Bocas del Toro Backpacking Guide
Bocas del Toro Backpacking Guide
Bocas del Toro – one of the most popular tourist spots in Panama, especially for backpackers. This is our Bocas del Toro backpacking guide with everything you need to know including how to get the most out of the trip without breaking the bank.
Topics covered in this Bocas del Toro Backpacking Guide are:
I can imagine Bocas del Toro years ago as an undiscovered paradise for the select tourists who ventured there, 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 del Toro has a chilled out island vibe that will have you hanging out in a hammock with a beer in hand and a smile on your face in no time.
We arrived around 8 am and were surprised to be met by a sleepy, dusty road, tiny town. Bocas town is made up of only a few streets and they are all 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 to a nearby beach or hotel.)
Turns out this “sleepy” town isn’t so sleepy in the night due to a vibrant nightlife, but during the day, those who aren’t hungover 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.
Beside beaches, there are lots of other things to do (like great scuba diving) but it just takes time to figure it all out as there seems to be so many options – luckily I have it all laid out here in this blog!
Bocas del Toro is technically a province (similar to a state), however when people refer to “Bocas” they are generally talking about Bocas town which is a small town on an island off of the Caribbean Coast of Panama called Isla Colon.
There are two other nearby islands which have accommodation available which are called Isla Caranero, and Isla Bastimentos – they are both smaller with fewer 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 a party? Relaxation? Convenience? Then choose whether or not to stay in Bocas del Toro town or on one of the nearby islands.
Where did we Stay?
We stayed in Bocas town on Isla Colon simply for convenience sake. It is the easiest to get to, the cheapest, and has the most shops for cooking our own food. If you are on a tight budget, I recommend staying in Bocas Town.
We stayed at a small house in which the owner rented out each of the rooms. It was called Casa Vista Pista, and a delightful budget option in Bocas del Toro. It had 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.
I recommend staying at a small Bed and Breakfast (like Casa Vista Pista) or booking with Air BnB in Bocas as the hostels seem to be overpriced for the value.
Coming from Panama
Get a bus to a town called Almirante.
We caught a 12 hour night bus directly from Panama City for $28 USD.
If you are traveling from anywhere else in Panama, search on busbud.com for all of your bus options to get to Almirante.
At the Almirante bus station, all of the taxi drivers will be waiting and it costs $1 USD per person for a ride to where to water taxis headed for Bocas depart. You can walk if you are feeling ambitious, but for the dollar, I would recommend just getting a lift and getting in a boat with all of the other tourists that got off of your bus, otherwise, you may have to wait until they have enough people to fill another boat.
Coming from Costa Rica
Catch a local bus to the border. Walk across the border and there will be mini-bus/shuttle 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 minibus 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 boats in Almirante!
We usually always just try to take the public buses as they are typically much cheaper, but in this case, the shuttle was nearly the nearly same price and saved the hassle of transferring buses.
The boat to Bocas del Toro from Almirante
At the water taxi station it is $6 USD one way or $10 USD return. There are a couple different water taxi companies so just make sure if you buy the return trip that you remember which company you went with and where they dropped you off.
Note, most shuttle bus services bought on the island include the boat transfer back to the mainland. So, if you are considering getting a shuttle bus to leave Bocas (like to get to Costa Rica) then maybe hold off on buying that return ticket at the water taxi station.
Scuba Diving, Bocas del Toro
In comparison to everything else, there is to do in Bocas, scuba on the island is actually 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 due to weather conditions depending on the 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 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, Boca’s Diving Pirates were a bit cheaper than some of the other dive shops 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.
The Selina 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 places to hang out.
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 from Bocas Town (as it is on Isla Bastimentos) and once there they have reasonably priced drinks, $1.50 for local beers and $3 highballs. There is also a swimming pool type area which is really the ocean but still pretty neat as they have a diving board and slack line.
Check out Starfish Beach
Starfish Beach is a good beach to go to for a few hours in the afternoon as a cheap outing.
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 at Starfish Beach was that we actually saw wild dolphins from the shore! 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 overpriced 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.
Other places to check out
We really enjoyed just hanging out and not doing too much while we were in Bocas, I think the island vibe got to us a bit. Scuba diving, exploring the town and Starfish Beach was all we had time for, but there are a few others things to do and see as well.
We heard Red Frog Beach is nice and a water taxi is $8 from Bocas Town.
Another popular activity is day tours which take people to various beaches and snorkeling spots for about $25 per person.
- Never accept 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 touristy place the salespeople have learned to start high with prices as people will often 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 the normal price is.
- 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. You won’t be given a receipt at the end find out why it ended up costing so much money. Do the math in advance so you don’t end up getting overcharged.
- Buy fruit and veggies form a stall or vegetable store. We went to buy two tiny onions and one tomato and we were charged $3.50 USD at one of the small supermarkets! 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 liter box of wine. These are your cheapest options for alcohol.
- Book your accommodation in advance on either Airbnb or Booking.com. Hostels 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.
Overall, Boca’s is overly touristic but it can still be enjoyable. The number of tourists makes the place 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?
Was this guide helpful? If so, you may find some of our other guides are too! Check out our blogs on places near Bocas del Toro that may be of interest to you:
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June 2, 2019