Bocas del Toro Panama: Tropical Island Paradise Guide
Bocas del Toro is a tropical paradise made up of several islands with different vibes
The Bocas del Toro Vibe
The Bocas del Toro area consists of several small islands with the main island being Isla Colon.
This area is known for its vibrant culture, stunning beaches, lush rainforests, and amazing surfing.
The water is crystal clear and filled with beautiful starfish.
There’s definitely a backpacker vibe here, but honestly, I think you could find something for everyone. It is designed for tourists and is estimated that 95% of the economy in Bocas del Toro is based on tourism.
We love this unique corner of Panama and think you will as well.
Background Info About Bocas del Toro
Nearest International Airport
Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose Costa Rica
Popular Things to Do
day tours, relaxing at beach bars, snorkeling
Best Way to Get Around
walking and boats between islands
Best Time of Year to Visit
Dry season is from January – May and then again in September and October
The main currency is US dollars. Keep in mind that the only ATMs are located in Bocas Town.
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Thomas (the German) and Sarah (the US-er).
We met in Virginia, moved to Germany, and have called sunny Costa Rica home since 2016.
We are on a mission to help you plan the perfect Costa Rican vacation.
Where is Bocas del Toro?
The Bocas del Toro archipelago is located just over the Caribbean border from Costa Rica in Panama. These islands are only accessible by a 45-minute boat ride from the mainland.
Map of Bocas del Toro
The Bocas del Toro Province consists of several islands.
The main island is Isla Colon. The biggest town in the area (Bocas Town) is located here.
If you are looking for more relaxed vibes we suggest staying on one of the other islands, but just keep in mind that you will have to depend on water taxis to get around.
Explanation of Each Island
The largest island and only one with cars. The airport is located on this island (near Bocas Town).
Bocas Town is the main town and is filled with restaurants, shops, tour companies, and hotels.
If you take a boat from or to the mainland it will leave from here.
We suggest spending a night or two here, but ultimately the other islands are better to really embrace this tropical paradise.
Isla Carenero has a few hotels and good beach bars. This island is mostly filled with the houses of locals.
We stayed here once and it was a good location because we could easily walk to the few restaurants on the island and it was cheap to take the water taxi to Bocas Town.
Home to some of the best snorkeling spots. There is not a lot here besides a few eco-lodges and retreat centers.
A huge island with a few more populated areas. The most populated area is called Old Bank.
For relaxed hotels with a few good restaurants around we suggest staying at Red Frog Beach or Wizards Beach.
Located southeast of Isla Colón, Isla Popa is a lesser-known island that offers a more secluded experience.
It is known for its diverse wildlife and lush vegetation. It is a popular destination for nature lovers.
Transportation to Bocas del Toro
Flights to Bocas del Toro
The fastest and most stress-free way to get to Bocas is by plane. Usually, you will fly to Panama City, Panama, and transfer to the Bocas Airport located near Bocas Town.
The problem is, from Panama City there are almost no good connections. I looked at flights from both Miami and from Boston and both were about 20 hours of travel time. Ugh!
Maybe you will get lucky though and find a good connection.
Also, keep in mind that you will have to transfer from the International Airport in Panama City to the domestic airport.
Sansa airline in Costa Rica has plans to start a route from the San Jose Airport to Bocas del Toro soon. But, as of writing this it has not begun.
Shuttle Service from San Jose or Puerto Viejo
If coming from San Jose or Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica we strongly suggest taking a shuttle ride with Caribe Shuttle.
This especially applies if going to or from San Jose. This is a long ride and the public bus is not the most comfortable.
Caribe Shuttle will take so much stress out of the whole border crossing thing. Plus, if you are coming to or from San Jose, lunch is included.
Bus from San Jose or Puerto Viejo Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro
The cheapest way to get to Bocas del Toro is by taking the Mepe bus from San Jose, Cahuita, or Puerto Viejo.
We wrote all about our experience taking the bus and how to do it in our complete guide for crossing the border from Costa Rica into Panama.
Although the Mepe bus is definitely the cheapest option, it can be a bit of a stressful journey. The bus ride is about six hours long (from San Jose) with only one stop.
If coming from Cahuita or Puerto Viejo the bus only takes about 45 minutes.
You then have to do the whole border crossing on your own and then find a taxi to take you to where a boat can take you to Bocas.
It can be a long and stressful day.
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Bocas del Toro Weather
The best time to travel to this area is between January through May and again in September and October.
We personally have been here in April, July, and September.
The weather in April was really hot, sunny, and dry.
In July it rained heavily almost everynight. We usually had good weather during the day.
In September the weather was a bit cooler but still sunny and hot.
The biggest thing to remember here is that you are not too far from the equator. The sun here is crazy strong! So bring the SPF 50.
Things to Do in Bocas del Toro
The Caribbean Sea waters around Isla Colon (the main area in Bocas) are calm enough to kayak in.
We rented kayaks from our hotel, but if your hotel does not have kayaks just ask at the front desk. I’m sure they can direct you to a good place to rent one.
We paid $10 for a few hours.
The water is so incredibly clear that you can see huge starfish just chilling on the ground.
Because the water is so clear you can just jump in and swim around to see starfish and amazing fishies.
Take a day tour
The highlight of any trip to Bocas del Toro is definitely taking a day tour.
Our favorite tour is the one that goes to Dolphin Bay, Zapatilla Island, Sloth Island, and has a stop for snorkeling.
There are plenty of shops in downtown Isa Colon that run tours but, also ask at your hotel. Sometimes the hotels partner with local companies and you can get a discount.
Go daytime bar hopping
I’ve never enjoyed bar hopping as much as I did in Bocas del Toro.
We went with a tour (which was amazing, but I don’t think it’s running anymore). However, if you are feeling crazy you can check out the Filthy Friday tour.
Or, you can easily create your own tour. Definitely go to Aqua Lounge, Bibi’s, Boca’s Brewery and The Blue Coconut. Oh and don’t forget to wear your bathing suit!
The nightlife scene in Bocas del Toro is on point. Isla Colon is the perfect place to bar/club hop at night.
Rent an e-bike
Bocas Bikes has e-bikes for rent for $40 for a full day (9am-6pm). They are a super great company and will help you out so that everything is adjusted properly.
They can also give you tips on where to go, but I say definitely head to Playa Bluff.
Enjoy the beaches
Bocas del Toro is home to some absolutely beautiful beaches.
If you would like to spend a day of natural beauty on a nice white sand beach, Zapitillo is always the best.
But, Red Frog Beach on Isla Bestimentos and Starfish Beach are also great hang-out spots.
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Bocas del Toro Restaurants
Leaf Eaters Cafe: Vegetarian and vegan food heaven. Seriously amazing! This is our go-to lunch spot in Bocas Town.
Skully’s: A delicious beachfront restaurant that always feels like a party.
The Firefly Restaurant: A delicious restaurant with a variety of menu options. Everything here is very fresh and thoughtfully prepared. A great dinner date spot.
Cafe del Mar: Perfect place for your morning coffee or a nice sandwich lunch. I love the vibe here.
Ciao Pizza: Super delicious wood fire pizza. They have great toppings like artichoke hearts and sundried tomatoes.
Bocas del Toro Bars
Even if you aren’t a huge bar person you’ve got to check out some of the over-water bars in this area. Most places are more of an experience and a place to spend a fun day instead of just “a bar”.
Bibi’s on the Beach – This place is first a restaurant and second a bar. The food is great and they have awesome drink specials. It is located on a large over-water dock on Isla Caranero.
The Blue Coconut – Our absolute favorite overwater bar in Bocas. This place has great food and drinks. Plus you can easily spend several hours here swimming, snorkeling, and relaxing on their large dock.
The Floating Bar – Literally a bar floating in the middle of the water. You will have so much fun here.
Aqua Lounge – A fun bar with swings over the water and an area you can jump off of. This place is nice during the day but it turns into a huge party at night.
Bocas del Toro Hotels
When visiting Bocas del Toro we suggest picking a hotel based on where you want to stay.
As I mentioned before, Isla Colon is the most popular place to stay because it is the main island. When I reference “Bocas Town” I mean the main town on this island.
We have also stayed on Isla Carenero as well as at Red Frog Beach on Isla Bestimentos.
Isla Carenero was not the nicest island but we actually liked it a lot. Plus it is only $5 from here to get to Isla Colon by boat.
Red Frog Beach is nice if you want just to stay put in one place. The beaches are nice but if you want to get to Isla Colon the boat costs $8 per person. This can add up fast.
One of the (many) nice things in Bocas del Toro is that there are no large hotels lining the beaches or big resorts covering the islands. Instead, there are a lot of smaller, boutique-style accommodations.
La Loma Jungle Lodge– A really unique jungle lodge with a chocolate farm attached. This lodge is all inclusive.
Eclypse de Mar Aqua Lodge– This place does have more mid-range hotels, but if you want a real luxury experience, stay at one of the overwater bungalows here.
Villa F&B– Modern rooms with an ocean view located on Isla Solerta. There is a restaurant, bar, and pool on the property.
Bocas Condos– Apartments located in downtown Isla Colon. The apartments are simple but have a full kitchen, air conditioning, and a small patio.
Saigon Bay Bed & Breakfast – This place is located in Bocas Town, but not directly downtown. It is so cute and the people working here are excellent.
Bambuda Lodge– Super nice hostel with a pool and water slide into the ocean. This place is located on Isla Solarte.
Spanish by the Sea – This place offers a communal kitchen and dining area, a garden, a space with lots of hammocks. It is about one block from the water on the edge of downtown Bocas Town.
Vacation Rentals in Bocas del Toro
We always love renting a home or villa for our vacation in Costa Rica. This gives you more privacy and allows you the flexibility to cook your own meals.
Note: We try to only ever suggest places with good cancellation policies, but always double-check before booking.
Casa de K Beach House – A 5 bedroom home that sleeps 10 guests. This home is located on the main island, but a bit outside of town.
Coral View House – A rustic (but perfect) over the water home in a remote location. It is easy to get to the main town with an 8 minute boat ride. There are 3 bedrooms and the home sleeps 6 guests.
Manta Raya – A two bedroom apartment located on Isla Colon (the main island). We love this place for the amazing pier with hammocks and kayaks.
Group Tours to the Bocas del Toro Area
Take the planning, stress, and guess work out of traveling by booking a multi-day tour with an experienced guide.
For more tour ideas check out Tour Radar.
Panama and Costa Rica Escape
A 12 day tour that starts in Panama City and ends in San Jose. Visit Panama City, Bocas del Toro, La Fortuna, Monteverde, and Jaco.
Bocas del Toro Travel Tips
– We have never experienced anything, but keep in mind that petty theft does sometimes happen here. I would especially keep an eye out in downtown Bocas Town.
– We suggest spending at least four nights in this area to make the trip worth it. There is so much to do and if you put in the effort to make the long journey to this Central American gem, you should enjoy it!
Packing for Bocas del Toro
When thinking about what you need to pack for Bocas, I realized I don’t think I’ve ever worn anything on my feet here besides flip flops.
Anyway, this is a tropical destination so, bathing suits and swim gear will be your best friend.
I wouldn’t say that the downtown area is unsafe, but it always feels just slightly sketchy to me, so make sure you take security seriously here. We do that by not dressing overly flashy and hiding our valuables with things like a money belt.
On the other islands I have always felt really safe.
Check out our Bocas del Toro Packing List on Amazon for all the essentials.
Bocas del Toro FAQ
Is Bocas del Toro expensive?
If you are coming from Costa Rica, Bocas del Toro is a lot more affordable. If you are coming from somewhere else in Panama you will likely find it more expensive.
Is Bocas del Toro safe?
In general, it is fairly safe. Isla Colon can be a bit sketchy at times, so don’t carry large amounts of cash or walk around alone at night.
Is it worth visiting Bocas del Toro Panama?
Yes! It is 100% worth visiting Bocas del Toro. It is somewhat of a journey to get here, but that definitely adds to its charm. I have traveled extensively throughout the world and have never found a place like Bocas.
You Might Also Like Visiting
Cahuita: A small beach town that is home to a beautiful national park.
Manzanillo: a small relaxed beach village near the border of Panama and Costa Rica
Puerto Viejo: A popular Caribbean coast town with backpackers. This town is great for surfing, yoga, and nightlife.
….if none of those appeal to you, check out our Guide to the Caribbean Coast for more ideas of places to visit in this area.