Bocas del Toro is a group of islands off the northwest coast of Panama. The region consists primarily of nine islands, two national parks, a diverse array of wildlife, and world-renowned surfing and scuba diving. Luxury travelers and backpackers alike flock to the region, singing praises of its sublime beaches and tropical vibes.
But is Bocas del Toro really worth the hype?
At first, I said no. While I enjoyed my time in Bocas, I wasn’t as enamored by the region as fellow travelers promised I would be. Instead, I found it to be extremely touristy and lacking a bit of the wild authenticity I had hoped to find. But upon further reflection, I realized that it wasn’t necessarily Bocas del Toro that was the problem—it was my expectations for the region. With numerous islands to explore, there’s more to Bocas del Toro than I first gave it credit for. Does it live up to the unrealistic hype? Perhaps still no. But Bocas del Toro certainly warrants a stop on any Central American travel itinerary, provided you know what to expect.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind when planning your Panamanian adventure:
Realize that Bocas del Toro is more than just Bocas Town.
Bocas Town is the capital of Bocas del Toro. It’s where most of the action is—including most of the tourists. If you’re looking for lively nightlife, beach bars, world cuisine, cool hostels, and an easy place to meet travelers from around the world, then chances are you will love basing yourself in Bocas Town. It’s really safe and sociable, and a common destination for solo female travelers.
If you prefer seclusion to backpackers, romance to late-night reggae, and pristine beaches to party boats, then consider staying on one of Bocas del Toro’s other islands. Isla Bastimientos is a popular choice that has an assortment of luxurious beach bungalows and dreamy dining at prices that won’t necessarily break the bank.
Don’t take the names of the island tours too seriously.
The most popular thing to do at Bocas del Toro is to take an island tour. It is easy to arrange tours on the main road of Bocas Town or at most hotels, and all companies seem to offer the same three island tour packages for $20-$30. Included in the day trips are popular destinations like “Dolphin Bay”, “Starfish Beach”, and “Bird Island”. These tours are enjoyable and stop off at some truly beautiful places (make sure to visit Isla Zapatillos). However, animals are smarter than we often give them credit for—and they are certainly not predictable. Even if these destinations are named after the animals said to be found there, it’s not a complete given that you will see them every time. If I were a dolphin, I’d probably try to avoid all the boats flocking to the bay, too. During my tour I saw one dolphin and three starfish. Other travelers I’ve met didn’t see any wildlife at all. You just never know.
Be prepared for lots of rain, and then smile when the sun shines.
It rains a lot in Bocas del Toro. Many fellow travelers have admitted that it was the weather more than anything else that left them disenchanted with their visit. Try to avoid any letdowns by being prepared for rainy days. A good book with a lookout to the ocean always does the trick for me.
Know that there really is something for (almost) everyone in Bocas.
While island hopping is perhaps the most popular day trip, there’s a lot more to do and experience in Bocas. Surfers come from around the world to tackle the region’s legendary waves, though lessons can also be arranged for novices. If you want to explore the wildlife under the sea, there are numerous scuba diving certifications and opportunities to be arranged. Finally, hiking, sailing, yoga, volunteering, and Spanish lessons are just a few of the other options that keep travelers staying at Bocas del Toro longer than originally anticipated. And if you’re looking for a place to meet new people, this is the place for you.
Most people who fall in love with Bocas are the ones who stay there for longer than just a few days. If your travel itinerary allows, give it a bit of time to charm you.
Have you been to Bocas del Toro before? Did you think it was worth the hype?