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Backpacking In Heels - Ultimate Guide to Bocas Del Toro, Panama
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Ultimate Guide to Bocas Del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro was my favourite place in Panama and it’s easy to end up lingering here longer than intended. Whether you’re a beach bum, wildlife lover or wannabe surfer, there’s plenty to do in and around Bocas town. We spent a week here whilst brushing up our language skills at Habla Ya Spanish School and managed to pack in most of the best sights. Bocas Del Toro is located on Isla Colon but neighbouring islands of Isla Careener, Isla Basimentos, Zatailla islands and Isla Solarte are also worth trips. Here’s our top pick of what to see and do in and around Bocas del Toro…

Afternoons spent studying spanish at playa bluff

Visit the Bastimentos Bat Cave

For those with a sense of adventure, enquire locally about taking a water taxi to the Bat Cave on Bastimentos island. Top tip: we made the mistake of booking a tour which cost $35 each plus entry to the cave, but actually, you can negotiate with any of the local boat guys to take you for $40-50 per boat (so works out much cheaper if more than one of you) and you get nothing extra by taking a tour. Once you have sourced a water taxi there, a local guy in a hammock charges $5 to lend you some wellington boots and escort you into the cave. Look out for sloths, frogs and other wildlife on route – we were lucky enough to spot a baby sloth in the mangroves so ask your driver to point them out.

The visit to the bat cave isn’t for the fainthearted, you’re trekking waist-deep in murky water through pitch dark caves with only a head torch for light but don’t let this put you off, it is ridiculously good fun. As you enter, the guide will point out enormous cricket spiders dotted on the cave walls, which immediately had us screaming like a scene from Blair Witch Project – anyone with a phobia of creepy crawlies will leave traumatised. Or cured. It wasn’t long before we came across the enormous bat colony, two types of bats reside in these caves and whilst they were mostly sleeping, a few decided to nose dive at us as we made our way through. Further into the cave you´ll have to swim through a narrow cavity leading to a waterfall and deep pool where you can jump off a rock (only for the very brave or stupid) and swim in the icy water. It’s terrifying (well, unless you particularly love bats and spiders) but I’ve never laughed and screamed so hard. The journey there is pretty special, we spotted a baby sloth dangling above the mangroves and the 15 minute hike through the jungle is like something from Tomb Raider. No photos I`m afraid as it was almost pitch dark and you need all your concentration to navigate the cave!

Visit an organic chocolate farm

Another great afternoon trip is the cocoa plantation 59 km from Almirante. Book your ticket to visit the Oreba farm at Super Gourmet in Bocas town ($35) and make your own way on a local boat (30 minutes, $5 each way) to the mainland where you’ll be met by the guide. You´ll have the opportunity to experience life in an indigenous Ngabe community as the women roast beans right in front of you. Some of the world’s best chocolate comes from Bocas del Toro so don´t miss a visit to this beautiful finca. Tours run daily at 10am and 2pm.

chocolate farm

Your ticket includes a delicious local lunch, a hike through the finca and a talk and demonstration about how the cocoa is harvested. It’s a great way to support the local economy and provides much needed support for the Ngabe community, whose cocoa crop has been ravaged by fungus in the last few years with 85% of their crop now infected. You also get a free bag of cacao nibs or powder or a bar of very bitter chocolate to take away with you. Make sure you take comfy shoes, a rain jacket and a camera for spotting wildlife along the way. 100% of proceeds go into the community and portions of the proceeds go directly towards education and health care for the community so you after you’ve sample the chocolate you can feel good about supporting the local indigenous community as well. Win Win. Do tip as the tour is run entirely by unpaid volunteers.

Lie in a sea hammock at Blue Coconut

Blue Coconut is the perfect spot to indulge in a few post-Spanish class cocktails and lounge in a sea hammock to the sound of reggae and people jumping off the deck into the clear water below. 5 minutes from Bocas town via water taxi (expect to pay about $1.50), this place gets pretty crowded on sunny days but if you´re lucky enough to secure a sunbed, it’s the best spot to unwind and watch the sunset. Take mozzy repellent though as they come out in force at dusk! The bar does great food (we tried the fish stuffed patacones) and the fresh fruit cocktails are amazing. Red Frog Resort makes a good alternative if you can´t find a sun bed here.

Bar Hopping

Bocas Town is full of great night spots and it’s possible to hop from bars on different islands for a few dollars by water taxi. Just make sure you agree a time to be collected or you could find yourself stranded! Keep an eye out for flyers and ladies nights, normally Saturday and Wednesday are the best nights to party. Aqua Lounge is hopping on a Saturday and for $1 you can take a water taxi from Bocas town. Wear your bikini underneath as there are swing ropes and diving boards where you can jump straight through the floor boards into the sea – don´t try this after indulging in the happy hour though (from 10pm – 11pm on Saturdays drinks are completely free for women).Cyce to stay

Cycle to Playa Bluff

Hire bicycles from anywhere in Bocas town (be careful to test drive them first to make sure the breaks work!) and then cycle 1 hour 15 up the coast to Playa Bluff past surf spots, jungle-clad houses and an ever increasing number of bars and restaurants.

Don’t stop at any bars built on the beach side of the road as these are technically illegal and locals are campaigning to have them removed because they encroach and endanger precious turtle nesting grounds. We really enjoyed Playa Bluff Beach Restaurant, which has a small swimming pool (more of a paddling pool) and a lovely restaurant.

bocas bicycles

Learn Spanish

Read my other post on Bocas del Toro if you are considering learning Spanish while in Panama. We had a great experience at Habla Ya Spanish School in Bocas Town.

Best Places To Eat

As with the bars, many restaurants offer happy hour during less busy times so it’s worth finding out when these are. Our favourite was Raw Fusion, an inexpensive sushi restaurant with its own private dock that has daily happy hour ($5 for many dishes like ceviche and california roll). A welcome alternative to the usual rice and beans. For a blow out meal, definitely head to El Ultimo Refugio where we ate mouthwatering filet mignon with blue cheese sauce and veggies for a fraction of what you´d pay back home. There are lots of bargain lunch spots but for something a bit more authentic, you really can’t beat Tom´s, a simple local place that services typical local dishes looking over the water. See the photo below – a generous portion of chicken, rice, frioles and salad for just $5. For dinner, there are lots of cheap but delicious roadside assados (bbqs) – the food here is as good as you´ll find in any restaurant and you’ll meet more locals this way plus support Bocas people (most restaurants seem expat owned sadly).

traditional lunch at Tom´s

Where to stay

We loved Surfari B&B and can’t recommend this place enough. The Canadian hosts, Jim and Charlene, plus friendly pet poodle, will give you a warm welcome. You can enjoy breakfast on the the rooftop with pancakes, eggs as you like them and fresh fruit – it’s just a really clean, safe, pretty and homely place to stay. I didn’t receive any discount or complimentary stay by the way… I just LOVED this place and can highly recommend it for your visit to Bocas Town.

When to Go to Bocas del Toro

We were in Bocas del Toro in January which is usually a great month to visit but bear in mind this IS the Caribbean so whilst it´s generally hot year-round, prepare for frequent rain showers and take a waterproof jacket. When we were there we got unlucky and it rained every single day but given that we were at Spanish school each morning, it didn’t really matter – the weather often cleared by the afternoon and we found plenty of rainy day activities from bike riding through the jungle to animal watching in the mangroves by boat.

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