The Bocas Del Toro Budget Travel Guide
An Introduction to Bocas Del Toro, Panama
Bocas del Toro is a province and archipelago located in the northeast region of Panama, nestled along the Caribbean coast. Among other things, it is known for its beautiful beaches, crystal clear waters, and vibrant nightlife. The group of islands are a popular tourist destination from travelers all over the world, with a high number of European backpackers passing through en route to explore South America. Isla Colón is the capital of the province, a seaside town featuring plenty of bars, hostels, and restaurants.
The island chain is home to a diverse range of landscapes, including rainforests, mangroves, and coral reefs. There are many opportunities for outdoor activities such as snorkeling, diving, and hiking through the rainforests. Bocas Del Toro is regarded as an ecological paradise, and for good reason- there are an extraordinary abundance of species to see, including a unique color variety of strawberry poison dart frog on each of the main islands. The province is known for its rich marine life too, including dolphins, whales, and a large variety of fish species that can be explored at the many coral reefs or shipwrecks located around the island chain.
The Culture and People
In addition to its natural beauty, Bocas del Toro is also known for its vibrant culture. The province has a diverse population, with a mix of indigenous people, Afro-Caribbean communities, and people of European descent. This mix of cultures is reflected in the food, music, and art of the region. Each island has its own unique culture, with some more laid back and rustic, such as Isla Carenero, and others more developed and fast-paced, such as Isla Colon.
How Safe is Bocas Del Toro?
Like any Caribbean island, Bocas del Toro has its set of safety issues. It is generally considered to be a safe place to visit, but petty crime does occur somewhat regularly. The most common crime in Bocas Del Toro is theft from beachgoers and snorkelers, so plan accordingly. It is important to keep an eye on your belongings and be aware of your surroundings, especially along beaches. Robberies are known to occur during hikes, but can usually be avoided by traveling in groups of two or more.
My Experience With Safety
Most islands in Bocas Del Toro had posted warning signs about the risk of theft or robbery. During my stay I hiked about 50 miles around the entirety of Isla Colon, about 15 miles around Isla Bastiamentos, and several miles around Isla Solarte. With the exception of an ill-tempered bull and some very aggressive dogs, at no point did I feel threatened. Be smart, keep your possessions on your person at all times, and you’ll be fine. I was pleasantly surprised by the kindness of the locals, regularly stopping to check on me while I hiked and inviting me to ride with them. I even had a few people offer me snacks or drinks for my hike.
How Expensive is a Vacation to Bocas Del Toro?
If you’ve read any of my other Caribbean travel blogs, you’ll already know the answer to this question- it depends. Generally speaking, a vacation to Bocas Del Toro will cost you much less than most European vacations. Similarly, Bocas will save you considerably compared to vacationing in the United States. Though cheaper than the USA, Bocas lodging is more expensive than Roatan short-term apartments and Aruba Airbnbs. Shared lodging, however, was a different story. The availability, price, and variety of hostels far surpassed anywhere else I’ve traveled to in the Caribbean.
Accommodation in Bocas del Toro can range from budget hostels to luxury resorts. A trendy hostel may be between $15-65 per night, while resorts may run over $200 per night. Prices can vary widely depending on the type of accommodation you choose and the time of year you go. Being socially awkward and a fan of hiking, I opted for a private room in Bambuda Hostel in the remote Isla Solarte.
Food and drink prices in Bocas del Toro vary significantly depending on which island you’re on and what type of restaurant you’re eating at. Locally-owned restaurants catering to the local community will have a “plate of the day” special for 4 or 5 dollars, with more expensive menu items also offered. The plate of the day contains rice and beans, salad, a protein such as fish or curried chicken breast, and fried green plantains called patacones. These plates are filling, tasty, and a great value. Personally, I’d recommend sticking to these spots as they were almost always tastier than the tourist-centric options at a fraction of the price.
Street food is also a cheap and convenient option, with dishes such as empanadas and tamales available for a dollar or two. Before ordering from a restaurant without a visible menu, try to know the price- if you look like a tourist, some vendors will try to get you to pay double or even triple of what an item actually costs.
Foreign-owned restaurants are very common, especially in Bocas Town. Their menus are in English and the aesthetic is hipster chic, making them easy to differentiate from the local spots. Though the food is usually decent, expect to pay $15-30 per meal. My recommendation is to find the good local restaurants and support them- you’re wasting your money otherwise.
Grocery Store Prices
There are grocery stores located all over Bocas Town, with a small handful of others scattered across the other islands. Generally speaking, groceries are a bit more expensive than in the USA- especially if you try to buy American brands. Items that can be locally sourced, such as eggs, fish, and fruits, are often affordable. Dairy products and beef are expensive, which is to be expected for a small island chain.
For the best prices and the best quality, I recommend buying your groceries at a few different specialty locations. Fruit and vegetable stands, such as this fantastic one near the heart of Bocas Town, have much lower prices with better quality and a wider selection of goods compared to grocery stores. There are a few good bakeries as well, with my personal favorite being John’s Bakery in downtown. If you need fish, skip the grocery store and visit one of the several local vendors.
Airbnbs, Hotels, and Hostels in Bocas Del Toro
The best lodging option for your Bocas Del Toro vacation will come down to trip length, desired activities, and cost. While hostels provide the cheapest option, they lack privacy and are sometimes in less-than-ideal locations. Some upscale hostels, such as Selina or Bambuda Lodge, charge a bit more but have fantastic amenities and daily excursions. Some of these excursions are even free, like the hike I did to Hospital Point. The social and adventurous would be best suited for these, though be warned, there may be some late-night noise.
Hotels are not particularly common around Bocas, but there are a few notable ones. The most upscale is Red Frog Beach Island Resort, a remote luxury resort featuring easy access to the world-renowned Red Frog Beach. For more intimate (and affordable) lodging, overwater bungalows on Isla Carenero or an upscale hotel in downtown Bocas would be better options.
How to Find The Best Value Lodgings
My recommendation would be to use Airbnb, where daily rates are often competitive with hostels with a larger diversity of locations to choose from around the archipelago. If you’re staying a month, you can often find 20-50% discounts on the daily rate! As is always the case when you choose to stay in an Airbnb, be sure to read plenty of reviews before you make your decision.
My Airbnb sweet spot takes price, reviews, and location into consideration. Find a place at a low price point with enough positive reviews to not be suspicious, but not yet well established on the service, at a location just outside the pricier regions. This strategy landed me a $500 month-long in Aruba and a $1,000 month stay in Grenada, both right along gorgeous beaches. For Bocas, consider the isthmus region instead of downtown to save a few dollars. Remember, taxis into town are just a dollar.
Getting to Bocas Del Toro
Unfortunately, there are not a ton of options for getting to Bocas, and the options that are open are either troublesome or expensive. I chose to fly from the US to Panama City, an affordable flight from most any US airport, and then to catch a second flight from Panama City to Bocas- an expensive and bumpy flight. A bus route is available from Panama City as well, taking 10 to 12 hours and departing from the Allbrook Bus Terminal in the early evening. While the bus is cheap and is certainly an adventure, it drives through mountainous, bumpy terrain and is generally not for the faint of heart.
If you’re traveling from Costa Rica, you can take a bus from either San Jose or Limon to Puerto Viejo. A ferry carries passengers between Almirante and Isla Colon twice daily for only $1 per passenger, with total travel time of an hour and forty minutes.
Main Languages on Bocas del Toro
The official language of Panama is Spanish, and it is the main language spoken in Bocas del Toro. In addition to Spanish, English is widely spoken throughout the tourist areas. Many local business owners and service providers, such as hotel staff and guides, speak at least some English. You’ll also come across French, German, and Dutch speakers- many of the travelers passing through Bocas del Toro are backpackers from Europe.
Overall, Spanish is the dominant language spoken in Bocas del Toro, but English is somewhat widely spoken and understood. If you only speak English, you’ll be able to get along just fine, though may have some communication issues in more remote areas.
Be aware that tourists are often overcharged for services, so be willing to stand your ground to avoid overpaying for taxis, boat rides, and the like. To make your trip a bit smoother, try to learn some simple Spanish phrases before you go to Bocas Del Toro and get familiar with the normal prices for boat rides, taxi rides, and the like.
Getting Around Bocas Del Toro
As one could probably expect from a series or small islands, the main form of transportation around Bocas is by water taxi. Water taxis are affordable and common, and can be acquired by simply waving one down as it passes nearby. For transportation around an island, taxis or buses can be used. On Isla Colon buses can be used to get to the far away Starfish Beach or Bluff Beach for a very affordable price. Taxis are much more expensive for distant locations, but for short trips around town they’re usually just a dollar or so.
Traveling by Bus or Taxi
If you want to travel by bus or taxi, stick to Isla Colon. Taxis operate throughout the island going wherever you need, and buses travel from the city center to the far reaches of the island, though have less ability to customize the route. On the other islands, there are no taxis or buses- or roads, for that matter.
Taxis are very easy to identify and there is no real risk of taxi fraud on the island. Be aware that prices quickly rise once you get away from the city- there are far fewer prospective passengers and the speed limit drops considerably as asphalt roads are replaced with sand. Almost all taxis on the island are bright yellow 4-door Toyota trucks, a choice that made much more sense once I left the town and saw how hostile the rest of the island was to vehicles.
Traveling by Water Taxi
Water taxis are fun and quick, offering easy transportation throughout the region. The main hubs are located on the waterfront of Bocas Town, but you can grab a taxi from anywhere by simply waving one down as it passes by. When I was getting my scuba certification I commuted back and forth to Isla Carenero, and I used water taxis to make the longer trips to Isla Bastiamentos and Isla Solarte. Prices range from $1 to $20 depending on number of passengers, distance of the ride, and the taxi operator.
Let’s not sugar coat it- if you’re white and speak English, the water taxi operators will try to scam you. I had demands for double, triple, even quadruple the standard price of a trip- stand your ground and don’t get on until a fair price is agreed upon. Don’t be afraid to walk away if you’re about to get ripped off. There are a ton of water taxis, and someone will be willing to take you to where you need to go for the correct rate. Almost always, as soon as I turned to leave they would capitulate and agree to the correct price.
Exploring Bocas del Toro by Foot
Depending on what island you’re on, exploring by foot is either a great option or your only option. The entirety of Isla Colon is walkable, including the main roads from Bocas Town to Starfish Beach in the west or Bluff Beach to the East. Taxis and buses make these trips, so you don’t have to go by foot- but it is a fun hike.
Isla Carenero, the tiny island right beside Isla Colon, doesn’t have any roads- the only way to get around is by bike, foot, or the occasional golf cart. There is a trail that goes around the perimeter of the island and takes about two hours to complete. Similarly, Isla Solarte features a hiking path that stretches from Hospital Point, a fantastic snorkeling spot in the island’s northern tip, down to some of the resorts in the middle of the island.
Isla Bastimentos features some great hiking paths around Red Frog Beach. I was warned a few times that crime is relatively common along these paths- I’d recommend to avoid hiking alone. To the southeast of Isla Bastimentos lies the Zapatillas, a small set of islands. While you may have to get a bit creative (there was some wading required, but nothing too deep or strenuous) a path circles around the island and through a Smithsonian-funded research facility.
Safety Considerations While Hiking Bocas
Wherever you’re trying to hike to, understand the dangers involved. During the dry season the weather is almost always hot and sunny, so bring plenty of water. Be aware that storms can roll in suddenly and linger for hours- I was unfortunate enough to get stuck in a few. Paths vary between well marked to barely visible with countless unmarked cutoffs, so exercise caution and be sure to download maps of your hike. Wikiloc is a tremendous resource, providing lots of great ideas on hikes to do and the paths to complete them. While all of the roads and hikes on Isla Colon were straightforward and largely idiot-proof, Solarte and Bastimentos are less forgiving.
The Best Restaurants in Bocas Del Toro
I mentioned it earlier, but it deserves repeating- the best spots are the local spots. There are plenty of restaurants that try to act local, and plenty that are unashamedly foreign but try to offer a high-end experience to excuse the higher price. Some of these are good, some of them are bad, all of them are overpriced. You’re in Panama, and you’re in the Caribbean- skip that BS and get the local cuisine.
BEST BREAKFAST SPOTS
An unpretentious bakery featuring affordable breakfast staples. Though being located near the heart of downtown, John’s Bakery doesn’t charge an absurd premium like most of the other restaurants- an omelet is around $3.50 and some pancakes will cost you about $2.50. Coffee is equally affordable, going from a dollar to $3.50 for something large, fancy, and frozen.
A quaint coffee shop in the heart of downtown Bocas Town featuring authentic Italian selections. While I’m not much of a coffee snob, I thought the taste was fantastic and was highly recommended it by a few Italian expats I met on the island. Don’t expect much in the way of selection- the menu is quite sparse- but what they do offer they excel at.
Dosha Organic Cafe
A delicious, albeit pricey, breakfast and lunch option located along the road to Playa Escondida and Playa Bluff. There are not a ton of options, yet Dosha shines- I stopped here a few different times during my hikes and never had a bad meal. The owner was very friendly, providing me with helpful information about the northern reaches of Isla Colon and some of the other restaurants on the island to visit.
Omnia Bike & Coffee
A good choice for breakfast if you find yourself a bit outside of town, closer to the isthmus. The prices are a bit lower than most of the other foreign-owned establishments, and the quality was not bad. While it wouldn’t be my first choice, it was a fantastic option for the convenience of not having to travel all the way to town.
Best Lunches and Dinners
Street Tacos Bocas
I mean, the name says everything. They’re street tacos, and you’re in Bocas. Nothing else is on the menu- hell, there is no menu. You can choose pork, chicken, or fish, otherwise go somewhere else. For $5 for two, you can’t beat the price and the flavor is phenomenal. The seating is next to the truck, just a few park benches under a metal lean-to. Be sure to add some of the Bocas hot sauce provided on the tables- it is to die for.
Donde el Parce
A new Columbian restaurant located a few streets off of the main drag. The prices are more than reasonable and the plate of the day is fantastic. While I’ve had my fair share of good arepas in the past, these were hands down the best. I would go so far as to say that Donde el Parce is the single best restaurant in Bocas Town when considering price and quality of food. Visit soon, the prices may go up once they get a bit more established!
The Floating Bar
Awesome owners, great happy hour deals, and fantastic snorkeling make the Floating Bar worth the water taxi ride. The tacos are great and the drinks strong, but the real winner here is the scenery- you are in shallow Caribbean water with a shipwreck, mangrove forest, and artificial reef a short swim away. After you see your fill of starfish, sea cucumbers, garden eels, and sergeant majors, return to the bar for some drinks. For such a great location, the prices are more than reasonable.
The single best pizza I’ve ever had in my life. Ciao Pizza is an outdoor brick oven pizzeria featuring ingredients from their on-site garden. The infused pepper oil brought the meal to another level, and finishing off with house-made gelato was the cherry on top. I ended up coming here 3 times during my trip, despite being a 35 minute walk each way- it was just that good. If a menu item piques your fancy go ahead and order it, but I’d recommend customizing your own creation.
El Beso del Dragon
One of the great local spots along the isthmus. I was welcomed in immediately and struggled through ordering a plate of the day. The waiter only spoke Spanish, but was patient with me. The food was phenomenal, and only cost $4 for a surprisingly large, filling meal. Though the location isn’t particularly convenient for tourists that stay along the downtown area, the food is absolutely worth a taxi ride. If you’re into seafood, the deals here can’t be beat.
La Fonda el Fruta de Pan
Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit until my last few days, but I’m so glad I was able to try this place. The plate of the day looked fantastic, but I splurged for the seafood plate. I was not let down. For about $15, I received a huge plate of grilled seafood in the house sauce with a side of patacones and rice. The vibe was authentically Caribbean- boisterous and friendly, with all locals except for me. An absolute treat that I regret saving for my last big meal.
An interesting experience from beginning to end. The food was delicious and affordable, with each meal coming with a homemade fruit juice drink for free. Though being located in an otherwise nice location- an open-air second floor balcony facing the ocean- the construction out front makes for an adventure. You enter through the construction zone, going up and around the half-renovated building until you get to the other side facing the water. Honestly, just follow the smell and you’ll be fine.
Things to do in Bocas Del Toro
Bocas Del Toro is an adventurer’s dream destination, packed full of exciting hikes and world class dive spots. If nightlife is more your scene, the bars of Bocas Town are second to none and seem to never close. Being more interested in nature than partying, I spent most of my days finding cool hikes to do or snorkeling at one of the many fantastic reefs.
Go Island Hopping
It isn’t as expensive as it sounds. From Bocas Town you can get to Carenero for just a dollar, to Solarte for about $6, or to Red Frog Beach for $8 to $10. Each island has a unique feel that has to be experienced to be understood. My personal favorite island to explore was Carenero, a quick 2-minute water taxi ride that features a walking path around the entire island. You start by seeing some of the restaurants and bars, such as the popular Bibi’s Restaurant, and head north into the forest.
After passing by some small secluded beaches and private overlooks, you turn at the north end of the island to find some of the expensive resorts and private residences. Finishing the island walk you pass through a local neighborhood with a grocery store and a few small restaurants and bars. End your hike with a happy hour drink at Bibi’s or Macarela.
Learn to Scuba Dive
Scuba diving in Bocas Del Toro is about as easy as it gets- the visibility is high, the waters warm, the current weak, and the best spots just below the surface. I chose to get my certification on Isla Carenero at Panama Dive School, and would highly recommend it to any other beginners. The team at Panama Dive School do a fantastic job making sure you feel safe and confident in the water. All of the beginner dives are straightforward, starting with a short 3 meter decent into the sandy bottom right next to the dive school.
If you already have your diving certification, join the Panama Dive School team on one of their daily excursions. After I became certified, I went on a few additional tours with their team and had a blast each time. Dives are half price if you received your certification through PDS, so it’s worth committing to the one location.
There are a ton of great snorkeling spots around Bocas Del Toro. First, a quick warning- often the most popular spots are not the best. I’ve learned this the hard way before (looking at you Key West), and saw it for myself again in Bocas. Is Starfish Beach worth visiting? In my opinion, no, but it’s definitely not worth snorkeling. Go to these locations instead.
Snorkel Next to the Floating Bar
The location for one of the best value restaurants near Bocas Town is also a fantastic snorkeling destination, especially for those that are comfortable duck diving. Drop right off of the barge and look down to a sea floor covered with starfish and sea cucumbers. In a 45 minute snorkel you can check out the artificial reef that the Floating Bar management installed, then swim over to the mangrove forest to view the coral clusters attached to the trees’ root systems. Keep an eye out for the garden eels peeping up from the sandy bottom, or for sea robins making their rounds. Before heading back to the bar, stop by the nearby ship wreck and say hi to all of the fish species that call it home.
The Floating Bar offers snorkel gear, but I’d recommend bringing your own. By my estimation, this experience is what Starfish Beach snorkeling was like a decade ago before the area became overdeveloped and the starfish were scared away by constant loud, bumping music and human interaction. Luckily, the ownership of the Floating Bar seem to be good environmental stewards, so fingers crossed this area stays as pristine as it currently is.
Hospital Point Shore Snorkeling
A popular dive location that is great for a snorkel trip! From shore, swim out along the right side of the coast about 3o meters- you’ll quickly see the sand give way to increasingly dense, vibrant coral reef. There are two boat tie-offs around here, so keep your eyes peeled for boats. To be safe, you should have a high-visibility shirt or floatation marker with you. Explore the reef from the rock wall out, using the drop off as the reference point. You’ll see plenty of large parrot fish, surgeonfish, blue tangs, and much more, including some cowfish and pufferfish.
One mistake I saw others making was not going far enough offshore. For the best snorkeling, you have to get to around 6-10 feet of water and to the right of the main beach, closer to the cliff wall. Of the group I accidentally visited with (I was on a solo hike but ran into a group organized by the nearby hostel) only one other person explored the actual reef- the 20 or so others snorkeled in the sand or the rocks in front of the beach.
Blue Lagoon Snorkeling
Now this is an adventure. To get to the blue lagoon, you’ll have to make your way to the northermost point of Isla Colon. Take the main road along the east coast until it ends, then follow the hiking trail that continues on. I walked the entire distance, but you can also take a taxi to the end of the road or catch a bus to Bluff Beach and walk from there. Eventually, you’ll make it to La Piscina Beach, a nice little respite to relax and catch your breath before finishing your journey. Get back on the trail and continue for another 10 minutes or so, until you pass the sign informing you of your arrival.
Once you finish your 16 kilometer journey, it’s time to take a swim. Make your way to the fallen tree along the center of the lagoon for easy access. While this location is very remote and likely not frequented by tourists or locals, be wary and hide your valuables. I surfaced every minute or so to look around and make sure I was, in fact, alone. None of my belongings were stolen, but it is better to err on the side of caution.
You won’t find a ton of fish species, but there are some cool invertebrates along the rocky sides. Bearded fireworms and crabs are common, as well as smaller fish species such as sergeant majors. The real appeal to this spot is the tranquility. The water is warm and motionless, the color a deep turquoise with near-perfect visibility.
Visit the Bat Caves
There are multiple bat caves you can visit around the islands, each with different skill levels and entry requirements. La Gruta bat cave is the one that I explored and can be entered with a small fee of $2, paid by honor system on the way in. This cave is relatively shallow, but is in a gorgeous location and features tons of bats and large crickets. La Gruta is located about halfway between Bocas Town and Playa del Drago, easily accessible by taxi or bus. I chose to walk, but be aware it is a 10 kilometer hike to get there.
On your way back into town, stop to check out the plastic bottle village. There isn’t a ton to explore, but it sure is a neat thing to see. If you’re hungry, take a left at the fork in the road when you reach the shore to head away from Bocas town. A ten minute walk or two minute drive will get you to Ciao Pizza, one of the best restaurants on the island.
The other main bat cave in Bocas Del Toro is within the Bastimentos Marine Park and requires a guide. Cueva de Murcielagos is a much larger, more involved cave system that requires wading in water up to 4 feet deep- the journey takes about 4 to 5 hours from start to finish and includes kayaking, hiking, and caving. While I didn’t do this tour, I heard from multiple other tourists that it was a fantastic experience and one that was well worth the money.
About Baylen McCarthy
I’m a travel writer and marketing strategist based in Norfolk, Virginia. When I’m not busy hurting myself by walking unreasonable distances, I can be found reading in a hammock or watching Tottenham underperform.
Have a question about an upcoming trip you’re planning? Shoot it over to me, I’d love to help if I’m able.
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