Tranquilo. Adopt it. It’s the saying of Bocas del Toro, and once you step foot on the island it’s hard not to adopt this famous Panamanian catchphrase
Bocas del Toro is a province in Panama that comprises a mainland and nine islands, the most popular of which is Isla Colon. The main tourist area on the island is Bocas town, and although it is small enough to see on foot, it also caters to every type of traveler from the water fanatic to the hard-core partier.
Once you arrive on the island, by plane or by boat, travelers can choose from a plethora of sleeping options on the main islands, from serious party hostels, like Mondo Taitu, to secluded and relaxing B&B’s like the Dolphin Bay Hideaway. Once settled, water aficionados can either check out the many scuba diving locales on the island or take a quick $1 USD water taxi ride over to Isla Carenero to rent a board from Bibi’s On the Beach and go surfing.
In terms of scuba diving, my preferred choice would be Starfleet Scuba, as I spent three months diving with Starfleet while completing my divemaster certification. Situated right on the water, Starfleet is perfect for certified divers who want to explore the Bocas waters or travelers who wish to complete a PADI open water certification. Their receptionist, Nilvia, is also one of the nicest people you will ever meet.
Another great dive locale is Bocas Dive Center, which was opened in 2012 by a former Starfleet instructor. This dive center is quickly becoming one of the best diving schools on the island primarily due to its amazing owner, Eddie Ibarra. Eddie is the first Panamanian PADI course director and has over 15 years of diving experience under his belt. He is by far one of the most knowledgeable PADI instructors I have had the privilege to meet in my diving career.
During the summer months, December to April, Bocas town is also known as one of the best surfing spots in Central America, boasting some of the best waves and variety of breaks in the Caribbean. Along with Bibi’s, there are a variety of places where individuals can either rent surf boards or take day trips to the best surf locations. Bibi’s is particularly popular due to its restaurant where travelers can enjoy fresh, locally caught seafood and happy hour drinks after a tiring day of surfing. However, a word of caution: The beach located near Bibi’s is known for its chitras (sand flies) so make sure you spray yourself with bug spray before heading over to the island.
If sports aren’t your thing, then Bocas has many beautiful beaches where you can enjoy an ice cold Balboa while lounging in the sun. The most interesting of these beaches is arguably Starfish Beach, known for its large number of starfish that gather near the shore to feed. Those looking for an adventure can rent a bike ($7-10 per day) and bike the 18 kilometers to Boca del Drago (Starfish Beach) or take a colectivo (bus) that will pick you up at Central Park for $2.50 USD each way. Other great beaches can be found on Red Frog Island and Isla Zapatilla.
Hopefully, diving, surfing, and/or beach lounging won’t tire you out because once the sun goes down Bocas knows how to throw one hell of a party. This town never sleeps. There is a party every single day. If you don’t feel like pre-drinking in your hostel, then head over to Mondo Taitu for their 7-8 p.m. happy hour where beers are 50 cents and mixed drinks are $1.50.
Then it’s off to the bar. Mondays and Thursdays are ladies’ night at the Iguana Bar, which means that ladies drink for free before 11 p.m. Aqua Lounge, located on Isla Carenero, is the place to be on Wednesdays and Saturdays. For a more local experience, Barco Hundido (translated: the sunken ship) is great for its drink specials and a variety of music, playing everything from salsa to dance to Panamanian music.
Last but not least, if you are itching to do some good while abroad, then why not volunteer at Floating Doctors. I was first introduced to Floating Doctors when a volunteer came to Starfleet to complete their open water certification. We finished up the class, and the volunteer told me that their door was always open if I ever needed anything. A week later, after some intense scratching (damn chitras!), the bug bites on my legs became infected. The local hospital refused to give me what I needed without a plethora of unnecessary tests.
Frantic and desperate, I took a water taxi to the Floating Doctors boat where I was treated by an American doctor. We chatted a little bit, and I fell in love with their cause: providing free acute and preventative health care services and delivering donated medical supplies to isolated areas in the Bocas del Toro region. For more information about the Floating Doctors and how you can volunteer, click here.
In the end, it’s hard not to fall in love with Bocas del Toro. It is the kind of place that mesmerizes you and makes you change all your plans. It is also the perfect place to sit back and forget all your troubles—Hakuna Mata!
Yvonne Ivanescu is the founder of Under the Yew Tree, a resource and community for individuals that are eager to travel to Latin America. She is also an avid scuba diver who dreams of one day relocating to Brazil. Until then she plans on finishing up her travel memoir, to continue travel writing, and to master the world of social media. For vital Latin American travel tips make sure to visit her Facebook page and remember to follow her on Twitter as she explores the world, one country at a time.