boca del drago panama

Puerto Viejo To Bocas del Toro: Is It Worth It For Just A Couple Of Days?

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My original plan for visiting Central America was to fly into Cancun and out of Panama City, then I realized it was cheaper to fly out of Costa Rica, so that’s what I did.  But it came down the end of my trip and I was in Puerto Viejo with my new friend who was going to Bocas del Toro in Panama.  It sounded fun and I had a few days left with no plan so it was settled.  I was going from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro for a few days (72 whole hours) before I flew home.

Once the decision was made, we got our shuttle tickets and off we went.  We ended up staying at Hostal Hansi in the main part of town.  There were cheaper places, but this was more our speed and less party-oriented.  It was a nice little place that was close to everything, plus we had our own little balcony!

We had two full days and spent them wisely enough.  One of the days we rented bikes and bike across Isla Colon to Boca del Drago and Playa Estrella.  This was a fun way to spend a day.  We got a little workout in and got some beach time in, too.  We parked our bikes at Boca del Drago and walk along the shore to get to Playa Estrella.  It was an easy walk, but we did have to walk through the water in some parts.  It wasn’t deep and it felt really nice, so no complaints here.

That night we did a bioluminescent tour, which was awesome.  We were a little wary at first because there weren’t 50 tours being advertised but went for it anyway and it was so cool!  Plus, the other people that were supposed to be part of the group didn’t show up so we basically got a private tour for way less.  It was scary (I’m a huge pansy in the dark) but so worth it.

Finally, on our last day we went to Bastimentos to see Red Frog Beach and boy were we let down.  We were harassed by a local guy about paying (it’s a long story) which was a pretty bad start to the day.  The walk from where we were dropped off to the beach was really pretty, though, so I’ll give it that.  Then, we got to the actual beach and hated it.  The walk over put a sour taste in my mouth, but the beach was busy and the water was really rough, so we left.

We decided to go up to Up In The Hill Coffee Shop and Chocolate Farm and Coco Hill Restaurant and Bar instead and boy am I glad we did.  I don’t remember which was first, but we went to both.  At Up In The Hill we had some delicious coffee and actually got to see some Red Frogs, unlike at the beach!  We also learned here that to build it they had to carry everything up there because there aren’t any roads.  They also have to bring all the supplies in that way.

We also spent some time at Coco Hill which was sooo nice.  It’s a little restaurant, but I don’t know if we ate there.  We did relax in the hammocks though, and the owner told us to take a little nap and she would wake us up for lunch so, five-star service right there!  The views from here were also fantastic.

We also spent some time wandering around town checking out all the shops and restaurants in Bocas Town.  Most of the shops are pretty touristy.  The nightlife in Bocas Town is pretty strong.  There are quite a few bars and there will be no shortage of people to go out with.  If you’re not big on partying, Bocas Town might not be for you.  We didn’t have anyone offering us drugs though, so that’s a plus, unless you like them.

Overall, I enjoyed my time there, but I do wish we went island hopping one day.  But, I am glad that I went and got to see some of Panama.  I’m also glad this was my first taste of Panama because the rest of it, especially San Blas, sounds like it would blow this out of the water.  If you have a spare couple of days, I would definitely recommend a short side trip from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro.

Where is Bocas del Toro?

Bocas del Toro is a set of islands on the Eastern coast of Panama just over the Costa Rican border.

How to get to Bocas del Toro

There are plenty of shuttles to get to Bocas del Toro pretty much no matter where you’re coming from.

Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro via organized shuttle

It was super easy to get from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro.  We just got a shuttle van in town and they took us to the border where we walked over an old train bridge, then got on a different van.  From there we had to take a boat to get to Isla Colon, the main island in Bocas del Toro.  If you’re going to Bastimentos, you’ll need to take another small boat.  This is the easieest way to get from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro.

Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro on your own

If you would like to get from Puerto Viejo to Bocas del Toro on your own, this is what you’ll need to know.  Buses leave on the hour from Puerto Viejo to Sixaola, the town on the Costa Rican side of the border.  The ride is about 1.5 hours and the border closes daily at 5PM so make sure you give yourself enough time to get there and across.

You’ll do your border crossing things, then walk over the old bridge (not the best walk if you’re afraid of heights) and do the rest of your border crossing things.  Once you cross the bridge, you’ll be an hour ahead (time change) and in the town of Guabito.  There should be plenty of buses and shuttles over here to get you to Almirante (about an hour drive) and should cost $10ish.

Once you get to Almirante, there will be water taxis ever half hour or so costing about $6.  These will talke you right to Bocas Town, the main town on the main island of Isla Colon.  Most hotels are within walking distance, but you can always take a taxi.  Definietly take a taxi if you’re not staying in town.

What to bring to Bocas del Toro

You can find a full packing list for Central America here, but these are some of the main things to bring when you go out and do things.

Water bottle – It’ll be hot and humid and you’ll need to stay hydrated.  A Hydro Flask will keep your water ice cold all day long.

Sunscreen – If you plan on being outside, you’ll want sunscreen.  I like the Neutrogena a lot, but if you’ll be visiting a beach soon, you’ll want a reef-safe sunscreen.

Hat – You’ll want some kind of hat to keep the sun out of your eyes.  A baseball hat should be fine but a bucket hat or sun hat could help keep the sun off your neck.

Sunglasses – This is a must, especially with the strong desert sun.  Sunglasses are best paired with a hat on those really bright days.

Light Jacket – Because you just never know.  Weather can change quickly depending on where you are so it’s good to have.  It may also depend on when you’re going, but I would bring one no matter what.  I usually use my rain jacket for this.

Where to stay in Bocas del Toro

If you like partying, I would stay in Bocas Town.  If you want something a little more laid back, definitely go with Bastimentos.  There are options for all budgets as well.  There are actually way more hotels than I realized, eespecially on Bastimentos.

If you like partying

Aqualounge – This is perfect if you like water and partying.  This is on Isla Caranero, just a one minute boat ride from Bocas Town.  It’s basically got it’s own little waterpark (without the slide) right in the ocean with hammocks, slack lines, natural pools, and diving towers.  Book the Aqualounge here.

Mar e Iguana – They have reggae nights in the bar or other themed parties at least once a month.  It is still in Bocas Town, but it on the outskirts of it, right by a beach.  Book Mar e Iguana here.

There may be others, but it can be hard to tell online.  You can always walk around town and check things out for yourself.

If you want to relax

Paradise Waits – This is a relaxing higheer-end hostel a little ways outside of Bocas Town, right where the jungle meets the beach.  It’s close enough to bike or walk to town for food or a night out.  Book Paradise Waits here.

Surfari Bocas – They even say No Party Allowed on the Hostelworld page, so you know you’ll be able to relax here.  It’s centrally located in Bocas Town and pet friendly!  Book Surfari Bocas here.

Hostal Hansi – This was a nice hostel right in town that was quiet even though it was centrally located.  It wasn’t the cheapest option but it was worth it since we had our own room and our own balcony.  Book Hostal Hansi here.

Bambuda Lodge – This is a great option if you want to stay on Bastimentos.  Word on the street is that the food is delicious and it’s a great place to stay.  There is plenty of fishing, hiking, and diving to be done in the area.  Book Bambuda Lodge here.

Eclypse de Mar Acqua Lodge – This may not be the cheapest option, but if you’ve always wanted to stay in an overwater bungalow, then this is the place for you!  It’s on Bastimentos and each bungalow has it’s onw hammock and stairs to the ocean.  Book Eclypse de Mar Acqua Lodge here.

Best things to do in Bocas del Toro

There are plenty of things to do in Bocas del Toro no matter how long you’re staying.  From beaches to caves and snorkeling to biking, there is plenty to choose from to stay busy.

Go on an island hopping tour

You can book island hopping tours around town to get in some snorkeling, wildlife spotting, and beaching.  Some tours go by a sloth island so you can see them from the boat, but they don’t stop.  Others will take you to mangroves, Playa Estrella, and Birds Island.

Visit Red Frog Beach

This is one of the most famouse beaches in Bocas del Toro and it’s super easy to get to.  You just need a water taxi and all you havee to do is tell them where you’re going and they’ll drop you off.  You can arrange a pick up time with them or just take a different one back.  They’re usually easy to catch, but I’d ask around before going to be sure.  If you go here, try and get to Up In The Hill or Coco Hill, too.  Wizard Beach is another popular beach on Bastimentos.

Bike across Isla Colon

We just found a place to rent bikes in town and followed the only road out of town to get there.  It was a preetty easy straight-shot to get there.  There are occasional speed bumps though, so keep an eye out for those.  Some hostels might rent bikes, you can always ask at the desk and if they don’t, you can ask where to find them.  It is kind of hilly, but I managed it ok and I’m not a big biker.

Relax on Boca del Drago or Playa Estrella

If you don’t want to bike there, you can take one of the shuttles over.  We biked there and took the shuttle back.  It has room for bikes on the front I believe.  You can easily walk between the two and there aree food options on both.  I reeally loved this part of our trip.

Isla Bastimentos Bocas del Toro Panama

Do a bioluminescence tour

We just saw a hostel in town that was offering tours and walked in to ask about them.  Our guide only spoke Spanish, but we managed to communicate enough between the three of us.  This is a really cool thing to do I’m not sure how often tours go, it’s hard to find much about them online, but it’s so worth going!

Visit Isla Zapatillas

A lot of island hopping tours stop here, but you can also charter a boat for $20ish per person plus the park fee to spend the whole day here.  It’s one of the most beautiful beaches in Bocas del Toro and a great spot for snorkeling.

Stop at La Gruta Cave

This is a nice stop to break up your bike trip across the island!  I believe it’s marked along the road because we did stop there.  We didn’t go in, but it looks pretty cool.  This would be a fun stop if you like caves.  You can also take a taxi here if you don’t want to bike.

Should you go to Bocas del Toro?

Yes, but I think you should make it your first, or one of your first, stops in Panama.  From what I’ve read, the San Blas Islands are much better, so this could feel like a step down.  It’s definitely worth visiting, but I would do it earlier in your trip.

Have you been to Bocas del Toro?  What did you think of it?  What was your favorite thing you did there?  

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