The archipelago known as Bocas del Toro – or the Mouths of the Bull – has been firmly planted on the backpacker’s trail for some time now. Nine inhabited islands make up the chain that dots this part of the tropical Caribbean along with 300-odd smaller ones, and if you’re up for diving into the thick of it all, Isla Colón is the place to do it.
It’s almost a given that you spend time there when travelling from Panamá City to Costa Rica, or vice versa. Isla Colón is home to Bocas Town; the most developed town in the region and where the majority base themselves.
Bocas Town is a jumble of colourful clapboard guesthouses and waterfront restaurants, with a main street that’s saturated with supermarkets, souvenir stalls, eateries and tour operators. Everything is well and truly geared for the tourist.
While there are vehicles in the town, there are just as many people riding bikes; something you can rent if you’re up for a little island exploration.
Head to Parque Simón Bolívar in the middle of town and shade yourself from the tropical heat with the locals beneath huge trees. You’ll also find a few food stands, if they decide to open, plus some folk in the morning selling fruit and vegetables from boxes plonked onto the pavement.
The Coffee Shop
One Drop, from Super Gourmet
Panaderia y Dulceria Alemana
At the south end of town there’s Super Gourmet, a fab grocer that specialises in imported goods, locally made produce, quality chocolates and ice cold coffee. Yes, there are other (cheaper) places on the main drag, but if you prefer something a bit more niche, check them out.
We lost faith in the cafes and their coffees as, well, they simply didn’t cut it. The supposed best in town can be found at The Coffee Shop, a tiny set-up which sells beans and does a few breakfast plates like waffles and French toast. Sadly the girl operating the espresso machine didn’t produce the finest specimens, or maybe the beans aren’t ground fine enough as there’s no crema on the espresso at all.
For a no-frills cheap ‘n cheerful breakfast, try Panaderia y Dulceria Alemana. They’re open early, they also do sandwiches, house-made cakes, ice cream and empanadas. And seeing they’re a bakery, there’s plenty of fresh crusty bread to purchase. They even stock dried pasta, eggs, pasta sauces and St. Dalfour jam.
Batido Bus / Bocas Blended
For breakfast in a slightly different set-up, Batido Bus puts on a bunch of morning offerings; plus wraps, cheap beer and vino and some blended juices. Don’t expect service with a smile in the morning, though, as the staff clearly want to be elsewhere. Or maybe you’ll catch them on a good day.
Let’s just finish our warm juices and move on, shall we?
From warm juices with uninterested service to icy treats with fabulous flavours. Hello there, Bocas Lick It! icy poles. Made by a local girl with a passion for the cold stuff, these icy poles contain all-natural fruits, juices and yoghurt. How about passionfruit, pink lemonade, passionfruit pie or lemon pie? Love them.
Adult beverages aren’t hard to come by in little old Bocas Town, and the great thing is that most of the joints serving alcohol are on the water. That means a view and fresh breeze come with your vino, beer or cocktail.
For somewhere that’s a bit more bourbon-and-coke, get in on the American expat action at Toro Loco. The best view in town, for those that care, is of the tv screens that broadcast some kind of sport. Alternatively, enjoy the blaring American rock music as you tuck into your burger, cheesesteak, buffalo or Caribbean jerk wings. It’s happy hour every day from 11am – 4pm, and believe me, some of these expats are up for boozing before lunchtime.
If gaudy Americana sounds a bit wrong, then grab a drink at the much more serene Om Cafe down on the water. In fact it’s over the water, as most places are down there. Or maybe try the new kid on the block – Buena Vista – a beautifully designed eating and drinking space that ticks all the right boxes.
Food in Bocas Town can be a little pricey for those on a budget, but it is varied and you can nab a bargain if you look around.
We dropped into La Buguita for coffee as the espresso machine didn’t look like a cheap piece of garbage and was capable of producing something fine. The truth of the matter comes down to the operator, and after the guy had to ask two separate people what a macchiato was, well, you can figure out the rest.
After wasting money on bad coffee, we did at least enjoy the hummus, feta & roast peppers sandwich (6.5). Another one not to be missed is the Sampler (10) – hummus, baba ganoush, grilled provolone and little bits of bread topped with bacon and chimichurri.
Restaurante Tom is the place to head if you want cheap Creole food and drinks with a breezy view over the water. It’s a bit of an institution with the locals as the food is good, unfussy and generous. Don’t miss the ceviche (5) and the rather delicious Bocas style Creole chicken (5).
For the best tacos in town, look no further than Hungry Monkey. Every afternoon they do a special which gives you a free Panama lager with any three tacos you order. The brisket used in one of the tacos is locally produced by an American guy that lives on neighbouring Carenero Island. Alternatively order a sandwich made using homemade coconut bread. They even stock Lick It! popsicles, for dessert.
More food a little later in the post.
So what else is there to do around Bocas Town? Well, you could always start by getting off the island. Spend around $3 and get one of the taxi boats to neighbouring Bastimentos Island.
Here you can explore Old Bank, the second largest town in Bocas del Toro which is nothing like its more commercial neighbour of Bocas Town. Old Bank is predominantly residential and home to an Afro-Caribbean community that’s called it home for a long time. They even have their own Guari-Guari language, which is a mix of English and a little Spanish.
The town itself has nothing much to it – a couple of grocers and restaurants, a few guesthouses and little more.
Up in the Hill Coffee Shop
We were here to check out Wizard Beach (Playa Primera) which can only be reached by hiking across the island via one of the trails. One trail leads from Old Bank, straight past Up in the Hill Coffee Shop, the most perfect antidote to walking up the hill in that thick humidity.
Kick off your footwear and go at it barefoot in this oasis of calm – and cocoa. Aside from the cafe that can refresh you with fruit juice, coconut water, kombucha and coffee, they can fill you with divine frozen chocolate truffles (vegan), empanadas, granola or banana cake.
I probably should have tried their 100% hot chocolate, made with either cow’s milk or coconut milk.
There’s also bespoke jewellery for sale, books, wooden art and Pure Tree lotions, oils and balms. Not to forget the organic cacao products, like that 100% cacao ball that’s perfect to cook with.
About half an hour away is Wizard Beach, a beautiful spot that doesn’t get too many visitors due to its remoteness. There are no shops or stalls, just that glorious stretch of sand. It does come with its warnings, though, as it’s rife with undercurrents; so only experienced swimmers should dare get in. Aside from that, soaking in that water was heavenly.
Red Frog Beach is a popular spot for day-trippers, but sadly we didn’t make it to that one.
Wizard Beach, Bastimentos Island
For something a little closer to Bocas Town, there’s the tiny island of Carenero which will set you back a $1 taxi boat fare. Isla Carenero is the one you can see directly opposite Bocas Town and, despite the guesthouses, few eateries and bars that line its shores, it’s very much a ramshackle residential hamlet.
We didn’t spent a great deal of time on the island and just walked along its shores, swung in an overwater hammock for a while and got our feet wet at the many small beaches.
Our favourite had to be Bocas Beach Club, a stunning overwater bar and lounge where you can sit in the bar, or sprawl in one of the Ocean Pods. Sip on something cold, nibble on a little food and then either snooze or plonk right into the Caribbean beneath you.
They even have luxury suites to stay in.
Bibis on the Beach
Bocas Beach Club
Walk along Main Street in Bocas Town and you get used to being asked to join a tour of some kind. There are many operators offering outings to Red Frog Beach, outlaying islands, jungles, caves and diving on coral reefs.
We decided to go with Total Adventures for their 7-hour tour that starts off by boating to Los Delfines bay where you have the chance to see dolphins swimming around in their natural habitat. It’s all quite lovely, until you realise many other tour operators are there for the same thing, so the exercise is all about the boats spotting and almost chasing the dolphins to get a closer look.
Not a good start.
Next stop is at Coral Cape where you jump out and snorkel on the reef garden. It isn’t the most beautiful of reefs, but there are some fish to see, many colourful outcrops of coral and, well, many other snorkelers clumsily bumping into you.
Maccabite Restaurante Soles
Lunch follows the swim, at a lovely overwater restaurant called Maccabite, on Bastimento Island. It’s Panamánian food all the way, and that fried fish we had was divine.
Cayo Zapatilla islands are next, in particular Cayo Zapatilla 2 (below) where you anchor for a couple of hours to use the provided snorkel gear and swim in the stunning water; even walk on the palm-filled island and explore. This was the highlight of the day, by far.
Due to the weather closing in, the last two stops were a bit rushed. Stopping at Sloth Island to spot sloths – yes we saw three – and then speeding through “Hollywood”, which is an area of water filled with golden starfish, or as they should be called – sea stars.
Cost for the tour was $30 per person.
Another eatery we tried in Bocas Town is the absolutely divine Raw Fusion with its Asian-centric menu that features excellent pork gyoza (8), mahi ceviche with coconut & passionfruit (7.5), crispy salmon sushi roll with sweet plantain & tempura flakes (10) and The Sumo (10) – a bowl of seared wahu, rice, carrot, zucchini and fried egg.
A little closer to where we were staying is El Pecado, an international ensemble of pizza, starters of gratinated snails, ceviche, fried camembert, lobster in garlic butter and grilled mahi mahi. We sampled the penne pesto (9.5) and tuna steak (15.5).
One not to be missed is BocArt Restaurant, right by Super Gourmet, where you can enjoy a beachy, shabby chic vibe, super friendly service and some mighty fine food.
Start off with some good vino, a complimentary plate of ceviche, seafood soup and plantain chips, and then move on to the likes of confit baby pork ribs (14.5) with garlic rosemary potatoes, red wine jus and chipotle. Or perhaps the miso braised octopus (13) with indigenous dachin (similar to yuca) and green onions.
Desserts shouldn’t be ignored, either. Go for the crema catalana, banana-rum-peanut ice cream or basil ice cream.
El Pecado Restaurant & Bar
Tranceibosa buses run to Bocas del Toro from Gran Terminal de Transporte in Albrook by Panamá City Airport. Departure times are 6pm, 6.30pm, 7pm & 10.30pm. It takes 10 hours to get there. Cost is $27.80 per person.
We arrived in the hamlet of Puerto Amirante at 4am and waited for the first boat to Bocas Town, which is at 6am. You can walk from the bus stop to the boat dock (about 600m) or get a taxi for $1 per person.
The ferry to Bocas Town costs $6 per person one way and $10 return.