Holidays and school breaks. If you’re travelling during the Holidays or when Panamanian children are on break, plan on booking your accommodations and purchasing your bus tickets in Panama City and in Bocas ahead of schedule.
Things to Do: Boat trips, sailing trips, scuba diving, snorkeling, fishing trips are all abundant. It is best to first speak with your lodging place to see if they can get you a deal and arrange excursions. If that’s not your thing, make your way into Bocas Town and barter with any man yelling out to you with information on various excursions.
Where to Eat: Food in Bocas wasn’t the cheapest, in fact it was on par with what you pay to eat in the States. Lobster dinners for one = $25ish, catch of the day for $15, mixed drinks were reasonably priced at $4-$6. To save money and remain within your budget, book accommodation that provides breakfast. In Bocas Town, there is a small red shack located to the left of the boat dock called “Fonda Anic Flor” which offers rice, meat, beans and a cabbage salad for $4. There are also street vendors selling empanadas and plantain chips for $0.50. A cup of sugar cane juice will run you $0.75. Street smoothies are also available for $5 if like me there is only so much fried food you can take.
Until next time Bocas, I’ll always remember how well the humidity, kindness of strangers and open waters fared me well.
Udodi, affectionally referred to by her middle name Chinye is a scholar of life and explorer of the world. A lover of flowers, chocolate, politics, green juice, and all things financial. She hopes to encourage people to travel with their hearts open, daring to dream big, and go far. She hope to inspire others to seek out Africa and to travel to experience the beauty, richness, hospitality, and love of her home continent. Best piece of advice she's been given: Take a journal to express yourself. Fill it with your dreams, desires, vision and inspiration. Use it as a catalyst to rouse the thoughts through your eyes.