Bocas del Toro, Central America, Panama, Priority

Exploring Bocas del Toro islands, Panama

Last Updated on by Bryony Clapperton

For a country I never officially decided to visit Panama became one of my favourite locations in all of Central America.

My time exploring Bocas del Toro Panama brought an inspiring end to my Central America travels.

After figuring out how to get to Bocas del Toro Panama from Costa Rica, Panama became the final stop in our 3 month long trip.

Exploring Bocas del Toro islands meant our final days in Central America were filled with sunshine, beaches, rum and all the deliciousness you’d expect from a Caribbean island.

We were welcomed to Panama’s island paradise with open arms from locals and backpackers alike. In a place as friendly as Bocas del Toro it’s easy to see why so many backpackers eventually turn into locals and expats.

Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro

Despite our warm welcome getting to Bocas del Toro was no easy feat especially considering we’d be arriving from Tortuguero in Costa Rica and some major logistics were required.

In our original Central America itinerary we never planned to any spend time on Bocase del Toro islands.

We had a flight to catch from Panama City to Colombia to ensure we’d hit South America in time for Christmas in Cartagena. But as travels go and before we knew it, we were in a taxi charging to the boat docks to catch the last boat of the evening to Bocas del Toro.

This is how to get from Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro overland (and sea).

Bocas del Toro beaches
Beaches of Bocas del Toro

Where is Bocas del Toro?

Bocas del Toro islands are situated in off the coast of Panama. Combined with the main land the Caribbean archipelago is a backpacker favourite all year round.

The main island of Isla Colon, is also a massive favourite with American and European expats.

The location of Bocas del Toro Province and the history of the island chain is very unique and it’s this unique set up that keeps the visitors coming.

Map of Bocas del Toro
Map of Bocas del Toro islands

How to get to Bocas del Toro from Costa Rica

From our location in Costa Rica, we needed to figure out the best way to get to Bocas del Toro.

Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro is actually a very popular route so I’m not sure why we found it so tricky.

I’ll spare you the details of the bus journeys down the Limon province of and jump right to the border crossing at Sixola.

Starfish beach isla colon

Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro via. Sixola

Of all the Central America border crossings the Costa Rica to Panama crossing at Sixola was one of my least favourite.

Immigration from Costa Rica is very different to immigration into Costa Rica – which is very strict and often requires proof of onward travel.

At the Costa Rica to Panama border you’ll pay a small exit fee to Costa Rica. Expect to pay between $5 and $15 in taxes to exit from Costa Rica and arrive in Panama. The official exit fee is $7, but you know hustle and all that.

Stamp out of Costa Rica, pay fees at the official looking window. You may be prompted to visit a second window to pay another fee which isn’t required.

Visit immigration on the Panama side and cross the rail road bridge once stamped to officially enter the country. There are no official entry fee’s to Panama, but on occasion you’ll be asked to pay a small fee in dollars to enter.

Like many Central America border crossings is filled with locals, hustlers, money exchanges and helpers.

The Sixaola border crossing is done on foot over the railroad bridge – always check opening and closing times as this one is not 24 hours and closes.

Also, be aware of the time difference when crossing from Costa Rica to Panama. Guabito is one hour ahead of Sixola.

Caribbean beach
Bocas del toro, panama beach

How to get to Bocas del Toro from Guabito

Once you have officially entered Panama the quickest way to get to the boat docks at Almirante to take you to Bocas del Toro islands is by taxi.

There are bus services running from Guabito to Almirante, but depending on your crossing time you may be in a rush.

The last boat from Almirante to Bocas del Toro leaves just before sunset and as you have lost an hour entering Panama you may be short on time. I’m speaking from experience, can you tell?

A taxi between four people will be reasonably priced, but the bus would be the better value way to travel.

Fortunately for us, our taxi driver rang ahead to let the boat dock know 4 additional passengers would be arriving late. If you experience the same fate I suggest you try to do the same.

The journey from Guabito to Almirante in a taxi will take around 45 minutes. From Almirante you’ll likely need to get a boat to Isla Colon or Isla Bastimentos which are two of the main island in Bocas del Toro.

The boat from Almirante to Bocas del Toro islands takes around 1 hour and 30 minutes, sometimes longer, sometimes less.

The journey from my experience wasn’t too rough and I’m 10/10 terrified of choppy seas and rocky boats.

So that’s how to get to Bocas del Toro, if you are travelling from Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro.

Backpacker hostels in Bocas del Toro

We stayed at Hostel Hieke a really fun, busy hostel with clean and vibrantly painted four bed dorms with enough bathrooms for the hostels population.

Hostel Hieke is a popular backpacker hostel in Bocas del Toro and is situated in Bocas Town, Isla Colon. Isla Colon is the main island in the Bocas del Toro islands group.

I’d recommend Hostel Hieke for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it is always a welcomed treat when the bathroom to dorm ratio is spot on in a hostel in Central America.

Secondly, I enjoy smaller dorms. The brightly painted four bedroom dorms in Bocas del Toro were quiet and seemed to attract a tamer crowd than the other party hostels in town.

Hostel Hieke also has a free breakfast and the prices of the rooms are extremely reasonable

Another hostel in Bocas Town is Selinas Hostel which is a popular chain in Latin America.

Selinas Hostel in Bocas del Toro has more of an infamous reputation as a party hostel, with larger dorms and it’s own waterside patio and bar.

We spent a lot of our time at Selinas Hostel especially during happy hour where the mojitos flow freely. 

Bocas Town Isla Colon
Bocas Town
Bocas del Toro islands

Bocas Town, Isla Colon

Bocas Town is the main backpacker spot on Isla Colon most backpackers and tourists choose to stay here first before exploring.

The other popular island is Bastimentos. Water taxis can take you over to any of the other islands.

Taxi boats leave regularly between Isla Colon and Bastimentos so it’s very easy to explore both settlements in a short space of time.

Some small island tours of the Bocas del Toro archipelago take you to various islands including Bastimentos, these will cost you between $30-$40.

There are other boats trips and tours around the Bocas del Toro islands.

Additional activities such as turtle and dolphin watching will cost you a bit more as to be expected. Try to book in advance to secure a space on group tours which are naturally cheaper than private tours.

Boat trip Bocas del Toro
Little bit of a boat ride
Star fish beach

The beaches of Bocas del Toro

If you like sun, tropical beaches, a wide range of bars and restaurants then Bocas del Toro is the budget backpacking destination of your dreams.

There is an unofficial law of good times always and providing you are willing to embrace the good vibes attitude you’ll fit in well.

The beaches of Bocas del Toro are everything you’d imagine from a secluded island chain in the Caribbean. As a beach babe I’m always keen to check out the local beaches in any destination.

If you plan on exploring Bocas del Toro you’ll want to note down the most popular beaches;

  • Starfish Beach
  • Red Frog Beach
  • Bocas del Drago
Red Frog Beach
Red Frog Beach – Cake mix sand
Sunbathing legs
That would be my legs

Starfish Beach, Isla Colon

From Isla Colon you can visit the popular Starfish Beach very easily.

Minibuses leave from the main square in the town directly outside of Hostel Hieke every 30 minutes.

A small fee of $5 will secure you a seat on the air conditioned bus, buy a return journey and schedule your return time slot in advance.  

There are a range of restaurants on the thin piece of sand that is Starfish Beach.

Many of them almost lost to the mangroves at the back of the beach. You can easily spend the day at Starfish Beach and enjoy lunch.

There are sometimes boats in the water and locals will happily take you for a small tour/spin for a small price.

The beach can get busy, and sun loungers are available to either rent or sneak depending on whether the owner is around.  

Note, there can be the occasional sandfly at this beach.

Bocas del Toro beach
Bocas del Drago
Exploring Bocas del Toro beaches

Bocas del Drago

Bocas del Drago is right by Starfish Beach on Isla Colon, so you can visit both at once if you are short on time. You can walk between both beaches through the trees and nature.

It’s a nice walk and a lot of people do it without even realising they are.

The sand on both Starfish Beach and Bocas del Drago is clean, the water is warm and you can expect small fish to eat the skin from your feet as you enter the clear waters.

A spot of fishing
Bocas del Drago

Red Frog Beach, Bastimentos

Over the water from Isla Colon you will find the second most popular of the Bocas del Toro islands. Bastimentos is less developed and not astouristy than Isla Colon.

The buildings on Bastimentos differ from the colourful wooden buildings on Isla Colon and it almost felt like we had yet again arrived in another country.

The corrugated iron roofs and chilled feel let us know straight away that Bastimentos was going to be more relaxed than the good time town on Isla Colon.

Red Frog Beach is the main attraction on the island and possibly in my top 10 beaches of all time. I would 100% recommend the journey here.

The contrasting steamy jungle backdrop of Red Frog Beach teamed with the rough rip tides of clear blue waters on golden sand took me to a prehistoric time.

The beach is humid, but cool as the soft spray from the rough waves constantly keep you refreshed.

Red Frog Beach Bocas del Toro
Red Frog Beach
Red Frog Beach

National Park fee – Red Frog Beach

There’s a small national park entrance fee that all tourists must pay to visit Red Frog Beach, Bastimentos.

Once you have paid the national park entrance fee, you must walk a scenic route through the jungle to get to the actual beach. 

Arriving on the beach is like arriving on another planet, the encroaching jungle behind you as you enter onto the golden beach is breathtaking.

Red Frog Beach is quiet and vendor free which is something we hadn’t seen much of in Central America.

A nice relaxing day can be spent at here easily, take supplies with you as there are no local amenities on the secluded beach.

Bocas del Toro jungle
The walk to Red Frog Beach

Things to do in Bocas del Toro

Along with obviously exploring the incredible beaches on Bocas del Toro there are a bunch of other fun things to do in the area. The main town centre in Bocas Town, Isla Colon is full of life.

You can easily spend an afternoon chilling in the sun and shopping around the local souvenir stalls.

Eating

Eating out in Bocas del Toro is also a great experience with plenty of restaurant to choose from and different cuisine to sample.

Thelocal food comes with lots of Caribbean inspired flavours and dishes all restaurants serve a wide variety to suit every taste.  I hope you like plantains.

Nightlife

Along with eating your way through the Bocas del Toro islands you can drink yourself to death too. The nightlife in Bocas del Toro is incredible.

Most nights of the week are busy in the high season with weekends being the peak time to party. Rum can be purchased at any of the local shops for cheap. A bottle of Flor de Caña will cost you around $5.

Most clubs have the classic Central American ladies night policy where girls drink for free.

A lot of the bars and clubs are on the water and some even have pools for night swimming.

Swiming on Starfish beach
Yes, that would be me

Exploring Bocas del Toro Islands

Like a lot of the islands around Central America Bocas del Toro has no clear identity. It’s a fantastic mix of Latin and everything else.

Many different eras, nationalities, languages and cultures have all wound up creating another unique tourist setting. I think it’s this individuality that’s gives Bocas the most captivating identity.

The locals are great, the nightlife in Bocas del Toro is great and the beaches are simply amazing.

Once you figure out exactly how to get to Bocas del Toro you’ll soon realise how much of a mesmerizing little place it is.

What’s not to love about a place like Bocas del Toro?

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