1. Where to Stay
To reach Bocas del Toro, fly from Panama City’s domestic airport, Aeropuerto Marcos A. Gelabert (it’s locally known simply as “Albrook,” after the area in which it’s located), to tiny, walkable Bocas town ($70 one-way; about one hour) on Isla Colón, on either Air Panama or Aeroperlas.
Caribbean views greet you at the breakfast table at quiet Cocomo on the Sea (from $60). Stay in one of four white-wood-paneled rooms resting at the Caribbean’s edge. Row around in free kayaks or grab a cold beer; the honor-system fridge is convenient to both hammock and lounge chair.
Budget travelers will appreciate the clean, colorful Hotel Casa Max (from $35), a renovated old house in Bocas. Ask for an upper-level room to get your own terrace and hammock.
Experience the wild at the ecofriendly La Loma Jungle Lodge ($100 per person per night, includes meals and transport) on Isla Bastimentos, a 35-minute boat ride from Bocas town. Three open-air, stand-alone cabins are artfully hidden among the lush tropical forest overlooking the bay, Bahía Honda. Only mosquito netting separates you from the jungle’s exotic critters (highest-situated room affords the best monkey-spotting).
2. Where to Eat
Get New York quality dishes at Panama prices at Restaurante Guari Guari, only a five-minute taxi ride (50 cents per person) from central Bocas (cell: 507-6627-1825; cab will know location). A changing, six-course prix fixe menu is $19 per person. A Spanish chef works wonders with local ingredients while her German partner provides pro service in the open-air dining room, enveloped by banana trees and within earshot of the sea.
Snag a sidewalk table at Restaurante La Casbah (cell: 507-6486-5558; Ave. Norte nr. Calle 4) in Bocas for good people watching while you sample from the Mediterranean-inspired menu. Start with a half-liter of sangria ($6) and a bowl of gazpacho ($4) before moving on to goat-cheese-stuffed chicken, falafel, and tapas.
A traditional Caribbean meal is a ten-minute water-taxi ride ($3 per person) away in the town of Old Bank on Isla Bastimentos. Roots (no phone) is a tranquilo thatched-roof waterfront restaurant that sells a whole fish of the day—red snapper if you’re lucky—with coconut rice, beans, and salad (around $8). A Balboa beer will take the edge off the killer hot sauce, but adventurous drinkers can try Panama’s favorite drink, seco (a clear, sugarcane-distilled liquor) with milk.
3. What to Do
Boteros Bocatoreños (507-757-9760; Calle 3 nr. Ave. A) is a collective of local freelance boatmen who offer water-based day trips to visitors. Try snorkeling at Cayo Crawl (a.k.a. Coral Cay) and Cayos Zapatillas ($35 per person, plus lunch; about six hours) to get personal with parrotfish, moray eels, slender needlefish, fire coral, and other sea life. For surfing, the boatmen will take you to Playa Bluff, Playa Wizard, or wherever the day’s waves are (about $15 to $20 per person). Buy some beers from the office before setting out; they’ll bring a cooler on the boat.
Back on land, get ready to bar-hop. Start off with a cold happy-hour cerveza (7 p.m. to 8 p.m.; 50 cents) at Mondo Taitu (507-757-9425; Ave. G nr. Calle 5), a hostel and bar with a young, international surf vibe. Slightly more adult is reggae-surf bar La Iguana (Calle 1 nr. Ave. D), where you can drink Cuba libres on the back dock. Barco Hundido (Calle 1 between Av. E and Central) starts to move around midnight; find a space on the sprawling dance floor or claim a spot on the wooden deck that encircles the illuminated underwater shipwreck that is the bar’s namesake.
Aqua Lounge Hostel & Bar hosts a late-night party on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Take a five-minute, $1 water taxi ride to Isla Carenero and bring your bathing suit: The bar’s dock floats on the sea and has a dedicated swimming area with diving board and swing set. Splash till 3 a.m.
4. Insider’s Tip
In Old Bank on Isla Bastimentos, follow a paved residential walkway and then a dirt path through the jungle. Follow the signs to Up in the Hill, a hilltop organic farm and shop a 20-minute walk away. There’s plenty of tropical produce, pure cacao, balms, salves, and coconut oils to buy, and you’ll get lots of use out of their natural insect repellant during your stay. (Call ahead to make sure the store and café is open.)
5. Oddball Day
In Bocas, book a boat trip ($35 per person; five to six hours) with Boteros Bocatoreños (507-757-9760; ask for Eugenio Grenald) to the indigenous Ngöbe community of Bahía Honda. Eugenio will coordinate with Ngöbe guide Rutilio Milton (cell: 507-6726-0969), who’ll lead you down the winding mangrove-lined creek to the bat cave in the jungle; he’s excellent at spotting the resident three-toed sloths, capuchin monkeys, caimans, and strawberry poison-dart frogs. Afterward, you’ll head for the waterfront Ngöbe-owned Bahia Honda Restaurant, where a yummy seafood lunch will cost you $6. You’ll be back in Bocas town in time for happy hour (5 p.m. to 6 p.m.) and free popcorn at lively expat hangout Bohmfalk’s Bar (507-777-3403; Ave. Central between Calles 1 and 2).
Bocas.com is the archipelago’s catchall site for hotel, restaurant, and interesting background information.
Local expat newspaper The Bocas Breeze is a good source of info on Bocas living and visiting, including environmental issues.