Panama's

BOCAS DEL TORO

see also Bastimentos & Carenero islands

Global Mark : 15.43

Ratings by criteria : 

Charm Scenery Culture Tradition Market Relax Fiesta 

Cost

AVER.
 5 5 3 4 2 5 2 3 14.50

Ratings by backpackers :

Surveyed Liked  Comeback  Recommend  Range AVER.
22 100% 100% 100% 12 to 20 16.36


Description :
A relaxed little colonial town with charming infrastructure for a pleasant stay, friendly people for interesting conversations and boats for the exploration of the surrounding islands.

Comments : This is usually where people base themselves as it offers most of the facilities in a lovely relaxed atmosphere

What to do ?  Wander around the charming colonial buildings, the colorful wooden houses and the few historical relics (cannon, anchor, old fire truck, etc) / Learn about Christopher Columbus landing here in 1502, the banana industry or the sea turtles in the middle of  the parque central / Learn even more at the IPAT exhibition floor and discover the other natural treasures of the area  / Admire a superb aerial photo of the area, excellent to decide where to go / Meet Indians in traditional costumes, usually by colorful souvenirs / Walk toward many beaches / Lye down on many beautiful sands / Splash in many dangerous waves / Snorkel toward many colorful fishes / With a bit of luck, see dolphins, turtles or rays / Kayak the peaceful mangrove / Walk around an island / Dream at splendid sunset, a cold beer in hand / Spot snakes, crabs and possibly monkeys and  alligators ! / Visit a cave full of bats / Spot a few of the 350 species of birds found in the area (Birds Island) / Share experiences with the English-talking Afro residents / Listen to reggae / Degust rice & beans in coconut milk / Examine tiny red frogs / Learn how to scuba dive or speak Spanish / Just relax and forget it all !

What you may not like ?  The orientation of the place toward mass tourism and the cost increase during the high season (Dec to April) / The slightly higher cost of food / The lack of good nearby beach on Isla Colon / The rubbish on some beaches / The taste of the water (chlorine) or the lack of taste of the water (safe to drink ?) / The mosquitoes / The heat & humidity in the forest / The dangerous rip tides, on most beaches, making swimming a very hazardous activity / The number of islands and the need to go on a tour to see a few of them / The limited cheap rooms for Sgl travelers / The cost of the boat for the 10mn crossing to Bastimentos ($2 when residents pay $1 only) / The slightly higher cost to learn how to scuba dive (US$190 Open Water, $40 for two tanks) or speak Spanish 

How long ? You may completely loose the notion of time in the area and spend weeks exploring the archipelago. At least three days for a limited but acceptable tour.

Where to stay ? There are plenty of hospedaje & hotels in town, some of them offering incredibly value for money (at least in LS) . 

- On Calle 3 or nearby, turn right from the pier :

  • ® Hotel Sea Horse (7579261) / downstairs w. AC & shower $7 p.p., upstairs w. AC, TV, fan & shower $10 p.p. / HS ( Sept to Jan) downstairs 25, upstairs 30 / Go there for the very c heap prices in LS and the good upstairs room w. some view / What you may not like : the concrete downstairs room are a bit depressing and dark and the manager a bit reluctant to show you around
  • ® Hotel Del Parque (7579008, delparque35@hotmail.com ), east of the parque / w. HW shower 15(1), 20(2) & 25(3) / Free tea or coffee all day long / Go there for the lovely colonial house with lots of greenery & decoration, the view toward the parque from the relaxing terrace and the charming spotless rooms. One of the best quality-price ratio in town.
  • ® Hospedaje Heike (7579558), facing the square / Sgl $6, Dbl 10, w. balcony 12 / HS 7, 12 & 15 / Common HW shower / Go there for the spotless & charming wooden house and the correct rooms / What you may not like : the rooms are fairly small and basic
  • ® La Concha (7579609), just after the above / Bunk bed room $5 p.p. (not a dorm), better room $8, w. shared HW shower (with another room) 9 / Kitchen / Go there for the even charmer house with a family atmosphere & decorations, the nice rooms and the cleanliness / What you may not like : the bunk beds !
  • ® Hotel Las Brisas (7579248), at the north end of 3C. / upstairs w. fan & shared bathroom (with another room) upstairs $10, w. shower 13, downstairs w. HW shower 17, w. AC 20, w. TV 25-30 / Go there for the correct rooms upstairs, the nice rooms downstairs, the sea view from the terrace over the water and the free coffee in the morning / What you may not like : it is big & busy
  • ® An annex of the above, opp the street, was offering incredible deal when I was there : a huge and lovely room w. HW shower for $7 only ! Incredible ! This offer should not last long but the future price at maybe $15 would still be a good bargain.

- On Av Norte :

  • Bocas Inn (7529226, info@anconexpeditions.com) , just after the above / Rather small rooms start at $30 w. AC and go up to 55. Expensive for what you get !
  • Hospedaje La Sirenita (7579372), 100m further on the left / Dbl w. shower $15 / Small charming house and acceptable rooms but they are unfortunately all downstairs. 
  • Hotel Casa Max (7579120, casamax@hotmail.com), just after the above / w. HW shower 15(1), 18-20(2), HS 18 & 22-30(2) / Go there for the charming green colonial house well decorated and the correct rooms / More exp if upstairs / What you may not like : it is a bit expensive for one and the rooms are rather small.
  • La Veranda (7579211), after the supermarket on the way to Boca Del Drago / $15(1), or 20(2), w. HW shower 25(2), w AC 35(2) /  / Western management / Rain water / Go there for the family atmosphere, the charming house and the lovely rooms w. mosquito nets. / What you may not like : it is not cheap

- On Calle 4, from North to South :

  • Hospedaje Dixon (7579542) / Dbl w. shower $12 / Correct rooms at correct price for two.
  • Posada Los elfines (7579963, hlaguna@cwp.net.pa ) / w. matrimonial bed, AC, HW shower & cable TV $25, w. two beds $35 / Nice & well equipped rooms, unfortunately a bit small and expensive.
  • Hospedaje Kalaus (7579432), west of the school / w. shower $16 / Correct clean rooms in a new building in the back of the garden.
  • ® Hotel Sagitario (7579197) / w. shower & local TV $10(1) or 15(2), w. AC 20(1) or 25(2) / Go there for the nice rooms, well equipped and spotless / What you may not like : no HW, very limited view and expensive room w. AC as not too big.
  • Hotel Scarlett (6265163) / w. AC, TV & HW shower 20(1) or 22(2) / Acceptable price for two. 

- Turning left from the pier :

  • ® Hospedaje EYL (7579206) / w. shower 6-10(1) or 12(2) / Kitchen / Go there for the cheap prices, the correct rooms and the intimate family atmosphere. 
  • Hotel Bahia (7579626), after the above toward South / w. AC, HW & TV 22(2), 25(3) or 27(4), better upstairs 35(2) or 40(3) / The big building was previously the United Fruit Company HQ but the rooms are globally overpriced as rather basic & small (at least for the downstairs one)
  • Hotel Dos Palmas (7579906), following the road after the curve on South Av / Dbl w. HW shower & TV 22, w. AC 27 / Go there for the small house with a terrace over the sea, the nice rooms and the relaxed atmosphere outside of the tourist crowd / What you may not like : it is expensive if alone !

Backpacker's Tips : Ari Gladstein, USA (Sept 04)
« Mondo Taitu deserves its reputation as the most charming backpacker's hostel in Bocas. I had such a great stay and so did everyone else I talked to who was there at the same time as me. The place is a block away from the ocean and the Caribbean garden and the communal kitchen were excellent. Sweet bar too! The guys running the place were totally attentive to our needs and were able to offer solid advice on everything from the best beaches to the best artisans in the area. Definitely recommend it..» 


Where to eat ? 
Restaurant El Lorito, just North of Hospedaje La Concha is probably the cheapest in town at $2 for a tipico meal. Unfortunanately, it is of the cafeteria style with dishes prepared in advance. They have good pastries however. A better option is nearby La Islena, South of Hospedaje Heike : same reasonable prices, well served and plates prepared in the kitchen. Not all their dishes are very tasty however...

Internet ? The center inside the IPAT building is the cheapest at $1.5 per hours (min). The place by Restaurant El Lorito (same owner) is more expensive at $3 per hour but the minimum time is 5mn only ($0.25) and it opens until late at night. 

Tours ? The cheapest way to snorkel around the archipelago is unfortunately by joining a tour with one of the few companies located by the pier. Prices are fairly standardized at $15 for a day tour (9am to 5pm) with dolphin watching & snorkeling or $20 up to Zapatilla Cays, the best snorkeling spot that however charges the $10 park admission fee (not included). Some agencies also have shorter trips for $10. Most companies requires a min of 5-6 people and therefore do not go every day in the low season (and not everywhere). If you are with a group of people, it could be cheaper to rent a boat from one of the fishermen for $30-40 a day. You will however need the snorkeling equipment : most places charge $3-5 but Pargo Rojo on Carenero Island is more reasonable at $2. 

Learning Spanish ?  Picking up some vocabular would be a good excuse to spend more time in the archipelago. "Spanish by the Sea" (spanishbythesea@hotmail.com) is a serious & professional accreditated school that organizes different programs around 2, 3 or 4 hours of Spanish per day, five days a week. It isn't cheap however with prices ranging from $70 for 2 hours per day in a group of four to $190 for private lessons 4 hours a day. Accomodation, food and excursions ($100 for three trips) are extra !  Remember also that most people on the island speak English... Guatemala may therefore be a better bet !

Scuba diving ?  With one of the most diverse & colorful underwater ecosystem of Central America, it would be a pity not to breathe a few tanks ! A couple of schools offer the usual PADI products and prices, thought not as cheap as in Honduras, are reasonable nevertheless : US$40 for two tanks, $190 for open water, $180 for advanced, etc.  This would also be an excellent way to explore the archipelago...  

Backpacker's Tips : Anthony Asael (March 04)
« Mondo Taitu: 7us for single room, 5 USD for dorm. American manager, American tourist, American atmosphere, but the cheapest I found.
Restaurant “El pecado del Sabor" very expensive and slow service, but good food
The island not to be missed is Isla zapatilla: the real paradise» 

Backpacker's Tips : Carol Boisvert, Canada (Dec 03)
« I shall tell you about that nice restaurant i found in bocas that's called "El pecado del Sabor" which is held by another french canadian named Stephane. Atmosphere there is great and opened to all, backpackers or high-society-crocodile-dundee-like-outfit-guys. Stephane is always there to bring everyone together. When i was there the police had to come every night to shot the place because we kept going too late. The guy and his wife keep the place open until they make a little dough, and then hit the beaches for two or three days. So don't worry if you get there and find "closed" sign, since they should be back the following day. Beer and food are excellent, musicians sometimes.
Don't miss Polo, at Polo beach (just ask the boat guys to drop you there). This afro-black-latino-friday-lookin-cast-away-type loner lives at the northern tip of Isla Bastimentos. Real friendly, for a couple of Balboas ypu'll get the chance of tasting his reknown fish bouillabaise, or a grilled bush rat. He will also fix you a hamak if you wish to sleep over.»


A trip to Boca Del Drago ?
According to my guidebook, this sounded like the perfect gateway ! "A small fishing community (...) with calm water perfect from swimming and a narrow beach fringed with palm trees (...)". What it did not tell however was that it was more than 16km away ! The local people were actually puzzled as for how long it would take to walk there, with estimates ranging from 1.5 hours to 6 hours !

The turn off (there is a sign) is about 2km away, passing the cemetery and walking the narrow isthmus by a very dirty beach to Isla Colon. Turn right for Playa Bluff (a 4km long white sand beach with big waves and dangerous current, 7km away) or left for Boca del Drago. This way isn't too flat and the shading area is limited. Nevertheless, the scenery is quite enjoyable, with many big trees and different species of bamboo. 

About one hour later, you should reach the tiny village of Colonia Santena (Coca-Cola sign). Take the small path on the right and, 100m later, you will reach a small Catholic shrine by a river cave. You can venture inside but beware : beside the bats, it apparently also host one alligator ! Do not venture too deep into the river...

Boca Del Drago is another 8km or so away, about 2 hours extra walk. This is an estimate as I was picked up by a group of friendly Americans heading to their Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (itec@itec-edu.org) . It was an interesting bumpy ride that took around 30mn. On the way, the driver stopped to pick up another passenger : a snake that he had spotted on the road. As a good ecologist, he released him after analysis. Just before arriving, there is a series of lake, all of them apparently hosting alligators. And then the village !

Well, not exactly : the "small fishing community" is actually composed of two families managing two guesthouses and one restaurant ! There was no boat and the end of the road was a private property. Certainly disappointing ! The beach fringed with palm trees was certainly very nice but it was very narrow and quite short. The water should offer some snorkeling opportunities but the equipment rental is expensive at $6 per day. There is a longer beach on the other side maybe worth exploring...

Accommodations in Boca Del Drago are limited to Cabanas Estefani (7743168) and Casa Nina (2607135), both overpriced : $5 camping, room without shower $18-20 or cabanas (up to 8 people) $55. Generator from 6pm to 11pm only. From May to Sept, the place is likely to be busy with students from the above Institute. The restaurant however is reasonably priced at $2.5 for tipico chicken dish ($6 up for fish). 

I was very lucky to get another transport back (at least up to the cave that I wanted to visit) but you may not be so lucky. Walking both ways would require a full day ! There is a public transport on Monday, Wed & Frid (Bocas Del Toro's market day) but it leave Boca Del Drago at 6am and come back at 12:30. Not very convenient... Going by bike would be acceptable only with a good mountain bike with lots of gears as it is rocky and hilly. 

As a whole, if you are looking for a beach experience, it would be best to head to Isla Bastimetos first !  It is not an unpleasant countryside walk however, at least if you are not short on time...

 << Discover a charming island


How to go to the other islands ?
Boats from Bocas del Toro leave very regularly : as soon as someone show up ! They usually prefer to spot a foreigner as they will charge him twice what the residents pay : $2 instead of $1 for Bastimentos and $0.5 (they may ask for $1) instead of $0.25 for opposite Carenero. The cost will be the same whether alone or with a bunch of people.  

See also the "trip to the other islands" in Bastimentos & Carenero sections. 

 

The trip to Boquete via Almirante and David : SSS / L & R / $3 + 7 + 1.2 / 15mn + 3.5 hours + 1 hour / Boat + Minibus + 'Chicken' bus

Walking toward the pier for Bocas Marine Tours, I was stopped by a black guy : "This company is closed now. They take turn, each for 15 days. You need to go with Taxi 25. Their pier is near the IPAT Office". With the same price and same service, I could not care less. The short trip was as lovely as on the way in but unfortunately even faster : no time to dream at the early morning lights... The ferry schedule is quite inconvenient as leaving at 5pm four times a week only. 

As soon as we landed in Almirante, taxi touts jumped on us, insisting to carry our bags straight into their pick-up. Why take a taxi, I wondered, the bus station is only 200m away ! I understood why 200m later : minibus to David where not leaving from it ! They depart from Changuinola and do not bother entering town. And as the main road is a good 15mn walk away (follow the rail track to the left), the $0.5 taxi may not be such a bad idea after all, especially if loaded with bags...

A minibus was waiting by the road. It was nearly full but, on Saturday, the next one would probably be full as well. My bag therefore reached the roof and I reached my seat. It was a long 3 hours trip : the road was well paved (this is a recent connection) but it was very curvy and hilly. A few stomachs did not appreciate and plastic bags were handed, not always on time however. The 15mn break was a relief and an opportunity for a few to refill their stomachs... 

The scenery was nice, with a few good panoramas on both side but it wasn't the spectacular trip that I had expected. The minibus was however as colorful & kitschy as it is possible for a minibus to be, with lot's of weird stuff pending from the roof, lot's of stickers and the kind of decorations that you usually find in a grandma's flat only (and one without any taste). The loud music completed the atmosphere... 

The busy bus station in David was certainly very entertaining but probably not for more than 5mn. Chicken bus (yes, they also have this kind of transport here !) fortunately leave every 30mn or so to Boquete. Before leaving, double check the schedules for your onward trip as you do not wish to be stuck there...

To Cost Time Frequency Duration
Boquete  $1.2 5 to 21:45 every 30mn 1 hour
Costa Rica Border $1.5 4:15 to 21 every 10mn 1h20
Almirante $7 5 to 19 every 40mn 3 hours
Las Lajas $3.5 11:45,12:45,16:20 & 17:20 na 1h45
Panama City $10.6 6:45,8,9,11,12,13,15:30,17,18:30 & 20 na 6.5 hours
Panama City $15 22:45 & 24 (advance booking recommended) na 5.5 hours

I had expected the road to go up. I was therefore a bit surprised to spot (on the right side), after a mostly 45mn flat ride, the village below in the valley. Most people got off at the Parque Central and so should you. 

See also the trip from Guabito (Costa Rica border) via Changuinola