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panama tourism and travel

Bocas del Toro

Once a low budget, backpackers retreat, Bocas del Toro has gradually become 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 Jose, Costa Rica, Bocas del Toro is expected to continue along the same path and find a permanent home on the international tourist map.

Google Map - Colon Island

Bastimentos National Marine Park

For information about Bastimentos National Marine Park click here.

Coral Cay

Situated on the southeastern side of Bastimentos Island, just 30 minutes by water taxi from Bocas town, Coral Cay is 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 1-2 hours before lunch is served, providing visitors with ample time to snorkel, dive or visit the nearby beaches. Upon your return, normally around 1:00 p.m., your meal is promptly served, complete with cold beer, soft drinks or tropical drinks. Fresh lobster, fish, turtle, and conch are just a sample of what you’ll find at any of the restaurants at Coral Cay, delicately prepared by seasoned chefs with island herbs and spices.

Just in front of the restaurants, visitors can snorkel or swim at their leisure, where common sighting include sizable populations of angel fish, sea cucumbers, hard coral, and numerous other colorful, tropical fish.

Most frequently visited for lunch, Coral Cay is a perfect resting spot to savor the mornings events, as well as look forward to the afternoon’s activities. Ample shelter and gentle sea breezes make this place a must see if your in Bocas.

Hospital Point

Just off Colon Island, resting on the northwest tip of Nancy Cay (Solarte Island), lies 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. Home to a variety of colorful marine life, including moray eels, angelfish, parrot fish, sea stars, tube sponges, stinging coral and spiny lobsters, the shallow, clear and calm waters surrounding Hospital Point are ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving.

The water is shallowest just off the point and to the left when facing Bocas town. The deepest area is just off to the right side, where a steep wall descends to form part of the deep ocean channel that lies just in front of the island.

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

Google Map - Reg Frog Beach

Red Frog Beach, who’s name is derived from the small, red poison dart frogs that inhabit the area, is one of three beaches that stretch along Bastimentos’ northern coast - it is sandwiched inbetween Wizard beach to the west and Polo beach to the east. Red Frog is Bocas’ most frequented beach and is almost always accessed via a short trail that originates from the island’s leeward side, though you can also access the beach by boat during certain months of the year when the seas are normally calm (August - October).

Most full day tours visit Red Frog Beach, usually in the afternoon before finishing at Hospital Point. If you’re not on a tour, you can also hire a boat in Bocas town to take you there.

Swan’s Cay (Bird Island)

Situated just off the northern most part of the Bocas Island is Swan’s Cay, or Bird Island. This small islet, and its satellites, are the only known nesting site in the southwest Caribbean for the Red-billed Tropic bird. It is also one of only three nesting sites of the Brown Booby, on Panama’s Caribbean coast.

Full day tours from Bocas town to Bird Island island are available, but it's much easier and cheaper to visit the island from the town of Drago, which is located on the northern side of Colon Island. Public buses run between Bocas town and Drago Beach throughout the day, or you can take a taxi there. As well, you can 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.)

Zapatilla Cays

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, Zapatilla Cays lie just to the east of Bastimentos Island. In addition to having the areas nicest beaches, particularly those along the leeward side, the water is ideal for swimming, snorkeling and scuba diving. Most tours visiting Zapatilla Cays stop at Coral Cay for lunch, where you'll spend approx.1-2 hours.

Most tours to Zapatilla Cays visit the southernmost island, where Panama’s National Environmental Authority (ANAM) maintains an office. The island has one short nature trail that leads to the windward side of the island, winding through a section comprised primarily of mangrove.

(Note: Zapatilla Cays are part of the Bastimentos Marine National Park, all visitors must pay $10 to disembark.)

Scuba Diving

While not world class, the 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 to Zapatilla Cays, like Tiger Rock, which require considerable more time. The water temperature is very tropical and constant, so wet suits are not required. Water visibility varies from one dive spot to another, and is almost always better during dry season months of August – October. Dives tend to be quite shallow, with most not exceeding 30-50 ft.

Scuba Diving Operators

Getting to / from Bocas del Toro

Daily flights service Bocas del Toro (Colon Island) from Panama City (Air Panama) and from San Jose, Costa Rica (Nature Air). From Albrook Bus Terminal in Panama City, overnight buses depart daily to the coastal communities of Almirante and Changuinola. Buses depart Panama City between the hours of 7:00 p.m. - 9:00 p.m., arriving Almirante at 5:30 a.m. and Changuinola at 6:30 a.m. respectively.

Google Map - Albrook Bus Terminal

From David, mini-buses to Almirante and Changuinola depart daily from the central bus terminal.

Google Map - David Bus Terminal

If you are arriving from Costa Rica and have entered into 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.