How to get From Panama City to Bocas del Toro and Our Full Travel Guide: Things to Do, Where to Stay, and Where to Eat!
Bocas del Toro flights are by far the most expensive yet most time-efficient way to get to the archipelago.
From Panama City's International Airport, you can not find a direct flight to Isla Colon (the main island). However, there are direct flights that run from Panama City's domestic airport called, Albrook Airport. This flight generally costs $150-$200 USD (not a cheap flight) one-way and runs about 2-3 times a day. AirPanama is going to be your best bet. If you have a flight that is arriving in the morning to Panama City you have a chance to connect with the typical afternoon flight that goes to Isla Colon after transferring over to the domestic airport via Uber or local taxi. We did notice that Panama City traffic can be a factor in delays so plan plenty of time to make this transfer. Alternatively, you could plan to spend a few days in Panama City -- a wonderfully modern city with plenty of activities.
Be sure to research the baggage limits as most of these smaller flights have stricter policies and fees associated with baggage. We always suggest paying your baggage fees ahead of time as we have had bad luck with having to pay exorbitant amounts of money at the airport on the day of our flight.
Via Costa Rica Flight
Unfortunately, the airline that used to make this flight path from Costa Rica, Nature Air, does not fly anymore due to a plane crash that occurred in 2017. Your best bet is to use a major airline that flies through Panama City, Panama.
By Bus From Panama City to Bocas Del Toro
This is one of the more economical ways to reach Bocas del Toro but you will need a little more time and patience to use this form of transportation. We actually used the bus system quite a bit in Panama and we thought the buses were nice, modern, and on time. It just took more planning and time to reach our destinations.
The bus station in Panama City is also known as the Albrook Bus Terminal near the Albrook Mall. It is a modern and large bus station but with the Albrook mall nearby you will have plenty of options to kill some time if you are waiting for a bus to depart.
There are many direct buses to Almirante which is the destination you will reach before transferring over to a water taxi (30 minutes) that will take you to the island of your choice. Most of these buses are overnight bus options and take about 10-11 hours. This is the way we suggest doing it. As we said, the buses are comfortable and you will arrive at the water taxi well within the hours that the water taxi runs. If you catch a day bus you might experience lots of stops and you might make it to the water taxi after the hours that it stops service.
We showed up a few hours in advance of the bus leaving from Albrook Bus Terminal and purchased our tickets, and cost about $30 USD.
As for the water taxi in Almirante, the place the bus drops you off is a little bit of a walk (2 kilometers or just over 1 mile) to the water taxi departure place. There are plenty of taxis waiting to offer you a ride! The water taxi ride is about $6 USD and takes about 30 minutes. The taxi will take you to Isla Colon or Isla Bastimento. BE CAREFUL here, we had someone carry our luggage to the water taxi for us and then they asked for us to pay them.
Via Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
We did make this journey with Caribe Shuttle and it was a seamless process. This shuttle runs either way. They take you from the Isla Colon (main island) to Almirante where you then get into a shuttle. The Caribe Shuttle will take you over the border of either country and help you through the process. This option costs about $34 USD one-way and takes about 7-9 hours depending on the border crossing process!
Our Full Travel Guide to Bocas Del Toro
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 its 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 an island paradise?
Get in the water - Whether you prefer diving, surfing, snorkeling, or paddleboarding, Bocas is the perfect place to spend some time in the water. We spent a few sunny afternoons snorkeling and paddleboarding. 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.