We had ALL the Caribbean vibes in Bocas del Toro!
After a couple of wet days in the mountain town of Boquete, we were definitely ready for some more beach time. And we got it in Bocas!
The string of islands that make up Bocas del Toro are close to the Costa Rican border, on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Bocas Town is located on Isla Colón and is the most popular base for people to explore the islands. We opted to stay on the quieter Isla Bastimentos, in the chilled out town of Old Bank. As soon as we arrived, it felt so different to the other places in Panama that we had visited – VERY Caribbean! The locals here have a mostly Afro-Caribbean background and speak Guari Guari, a blend of Spanish and Caribbean English.
We really liked Old Bank. It’s a bit rough around the edges but that is part of its charm. All the houses are really colourful and the seafront is lined with over-water bungalows. In the evenings the locals all sit outside on the main path and chat, and there are loads of kids running around and playing. It definitely feels authentic, not a tourist town overrun with visitors.
We stayed for three nights at Rafael’s Sleep Inn then moved upstairs to Rafael’s House for our final two nights (the Sleep Inn was fully booked). And we loved it! The owners have quaintly decorated both sides places and next door there’s an ‘outdoor living room’, with hammocks, cosy armchairs and a jetty for lazing in the sun, which we totally took advantage of! We easily spent a couple of days here just enjoying the sunny weather.
Old Bank is a great base for taking day trips to other islands or other parts of Bastimentos. Probably the most popular place on Bastimentos is Red Frog Beach. To get there is an $8 water taxi ride from Bocas Town or a $5 ride from Old Bank. Unfortunately when we visited, the beach was still feeling the effects of a big storm that had hit Bocas a couple of weeks before. Apparently the storm washed away most of the sand, which was a real shame – it would have been great to see Red Frog in its full glory! But there was still enough sand for us!
Wizard Beach is further along from Red Frog and only a 20 minute walk from Old Bank however we decided not to visit. There have been occasions when people have been robbed on the remote walk to and from the beach and there are now several signs in the town warning people not to take valuables with them. That was enough for us to decide to give it a miss.
However what we definitely didn’t miss was the most popular attraction in Bocas – a trip to the Zapatillas islands! They are part of the national park and teeming with wildlife, both on the islands and in the water. We took a day tour with Bastimentos Alive that included snorkelling in Coral Key, a few hours exploring Zapatillas, and a couple of hours at a beach bar on Isla Solarte called The Blue Coconut.
Even the boat ride was great! The first half took us through the mangroves that line the coast of Bastimentos the we got to Coral Key. After the great snorkelling we did at Isla Coiba on the Pacific coast, we were hoping Coral Key would be just as good. Unfortunately visibility wasn’t great, the current was fairly strong, and there were a few too many jellyfish for our liking. So we didn’t stick around and headed through open seas to Zapatillas, where we were greeted by THIS!
Seeing the island reminded us of our incredible trip to the San Blas islands, also in Panama, although once we were on Zapatillas, it was a lot different – swampy mangroves and thick forest rather than small clusters of palm trees. There’s one main trail on the island and the signs at the beginning told us to keep our eyes peeled for sloths, birds and caimans. Even though we looked everywhere carefully (and kept our fingers crossed for a sloth sighting), the only critter we saw was a tiny little snake. We did some Google research later and think it might have been a green vine snake (luckily not venomous).
After a lazy picnic lunch on the beach we left the island and headed for a beach bar on Isla Solarte, The Blue Coconut. And we’re so glad that this was part of the tour! It’s such a chilled out place, with great views, waterfront sunbathing spots, and reggae music. We treated ourselves to happy hour cocktails, probably the best decision we’d made all day – when in Bocas!
And our Bocas hidden gem?
Yes we loved lazing in our hammocks, and our trip to Zapatillas and The Blue Coconut was awesome. But probably our favourite thing about our time in Bocas was watching the amazing sunsets with a local Balboa beer at the Sea Monkey. The Sea Monkey is a restaurant at the far end of Old Bank and in the perfect place for great sunset views. The vibe is so chilled, we spent a few evenings there just chatting to the chef and enjoying the sunshine. The food is also amazing! We tried breadfruit fries and the Red Thai curry and they were both delicious!
We loved the Caribbean vibes in Bocas del Toro! It’s definitely been one of the highlights of our time in Panama. And we can’t wait to enjoy more Caribbean sunshine in our trip!
What are your Panama highlights? Or what is on your bucket list? Leave us a comment, we’d love to know! Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram to see our latest travel photos.