Secret Escapes: Bocas del Toro Panama
When I finally drop out of the “real world,” you can find me in Bocas del Toro Panama—a small chain of Rasta-flavored islands floating in the Caribbean on the border of Costa Rica and Panama–where the days are long, the surf breaks plentiful, and the island living cheap. Did I mention it’s also on the US dollar?
A day in Bocas typically goes something like this: You wake up early before the sun gets too hot; grab some strong coffee at one of the many dockside Internet café’s where you sit with the tranquil blue Caribbean lapping under your feet and distractedly check your email and social media or read the news; then realize you’re in paradise and totally don’t care about any of it. Walk the street back to your hotel/hostel/cabina. Along the way, choose a panga boat captain to be your taxi for the day. Pick a remote surf break or secluded island beach and have him hang out or drop you off there for a few hours and then return with a cooler full of (more) cold beer and chilled coconuts. Or you spend the afternoon snorkeling/diving/dolphin watching. When night comes, you stuff your face with cheap delicious cart food and head to whichever dockside bar is hosting the party (usually wherever it’s “ladies night”) and dance the night away with a couple dozen of your newest, bestest friends while you watch bright schools of neon fish flash by beneath in the underwater floodlights of a sunken ship. Then wash, rinse, repeat.
If you’re looking for something more tranquil, you rent a house on stilts or in the canopy of a secluded beach jungle on one of the smaller islands facing out to the open sea and forget that the world beyond the smooth blue horizon even exists. You stop wearing shoes and most clothes. You get ridiculously tan, fit, and mellow. Because all you do is swim/surf, dance, and live on juice drinks.
While Bocas consists of more than a half-dozen islands worth note, the main town is located on the largest (Isla Colon) which can only be accessed by boat taxis, ferries, and small planes. Direct flights can be booked out of San Jose, Costa Rica or Panama City. Boat taxis depart frequently from the Panamanian town of Almirante. But if you’re going by ground—it’s better to come from the Costa Rican side. You can hop a bus from San Jose to Puerto Viejo and take a ferry or continue all the way down the coast to the border town of Sixaola and walk over the old school train trestle bridge into Panama (where you can grab a water taxi).
There’s no shortage of hotels and hostels to choose from on Isla Colon and the surrounding islands. You can also rent a home for as little as $100-$150 a night. Check out Red Frog Bungalows—the only “green eco-resort” in the region—which features private bungalows built in Bali and shipped to Panama. Or, for $10 bucks a night ($5 for outdoor hammocks!), you will have the sleepless time of your life staying at the Aqua Lounge—a hostel and party bar built entirely on decking above the water. With its collection of swings, trampolines, and diving areas, the lounge is worth visiting at any time of day whether you stay there or not.
In addition to awesome surfing/snorkeling/diving, Bocas has consistently decent internet service (thanks in part to the data cables running through the Canal). Which means you can actually get stuff done here—if you absolutely must. It’s also relatively crime free, and the economy is on the US dollar so there’s no exchange rate to hassle with. Panga taxi’s are cheap (usually less than $5) and almost everywhere you go—you go by boat. Why are we still here?