Planning Your Time
Given both Bocas del Toro’s remoteness and its many attractions, getting anything out of Bocas requires a bare-minimum stay of two nights. Three or four is better. There is enough to keep visitors happy for a full week, especially since the Caribbean heat and pace of life has a tendency to slow even hyperactive types down and make hammock time pretty appealing.
Consider staying a bit longer than you think you’ll need. Weather is unpredictable in Bocas, and it’s not unheard of for it to rain virtually non-stop for three days. It’d be a shame if you had to leave just as the sun finally came out.
The Archipiélago de Bocas del Toro is only part of the province of Bocas del Toro, but it’s the part that the great majority of visitors come to explore. The islands have far better accommodations, food, and attractions and a more pleasant climate than the mainland towns.
Most visitors stay in Bocas town on Isla Colón. Nearly everyone has to at least pass through Bocas town, since it has the only airport in the archipelago, and water taxis from the mainland come only here.
It’s easy to make day trips from the islands to mainland destinations, though visitors who head up the Río Teribe to visit the Naso or Parque Internacional La Amistad should plan to spend at least one night in the forest.
Note: Here’s where the names start getting confusing. The town, the archipelago, and the province share the same name, often shortened simply to “Bocas.” And just to really mess you up, the whole of Isla Colón is sometimes referred to as “Isla Bocas.”
The other commonly visited islands are east of Isla Colón, which is the point of departure to all of them. The services diminish the father east you go. Isla Carenero is the second-most developed island, and it’s just a few minutes by boat from Isla Colón. The western tip of Isla Bastimentos has the second-biggest town in the archipelago, Old Bank. Most of the rest of the island, the largest in the archipelago, is sparsely populated, but its natural attractions draw many visitors.
Isla Solarte, though it starts just 10 minutes by boat from Isla Colón, still mainly draws visitors just to Hospital Point, a snorkeling/diving spot at its western tip. The other islands are more remote and still largely undeveloped, though a few secluded little hotels, eco-lodges, and guesthouses are scattered among them, usually in relatively undeveloped spots. So far only Isla Colón has cars.
Those who want to cover a lot of ground or have any kind of nightlife should probably stay in Bocas town or Isla Carenero. Most of the tour operators and interisland water taxis are based in Bocas town. Getting back and forth to Bocas town from other parts of Isla Colón and the other islands can easily become time-consuming and expensive, though some hotel packages in the more remote areas include daily trips. One strategy is to stay in Bocas town part of the time and spend a night or two in a more distant spot before or afterward.
Afternoons and evenings are the best time to explore Bocas town, which is generally dead during the day; many restaurants are even closed for lunch. The restaurants and few nightspots start to wake up as the sun goes down. It’s also easy to arrange a night turtle-watching trip to Playa Bluff during nesting season.
High season on the islands is November or December–April. Prices are higher then and everything is more crowded; some places get booked up. But this traditionally can be the wettest time to visit the islands. Weather in Bocas is usually best during the “mini” dry seasons of September–October and February–March. However, in the last couple of years weather in Bocas has been even more unpredictable than usual.
Turtles nest on the beaches from about March to October. In other words, if all the planets align correctly, those who visit between September and October may find lower prices, fewer people, dry weather, calm seas, and some busy turtles.
Don’t forget to factor in the time needed to get to and from Bocas, which is still quite isolated from the rest of Panama. The quickest way is to fly from Panama City to Isla Colón or, for the few who are more interested in exploring the mainland than the islands, to Changuinola. The flight takes less than an hour.
Getting to Bocas by land is a much longer affair, though there are now good roads and frequent bus service. A road leads east from the Sixaola-Guabito border crossing with Costa Rica to Changuinola and Almirante, the jumping-off points to the archipelago.
A new road links Almirante with Chiriquí Grande and from there to the rest of Panama. The building of this road has greatly diminished the importance of Chiriquí Grande; there is no longer any water-taxi service from there to the islands, and no reason for travelers to visit it. Outside of Chiriquí Grande, the Fortuna Road heads south over the Continental Divide and to the Interamericana (Interamerican Highway). This is the road link between Bocas and the rest of Panama.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition