Bocos del Toro – one of the most popular tourist spots in Panama, especially for backpackers. I can imagine Bocas years ago as an undiscovered paradise for the select tourists who ventured here, but now, it is a bit overly touristic and therefore also expensive! Nonetheless, we found ways to have a great time and even do it on a budget! The truth is, Bocas has a chilled out island vibe that will get you hanging out in a hammock with a beer in hand and a smile on your face in no time. Here is our backpackers guide to Bocas del Toro with everything you need to know about how to get the most out of the trip without breaking the bank.
Where to Stay in Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is technically a province (like a state), however when people refer to “Bocas” they are generally talking about Bocas Town which is a small town on Isla Colon, an island off of the Caribbean Coast of Panama. There are two other nearby islands which have accommodation available which are called Isla Caranero, and Isla Bastimentos – they are both smaller with less shops and restaurants than Bocas Town on Isla Colon but are also quieter with less of a party atmosphere.
When deciding where to stay in Bocas del Toro be sure to know what you are looking for, it is party? Relaxation? Convenience? Then choose whether or not to stay in Bocas del Toro.
Where did we Stay?
We stayed in Bocas Town, simply for convenience sake – it is the easiest to get to, the cheapest, and the most shops for cooking our own food. We arrived around 8am to a sleep dusty road town. Only a few streets by a few streets big and simply covered in hotels, hostels, and restaurants (although no McDonald’s or supermarkets here, only locally run shops and restaurants.) I had heard so many amazing things about Boca’s I thought, “this can’t be it.” It looked almost like a beach town in Southeast Asia, just without the hustle and bustle as it was practically deserted with the exception of the few boat drivers trying to convince us to take their water taxi (yes this is actually a thing here) to a nearby beach or hotel.
Turns out this “sleepy” town isn’t so sleepy in the nighttime, but during the day those who aren’t hung over in bed flea the town and head for beaches to try and keep cool. At Bocas Town there is no nice beach within walking distance, one must take a water taxi or drive – which can be quite inconvenient as well as expensive depending on one’s bartering skills. There are some amazing beaches nearby the town as well as other things to do (great scuba diving) but it just takes a minute to figure it all out as there seems to be so many options – luckily I have it all laid out here.
How to Get to Bocas del Toro
Coming from Panama?
Get a bus to Almirante. We got a 12 hour night bus directly from Panama City for $28 USD.
At the Almirante bus station all the taxi drivers will be waiting and it is $1 USD per person for a ride to where to boat to Bocas leaves (you could walk if you are feeling ambitious but for the dollar I would recommend just getting a lift and getting in a boat with all the other tourists that got off of your bus.)
At the water taxi station it is $6 USD one way or $10 USD return, therefore to buy the return ticket right then is worth it as long as it will be used. Note, most shuttle services bought on the island include the boat ride, so if you are considering getting a shuttle to leave (like to get to Costa Rica) then maybe hold off on buying that return ticket immediately.
Coming from Costa Rica?
Get a local bus to the border. Walk across the border and there will be local mini-bus drivers offering you a ride straight to Almirante. I recommend this as it is about an hour drive and local transportation will require two buses. These mini bus drivers will start at a price around $10 or $15 USD per person, the fair price is $5 USD, stick to that and you’ll have a good deal and have an easy ride straight to the boat terminal in Almirante! We usually always just try to take the public buses as they are typically much cheaper, but here the shuttle was nearly the same price, maybe a savings of $1-2 USD which simply isn’t worth the hassle of transferring buses.
What to do in Bocas Del Toro
Scuba Diving, Bocas del Toro
In comparison to everything else there is to do in Bocas, scuba on the island is really great value. An entire open water dive course runs for about $280 USD and two fun dives for about $70-$90. This diving visibility sometimes isn’t ideal sue to weather conditions this time of year. But, if you go with a good dive center then they will know where the visibility is best and will take the boat straight there.
We did two fun dives with Boca’s Diving Pirates and had a blast! The staff were so fun, but they also really took scuba seriously. Our divemaster even gave us a refresher course on setting up our gear and sorting out our buoyancy with the weight belts. Not to mention, they were a bit cheaper than some of the other on the island who wanted $10 or $20 USD more for the two dives. It was a really great morning out in the water!
Go out Partying (or at least have a couple drinks at one of the neat bars)
We were only in Bocas during the weekdays, and even then there were places to go at night. Selina’s hostel has a bar at the back which is always busy and then late at night for more of a club vibe check out La Iguana – these are the typical backpacker “go to” places.
There is also the option of doing a boat pub crawl for about $20 USD. The company is called, Bocas Pub Cruise.
We also went to the Aqua Lounge Bar one evening and that was a neat place. We took a water taxi for $1 each straight there as it is on Isla Bastimentos and once there they have reasonably priced drinks ($1.50 for a local beers and $3 highballs) as well as swimming pool type areas which are really the ocean but still pretty neat as they having a diving board and slack line.
Check out Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro
This is a good beach to go to for a few hours in the afternoon for cheap. From the main park in Bocas town there are buses leaving regularly for $2.50 USD one way. From where the bus drops everyone off it is about a 15 minute walk to the beach. The walk is through the jungle so it is actually pretty nice. At the beach there are quite a few starfish, we brought our snorkel gear but never actually needed it as the water is so clear we could just see the starfish from above.
One of the highlights while we were there was that actually saw dolphins while we were there. It was super cool to see(until the guys with boats got people to pay them to take them out to the dolphins and chased them away.)At the beach there are also lots of beach restaurants selling overprices fish and beers. Expect to pay about $2 for a local beer and $15 for a fish meal. We were stunned by the prices of a meal but forgot to pack a lunch so we found a place that did a huge plate of French fries for $3 to tie us over until we got back to town.
This is all we did while in Bocas. We heard Red Frog beach is nice and a water taxi is $8, otherwise there are day tours which take people to various beaches and snorkeling spots for about $25 per person. We really enjoyed just hanging out and not doing too much while we were here, I think the island vibe got to us a bit.
Budget Saving Tips in Bocas
-Never go for the first price offered, this goes for tours or taxis or anything. It doesn’t hurt to try and get a lower price first to see the reaction. In such a tourist place the salespeople have learned to start high with prices as commonly people will just go for it. Also, speak to other tourists to find out what they paid for similar things to know before you go out to buy something what you should be paying as a fair price.
-Cook your meals. Food out at a restaurant can be expensive. If you do decide to eat out stick to a small local joint, there is the possibility of getting a full meal under $5 USD if you find the right place. Anywhere on the main street near the water that has an English menu will be triple the local price.
-When going to the “supermarkets” (aka small locally owned shops) check the prices and add up the total in advance. A lot of the shops don’t have prices on things, skip those ones, and the ones that do just add it up with a calculator so make sure you are on the ball. You won’t be given a receipt at the end find out why it ended up costing so much money. We went to buy to tiny onions and one tomatoes and we were charged $3.50 USD! Only buy fruit and veggies (with the exception of bananas which are always cheap) from a local fruit and veggie vendor or stall, it will be ¼ of the price.)
-Drink the $2.50 USD small bottle of rum or $3.25 USD litre box of wine. These are your cheapest options for alcohol.
-Book your accommodation in advance on either AirBnB or Booking.com . Hostels here are overpriced and you can easily get a nice private room in a nice house with tons of privacy for the same price as a 10 share dorm. We stayed in a beautiful little house with a massive kitchen and balcony where we had a private room for only $9USD each a night. We just went to the hostels to socialize even though we didn’t stay there.
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Overall, Boca’s is overly touristic but it can still be enjoyable. The number of tourists makes the places feel safe and comfortable as well as allows for a good social setting almost anywhere you go. I think it is a good place to visit for a few days, I mean, who doesn’t like a good island vibe party place?
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