BY MADDY THOM
Known for its idyllic beaches and wild parties, in recent years Bocas del Toro, Panama has been put on the map as a backpacker’s hot spot. Never fear, however, with nine major islands, each identified by a distinctive vibe, individuals, couples, and families of all ages and backgrounds will find their niche in this Central American utopia.
As a Caribbean archipelago, sports enthusiasts and nature lovers will delight in the array of daily activities the islands have to offer. For a full-day excursion, head out on a self-guided tour of Isla Colón’s beaches: rent bikes in Bocas Town and peddle north along the eastern coast, making stops at Playa Paunch and Playa Bluff. Kick back and relax at La Coralina for a stunning view of the water, lunch, cocktails, and a nap in a hammock before making the ride home. For those seeking a more charged workout, the route across the island to Drago and Starfish Beaches will provide—the hilly roads will have you sweating through the climbs. Be careful though: roads are windy and the few cars that drive on them can come quickly around the turns.
Bocas’ newest schools, the Bocas Dive Center and Mono Loco Surf School, offer the best dive, snorkel, and surf adventures. Both staff certified, multicultural, and enthusiastic instructors who will keep you smiling as you explore the reefs or battle waves. Added Bonus: The Bocas Dive Center has taken some sustainability initiatives offering a full spectrum of AWARE eco-diver courses, ecology courses, biology seminars, and night dives to observe coral reef spawning.
Culture buffs and foodies should split one whole day indulging in the Oreba Chocolate tour and Bastimentos Town. Run and managed by the indigenous Ngabe population, the Oreba tour takes you on a hike through the jungle, teaching the entire process in the art of chocolate making. Following the tour, you’ll assist in the hands-on-demonstration and share a traditionally prepared lunch with the guides. 100% of proceeds from purchases made after the tour go to supporting the community, which makes this the perfect stop to buy gifts for friends and family.
Then, during the afternoon hours take a water taxi to Isla Bastimentos to explore the town. With a well-preserved local culture and the only population in the world speaking the Jamaican Creole dialect, Guari-guari, the sounds and rhythm of this colorful community are almost as sweet as the passion fruit smoothies they serve up. Make the jungle trek to Up On the Hill for organic products and unique local gifts—if the picturesque cabin and surrounding gardens don’t charm you, the kids and pups that call the place home definitely will. For those who don’t fill up on organic brownies, pull up a chair for dinner at Roots Café back in town overlooking the water for a satisfying Caribbean meal at an unbeatable price.
When hunger strikes in Bocas Town try Raw Sushi and Martini Bar recently moved to a waterfront location. As the only sushi restaurant in town and with reasonable prices and a friendly, service-oriented staff, this place can be busy; but, with the restaurant’s owner Brittany in every night of the week, you’ll never feel unattended to. Though I’m partial to a (perhaps boring) dirty martini, the passion fruit blueberry variety offered here has me licking my lips from miles away.
If sushi isn’t your thing, refuel at Alberto’s Pizzeria. Serving up authentic Italian comfort food, this family-run restaurant crafts pizzas with crispy crusts, gooey cheese, and fresh ingredients. Expect to pay $7-$11 for a pizza that is big enough to share. Pastas, salads, and sides also find space on the menu to ensure that no one leaves hungry.
After sunset partygoers should head to Aqua Lounge on Isla Carenero. Though also a hostel, this spot is best known for its Ladies’ Nights, which they host every Wednesday and Saturday. Just make sure to bring a swimsuit—the bar’s dock floats on the sea and features a diving board and swing set—chances are good you’ll be going for a swim. The party shuts down around 3 AM, but if returning to Colón you’ll be dropped off at Barco Hundido, where Reggaeton, Latin beats, and Top40 hits play into the night.
Hostel and hotel accommodation is available throughout Bocas Town on the main island, but for a truly memorable experience, reserve a space at Palmar Tent Lodge on Red Frog Beach. Opened in summer of 2011, picturesque Palmar takes camping to a whole new level. Eco-friendly and partially sustainable, comfortable beachfront tents (both private and dormitory-style) are available.
Actively involved in the atmosphere of the hostel, managers Kristin and Chris are pros at promoting a relaxed social environment and have organized activities like yoga, beach volleyball, and family dinners served nightly. The open-air common space and funky bar provide a perfect backing for sipping Cuba Libres or fresh coconut juice after a long day in the sun, or for meeting locals during the occasional events and parties that are held there. And with regularly scheduled boats running to town and a mini-convenience store aside the bar, you’ll never go without the “bare necessities” of jungle life.