Bocas Del Toro Travel FAQ
Bocas del Toro is one of Panama’s most popular destinations, & there’s a reason why: this nine-island archipelago has stunning beaches, loads of great surf spots, “Starfish Beaches,” & boat taxis to whisk you to virtually any island you want ~ & quickly! But because Bocas appears so large (on a map), it can be a little confusing to plan a trip there. My friend & I weren’t sure where to stay, or which island would be best for our needs; basically, I had a lot of questions prior to visiting. Which is why I’m writing this “Bocas del Toro Travel FAQ,” to help answer the questions I wish I had answers to when travel-planning!
Map of Bocas del Toro
PTY (International Airport)
Bocas Town = Main Hub in the Islands
Red Frog Beach = Most Popular Beach on Bastimentos
Bocas del Toro Airport
Zapatilla = Beautiful, Remote Tropical Island
Isla Solarte = More Mellow, Great Hiking
Paunch Beach = Super Popular with Surfers
Bocas del Toro Travel FAQ: Transportation
Q: How do you get to the islands of Bocas del Toro? Is there only one airport, & how close is it to town?
A: You can reach the islands by air or bus; I personally didn’t find anyone who rented a car & drove there (cars aren’t common on the islands, aside from truck taxis). Air Panama is the primary airline that serves Bocas del Toro, & the vast majority of flights come from Panama City, via Albrook Gelabert Airport (PAC). The airport on the islands is called Bocas del Toro “Isla Colon” International Airport (BOC), & it’s the only airport on the islands. It’s SUPER tiny, & right in the middle of Bocas Town ~ if you walked from town to the airport, it would take you about 5-10 minutes.
Q: How big was the plane you flew to the islands? About how many passengers were on it?
A: The Air Panama plane was small-ish, but not tiny ~ there were about 40-50 passengers on my flight, & it was full. My friend tried to get on the same flight, but it filled up before she booked her ticket: so book in advance. There are only a few flights each day to Bocas, & most all of them were sold out the week we flew.
Q: How do you get from the Bocas Airport to your hotel?
A: Passenger vans wait at the airport when every flight gets in; I hopped on a van with about four other passengers. The drive to my hotel (Hotel Bocas del Toro) was literally two minutes! Some high-end hotels, particularly if they’re on other islands, such as Red Frog Beach Resort on Isla Bastimentos, have their own vans ~ & you may be able to arrange transport directly with the hotel.
Q: Once you’re on the islands, how do you get around? How quickly can you reach other islands?
A: If you’re staying right in Bocas Town, you can easily walk to bars & restaurants from your hotel; the town is small ~ you can walk from end-to-end in about 15 minutes. If your hotel lies further away on Isla Colon (the “main” island), you’ll want to hail a yellow truck taxi. For instance, we stayed three nights at Jungle Paunch Villas, & either hailed a taxi right on the street, or had our hotel call one for us. The ride cost about $5-10, & they picked up other passengers along the way ~ there’s a very communal feel in the islands. It took about 15-20 minutes to reach Paunch & the Bluff Beach area (east side of Isla Colon), which was longer than we expected. What the map doesn’t show is how BUMPY & pot-holey this road is! It’s not that far a distance, but it’s a dirt road: & slow-going.
As for reaching the other islands: next to Hotel Bocas del Toro is the main hub for water taxis ~ just walk there, tell one of the guys which island you want to visit, & he’ll give you a price & tell you when the next taxi leaves. I never waited longer than about five minutes for a ride. Most of the time, I rode with other passengers; once, I was the only passenger.
To reach Isla Careneros from Isla Colon, it’s literally a one-minute water taxi ride!! These islands are right next to each other. Isla Bastimentos is only a 10-minute ride, MUCH closer than I originally thought. Isla Solarte is a little closer than Bastimentos, about 5 minutes from Bocas Town. Zapatillas is further out, & mainly uninhabited: it’s a 25-minute taxi ride (usually, people visit this island as part of a tour). Isla San Cristobal is about a 25-minute boat ride from Bocas Town, & it’s a little longer for other islands, such as Popa.
Q: The boat tours in Bocas del Toro look super popular ~ are they worth it? How much do they cost, & where does the typical tour take you?
A: There are a ton of boat tour operators on the “main drag” in Bocas Town, & the average day tour (10AM-5PM) costs around $30. Lunch is not included in the price, nor are alcoholic beverages. In my opinion, the tour is 100% worth the price!! This is a small price to see some of the most gorgeous islands in the world. Zapatillas in particular, is STUNNING. They had to drag us off this beach ~ we did NOT want to leave!! Whatever remote island paradise you can dream up in your mind: that is Zapatillas.
Our tour started at 10AM, & we first headed to a bay between Isla Solarte & Bastimentos where the dolphins hang out. This was my least favorite part of the tour: yes, we saw lots of dolphins ~ but the problem is, there are SO many other boats, all “hunting” & looking for dolphins…I honestly felt bad for the poor creatures. It seemed they just wanted to escape the humans! But alas, we moved on to the far eastern side of Bastimentos (GORGEOUS), & placed our lunch orders (you place them ahead & they have it ready for you later). Then, we headed to Coral Cay for 30 minutes of snorkeling: I LOVED this part! Lots of colorful reef to explore.
Next came the best part of the trip: boating over to Zapatillas. Because it’s mainly uninhabited AND part of a National Park: they keep these beaches pristine; one man’s sole job was to pick up any trash leftover by tourists. We had two hours to swim & explore, & we DID NOT WANT TO LEAVE. Perfect, warm turquoise waters felt like heaven. After, we enjoyed a late lunch on a beautiful dock ~ then it was back to Bocas Town. Overall, a lovely day.
Bocas del Toro Travel FAQ: Money Questions
Q: Is there an ATM on the island, & how expensive is it to use?
A: There are a couple of ATM’s in Bocas Town; I used the main one at Banco Nacional de Panama, which is caddy-corner from Simon Bolivar Park, on the same road that takes you to the airport. This ATM charges $5 to take out money, on top of whatever your bank charges you. So taking out money can get expensive: either take out more than you think you’ll need (Panama uses U.S. dollars), or try using an ATM in Panama City prior to departure ~ it may be cheaper. I didn’t see ATM’s on any other islands.
Q: How much cash do you need in Bocas del Toro? Do a lot of places take credit cards?
Bocas is a heavy CASH place ~ most restaurants & even some hotels DON’T take credit card. So bring more cash than you think you need! As a ratio, I’d say about 60-70% of places DON’T take credit card. We paid for tacos, boat tours, massages, taxis, even our stay at Jungle Paunch Villas ~ ALL in cash. In fact, the only places I used my credit card were at our favorite restaurant by Paunch surf break, La Coralina Beach Club (also called Paunch Beach Club), & for our stay at Hotel Bocas del Toro. Bottom line = BRING CASH!! In one week, I took out $600 from the ATM in Bocas, & I had a little bit leftover when I left the islands.
Bocas del Toro Travel FAQ: Where to Stay?
Q: Which island should we stay on?
A: This is a really tricky question, because the answer will be different for everyone. If you’re coming to Bocas del Toro to surf, the east side of Isla Colon is a great place to base yourself: both Bluff Beach & Paunch are close-by, & there are several surf breaks between them. BUT, these are better suited for more advanced surfers!! Bluff in particular had a really heavy wave with a beach break; my friend was too nervous to surf there, & I don’t blame her.
As for dining on this side of the island, the Paunch Beach Club has phenomenal food, lounge chairs, & a small beach ~ you can watch the surfers here while having a beet salad, fish tacos + a tasty mojito. Skully’s House is another really happening spot with a pool, large bar, loads of games & hammocks, & big tables for larger groups. They only take cash at Skully’s, FYI.
Bocas Town isn’t a bad place to stay, especially if you want to explore other islands; it’s the easiest place to hail a water taxi from. It’s also a great place to stay if you want to be close restaurants & bars. I loved staying at Hotel Bocas del Toro for its perfectly central location, beautiful rooms, & oceanfront perch ~ its restaurant is also really popular & delicious. For the younger set, Bocas Town is filled with hostels, like Selina & Twin Fins, where you’ll always be able to find a party.
Isla Careneros, because it’s SO CLOSE to Bocas Town, is a good compromise: you’re close to the action, but also slightly removed. The darling over-the-water yellow huts of El Faro del Colibri are a cute place to stay on Careneros, & they’re just a short walk to the popular beach bar: Bibi’s on the Beach.
Isla Bastimentos is a GREAT place to stay: this is one of the most beautiful islands, & Red Frog Beach is PHENOMENAL!! There are several fabulous, jungle-on-the-beach type accommodations located right on the beach, such as: glamping-chic Palmar Beach Lodge, & upscale Red Frog Beach Resort. The downside of Bastimentos is that it’s quieter at night than Bocas Town ~ really, your only “going-out” options are the hotel restaurants. But these restaurants are fantastic, so….that may not actually be a bad thing.
Isla Solarte is a quieter option than Bocas Town ~ but it’s also just a short taxi ride away. The rainforest is dense & lush here, which provides lots of hiking & animal-spotting options. We considered staying at the gorgeous over-the-water-huts here at Aqui Hoy, & we heard rave reviews from the surfer-set about eco-chic hostel: Bambuda Lodge. But ultimately, we wanted to be a little closer to bars & restaurants….so we stayed mainly on Isla Colon!
Q: Is Bocas Town dirty? Crowded? How did you like staying there?
A: Bocas Town is definitely NOT the prettiest place I’ve been! Or, let me re-phrase that: the views from town, out to other islands & of the water, are gorgeous. But the town itself: is just okay. It’s not super dirty ~ but it’s also not super clean, if that makes sense. You’ll see some trash on the ground in places, & overall, it has a backpacker-kind of feel to it; lots of twenty-somethings roaming around. Older, more discerning travelers probably won’t love it, & I’d recommend staying in higher-end places further out: such as La Coralina Island House, or Red Frog Beach Resort.
Q: How safe did you feel in Bocas Town?
A: Overall, I felt pretty safe in Bocas Town. At my hotel, the Hotel Bocas del Toro, I felt TOTALLY safe!! The staff here is amazing, & the restaurant attached to the hotel became my “home away from home.” I really felt they were looking out for me/us. But would I want to walk around by myself at night in Bocas Town? Ummmm….right on the main drag, where there are lots of people? Yes. But on the outskirts of town….NO, not really. My friend & I walked back at night from Skully’s (a super popular restaurant/bar/hotel) to our hotel, the Jungle Paunch Villas. Because it’s SO dark out there, & there are very few street lights: this felt a little sketchy. But we just turned the flashlights on our phones on “High” & powered on!
Bocas del Toro Travel FAQ: Packing & Weather
Q: What items did you wear most in the islands? Did you ever get cold?
A: No, I never got cold in Bocas del Toro. Never put on a jacket. My friend Kadi did get cold ~ but she also surfed for two hours a day in a bikini, which ended up making her quite chilly; she wore a loose sweater in the evenings after surf sessions. I wore this sarong almost EVERY day of the trip ~ it was the best Amazon investment I made! This pink bikini was my favorite, most comfortable suit ~ & I also brought a fun one-piece for snorkeling. I mainly wore shorts & comfortable, loose dresses. For the ladies, I’d also bring a cute beach cover-up ~ it doubled as a towel and/or pillow some days on the beach.
Q: Did you get sunburned at all? What sunscreen did you bring?
I got a couple random burns in strange places: namely, my forearms! But luckily, the burn just lasted a day. Because I’ve gotten such a bad sunburn in the Galapagos Islands, which is also very close to the equator, I brought Sun Bum SPF 30 Mineral Sunscreen (zinc is the main ingredient). It’s brilliant, because it does NOT turn your skin white!! Aside from the forearm, I didn’t get burned at all: I just got a nice, golden tan. I recommend applying sunscreen all over your body in the morning, while naked, to make sure you get every nook & cranny! Then re-apply during the day as necessary. The sun is incredibly strong in Panama.
Q: What was the weather like during your trip?
We traveled to Bocas the first week of February 2022, & most days were brilliant sunshine, about 82 degrees. Brilliant weather. One day, it rained all day (even though February is *technically* dry season); a couple other days it rained intermittently. When it rains, it’s still warm though; on the rainiest day, we biked (on the pot-holey road) from Jungle Paunch Villas all the way to Bluff Beach, about a 25-minute ride. I wore a tank top & shorts, & wasn’t cold at all ~ so you can still explore when it’s wet out!
Q: Did you drink the water in Panama? Did you get sick at all while you were there?
I drank the tap water from my rooms at both Central Hotel Panama & Hotel RIU Plaza in Panama City, & I was FINE. Google told me it was okay to do, & I trusted them! I never drank the tap water in Bocas though, as their infrastructure seems less sophisticated. Both hotels we stayed at in Bocas offered large, Arrowhead-size water jugs where you could refill your bottles, which was great. And no, I didn’t get sick at all when I was there ~ no diarrhea, nothing.
Q: Is Bocas del Toro a great destination for all travelers? Who would NOT enjoy traveling there?
Really high-end travelers who are used to luxury will most likely NOT love Bocas del Toro, simply because there are no true five-star hotels. The lack of infrastructure, I believe, is what prevents hotels like this from being built ~ which is both a blessing & a curse. Bocas is better suited for a younger, more adventurous traveler, who doesn’t mind a bit of “roughing it,” & doesn’t mind spying big jungle bugs once in awhile. Surfers, backpackers ~ these were the types of people I saw most while at the airport. The average age of travelers here is between 25-45.
That said, I saw many Latin American families enjoying vacations in Bocas & loving it; for Americans though, it’s a serious jaunt to get here ~ my flight from Oregon took 15-hours to reach Panama City, then another hour to Bocas. You need to be a committed traveler to reach Bocas from the States or from Europe.
Bocas del Toro Travel FAQ: Food
Q: What kind of food did you eat in Bocas del Toro? Was it good?
A: I’ve saved the best for last: FOOD!! The best taco I’ve ever had in my LIFE was at Nacho Mama’s, at Red Frog Bungalows’ beachfront restaurant (photo below). I would travel back to Panama for this taco. Paunch Beach Club has AMAZING food ~ hearty American breakfasts, delicious “detox” smoothies, & a poke stack with sesame seeds & watermelon cubes = SO GOOD. I had ceviche every day of the trip (the ceviche at Hotel Bocas del Toro is delicious & fresh-caught). Brothers in Bocas Town has great burgers, Jungle Smoothies has great, healthy fare & a cute corner location that’s great for people-watching.
Bottom line: while in Bocas, you’ll drink delicious margaritas, mojitos, eat mouth-watering fish tacos, & have all kinds of yummy fruits, veggies, & smoothies….
Bocas del Toro Travel FAQ
That’s a wrap on questions about Bocas del Toro! One more great place to stay on Isla Bastimentos, & one of the finest resorts in the islands: La Loma Jungle Lodge & Chocolate Farm. Even if you don’t stay here, you can tour their chocolate farm, which we heard raves about…
For any questions I may have missed, please ask me in the comments below!
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