On a Saturday morning, we woke early and were dropped off at the bus station for our journey to Bocas del Toro. From the mountainous region of Boquete, Panama, we took two buses and one bumpy water taxi before arriving at Bocas del Toro about five hours later. Finding our feet, we stumbled down the streets of Bocas, the smell of the salty sea hitting our senses and the hot-humid air soaking into our skin. This would be our home for the next two weeks.
After talking with other travelers about Bocas, we'd built a different picture in our head: dirt roads, only a few restaurants, and typical beach shacks. What we found was quite different: an eclectic mix of colonial buildings, brightly painted beach shacks on stilts, paved roads, grungy backpackers, and a vibrant community of Afroantilleans (people from the English and French speaking Caribbean islands). All of the restaurants and shops presented normal facades but on the other side there is likely a party on the docks that jet out over the waters of the Caribbean sea. The laid back and chill vibe of the town quickly changes at the end of the week for a spectacle known as, Filthy Friday, which we did not attend but heard rave reviews if you are looking for a crazy and unique party.
The islands of Bocas del Toro are a major hub for adventure seekers.
where to stay
Surf Break at Paunch - Who is craving a jungle retreat where you can hide away, listen to nature, and surf to your heart's content? Aren't we all?! The owners of Surf Break at Paunch, David and Alli, are some of hospitality's finest individuals. Several years back, they decided to trade in the "American dream" and build a small boutique property in the jungle of Panama.
The units are embedded within the critters of the jungle that will sing you to sleep and softly wake you up every morning. The property features super comfy beds, large decks for yoga or relaxing, bicycles available for use, and big rooms with kitchenette. And can we talk about the breakfast? We ate breakfast tacos, fruits, yogurts, juices, and french toast.
The location of the property is ideal, as it is situated right on one of the best beaches in the Bocas del Toro area. Within five minutes of walking, our toes were in the ocean water. We spent many afternoons watching the surfers catch their best waves. One afternoon, we rode bikes up the coastline to Playa Bluff and had the entire beautiful beach to ourselves. We won't soon forget our time at this unique and beautiful property.
Divers Paradise Boutique Hotel - This stylish hotel is located right on the ocean in the heart of Bocas Town. With a nautical theme, the hotel features a wonderful restaurant and is connected to the best dive center in town, Bocas Dive Center. The best aspect of this property is that it can be whatever you make it. Meaning, you can spend time paddle boarding or kayaking with their equipment, you can sip a cocktail at jazz night at Pier 19 restaurant, you can learn how to dive, or you can simply sleep and enjoy the fresh breakfast overlooking the sea. The staff are professional and friendly, always ensuring their guests have the best experience possible.
One unique aspect of the hotel is their harmonious relationship with the ocean. Not only do they teach visitors to dive in an ethical way, but they also organize underwater trash pick-ups. The expat community of Bocas del Toro has recently been pushing for successful trash removal and recycling, so we loved seeing that Bocas Dive Center is making themselves a part of this story. Outside of the hotel is a "pit" where divers practice with their instructor before heading out to the open ocean. The owner of the hotel purchased a crashed airplane and submerged this plane underwater in the pit. What exists now is an old plane thriving on sea life, including fish, urchins, and other critters. We spent a bit of time snorkeling around the plane and checking out the sea life. Although we were short on time and didn't have the chance to scuba dive, we can confirm that Bocas Dive Center has top-of-the-line equipment and staff. We watched many travelers learning to dive and it made us anxious to learn ourselves! Learning to dive has officially made it to the top of our resolution list for 2019.
If you're a visual person like I (Bre) am, check out our short video below highlighting Divers Paradise Boutique Hotel, Pier 19 Restaurant, and Bocas Dive Center. You'll see why this is the best experience hotel to stay at in Bocas Town!
where to eat
Pier 19 - As mentioned above, Pier 19 is the perfect place to grab dinner, a few cocktails, and enjoy some live music. Their seafood is fresh and some of the best we've had!
Falafel Bocas - We are always suckers for falafel and love to scope out falafel restaurants. This restaurant is authentic, inexpensive, and delicious. We recommend sharing a falafel wrap with your friend or partner, because they're huge.
Tequila Republic - The restaurant above Tequila Republic (we can't remember the exact name) has incredible happy hour deals! We frequented this restaurant three times while we were there because the $3 margaritas couldn't keep us away. During happy hour, they serve two large tacos for a couple of dollars.
Restaurant Tom - Although Bocas has mostly western/global food, there are a couple of restaurants to try local Panamanian food. If you're looking for local cuisine at an affordable price tag, this is a great restaurant!
Bocas Brewery - Go here and drink the passionfruit beer. Run, don't walk!
La Bugita Ocean Lounge - Beautiful views that come at a steep price (for budget travelers like us). Sit on the dock and enjoy a cocktail at happy hour, while watching boats come and go to the island. During happy hours, cocktails are two for $7 USD.
what to do
Study Spanish at Habla Ya - Read our blog post here about our immersive Spanish experience at Habla Ya. We spent three weeks studying Spanish in three different Panamanian cities. Who doesn't want to learn a new language in island paradise?
Get in the water - Whether you prefer diving, surfing, snorkeling, or paddle boarding, Bocas is the perfect place to spend some time in the water. We spent a few sunny afternoons snorkeling and paddle boarding. We would've loved to learn to dive at Bocas Dive Center had we had more time. I guess we'll just have to return to Bocas someday!
Relax on the beaches - Bocas is comprised of nine main islands, so there isn't a shortage of beaches to visit. Near Isla Colon, some of the well-known beaches are Playa Estrella, Bluff Beach, and Red Frog Beach.
Ride bicycles to Paki Point - From Bocas Town, this 20 minute bike ride winds through the jungle before turning to a sandy rocky road right along the coast. Once at Paki Point, we were welcomed to a beach, bean bags to lounge on, and a restaurant with great pizza and cocktails. We recommend this for a half day adventure out of town.