Exploring Bocas del Toro, Panama

Thursday, December 17, 2015

For a country I never officially decided to visit Panama became one of my favourite locations in all of Central America. Our time exploring Bocas del Toro brought an inspiring end to our Central America travels as Panama became the final stop in our 3 month stint through Central America. Exploring Bocas del Toro and the colourful Bocas Town meant our days in Panama were filled with sunshine, beaches, rum and all the delicious cuisine you'd expect from an island on the Caribbean coast. We were welcomed to Panama's island paradise with open arms from locals and backpackers alike, it's easy to see why so many of these backpackers eventually turn into locals in such an accepting island paradise setting.


Bocas del Toro, Panama at a glance
Language: Spanish 
Currency: US Dollar
continent: north AMERICA
area: central america
Street food: $1-$3 - Expect chicken, chips and pizza slices
Restaurant food: $3-$7 at hostels or $10-$15 in restaurants
Drinking: $1 per Cerveza $3 per bottle of rum
Where to stay: Isla Colon 
hostels: Selinas Hostel or Hostel Heike
Shuttle Bus to Starfish Beach: $5 return

average daily budget for one: $30

All prices in US Dollar


In our original Central America itinerary we never planned to any spend time on the island grouping of Bocas del Toro. We had a flight to catch from Panama City and had factored in a stop off at The Panama Canal, but Bocas del Toro never made our original plans. Along our Central American route the more we heard about Bocas del Toro the more compelling the idea of exploring Bocas del Toro became. Before we knew it, we were in a taxi charging to the boat docks with one destination in mind. 

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Map of Bocas del Toro


Somehow, during our time travelling through Central America we managed to gain a few extra days - 5 to be exact. And as a true wanderluster I was eager to fit in one final tropical island destination to my Central America itinerary. We decided to explore and enjoy the wonders of Panama's Caribbean island group.

There are a few different resorts on the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro including Isla Colon where we would stay and Bastimentos Island a Jurassic Park feeling smaller island located 20 minutes from Isla Colon and Bocas Town by boat.

We left Costa Rica early, partly due to the expense but also due to the experience we had during our time staying in the Tortugeuro National Park. Before arriving in Bocas del Toro we had to cross the famous Sixaola Border Crossing popular for its railroad bridge that backpackers have to walk across backpacks and all.


Everything you need to know about the Sixaola border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama including fees 

One of the things I love the most about travel in Central America is that you have the useful option of doing group border crossings in organised minibuses. This is a fantastic option for solo travellers or couples with limited Spanish. These group border crossings and minibus services can be booked from your hostel or a local tour operator desk within the main cities or on the high street of smaller towns. This type of service is very common throughout Central America and we used this method of crossing borders from Guatemala through to El Salvador and Honduras.

Unfortunately, we didn't have this option when crossing from Costa Rica into Panama and we had to do this trip independently on many buses which took us far longer than expected. Due to the legnth of time the journey through Costa Rica took us we arrived at the Sixaola border crossing later than expected, this is important because the Sixaola border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama is not 24 hours! If you arrive during non-opening times you will have to spend the night in the border town of Sixaola.


The border crossing at Sixaola like many of the Central America border crossings is filled with locals, beggars, hustlers, money exchanges and helpers. All trying to earn a quick penny from flustered tourists aiming to cross the border efficiently in the Central American heat. Luggage helpers off to carry your bags and escort you across the rail road bridge for a small fee. Some helpers also offer to do the entry and exit taxes for you - prices questionable.

Expect to pay between $5 and $15 in taxes to exit from Costa Rica and arrive in Panama. There are two separate windows for this, One is official looking, the other is less so. Perhaps we were fooled into paying an additional tax.

Once you have had your bags and passports checked at the Costa Rican side of the border you can pass through to Panama. You should pay your taxes here before heading to another checkpoint (the less official looking one mentioned above) on the Sixaola side of the bridge border crossing to pay another tax of around $7. This is potentially where we paid an additional tax before heading to the official Panama customs to get our passports stamped and enter Panama officially.

The Sixaola border crossing is done on foot over the railroad bridge - always check opening and closing times of border crossings as many are not 24 hours. 

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Starfish Beach with crystal clear blue waters
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The water taxis that charter tourists from beach to beach around Bocas del Toro

Starfish beach feat. Panama flags


The physical crossing of the bridge into Panama from Costa Rica is certainly bucket list material and many travellers class this Central American border crossing as their favourite. Our tax paying and our haggling helpers made a panicked experience become a frantic experience very quickly. Having not given ourselves long enough to make the crossing we spent the majority of the crossing arguing and worried we'd be stranded in Sixaola or no mans land on a bridge somewhere lost and hungry between Costa Rica and Panama.

Aside from the haggling helpers and hustling the area of Sixaola itself feels dangerous, with many people just hanging around. It's not the kind of place you want to be forced to spend the night.

As mentioned the physical crossing of the Costa Rica to Panama border is across the bridge. It's usually a backpacks, walk over the railroad bridge with one of your haggling hustling helpers screaming at you.


The decision to spend our final nights in Central America on another Caribbean archipelago was a no brainer for me. Bocas del Toro is the ideal setting to reflect on your travels so far.

In ture Central American style along the 'Gringo Route' that many of our fellow backpacking and friends would be arriving in Bocas del Toro during our stay. Knowing we'd end up catching up with old friends made the decision to head to Bocas del Toro even easier for us. A free breakfast and a 4 bedroom dorm also made the choice to spend a few days exploring Panama's islands an easy one.

If you like sun, tropical beaches, a wide range of bars, restaurant and cuisines, cheap shopping, beach bars, nightclubs, rum and all round good times and good vibes then Bocas del Toro is the budget backpacking destination of your dreams. The accommodations here are cheap and plentiful and there is always something going on. The archipelago itself offers a wide range of exploration options, you could easily spend two weeks here island hopping and not even see half of the Bocas del Toro island group. 

With plenty to do and plenty to experience, the only other reason to visit Bocas del Toro is for the people you will meet. Many of the locals are of Central American and/or Caribbean descent and the rest are all expats who are settling in Bocas. Along with the friendly and welcoming arms of the locals in Bocas del Toro, you'll meet a million other good-time backpackers in Bocas and isn't that what travel is all about? 

Tropical paradise. Bocas del Toro, Panama

The island life is certainly for me
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Island exploring


We stayed at Hostel Hieke a really fun, busy hostel with clean and vibrantly painted four bed dorms with enough bathrooms for the hostels population. Hostel Hieke situated in Bocas Town on one of the main islands, Isla Colon. Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro one of the biggest of the Bocas del Toro resorts and the most populated island. The other large island that most tourists choose to stay on when exploring Bocas del Toro is Bastimentos, which is roughly a 20 minute boat journey from the Isla Colon boat dock.

I'd recommend Hostel Hieke for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is always a welcomed treat when the bathroom to dorm ratio is spot on in a hostel in Central America. And secondly, I enjoy smaller dorms. The brightly painted four bedroom dorms in Bocas del Toro were quiet and seemed to attract a tamer crowd than the other party hostels in town. Hostel Hieke also has a free breakfast and the prices of the rooms are extremely reasonable

Another hostel in Bocas Town is Selinas Hostel. Selinas Hostel in Bocas del Toro has more of an infamous reputation as a party hostel, with larger dorms and it's own waterside patio and bar. I'd recommend this for hostel if you don't mind larger dorms and little sleep.

We spent a lot of our time at Selinas Hostel especially during happy hour where the mojitos flow freely. I think if I was to go back I'd struggle to choose between the two hostels mentioned. 

Classic hotdog shot


Bocas Town is the main backpacker spot on Isla Colon but water taxis can take you over to Bastimentos Island easily and cheaply. Taxi boats leave regularly between the two islands so its easy to explore both settlements in a short space of time.

Some small island tours of the Bocas del Toro archipelago take you to various islands including Bastimentos, these will cost you between $20-$30. For additional activities such as turtle and dolphin watching will cost you more. Try to book in advance to secure a space on group tours, alternatively book a private tour. 


Red Frog Beach on the island of Bastimentos is worth 100% worth visit, we had been recommended this Red Frog Beach by another group staying at Hostel Hieke and booked a taxi boat to take us over to the other island.

I'd go as far as to say you'd be missing out if you didn't head over to Red Frog Beach on Bastimentos Island, the chilled Caribbean feel of the island and corrugated iron roofs made me feel very nostalgic for parts of the Caribbean I have only dreamed of visiting. The buildings on Bastimentos differ from the wooden buildings on Isla Colon and it almost felt like we had yet again arrived in another country.

Red Frog Beach is probably one of my favourite beaches in Central America. The contrasting steamy jungle backdrop teamed with the rough rip tides of clear blue waters on golden sand took me to a prehistoric time and I was expecting a dinosaur to be spotted above the greenery at any time. If you spend any time at all exploring Bocas del Toro then Red Frog Beach is a must. 

There's a small national park entrance fee that all tourists must pay to visit Red Frog Beach, Bastimentos. Once you have paid the national park entrance fee, you must walk a scenic route through the jungle to get to the actual beach.  Arriving on the beach is like arriving on another planet, the encroaching jungle behind you as you enter onto the golden beach is breathtaking.

Red Frog Beach is quiet and vendor free which is something we hadn't seen much of. A nice relaxing day can be spent at here easily, take supplies with you as there are no local amenities on the secluded beach.  


Another of the popular beaches in Bocas del Toro is Starfish Beach, this is very accessible and most tourists staying on Isla Colon visit at least once during their time exploring Bocas del Toro. Minibuses leave from the main square directly outside of Hostel Hieke every 30 minutes. A small fee of $5 will secure you a seat on the air conditioned bus, buy a return journey and schedule your return time slot in advance. 

There are a range of restaurants on the thin piece of sand that is Starfish Beach. Many of them almost lost to the mangroves at the back of the beach. You can easily spend the day at Starfish Beach and enjoy lunch. There are sometimes boats in the water and locals will happily take you for a small tour/spin for a small price. The beach can get busy, and sun loungers are available to either rent or sneak depending on whether the owner is around. 

Note, there can be the occasional sandfly at this beach.

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Red Frog Beach, Bastimentos Island


Bocas del Toro is like Utila, Honduras in ways, but has its own unique mainland-Panama-meets-The-Caribbean flavour. There's much more of a Caribbean influence here than what we experienced in Honduras' Caribbean, especially when it comes to food and music. Which is heavily influenced by the mix of expats living in Isla Colon and Bastimentos. 

I hope you like plantains. The food comes with lots of Caribbean inspired flavours and dishes all restaurants serve a wide variety to suit every taste.  The locals are a mixed bunch too. There's plenty of Panamanians, some with mixed heritage from the Caribbean others from further afield but often parent of Jamaican descent.

Like a lot of the islands around Central America Bocas del Toro has no clear identity it's a mish mash of a lot of periods of time, nationalities, languages and cultures that have all wound up here to create another unique tourist setting and I think that's gives Bocas the most captivating and unique identity. Latin and Caribbean influences on an archipelago off the coast of mainland Panama. 

Like a lot of the islands in Central America there's many (some would say too many) U.S expats who once-upon-a-time came to Bocas on holiday and couldn't bare to leave. Similar in so many ways to Utila, Honduras where we actually spent a similar amount of time. And just like like Utila these people are completely integrated with the locals which gives the island such a welcoming and forthcoming community feel. I never once felt unwelcome on either of the Island's you are instantly embraced by Bocas del Toro's individuality.

Fishing on Starfish beach
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Colorful houses in Bocas Town, Isla Colon


The atmosphere in Bocas del Toro is what we liked most, for many people it's their last stop and for others it's their halfway point. Either way there is always a reason to celebrate and that feeling of celebration and good times echos around the island at all times. I think all this reason and all the other and the other cultural factors mentioned equal the most electric island.

Not to mention the number of quirky waterfront bars and restaurants filled with locals and tourists alike. Each person with a smile on their face and a Flor de Caña in their hands. I was never much of a rum drinker before I visited this part of the world but I don't think there's a better series of counties to explore my new found love for rum. Cheap and delicious.

Bocas del Toro is a mesmerizing place. There are so many notable stops along the road in Central America, including almost all the dangerous capitals and dirty bus stops but when it comes to the coast Central America really gets it right every time and Bocas del Toro is just another example of a truly unique, small destination that drags you in and makes you never want to leave. We caught up with old friends before heading to Panama City and got to enjoy that Caribbean feeling of Central America one last time. What better way to spend our final days in Central America than soaking up the sun, drinking down the rum and enjoying the atmosphere on an island like this!

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travelsandmore was originally just an outlet for me to document my travels in Latin America. It has since developed into a big passion of mine and blogging about my adventures is more of an obsession for me. travelsandmore is a budget backpacker focused blog. Start with my Destinations page to explore and thanks for stopping by. Don't forget to subscribe, I'll only ever send you my latest travel related blog posts right to your inbox.