Isolated on the Costa Rican border between the Caribbean and the forested slopes of the Cordillera Talamanca, Bocas del Toro (“mouths of the bull”) is one of the most beautiful areas in Panama. It’s also one of the most remote – the mainland portion of the province is connected to the rest of Panama by a single road, and the island chain offshore requires a ferry ride to reach.
Despite recent rapid development (see Bocas del Toro history), the archipelago remains home to an ecosystem so complex and well preserved that it has been described by biologists as “the Galápagos of the twenty-first century”. This, and the equally unusual diversity of the human population – Ngöbe-Buglé, Naso and Bribrí populate the mainland, while the islands are dominated by the descendants of West Indian migrants who still speak Guari-Guari, an English patois embellished with Spanish and Ngobere – make Bocas a fascinating area to visit.
From the village of Chiriquí, 14km east of David on the Interamericana, a spectacular road crosses the continental divide, passes over the Fortuna hydroelectric dam, through the pristine forests that protect its watershed and the small town of Chiriquí Grande, then, 50km on, into ALMIRANTE. This ramshackle port town of rusting tin-roofed houses, propped up on stilts over the calm waters of the Caribbean, is the place to catch a water-taxi to the Bocas del Toro archipelago.
The islands, cayes and mainland waterways surrounding Bocas Town offer wide-ranging opportunities for relaxing on pristine beaches, visiting Ngöbe-Buglé villages and diving near unspoilt coral reefs. A quick bus or taxi ride away are the beaches of the rest of Isla Colón, while nearby islas Carenero and Bastimentos are favoured by visiting surfers. Most visitors make a point of exploring the Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos, a renowned marine park that stretches across a series of islands in the archipelago.
Bocas is not all about surfing, sand and partying. An increasing number of visitors are being drawn to the community-based tourism being offered by some of the archipelago’s and mainland’s Ngöbe communities as well as to the small Naso kingdom up the Río Teribe, on the boundary of the Amistad International Park. To get the most out of the experience, consider a village homestay. The Bocas community tourism website (wredtucombo.bocasdeltoro.org) and the Bocas Sustainable Tourism Alliance (wdiscoverbocasdeltoro.com) give contact details and information on the activities each village offers.
Most visitors to Bocas come to explore the pristine beauty of PARQUE NACIONAL MARINO ISLA BASTIMENTOS, a 130-square-kilometre reserve encompassing several virtually undisturbed ecosystems that include rainforest, mangrove and coral reef supporting an immense diversity of marine life, including dolphins, sea turtles and a kaleidoscopic variety of fish.
Some of the best beaches in the archipelago are also in the park, on the eastern side of the island facing the open sea. Owing to their powerful surf and currents, swimming here is dangerous, but they are huge, uncrowded and undeveloped. The most popular is Red Frog Beach, an idyllic stretch of sand that takes its name from the tiny bright-red strawberry poison-dart frogs (don’t touch!) that inhabit the forest behind the beach.
Much further east, the 6km stretch of Playa Larga is an important nesting site for sea turtles (May–Sept). There’s a ranger station here; you’ll need to stay overnight if you want to see the turtles lay their eggs.
Southeast of Isla Bastimentos, but still within the park, are the Cayos Zapatillas. Two dreamy, coral-fringed islands, the Zapatillas are excellent for snorkelling, but you must pay the park admission fee (US$10) at the ANAM station on the southern island. Camping is possible on the northern island.
In the past few years, Bocas has garnered a lot of attention as an international surfing destination. The best waves hit between December and March, and there are many excellent and varied surfing spots in the area. Although none is within walking distance of Bocas, the town remains the best base for catching taxis or water-taxis to your wave of choice.
The main hot spots include Carenero, off the northeastern tip of Isla Carenero; Dumpers, Paunch and Bluff, on the eastern side of Isla Colón; Red Frog Beach, on Bastimentos; and Silverbacks, between Bastimentos and Carenero. Most break over reef, some of which is fire coral, so wear booties or be careful.
Christopher Columbus first explored the coast of Bocas del Toro in 1502 in the search for a route to Asia; later, during the colonial era, European pirates often sheltered in the calm waters of the archipelago. By the nineteenth century, English ships from Jamaica were visiting the coast frequently, but it wasn’t until 1826 that West Indian immigrants founded the town of Bocas del Toro, still the province’s largest settlement.
The arrival of the United Fruit banana plantations in the late 1800s gave the islands a measure of prosperity; by 1895 bananas from Bocas accounted for more than half of Panama’s export earnings, and Bocas Town boasted five foreign consulates and three English-language newspapers. Early in the twentieth century, however, banana crops were repeatedly devastated by disease, causing the archipelago’s economy to suffer.
In recent years, tourism and real estate speculation have come to the economic forefront in Bocas. Foreign investors have bought huge portions of the archipelago in order to develop luxury resorts and holiday homes. While this boom has enhanced the region’s wealth, generating employment and income for locals, much concern still exists over how economically and environmentally sustainable it really is.
On the southeastern tip of Isla Colón, the provincial capital of Bocas del Toro, otherwise known as BOCAS TOWN, is the easiest base from which to explore the islands, beaches and reefs of the archipelago. The town, connected to the rest of the island by a narrow causeway, is busy and bustling, especially during the high season (Dec–April), when it explodes with tourists and backpackers. Rickety wooden buildings painted in cheerful colours and a friendly and laidback, mostly English-speaking population welcome you to the island’s casual mêlée. The palm-fringed Caribbean beaches, decent waves, and a buzzing young nightlife have made these islands a must-see for partying backpackers. Bocas Town offers a variety of aquatic activities, as well as cycling, horseriding, yoga and learning Spanish.
Some 16km from the border and 29km west of Almirante through seemingly endless banana plantations, CHANGUINOLA is a typically hot and uninteresting banana town where almost everyone works for the Bocas Fruit Company (“the Company”, successor to United Fruit and Chiquita). Only travellers heading to or from the Costa Rica border come here, though the charming San San Pond Sak Wetlands are reason enough to linger for a night.
Just 7km north of Changuinola lie the wildlife-rich Humedales de San San Pond Sak (San San Pond Sak Wetlands). An early morning boat trip downriver to the lagoon offers excellent birdwatching – parrots, hawks and herons abound – as well as the chance to see sloths and snakes. Even more enticing is the opportunity to catch sight of the elusive West Indian manatee, or sea cow. This involves a potentially lengthy stakeout on a viewing platform while being eaten alive by sandflies, but the sight of this shy and extraordinary-looking beast chomping away at banana leaves is well worth the wait.