By far the most developed island in the archipelago is Isla Colón, and by far the most developed part of Isla Colón is the town of Bocas del Toro, at the southeast tip of this large (61 square kilometers) island. Bocas town is nearly an island in its own right; it’s connected to the rest of Isla Colón by a slender isthmus.
Almost all the archipelago’s hotels, restaurants, tour outfits, and visitor services are in Bocas town. Most of the action is on either side of Calle 3, the broad main street that runs along the water’s edge on the east side of town. (It’s now also known as Calle Ephraim S. Alphonse, though no one calls it that.)
The busiest section extends from the town plaza, Parque Bolívar, down to the ferry pier. The area west of Calle 3 is mainly residential, as is the section on the northwest waterfront, which is known locally as “Saigon.”
A road leads north out of town, past the fairgrounds, where the annual Feria Internacional del Mar is held, and over an isthmus. The road forks north of town. The east fork heads up the east coast of the main island, becoming increasingly rough but leading to the island’s best beaches. The west fork leads to a road that cuts diagonally across the island, passing La Gruta, a cave popular with those into bats, along the way. The road dead-ends at Boca del Drago, a little beach area on the northwest side of the island about 14 kilometers from Bocas town.
Getting to Isla Colón
Regardless of their final destination in the archipelago, travelers must first get to Bocas town, on Isla Colón. There are two ways to do this—by plane or by land and water taxi/ferry.
By Air:There are several daily flights between Panama City and the archipelago (US$105.19 each way, about 1.25 hours). There is also one flight to and from David during the week (US$58.11 each way, about 20 minutes), as well as two daily flights to and from Changuinola (US$27.90, 10 minutes).
Note:Flight schedules change more frequently for Bocas than other destinations. Flights can also fill up fast, especially during holidays. Book as far in advance as possible, and double-check departure times a day or two before your flight.
The only airport in the archipelago is on Isla Colón, on the edge of Bocas town. Transportation to the other islands is by boat only. The little airport is on the west side of town, along Avenida E. Those without too much luggage will probably find it easy to walk to most of the town’s hotels, but a taxi or transporte cooperativa van to the airport costs US$1 per person.
Note that flights sometimes make an intermediate stop at Changuinola; be sure to get off at the right place. These flight schedules are subject to change, so check with the airlines well ahead of time.
By Land and Water: The logistics of getting to and from the islands from the mainland aren’t that complicated, but they can be confusing to those unfamiliar with the area. It may be helpful to refer to a map when making plans.
Almirante is the mainland port for the Bocas archipelago. Two water taxi companies, Bocas Marine and Tours (Almirante tel. 758-4085, Changuinola tel. 758-9033, Bocas town tel./fax 757-9033, www.bocasmarinetours.com) and Expreso Taxi 25 (Almirante tel. 758-3498, Bocas town tel. 757-9028), run between Almirante and Bocas town. The fare is US$4 at either place. The trip takes about 25 minutes.
Few will want to fool with the painfully slow Ferry Palanga (Bocas town tel. 6615-6674, 261-0350, or 229-1742, Almirante tel. 229-1639). The trip takes 1.5 hours by ferry and the fare is US$1.50 for foot passengers, US$1 for kids, US$2 for a bike, US$10 for a motorcycle, US$15 for a car, and US$30 for a four-wheel drive. (Water taxis have stopped running from the mainland town of Changuinola, at least for now.)
International buses run between Costa Rica and the Panamanian town of Changuinola, which is near the border. Buses and taxis run constantly between Changuinola and the Almirante port. There are frequent buses between Almirante and David, and one daily bus between Almirante and Panama City. The Almirante and Changuinola sections have detailed information on buses and taxis.
Warning: The last water taxis of the day leave the mainland and Almirante at 6:30 p.m. After that, travelers will have to spend the night on the mainland, most likely in Changuinola or Almirante, both of which have a certain backwater-town funkiness but little in the way of charm or things to do, especially compared with the islands.
Changuinola has the broader range of accommodations and services, but it’s not the safest place at night. (Though neither is Almirante.) A better option for those who can afford it is La Escapada, 64 kilometers east of Almirante.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition