Late February and early March of 2011, I spent a week in Bocas del Toro and then two weeks in Panama City with a side trip to Ocú for Carnaval. I did not like Bocas until I got out of Bocas Town, which is a typical dirty tourist beach town filled with surfers, to discover the gorgeous, deserted beaches. The highlight of my time in Panama was in the interior in a town called Ocú with new friends that took me under their wing and made sure I had an authentic Carnaval experience. I strongly suggest looking into local bus routes or even renting a car if you’re with friends to explore other provinces (e.g. Valle de Anton is beautiful and has some good hiking). Renting a car is not too expensive if you’re splitting the cost, and it’s easy to drive outside of Panama City.
Here are some travel tips on safety, getting around, where to stay, and of course, food and drink.
- It is pretty safe to travel through Panama. The biggest safety risk is probably in Panama City where you need to be careful when taking taxis. Always call radio taxis when possible instead of just picking up a taxi on the street. They don’t have a huge problem, but I did hear a firsthand story of getting robbed by a rogue taxi driver.
- Since Bocas is a tourist area, you need to be careful of theft just like any other tourist town. Don’t leave your belongings unattended on the beach.
Bocas del Toro
- If coming from Costa Rica, there are a few different bus options from San Jose. I took the bus that leaves at 9am and goes all the way direct to Changuinola, Panama. From there I was to take a local bus to Almirante to catch a lancha (aka small boat) to Bocas. I DO NOT recommend this because if you have any delays at all, you will not make it to Almirante before the last ferry, and you DO NOT want to spend the night in Almirante. Our entire bus got taken advantage of and had to switch to an expensive taxi van to take us directly from the border to Almirante and called ahead to reserve a later lancha for our whole group.
- I recommend taking an earlier bus from San Jose to Sixaola, which is the border crossing. Always confirm but the first bus was at 6am and left from the Coca Cola bus station. Then you take a local bus to Changuinola. Then you switch to another local bus to Almirante.
- Sixaola border crossing is a bit confusing. First you get your Costa Rica exit stamp. Then you walk across an old bridge (kind of fun). On the other side, it is very confusing because there are multiple offices. First you have to show proof of onward transport out of Panama (or else you are forced to purchase a bus ticket on the premises) and you get your permission to enter. Then you go to a different office and pay a couple bucks and get a sticker in your passport. At the third office, you show them your luggage with the possibility of having it searched.
- I read online that there is a ferry from Changuinola to Bocas Town. That is NOT true. There used to be ferry service there but no more.
- Bocas Town is the main and largest town on Isla Colón in the Bocas del Toro region. There are many options from upscale hotels homes with rooms for rent to hostels. If you want a less touristy and more relaxing experience, check out accommodations on Isla Bastimentos.
- For a hostel, I recommend Gran Kahuna. Although a surfer’s hostel, this was a quieter, more chill place that the other party surfer hostels further down the strip. They have strong wifi and an open, comfy common area. They have a decent kitchen and the place is kept clean. It also felt very secure with larger lockers in the dorm rooms and a night security guard. They have a small bar where you can buy cheap beer and homemade empanadas that are dropped off fresh everyday. Also, the staff are very friendly and helpful. I paid $12 a night.
- For a private room, I recommend the guesthouse La Veranda. The best part about this place is the big veranda with lots of space to hang out in the fresh air and a big open kitchen. The owner is a little… um, different, but nice. For a double room, no AC, shared bathroom, we paid $32 a night. Their website is terrible, but you can contact the owner using this email.
- Don’t get taken advantage of by the lanchas that ferry people between the islands. They almost always ask double for the trip. Barter! Ask the workers at your hostel what the trip should cost.
- Groceries are expensive on the island because, well, it’s an island. But it’s still cheapest to cook your own meals. Go to the larger super-minis to buy the basics like milk, eggs, etc. There are a few fruit and veggie stands with decent selections. My favorite discovery was the fish market called Marisqueria. It is on the same road as the fire station next to a big building with a sign that says Tropical Markets. Don’t bother knocking on the front door. Just go around back, and you’ll find the woman or man selling the fish. Be sure to get there early because they close around 1 or 2pm.
- Isla Bastimentos “Special” Tour – If you walk around to the various tour shops, you will quickly discover that they all offer the exact same group tours for the exact same prices. My suggestion is to go to Gran Kahuna and ask the people that work there if they have any tours planned. At the time I was there, Alexi was working the day shift and told me about a tour is friend did. For $12 we had a whole day on a gorgeous deserted beach somewhere on Isla Bastimentos (he wouldn’t tell us the name of the beach because they don’t want others to start going there). Our driver even brought snorkel equipment for us, found a 3-toed sloth in the trees to show us, and cracked open some fresh coconuts for us to enjoy. He brought a cooler on the boat, so you could bring beverages and food. A great day and much better than the standard tours that cost $20.
- Isla Bastimentos – Walk around the Old Town and if you’re in shape and up for a bit of an adventure, walk the path to Wizard Beach. The Old Town is much more rustic with almost no tourists. There is a more Afro-Caribbean-Spanish feel, and you will probably hear people speaking Guari-Guari, a mixed language of the natives of this area. There are signs to Wizard Beach, but beware that if it has rained, the path becomes quite difficult to navigate. Do NOT wear flip-flops and be sure to bring a lot of water. Wizard Beach is gorgeous, and you can both swim or surf at this beach, but be careful because the waves are quite large. From Isla Colón, transport by lancha is only $3 each way.
- Boca del Drago – This is the best place for a beautiful beach on Isla Colón. It is beautiful, although there is not much actual beach. You can take a collective van service from the central park for $2.50 each way.
- There are many cheap options. If you’re coming from Costa Rica, the Tica bus makes the trip. If you’re coming from Bocas del Toro, there are direct buses. I flew because I was with my mom.
- If you fly into the airport, be aware that all taxis to the city center cost $25. It is the same for the return trip to the airport. Do NOT pay more than this. Taxi drivers will try to take advantage and tell you the price is $30 or $35 when they drop you off. Just be firm and be sure to have exact change.
Where to Stay – Cannot help you on this one because I had the benefit of staying with relatives. But I think the Casco Viejo area would be a good place to stay.
Traveling Cheap – This is the most expensive place I visited in Central America, probably mostly because of the part of town I was staying in. I’m sure it can be done on the cheap, but I don’t have much good advice here.
- One thing I can tell you is that if you want to travel by taxi, the taxi drivers will always try to charge you double if you’re a gringo. Ask locals how much taxis should cost. Try to avoid traveling at rush hour because prices are almost always more then. It’s even better if you call radio taxis because it’s both safer and you will get the “real” price with only a small service charge included for the service.
Favorite Bars, Cafes, and Restaurants – Note that these places are NOT what I would consider cheap by budget travel standards, but they would be considered cheap if you’re just taking a vacation from North America or Europe.
- Mediterraneo – One of the best restaurants that has high quality food at a pretty decent price for the portions. It is located in a strip mall near Punta Pacifica, but when you are inside, the decor and ambiance makes you forget that. Try the seafood patacones, the Greek salad, the sea bass, the pizzas. I honestly don’t think you can go wrong with anything.
- Bucanero – Located on the Amador Causeway, this is a fine dining restaurant. For the quality of the food and portion size, prices aren’t unreasonable. You cannot go wrong with the sea bass, the pizza-style patacones, the pasta dishes, the sancocho soup, the clams, or the Greek salad. The brownie with ice cream dessert is a must and big enough for 2.
- Cedro’s – Located in Casco Viejo, this small, intimate bar/ restaurant serves excellent mojitos (although I don’t think there is much alcohol in them) and has decent-priced quality food. The pizzas are delicious and definitely big enough for 2 people.
- Havana Club is a nice Cuban-style bar in Casco Viejo that serves a delicious mojito with a piece of sugarcane in it. Once again, I don’t think they put much alcohol in them, but they taste amazing and you get to chew on sugarcane.
- Habana Panama is a very nice salsa club in Casco Viejo that has a live salsa band. It’s definitely pricey with a $10 cover and expensive drinks, but it’s fun to watch the band and the dance floor.
- Walk around Casco Viejo. This was my favorite part of the city. It’s going through gentrification, and you have a mix of crumbling colonial buildings and gorgeous renovations that have maintained the historical appearance on the outside but have been turned into modern cafes, restaurants, shops, and bars on the inside. Just be careful at night not to walk into the more dangerous part of town which borders this area.
- If you’ve been craving a trip to see a current US film, Panama City is a great place to do it. There are very nice movie theaters in the main malls, but beware that they are expensive and there are no “matinee” prices. But on Wednesdays, the movie theater in Multiplaza costs only $2.50. The US films are in English with Spanish subtitles.