Although I spent the majority of my three weeks in Central America exploring Costa Rica, I planned on hopping over the border into neighbouring Panama, to visit the island archipelago of Bocas del Toro.
By far the easiest way of getting from Costa Rica to Bocas is to take a shared shuttle service. This can be booked from many areas in Costa Rica but is cheapest when travelling from Puerto Viejo, which is very close to the border with Panama. Prices range from $20 to $32, depending on where you book, but each ‘company’ seems to merge into one once you’re on the way. I booked a $20 shuttle and ended up being taken by Caribe Shuttle, the $32 company. The shuttle will collect you from your hostel/hotel, drive you to the border, ‘help you’ cross the border by directing you to the right booths and (hopefully) help with any Spanish translations, drive you on to the water taxis in Almirante (the cost of which is included in the shuttle price). The whole process takes around 3 hours.
You walk your belongings over a very, very old bridge/old rail tracks:
BE WARNED – You will not be let into Panama if you do not have proof of onward travel out of the country! I had a flight itinerary from STA, showing my flight home from San José a week later – this was ok. A girl I travelled across the border with didn’t have anything. She had been travelling for a year, and was planning to fly out of Mexico City in November and had not therefore booked a flight yet. The border crossing agents refused to let her in, and she ultimately (after a lot of confusion, panic and ‘lost in translation’ conversation) bribed the official $20 to have her passport stamped. So. Be prepared!
The hassel is worth it though – you are greeted by a tropical paradise once the water taxi approaches Isla Colon, the main island in the archipelago.
Dee (the Irish girl I crossed the border with, who I met at Rocking J’s) and I spent our first two nights in Bocas at Mondo Taitu (we paid $8 a night for a dorm bed, although it is advertised as more expensive on the website). This is the oldest hostel in Bocas – and it shows. The place is kind of falling apart, the fans in the bedrooms do absolutely NOTHING and the whole place just feels a little grimy. The place is fun – plenty of people around and a well-known happy hour attracting guests from other hostels, but two nights was enough for us.
Chatting to a local shop owner, he recommended a newer hostel just a block away from Mondo, Hosteluego. We went to check it out, and moved our stuff the next day! Hosteluego is run by an American, Alex, who is friendly and helpful and the hostel is one of the cleanest I’ve ever stayed in. The rooms are bright and cheerful ($10 dorm bed), the common areas have the comfiest seats and there’s a TV – perfect for rainy Caribbean days. The price includes pancake mix for breakfast, and coffee.
Now we were settled, it was time to start exploring properly! Across Bocas there are plenty of boat men, and tour guides, trying to sell their trips to you. Don’t accept the first price you’re offered – haggle, and ask what the discount is for 4+ passengers. Rope people from your hostel in. The first day, Dee and I took a water taxi to Bastimentos ($4), where we were dropped in Old Bank (the main town on the island).
After wandering around there exploring, we hiked across the island on a very muddy path to Wizard Beach. The beach was completely deserted – we had the whole place to ourselves and it was beautiful!
After cooling off in the ocean, we walked along the beach for 30-40 minutes until we reached Red Frog Beach. Reaching Red Frog this way meant we avoided having to pay the $3 entrance fee to the park. We enjoyed the beach, and headed up to Kayukos Bar/Restaurant where we enjoyed burgers, ping pong and pool tables and a cold drink! (Pictures were taken on my waterproof disposable, which I am waiting to be developed!! Coming soon!)
You will see the same two or three boat tours advertised all over the island – these will take you to Dolphin Bay, snorkelling at Coral Cay, lunch, and then either Red Frog or Isla Zapatilla. We took this trip for $20, plus an additional $10 entrance fee to Isla Zapatilla which is a national park. You set off between 9.30am and 10am, and return around 6pm, so you really do get the full day.
After trying to see some dolphins and trying a spot of snorkelling (pretty amazing in Bocas!), the boat will take you to an isolated restaurant – just huts off the edge of an island. It is a really beautiful place to enjoy lunch, particularly if you’re a fish or seafood fan. Just remember to take some money with you for this, or pack a lunch with you if you’re saving the pennies!
Isla Zapatilla was next and I was completely blown away by how beautiful it was. Crystal clear, turquoise ocean. White sand beaches. Lush, green jungle. Absolute paradise. I wish the pictures did it justice…
We finished the day on Red Frog Beach (where we didn’t see any red frogs…) before being taken back to Bocas Town in time for the evening.
Another daytime activity I would highly recommend is to rent stand-up paddleboards, which you can do from Bibi’s On The Beach, on Isla Carenero (a $1.50 watertaxi away from the main town). They charge $15 for an hour, but if you go in a group you can arrange a better deal (we paid $35 for an hour, for three people, so a $10 saving!). The paddleboards are super fun, the views are incredible and the water is unreal. When you get tired you can jump off into the ocean for a break or cool down (or photoshoot, as we did!).
The main island is full of places to eat – both on a budget and if you fancy splashing out a little. My favourite lunch spot was Bocas Blended, an old school bus converted into a smoothie and wrap cafe. The owner is cheerful, singing as she prepares your order, and you can take a spot alongside the bus, or even enjoy the views from the roof!
For the evening, I really enjoyed La Buguita Ocean Lounge. This place only has a small menu, and often they have run out of some of those options, but you know the food is 100% fresh. My friends enjoyed the lobster pasta and lobster ravioli – seafood and fish clearly being the speciality of this waterfront restaurant – but the vegetable lasagne was delicious too. We washed our food down with two rounds of cocktails – all delicious – and split a dessert too. The location is second to none, the food and drinks great, the staff friendly and helpful, and the playlist was amazing too!