Once a low budget, backpackers retreat, Bocas del Toro has gradually matured into a more upscale, international destination. While the overwhelming majority of its visitors are still budget travelers—arriving from neighboring Costa Rica—the addition of newly built hotels and expensive, residential developments has begun to attract a more demanding, international clientele. As well, Bocas has a rather stable ex-pat community, comprised primarily of North American and European citizens. With international flights now arriving from San José, Costa Rica, Bocas del Toro is expected to continue along the same path and find a permanent home on the international tourist map.
Situated just off the southeastern corner of Bastimentos Island and only 30 minutes by water taxi from Bocas town, you'll find Coral Cay. This tiny little island is, without question, Bocas' most popular tourist destination.
Most day tours, particularly those visiting Zapatilla Cays (see below,) stop for lunch at Coral Cay. Food orders are customarily placed 2-3 hours before lunch is served, providing visitors with ample time to snorkel, dive, or visit nearby beaches. Upon your return—normally around 1:00 p.m.—your meal is promptly served, complete with a cold beer and tropical drinks. Fresh lobster, fish, turtle, and conch are just a sample of what's on the menu at any of the Coral Cay restaurants, delicately prepared by seasoned chefs with island herbs and spices. There are several restaurants to choose from—some on Bastimentos Island and others on Coral Cay—your tour operator will decide which one you visit.
While there, you are encouraged to snorkel/swim in the clear, calm, and shallow water that's home to a diverse and colorful collection of underwater species including angel fish, parrot fish, sea cucumbers, bristle tree worms, sea urchins among others.
Most frequently visited for lunch, Coral Cay is a perfect resting spot to savor the morning's events and prepare for the afternoon’s activities. Ample shelter and gentle sea breezes make this place a must-see during your stay in Bocas.
Just off Colon Island and resting on the northwest tip of Nancy Cay (Solarte Island) lie Hospital Point. Once the Central Medical Center for the United Fruit Company, which established its headquarters in Bocas del Toro in 1899, Hospital Point is now under private ownership and a popular tourist destination. There is a small beach to the left of the house, which nobody seems to mind that you use.
Perhaps even more so than Coral Cay, Hospital Point possesses to a vast assortment of sea life and is arguably Bocas' best place to snorkel and dive. The water is shallowest just off the northwest side of the point—facing Bocas town—and here you'll find an abundance of colorful, tropical fishes including parrot fish, angle fish, sea stars, puffer fish, etc. Off the tip and to the right, the coral formation descends rather quickly—reaching 30-40ft—and forms part of the deep, ocean channel that lies between Hospital Point and Isla Carenero. Here, you're more likely to encounter eels, lobster, crabs, lionfish, sponges, bristle tree worms among others.
Most tour operators normally include a stop at Hospital Point as part of a full-day tour—it's normally the last stop before returning to Bocas town. For those who prefer to visit Hospital Point at their leisure, private boats/water taxis can be hired, or you can rent a kayak by the hour, half-day, or full-day from many of the tour/dive operators situated along the waterfront.
Red Frog Beach, who's name is derived from the small, poisonous red dart-frogs that inhabit the area, is one of three beaches that stretch along Bastimentos’ northern coast—it is sandwiched in between Wizard Beach to the west and Polo Beach to the east. Red Frog is Bocas’ most popular beach and is almost always accessed via a short trail that originates from the island’s leeward side; you can access the beach by boat during certain months of the year (September–October) when the seas are calmer.
Most full-day tours visit Red Frog Beach in the afternoon, after departing Coral Cay and before reaching Hospital Point. You can, at any time, hire a boat in Bocas town to take you there.
Bird Island, also known as Swan Cay, resides just off Bocas Island's northern coast. This small islet and its satellites are the only known nesting site in the southwest Caribbean for the Red-billed Tropic-bird, and one of only three nesting sites on Panama's Caribbean coast for the Brown Booby.
Full-day tours to Bird Island from Bocas town can be organized providing you have enough people, but given its location, they are more expensive and of longer duration than most other tours. You might find it cheaper and easier from Drago, a coastal community on Colon Island's northern side; from there it's a short boat ride to Bird Island. To get to Drago you can take a taxi or rent a bike in Bocas Town and ride there.
Note: Bird Island is a marine preserve, you are not permitted to step onto the island.
From Bocas town, a 1.5-hour boat ride through the Bastimentos National Marine Park takes you to Zapatilla Cays. Consisting of two small islands—carpeted with lush palm trees and coconut trees—Zapatilla Cays lie just to the east of Bastimentos Island. In addition to having the areas nicest beaches, in particular those along the leeward side, the surrounding water is ideal for swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving. The island has one short nature trail that leads to the windward side of the island, winding through a section comprised primarily of mangroves.
Most tours to Zapatilla Cays stop at Coral Cay for lunch, where you'll spend approximately 1-2 hours.
Note: Zapatilla Cays are part of the Bastimentos Marine National Park, so all visitors must pay $10 to disembark; Panama’s National Environmental Authority (ANAM) maintains an on the southernmost island. For information about Bastimentos National Marine Park click here.
While not world-class, diving in and around Bocas can be enjoyed throughout the year, with most dive spots no more than a 20-30 minute boat ride from Bocas town. There are, however, some dive spots near Zapatilla Cays, like Tiger Rock that require considerably more time. The water temperature is very tropical and constant, so wet suits are not required; a light-weight dive skin might be a good idea. Water visibility varies from one dive spot to another and at different times throughout the year; it's almost always better during dry season months of August–October. Dives tend to be quite shallow, with most not exceeding 30-50 ft.
Daily flights service Bocas del Toro from Panama City (Air Panama) and San José, Costa Rica (Nature Air). From Albrook Bus Terminal in Panama City, overnight buses depart daily—between the hours of 7:00 p.m.–9:00 p.m.—to the coastal communities of Almirante and Changuinola—arriving Almirante at 5:30 a.m. and Changuinola at 6:30 a.m. respectively.
From David, mini-buses to Almirante and Changuinola depart daily from the central bus terminal. If you have entered Panama at the Sixaola border, you will need to take a mini-bus or taxi from Changuinola to Almirante. Once in Almirante, you can take the water taxi to Colon Island—the dock is a short, 5-minute walk from the bus terminal.