||VAWN HIMMELSBACH, Chic Savvy Travels
In Bocas del Toro, you might feel like you’ve stepped into an episode of Survivor. Which is not surprising, since a season of the reality TV game show was filmed here. You’ll find dense jungle with tangles of vines and forest palms spilling out onto empty stretches of white-sand beach, surrounded by an extensive coral reef ecosystem — in fact, Bocas del Toro is home to 74 of the 79 different types of coral in the Caribbean.
Zapatillas Cays, Panama. Photo by Vawn Himmelsbach
Not only that, but you can swim with sharks and dolphins (in the wild, not a man-made marine park), snorkel among starfish, and spot monkeys, sloths and red poison dart frogs. And, if it’s the right time of year, you can forgo a night of beer-drinking to watch green, hawksbill, loggerhead or leatherback sea turtles (the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute is located here).
But the secret is out, and Bocas del Toro — on the Caribbean side of Panama, just 32 km from the Costa Rican border — is seeing its fair share of development, with foreign investors snapping up land and building fancy hotels and resorts. Its unspoilt beauty may not last, which is why I decided to go now.
Bocas del Toro is an archipelago made up of six main islands, surrounded by small islets and mangroves. Bocas, the main town on Isla Colon, the largest of the islands, was originally built by the United Fruit Company back in the early 1900s and today has a laid-back Caribbean vibe with colourful wooden houses on stilts in the water.
But it’s a party town, so if that’s not your scene, head over to Isla Bastimentos, just a 10-minute water-taxi ride from Bocas. Stay in the much quieter West Indian town of Old Bank, where you’ll hear Gali-Gali — a Creole language you won’t possibly be able to understand.
Playa Bocas del Drago, Panama. Photo by Vawn Himmelsbach
Whether you’re based in Bocas or Old Town, you can hike, bike or take a water taxi to the area’s best beaches. Here are my top picks for adventure-seekers:
In Bocas, you’ll find more dive shops than you can throw a stick at, offering a variety of diving excursions as well as PADI open water certification. There are literally dozens of excellent dive spots in the area, including: La Bacha (Wreck Dive), where you can see black coral; Cuevita (Little Cave), with caves and swim-throughs to explore; Punta Manglar, a great spot for night diving since there’s no current; Playground, where you can spot nurse sharks and turtles; and Hospital Point, where you’ll dive along a wall of coral. Just to name a few.
Some of the top snorkel spots include Crawl Key, The Garden, Old Point, Hospital Point and Starfish Beach. You can rent snorkel gear and go off on your own, or go on a full-day outing with one of the dive shops (around $20 to $30 per person with a stop for lunch at an overpriced restaurant on stilts in the water).
It’s worth paying extra for a snorkel trip that includes Zapatillas Cays, two remote islands surrounded by reefs inside the Bastimentos Island National Marine Park. With zero development here — only a park ranger, azure water and pristine beaches — this has got to be one of the prettiest places on the planet.
Playa de las Estrellas, Panama. Photo by Vawn Himmelsbach
Or, hop on a bus to Playa Bocas del Drago on Isla Colon, walk along the white sandy beach fringed by palm trees — where they say Colombus first landed in Panama — for about 20 minutes or so and you’ll stumble upon Playa de las Estrellas (hopefully when the boatloads of tourists aren’t there with boomboxes and beer) where you can snorkel among starfish.
With plenty of deserted beaches and pounding surf, Bocas is an up-and-coming surf destination — but this does depend on the time of year. When I was there (August), the conditions weren’t right for surfing, though with my reputation as “Accidental Jackass,” me on a surfboard any time of year is probably just not a good idea.
That being said, if conditions are right, beaches with great breaks include Wizard Beach and Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos; Silverbacks is known for 25-foot waves only suitable for advanced surfers (from December to January). On Isla Colon, head to Bluff, Dumpers or Punch.
Even if you don’t surf, it’s worth heading to Red Frog Beach, with its sugary sand, to spot the red poison dart frog — a strawberry-coloured frog no bigger than your thumbnail.
Zapatillas Cays, Panama. Photo by Vawn Himmelsbach
#4: Sea kayaking
There are plenty of sheltered inland bays with clear, glassy water where you can paddle between islands, head to remote beaches or explore coral gardens (bring along your snorkel gear). You can rent a kayak from a dive shop or your hostel/hotel; mine cost $6 an hour. While I was kayaking, I only saw one boat, and heard nothing but wind and waves — not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
If you have the time (and inclination), you can organize a trek on the mainland through the primary rainforest of the Parque Internacional La Amistad — a bi-national park that straddles Panama and Costa Rica, and is home to the elusive jaguar.
If not, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking in Bocas del Toro. At the Ngobe-Bugle community of Bahia Honda on Isla Bastimentos, you can go on a guided hike through the jungle as part of a new eco-tourism project (I paid $20; the proceeds go toward supporting the community). A guide can also help you spot wildlife — I saw sloths, monkeys, pelicans and red poison dart frogs — and prevent you from getting lost, which is a real possibility in the dense jungle. It’s hot and humid, and can get quite muddy, so wear hiking boots and bring lots of water and insect repellent. And don’t forget your bathing suit, in case your jungle trail spills out onto a deserted beach.
#6: Lying in a hammock and drinking beer
With a steady temperature of around 30 degrees year-round in Bocas del Toro, there’s nothing like a little hammock time and an ice-cold cerveza to recover from all this activity.
Getting there: You can fly into Bocas (you will literally fly right into the centre of town); Air Panama and Aeroperlas connect with Panama City, while Nature Air connects with San Jose, Costa Rica. Overland, you can catch a boat from Almirante (close to Changuinola) for about $5 — be prepared to get wet.
Copyright @ 2013 Chic Savvy Travels
Date Added: March 12, 2013 | Comments (1)
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