Bastimentos, an Island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago
Bocas del Toro Province is centered around the water. Much of the hinterland of this Province is difficult to access.
Hispanic influence in Bocas del Toro Province is weaker and much more recent than in the rest of Panama. The native Ngöbe and Buglé people still make up a large portion of the population. Descendants of 19th century immigrants from Jamaica make up another large segment of the the population of the Province. These two cultures plus Hispanics from other parts of Panama all give the Province a lively cultural diversity.
English is widely spoken along much of the Central American coast, and Panama is no exception. The locals of Bocas del Toro are descendants of West Africans caught in the slave trade and speak English. One might also notice the mixture of several tongues in the Creole that the natives speak amongst themselves. As in the rest of Central America, note that English is more spoken on the Caribbean side than the Pacific side.
There are two road routes into Bocas del Toro Province, one over the lush, jagged mountains from Chiriqui, the other from the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. Buses travel both of these routes. If you are traveling from Costa Rica, take the bus to the border.
From the border in Panama (closes at 5 pm Panamenian Time!) you can take a 10 US mini bus to Almirante and a 25 minutes boat from there to Bocas del Toro (town (4 US$).
Take a local Bus to Changuinola and a taxi to the docks and then the 1 hour / 7 US$ boat to Bocas del Toro (town) or a Minibus for 5 US from the border straight to the docks of Changuinola. As of 11/08 the water taxi route has been closed. As of May of 09 there has been no word on reopening this route. All water taxi service is from Almirante.
The cheapest way is probably going with the chicken bus (leaves every hour/1 US$) to Changuinola, take a regular bus to Almirante (~1,50 / one hour) and the 4 US$ boat to Bocas del Toro (town)
Water taxis travel to Bocas del Toro town from both Changuinola and Almirante. Almirante is the quickest route, but the boat to Changuinola travels the route of an old canal and is a fun ride. As of April 2010, the canal route from Bocas Island to Changuinola is still closed.
Taxi's are fairly cheap- use them!
Rent a good bike and take a day trip to the other side of the main island to Bocas Del Drago. There is also a taxi shuttle that runs if you get too tired along the way. However, make sure you do not travel alone, especially if you are a woman!
Rent a bike and take a day trip to Bluff Beach, the most spectacular beach of Isla Colon. When you arrive at the "Y". after you left town, stay to the right and follow the coastline. The road has been fixed and it is a very pretty ride. Approximately 7 km from town to the Beginning of Bluff Beach. Bluff Beach itself is another 7 km of relatively deserted while sand beach where Leatherback turtles nest starting April. You can also take a taxi to Bluff Beach. Cost is approximately $10/way
Go snorkeling or scuba diving. There is a good chance you will see a reef shark!
Red Frog Beach- only $5 for a round trip on a water taxi. It is an absolutely gorgeous white sand beach, that usually has fewer than 10 other beachgoers present. $5 is the MINIMUM price for a water cab and there is a $1-2 entrance fee to access the beach.
A cheaper alternative to Red Frog Beach is Wizard Beach on the island of Bastamentos which is a $2-3 round trip ride form Bocas Town, the water is a little rougher (good for bodysurfing) and it takes a 20 min. hike but it's worth it. The island of Bastamentos itself is a funky Carribean island and a great place to get real "roots" food.
The Bat Cave- only $1 to enter and you walk through water while looking at tons of bats clinging to the ceiling.
True to the history of the region, the food of Bocas del Toro has a lot more Caribbean influence than the rest of Panama. For one thing, you will find coconut used a lot more here than in other parts of Panama. While there are places you can find more traditional food (platos típicos), for the most part the majority of restaurants have American style dishes (pastas, pizza, sandwiches, etc...).
Take a water taxi to the "Pickled Parrot" on Isla Carenero and sip on the best Pina Colada around while dining over the water. It's only $2 per round trip and has very tasty appetizers, drinks, and entrees. The owner, "Crazy George," as we called him, has been in Panama for 13 years and is always interesting to converse with. This restaurant also has a hotel on the beach.
El Ultimo Refugio (Ultimo Refugio), Avenida Sur, Isla Colon, . 6pm -10pm. On the South end of town, just around the corner from the ferry dock. Ultimo Refugio is located right over the water and has some of the tastiest dishes in Bocas. They serve up great seafood, chicken and salads. The menu changes frequently, but I would highly recommend their buffalo-style calamari and their peanut butter pie dessert is fantastic!.
Island Time, Bastimentos, . 12pm - 8pm. As of February 2010 this place is closed. Be sure to check with locals regarding current status before hiking up there.. Island Time is is a bit out of the way, but the food is awesome! To get there, you must take a water taxi to Bastimentos, then ask where you can find the trail to Island Time. After a short climb (10 mins or so) you'll find Island Time on the left-hand side of the trail. Their Thai food is completely authentic and delicious. The view from their restaurant is just as spectacular. Arrive early to make sure you get some of their famous Pad Thai before they run out for the evening. The restaurant is quite small, so it is probably smart to call ahead and make sure you can be seated when you arrive. They also have a small cabin for rent overlooking the rain forest.
Local beers include Balboa, Panama, and Atlas.
Barco Hundido, or the Ship Wreck Bar, as an awesome set up with a dock that encircles an actual ship wreck. After a few drinks it is not uncommon for people to take a dip and have a look around.
Mondo Taitu is the local gringo backpacker hangout, with a nightly happy hour and great company.
Hacienda del Toro a thatched roof gem on a horse ranch on Isla San Cristobal. The Water Taxi from Bocas Town is worth the price.One of a kind jungle bar.Best stocked bar in the islands 40 different rums,cold Coors beer,as well as all domestic beers.Caribe Country
Bahmfalk's. A great gringo bar run by an American couple from Key West, Florida. It has a fantastic atmosphere, cheap drinks, frequent poker games, and usually has american sports on the TV. The owners Bill and Susan are great and it is not uncommon to see Bill out and about around town taking advantage of other drink specials. Highly recommended...
For a cheap stay try heading to Mondo Taitu or Heike. It is about $10 a night to stay and the hospitality is amazing. You also get to meet travelers from all over the world including Europe, Israel, US and Canada. They don´t take advance bookings, it is very noisy, not all that clean and not located on the water, but if you are up for a party you will probably have a great time. Another very cheap place, and the hippest hostal and bar, is Aqua Lounge, the only hostal on the water. Located just 1 minute water taxi drive across from Bocas town, in Carenero. Has the best party scene. Several suites have been added right next door to the hostal, for more upscale and roomier sleeping accommodations.
About 1/2 mile out of town is La Coralina' it is right on the beach and away from the problems of staying in "town". The owner and chef "Stacey" will make you feel like family and she is hands down the best chef in all the islands. When heading out of town, past La Coralina, just before getting to Bluff Beach is a very reasonably priced Lodge, Tesoro Escondido Eco-Lodge and Cabinas, with 5 rooms in the main lodge and 3 cabinas. They are located right on a bluff overlooking two small but very nice sandy beaches and are steps away from Bluff Beach proper, 7 kilometers of deserted beautiful beach. They have a restaurant and a small bar. Eco-lodge, casual atmosphere. Close to all major surf breaks. For a wonderful out island escape try Hacienda del Toro on Isla San Cristobal, a guest ranch with swimming pool and rest/bar,horses to rent,and kayak with the dolphins. (note in 2009 this place was closed, be sure to check prior to going there)
Bocas del Toro is generally a very safe and peaceful destination. The locals are exteremely tolerant of the rapidly growing tourism scene. Any one will stop to help in an emergency. As with any travel spot it is wise to be careful with belongings. Evenings can get roudy at a few Bocas Town bars.
Beware of traveling alone outside of the city, the locals are not afraid to approach you.
Also, the police reporting process is lengthy and difficult, especially because of the lack of English speakers. It is best to have an interpreter with you. A women named Giselle, acts as a free liason for such occasions. Her number is listed in the Bocas Del Toro advertising paper, found anywhere on the island.