North Shore Beaches
The sea along the north side of Isla Bastimentos is generally much too rough to do more than get one’s feet wet. But there are several spectacularly beautiful beaches here. The one most popular with sea turtles is Playa Larga in Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos.
Warning: There have been reports of thefts from these beaches, particularly Playa Primera. Do not leave valuables unattended.
The sea is often too choppy to land boats on the beaches. An exception is Playa Polo, which is partly protected because waves break on rocks about 100 meters offshore. This means it’s easier to go for a swim here, but it also means it’s more likely to have visitors than some of the other beaches, and it’s far too small to accommodate many people comfortably. There are nicer beaches farther west.
If the sea is rough, the best way to get to these beaches is to walk across the western neck of the island from Old Bank.
The trail to the beach starts toward the eastern edge of town, just past the soccer field and trash pile. You’ll have to walk through townspeople’s yards to get to the trail. There are now signs pointing to the start of the trail, but ask for directions to the beach (playa, pronounced “PLY-yah”) if you can’t find the way.
It’s a very pretty walk over a hill to the beach, with panoramic views from the summit. The walk takes half an hour at a moderate pace. Part of the trail leads through private property, and if the owner is around pay him a US$1 toll to pass through it. The trail can get muddy and slippery near the beach.
The first beach you’ll come to is called, logically enough, Playa Primera (First Beach), though these days most people know it by its other, more intriguing name, Playa Wizard. It’s a wide, stunning stretch of sand, big rollers and, if you’re lucky, very few people. Again, beware of the strong surf here. Walk east to get to Playa Segunda (Second Beach) and Red Frog Beach.
Silverbacks, the biggest surf break in Bocas, is off this stretch of coast and is accessible by boat. It’s a huge, barreling reef-bottom right break that is often compared to big Hawaiian waves such as Backdoor. Wave faces can exceed seven meters. It’s strictly for expert surfers. There are beach breaks off Wizard/First Beach and Red Frog Beach that are appropriate for intermediate surfers.
Red Frog Beach’s namesake is a tiny creature also called the strawberry poison-dart frog (Oophaga pumilio) that’s easier to spot here than anywhere else in Panama. The toxins in its skin are only a danger to animals who try to eat it. In reality the frog comes in a variety of vibrant colors besides red.
There’s a US$3 fee to poke around this area. The beach can be approached by sea only when the water is dead calm. Otherwise, boatmen drop passengers off at one of the beaches to the west and tell them to walk over, or, most commonly, drop them at a trail east of Old Bank that leads over a narrow isthmus to Red Frog Beach. The last is the best option, as the trail is good and it’s an easy 10-minute walk to the beach. There are lots of other frogs in the forest here. The noise they make is amazing; it’s like a huge frog convention.
There’s now also a shuttle service (round-trip included with the US$3 entrance), though there’s sometimes a long wait for it. Coolers can be rented for US$5 at the shuttle office. Next door is a yacht marina with a restaurant/bar, Palma de Roca Bar and Grill, that’s sometimes open. There’s a large, busy open-air restaurant, Kayukos Restaurant and Island Lounge, a five-minute walk up the trail, at the Bocas Bound hostel.
It can be hard to spot red frogs at first, though once you see one, they suddenly seem to be everywhere. Look among the fallen leaves at the end of the trail near the beach. If a resident is around, ask him or her for help in finding the rana roja (RAH-na ROH-ha).
In 2008, a major condominium resort and marina planned for Red Frog Beach was shut down, due to a labor dispute and environmental concerns, but a more modest development is going up in its place.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition