The days we weren't supposed to spend in Panama

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Bocas del Toro, Panama became our last official stop in Central America on our six month route from Guatemala to Panama. For a country I never officially decided to visit it Panama became a favourite and inspiring last stop in Central America. We were welcomed to Panamas of the island paradise with open arms, and spent our time between Isla Colon the main island of the Bocas Island Group and Bastimentos Island.

Bocas del Toro, Panama at a glance

✓ Language: Spanish 

✓ Currency: US Dollar

✓ 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 - Selinas Hostel or Hostel Heike

✓ Breakfast: Included in most hostels

✓ Shuttle Bus to Starfish Beach: $5 return

All prices in US Dollar

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Map of Bocas del Toro

A last minute trip to Panama

We never planned to any spend time on Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro or in Panama at all other than a couple of nights in Panama City to see the Panama canal. We had to catch our Colombia flights from Panama City but somehow arrived in Panama with time to kill.

After 3 months of exploring Mexico and Central America and not sticking to any real plan we somehow we came up short and we ended up with around 5 spare days to enjoy the wonders of Panama's Caribbean island group - Bocas del Toro. There are a few different resorts on the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro including Isla Colon where we would stay and Bastimentos Island a tropical feeling smaller island a 20 minute boat ride away.

With time left to explore some more of Central America's must see's we packed up and left Costa Rica early in the morning to take the bus to  Bocas del Toro. We spent the initial hours of our bus journey to Panama praying for something more suited to our wallets than Costa Rica. Read about our traumatic time in Tortuguero here.

Crossing the border at Sixaola - Costa Rica to Panama 

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

In Central America you have the useful option of doing group border crossings in organised minibuses. Most of the time these can be booked from your hostel or a local tour operator desk within the main cities or on the high street of smaller towns.

We didn't have this option when crossing from Costa Rica into Panama and we had to do this trip solo on many buses. My advice for the Sixaola border crossing would be to start the day earlier if you are leaving Costa Rica because this became one of the more challenging border crossing for us.

The border crossing at Sixaola is filled with  'helpers' trying to carry your luggage lots of 'taxes' to pay, some official some questionable. Expect to pay between $5 and $15 in taxes upon exit from Costa Rica and arrival in Panama. We arrived late as the Sixaola Costa Rica to Panama border was closing - I do not advise this, arrive with time to spare as the whole process can take much longer than expected.

Have your bags and passports checked at the Costa Rican side of the border. This is where you'll pay your taxes before heading to another checkpoint and the beginning of the Sixaola bridge border crossing. Pay your 'taxes' and cross the border on foot - check opening and closing times. I hate to repeat myself but arrive early, this is not a 24 hour border and if you arrive too late you will not be able to enter Panama via the Sixaola border crossing. 

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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 the only decent part of this border experience crossing a railroad bridge from one country to another certainly becomes 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. Having not given ourselves long enough to make the crossing we 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.

Why we chose Bocas del Toro, Panama

The decision to spend our last few nights in Central America on another Caribbean island was a no brainer really, the sun bather could sunbathe and the fisherman could fish. We also knew from our route and the Central American 'Gringo Route' that many of our fellow backpackers 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. 

Tropical paradise. Bocas del Toro, Panama

Getting to Bocas del Toro, Panama - Modes of transport 

It took us a soul destroying 7 chicken busses and 2 boats to get from Tortuguero in Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro in Panama, this seems insane and I can't believe how many changes of less than road-ready busses we had. We did our research whilst in Costa Rica and our trusty Central America Lonely Planet and lack of WiFi told us this was the only possible way to get into Panama without going back on ourselves to San Jose.

The island life is certainly for me
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Island exploring

We arrived just in time to reach the last boat. We made the taxi journey only slightly more squeezed for time by stopping off at an ATM. Our number one rule was to never arrive into a country without cash. But our 7 busses through Costa Rica had depleted our cash resource.

It turns out the taxi guy knew the boat guy who knew the ticket office girl at the boat dock which is actually not as unusual as you'd expect for Central America. After a quick phone call Jay and I and two nice German girls we'd met at the crossing and shared a cab with secured our place on the now waiting boat. Thankfully, we got to Bocas del Toro just as the sunset over the archipelago and the light turned dark silver. We were tired and hungry and chose to head to one of the best rated Lonely Planet hostels on the Island of Colon.

Where to stay in Bocas del Toro, Panama - Hostels 

We stayed at Hostel Hieke a really fun, busy hostel with clean and vibrant 4 bed dorms and enough bathrooms for the hostels population. It's situated on Bocas Town, Isla Colon - one of the biggest of the Bocas del Toro resorts and the most populated island.

I'd recommend Hostel Hieke, it is always a welcomed treat when the bathroom to dorm ratio is spot on. We also spent a lot of our time at Selinas Hostel an even busier hostel that overlooks the ocean with a popular and busy bar/restaurant and private boat taxi dock. I think if I was to go back I'd struggle to choose between the two. I'd recommend both - Selinas Hostel, Bocas del Toro is more of a party hostel than Hostel Hieke but they are both in good locations on Isla Colon, Bocas. Selinas Hostel is the tourist favourite though. 

Classic hotdog shot - Bocas del Toro, Panama 

Isla Colon, Bocas Town and Bastimentos 

Bocas Town is the main backpacker spot on Isla Colon but water taxis can take you over to Bastimentos easily and cheaply. Some of the smaller tours take you to various islands and most of them start at around $20-$30.

Bigger boats are available and can be booked in advance to take you to the islands that are further (and the better beaches). Red frog beach in Bastimentos is worth 100% worth visit, Id go as far to say you'd be missing out if you didn't head over to Red Frog Beach. It's probably one of my favourite beaches of Central America. The contrasting steamy jungle backdrop and the rough but clear waters on a golden sandy floor make Red Frog Beach an idyllic secret escape. 

There's a small national park entrance fee that we were happy to pay for the scenic walk. Plus as I've mentioned a few times conservation of natural and beautiful spaces is something that's important to me and its always great to see conservation efforts in practice.

Must visit Beaches

Red Frog Beach, Bastimentos

Star Fish Beach, Isla Colon

The encroaching jungle behind you as you enter onto the golden beach is truly not to be missed, the walk itself is filled with suspense and excitement. The beach is quiet and vendor free which is something we hadn't seen much of. A nice relaxing day can be spent at Red Frog Beach, take supplies with you as there are no local amenities on the secluded beach.  

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Red Frog Beach, Bastimentos Island

Caribbean living and island life on Bocas del Toro

Bocas 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. 

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

Last stop on the Gringo Route, Bocas del Toro, Panama

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 Bocas del Toro.

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