panama bocas del toro in panama central america

panama bocas del toro panama bocas del toro
panama bocas del toro in panama central america
The archipelago of Bocas del Toro in Panama is situated on the northwestern coast of Panama in and around the Bay of Chiriqui. This isolated region of Panama has only recently been discovered by international travelers. It is for this reason that much of the island chain remains in pristine and untouched splendor. It is a diver and outdoor lovers paradise with unspoiled coral reefs, deep-sea fishing, boating, kayaking, snorkeling and long sandy deserted beaches. Traveling to Bocas, as the locals call it, can either be as simple as taking a 40 minute flight from Panama City or as adventurous as going over land by bus and water taxi. Either way it is a destination unlike any to be found elsewhere in Panama.

The people of the province are made up of mainly indigenous tribes, many of which still live in small isolated villages scattered throughout the islands. Add to this a healthy mix of people originally from Jamaica and you have an atmosphere that is more closely aligned to the islands of the Caribbean. The pace of life is slow and relaxed with nobody seeming to be in much of a hurry. Locals travel between the islands in dugout canoes, some with motors, but most without. These canoes, or pongas as they are called, litter the waterways and channels, especially in the morning when everybody is either going to the main island or the mainland. During this rush hour, most adults are traveling to the mainland to work in the banana fields and the children are going to the schools on Isla Colon.

Located on Isla Colon is the province's capital city, Bocas del Toro. This was the headquarters for United Fruit at the turn of the century and was an important shipping and receiving port. With the movement of the center of operations to the mainland in the mid-fifties, Bocas towns importance to what would later become Chiquita Bananas faded. It still remained the center of government in the province with the governor's mansion, hospital, schools and church. The 1991 earthquake that separated many of the old wooden structures from their foundations capped the slow slide into unimportance and decay.

By the early nineties Bocas began to feel the effects of the Central America Peace Accord. With the regions increased stability, the area become more accessible to the adventurous traveler. The first visitors to show up were the backpackers, who came to the area because of its inexpensive lodging and to explore its untouched beaches. As the years progressed, more and more tourists began to appear and the word of mouth began to spread about this uncut gem.

Over the last few years the entire province has seen the beginnings of a tourist boom, with a number of middle range hotels and restaurants being opened in and around Bocas town. The town now boasts of three different PADI dive shops, many different styles of restaurants, a deep sea fishing outfit, numerous sailboat and catamaran cruises, mountain bike and moped rentals and a lot of fabulous seafood. Various half, full and multiple day trips can be arranged that combine different elements of what is available in the region.

A good example of the type of excursion one can find is a very popular day trip that takes place on a 34-foot catamaran that cruises tourists throughout the archipelago through deeply vegetated islands and coral reefs, stopping along the way at different spots to snorkel and scuba dive. Once they reach their destination, a secluded and deserted white sand beach on the island of Bastimentos, the picnic baskets are unloaded and a typical Caribbean lunch is served with white rice, beans, fish, fruit and juices. After resting and swimming in the light crystal blue waters, it is time for the jungle hike into the island's nature preserve. Sloths, howler monkeys, toucans, parrots, iguanas and tiny, brightly colored, poison dart frogs are among the island's different animal inhabitants. The day trip ends with another cruise through the islands with one more stop for snorkeling and then pulls back into Bocas town just before sunset.

Deep-sea fishing is a fairly new addition to the different excursions available in the region, but that does not mean that it isn't world class. For years locals have been fishing in the province's warm and bounteous waters catching all types of fish and seafood including the local delicacy, langusta, or lobster. For the avid sports fisherman there are sailfish, blue and black marlin, shark, barracuda, red snapper and snook. Half and full day trips are very inexpensive when compared with other sports fishing destinations such as Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica.

Scuba diving in Bocas del Toro is in some of the best and most diverse waters in all of Central America. The cost however is about half what you would expect to pay in places like Roatan, Honduras. You can find over two dozen different types of corals, hundreds of species of fish, kelp forests, shipwrecks, caves and reefs all within an hour of Bocas town. With so many different types of diving experiences to be had, it is the perfect place to spend a couple of weeks exploring them all. One popular destination for divers and snorkelers alike, is Hospital Point. At only five minute by boat from Bocas, this point is easily accessible and a great place to get your feet wet. The water is warm and clear and it is possible to see many different examples of coral such as brain and elk. For those on a budget, a mask, snorkel and fins can be rented in town for as little as $12 for the day. They can then hire one of the many locals along the wharf to take them over by boat and then pick them up later in the day for no more the three dollars.

While the sea and the water are Bocas del Toro's main attraction, the islands themselves offer their own unique and interesting experiences and adventures. The islands are teaming with life of every kind from the top to the bottom of the rain forest canopy. Troops of howler, white faced and spider monkeys inhabit all of the larger islands of the group. Three and four toed sloths are very common sights as well as numerous different kinds of reptiles, birds, amphibians and sea turtles.

One of the most interesting and unique creatures to be found on the islands is the poison dart frog. These pint-size frogs are no bigger than a mans thumbnail and have a myriad of different color patterns. Lime greens, day glow oranges, fiery reds, deep purples and bright yellows to name just a few of the different colors. These amazing little creatures get their name from the poison that they excrete from their skin and its use by native Indians to tip their spears and darts in Pre-Colombian times. They are not really a danger to humans, as the poison has to be injected into the body because it cannot penetrate the skin.

A fun and distinct excursion to take on Isla Colon is to rent mountain bikes in Bocas town and cycle into the interior. There is a dirt road that goes from the town all the way through the heart of the island to its other side. Many areas of this 20-mile long and 8-mile wide island are still primary and secondary rain forests with a number of pastures and small pueblos of thatched roofed huts. It is in one of these villages along the road in the middle of the island where you can find one of Bocas hidden treasures.

Across the street from the town's lone soda (small store) is a plain cement walkway that veers off the road and down the slope of a hill. Nestled to one side, at the bottom of the ravine, near the mouth of a cave and a fresh water spring is a shrine to the Virgin Mary. The area is shaded by a grove of trees and is quite cool even at midday in the middle of summer. Situated at the entrance to the cave, and placed all around the statue, are dozens of different colored glass candles. As you enter into the cave, the light from these candles flickers and bounce off the walls in a kaleidoscope of shifting colors. Further into the cave, it is possible to look up and see thousands of small fruit bats sleeping upside down and hanging from the ceiling. There is a quiet serenity to the place that allows visitors to relax and enjoy the beauty of its surroundings.

The unique cultural mix along with its relative isolation has made Bocas del Toro a wonderful option for visitors to Panama. Spending time among the secluded island beaches and diving in the warm Caribbean waters helps to make one forget the hustle and bustle of the outside world.

Playa Bluff
This beach is situated just 7-10 kms. north of the town of Bocas del Toro, on Island Colon. The beach is frequently by surfers and sun bathers alike. You can ride your bike there or take a taxi, which costs approximately $6.00 each way.

Playa Drago (Boca del Drago)
(See feature article below)

Isla de Los Pajaros (Bird Island)
(see featured article below)

Bastimentos Island (National Park) & Red Frog Beach
(see featured article below)

Crawl Key
(See feature article below)

Hospital Point
(See feature article below)

Mountain Biking
Mountain bikes on Bocas del Toro can be rented either by the hour or by day. There are several companies offering this service, as well as restaurants and hotels. They both charge $1.50 per hour, however, their daily rates vary somewhat, with neither charging more than $10.00 per day. The bikes are quite heavy, but for the dirt roads on the island the bikes are just fine. You can ride to Playa Bluff, which take approximately 45 minutes or to Playa Drago, which requires around 1 hour and 10 minutes. The roads are relatively flat, clean and are dirt/gravel; the road to Playa Drago has some hills but nothing substantial.

Scuba Diving / Snorkeling
There are several companies on Bocas del Toro that offer snorkeling and diving tours, in fact, most tours to the beaches include snorkeling; some tours include fins and mask while others charge additional, ask first. For those interested, dive instruction is also available as PADI certification is available at all levels. The quality of snorkeling and diving very heavily depends on the weather, with dryer weather much preferred; heavy rains tends to cloud the shallow waters surrounding the islands. For more information about diving in Bocas kindly refer to our scuba diving section.

IPAT (Tourism Office)
IPAT has recently opened a new office in Bocas, which is located adjacent to the Police Office. The building is set on the waterfront, pointing towards Isla Carenero. The hours are 8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., however, the office is new and often understaffed. They lack much in the way of promotional material.

Getting to Bocas del Toro
You have two options when deciding to visit Bocas del Toro. Flights are available daily from Panama City aboard AeroPerlas or Mapiex Airlines. The flight lasts around one hour and may or may not stop in Changuinola first. The landing strip on Bocas is just 3-4 blocks outside of Bocas town, and is easily within walking distance to most hotels and restaurants. At times, a bus taxi is there and will shuttle you to your final destination for about $0.50 - $1.00.

You can take a bus from Panama City to Almirante or Changuinola, which departs Panama in the evening hours and arrives early morning. Upon arriving at either port you can take a water taxi to Bocas del Toro (Isla Colon).

Water taxi service is available from both Almirante and Changuinola, the latter being the most popular with those visiting Bocas del Toro from Costa Rica. The water taxis that service Amirante cost $3.00 each way per person, and the ride takes approximately 30 minutes. (These water taxis leave Isla Colon from the office that is just to the left of the IPAT building) Water taxis departing from Changuinola cost $5.00 each way per person, and the ride lasts approximately 1 hour to Isla Colon; for those entering Panama from Costa Rica this is the best option since you won't be forced to take a bus/taxi from Changuinola to Almirante in order to get the water taxi. Getting the water taxi in Almirante will save time and money. Service is available between 8:00 a .m. - 5:00 p.m. from Changuila and from 7:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m. from Bocas del Toro.(Water taxis depart Isla Colon from right along Main Street) Taxi service to and from the dock to the Changuinola bus terminal costs $1.00.

For those of you traveling between Changuinola, Almirante and David by
bus wherehave provided this additional information.

Small, comfortable minibuses travel between Changuinola and David daily, passing by Almirante on the way. (David is the capital of the Chiriqui Province and has a local airport with daily flights to and from Panama City, Changuinola and Bocas del Toro) The bus ride between Changuinola and David takes approximately 4 - 4 1/2 hours and costs $8.00 or $10.00 per person depending on where you get on. The trip goes primarilly from north to south, forging through some of the country's most mountainous terrain. The mini-buses do not stop for food or drink along the way. Below we have supplied more detalied information.

Getting to Almirante or Changuinola from David
Buses depart daily from David en route to Changuinola between the hours of 5:30 a.m. - 6:30 p.m. There is one major bus terminal in David, which is located just minutes from the city's central park (If you don't know your way around or are taking a taxi just ask for the "terminal de buses") All local buses use this same terminal. Once at the terminal you'll have no problem finding your way, there are numerous buses lined up with their final destinations well marked on the respective buses. The phone number for the bus terminal in David is 775-0268.

Getting to David from Almirante or Changuinola
All buses en route to David depart from Changuinola between the hours of 4:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m.; Changuinola is just 30 minutes from the Costa Rican border. There is a bus terminal in central Changuinola from where all local buses depart. It is easy to find or get to in a taxi.

    Almirante - The buses do not actually enter the town of Almirante when traveling between Changuinola and David, but rather stop just outside of town; approximately 5-10 minutes from Almirante. The stop is known as "el cruce", and there is a small restaurant on the corner; you will probably see other people waiting for the bus. Taxis can take you to or from "el cruce" from Almirante for about $1.00. In Almirante water taxis depart for Bocas del Toro throughout the day.

Featured Articles

Bastimentos National Park - Encompasses a large portion of Bastimentos Island, Zapatilla Cays, Crawl Cay, in addition to Red Frog Beach and the waters and mangroves that surround the island. Just off Isla Colon, and within view of Bocas town, this National Park is one of the most popular tourism destinations in Bocas del Toro.

Bats of Bocas del Toro - Written by Mr. Maurice Thomas, this interesting and informative article covers the numerous bat species in and around Bocas del Toro.There are almost 1000 species of bats worldwide, with the majority living in tropical regions. It is no surprise, then, that the Bocas del Toro Archipelago is home to dozens of species of these curious, winged mammals.Because bats are active only at night, residents and tourists in the Bocas area may not even be aware that they are present.While the locals and visitors are enjoying the beautiful beaches, coral reefs, and hiking trails of the area, Boca’s bats snooze peacefully in daytime roosts.

Boca del Drago - Situated on the far side of Isla Colon, otherwise known as Bocas del Toro, Boca del Drago makes for an enjoyable day trip. The small beach, turquoise waters, and restaurant, which serves freshly caught fish, is one of the nicer spots on the main island. Public transportation exists, however, you can also ride a bike there or hire one of the many taxis in Bocas town.

Crawl Cay - Colorful and picturesque, Crawl Cay is a mere 20 minutes by boat from Bocas town, situated on the southeastern side of Bastimentos Island, and surrounded by lush mangrove. Extended out over the calm, clear, tropical water, the highly recognizable thatch roof huts, connected by wooden piers built on sturdy stilts, makes for an ideal lunch setting.

Hospital Point - Two kilometers east of Bocas del Toro town lies Hospital Point. Once the central medical center for the United Fruit Company, which established its headquarters in Bocas del Toro in 1899, the facility is now under private ownership and serves as tourist attraction for many who visit Bocas town.

Marine Turtles - Written by Crisina Espiño of the Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation, this article on marine turtles covers the four major turtle species that exist in the Bocas del Toro region, in particular their physical features, migratory behaviors, nesting areas and more.

Monkeys of Panama - One of the most exciting moments for a visitor to the tropical forests of Panama occurs when the first wild monkey is spotted. Panama has five different species of monkey, but the three most commonly encountered by visitors are the tiny "titi" or tamarin monkeys (Saguinus geoffroyi), white-faced capuchin monkeys (Cebus capucinus) and howler monkeys (Alouatta palliata). Written by Katharine Milton, Department of Environmental Science, University of California, Berkeley, CA.

Red Poison Dart Frogs of Bastimentos National Park - A special article written by Mr. Kyle Summers about the fascinating frogs which are only located in one particular section of the park. Often found chirping on the trail, or situated on rocks and leaves, these small creatures provide terrific photographic opportunities.

Swan Cay (Isla de Los Pájaros) - Situated just off the most northern part of Isla Cólon, this very special island serves as a refuge for numerous bird species. Full day tours to this island are available, providing visitors with a terrific opportunity to view bird species not found anywhere else in Latin America. This article was supplied by the Panama Audubon Society.

Zapatilla Cay - From Bocas del Toro, an hour-and-a-half boat ride through the Bastimentos National Marine Park takes you to Zapatilla Cay. Panama's first marine park, established in 1988, Bastimentos Marine Park conserves marine and coastal ecosystems, including wetlands, mangroves, coral reefs, white-sand beaches and more than 200 species of tropical fish.


Tranquilo Bay - just a short boat trip from Bocas town, Tranquilo Bay is situated on the southeastern end of Bastimentos Island, just around the corner from Coral Cay and bordering the Bastimentos National Marine Park. Facing the Caribbean Sea, our all inclusive hotel, Tranquilo Bay offers packages that include snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, fishing, hiking and island exploring.

Caribbean Conservation Company (CCC)
The Caribbean Conservation Corporation (CCC) and the Sea Turtle Survival League (STSL) are working to ensure the survival of sea turtles through research, education, advocacy and the protection of the natural habitats upon which they depend. This site is provided as a source of information for the world to learn about sea turtles and the threats to their survival by the CCC and its STSL program. We hope you enjoy it and come back often to see our issue updates, research findings and program additions.

Tropical Ecology and Conservation (ITEC)
The Institute for Tropical Ecology and Conservation (ITEC) is a not-for-profit (501c3) education, research and conservation organization. ITEC is governed by an elected Board of Directors composed of college professors and researchers. Our home office is in Gainesville, Florida, and we operate the Bocas del Toro Biological Station on Isla Colón, Panama.

ITEC's mission is to offer field ecology and conservation courses to undergraduate and graduate students, to provide facilities for long-term biological research in terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems, to operate programs for the conservation of sea turtles, rainforests and other natural resources along the Caribbean coast of Panamá, and to aid the local community though public service projects, conservation education and the development of employment opportunities that have minimal environmental impact.

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