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. And for a country we had never officially decided to visit it became a favourite and inspiring last stop in Central America. We were welcomed to Panama's version of the island dream and what a dream it turned out to be. We stayed on Isla Colon the main island of the Bocas Island Group.



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 or in Panama at all other than a couple of nights in Panama City to see the Panama canal and catch our Colombia flights from Panama City. 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. There are a few different resorts on the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro including Isla Colon where we would stay and Bastimentos Island.

From Costa Rica take the bus to Sixaola for the famous bridge crossing 


With time left to explore we packed up and left Costa Rica early for Bocas del Toro. We praying for something more suited to our wallets than Costa Rica. Read about our traumatic time in Tortuguero here.

Without doing any research we jumped on a bus and headed for the railroad bridge border crossing at Sixaola. Which is everything you dread about a border crossing and then some.

Crossing the border at Sixaola - Costa Rica to Panama 

In Central America there's a great 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. Start the day earlier if you are leaving Costa Rica.

The Nicaragua to Costa Rica border crossing was an extremely strict one with lots of bag searches and scanning. We expected the same leaving the country but were introduced to something else entirely.

Expect to pay roughly $10 per person in 'taxes'


The border crossing at Sixaola is filled with  'helpers' trying to carry your luggage lots of 'taxes' to pay, some official some questionable. We arrived late as the border was closing - I do not advise this arrive with time to spare as the whole process can take much longer than expected.

Pay your 'taxes' and cross the border on foot - check opening and closing times. This is not a 24 hour border


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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
The best way to get around the island is by boat. The archipelago is huge and it's probably impossible to visit all the islands but if you do wish to try boat is your best option.

Starfish beach feat. Panama flags
The border crossing from Costa Rica to Panama at Sixaola is not 24 hours and when you reach Panama you enter another time zone. Bare these important factors in mind when planning your trip and crossing.

The physical crossing of the bridge into Panama from Costa Rica is the only decent part of this border experience. Aside from the bothering and hustling the are itself feels dangerous and off.

To cross the bridge it's a backpacks on, walking over the railroad bridge with one of your helpers screaming at you kind of job. "Go, go, faster, the border is closing". Our experience was rushed and unpleasant for two reasons. 1. The border was closing and 2. We had to catch the last boat to Bocas del Toro and knew with the time distance we had around an hour to make it with no cash left.

The border crossing closes early and the last boat to Bocas del Toro leaves around an hour later. Give yourself time to do the journey and remember you change time zones upon entering 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

Modes of Transport Bocas del Toro style

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


There were no currency exchangers at the Sixaola border crossing - perhaps due to the time we crossed the border

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 our 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.

Group together with other backpackers at the border and share a taxi to the boats to save money

Isla Colon, Bocas Town and Bastimentos

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 Hostel Selina 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 - Selina's Hostel is more of a party hostel than Hostel Hieke but they are both in good locations on Isla Colon, Bocas.


Classic hotdog shot - Bocas del Toro, Panama 


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

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.  .


The cultural mixture in Bocas creates an unforgettable vibrancy the island is alive with a mixture of music, art, culture and cuisine


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


Cuisine in Bocas del Toro like culture is mixed. It's worth noting that all the influences from the Caribbean combined with typical Central American food make for some exciting eating experiences


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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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