Off the mainland on Panama’s Caribbean Coast lies the remote and magical archipelago of Bocas del Toro. This is a traveler’s paradise and getting there is a hike, but then that’s true of almost all the best places. The journey from all over the world meets on Isla Colón, the main island of Bocas and the gateway to a place where hours are marked by meal times, boats are the main mode of transportation and lush green jungle meets expanses of beaches with sparkling blue water promising adventure.
The breathtaking scenery, slow-paced days and nights full of dancing to reggae have been drawing more visitors in recent years and made it one of Travel & Leisure’s Places to Travel in 2016. We’ve put together a list of must-sees that will have you communing with dolphins, sampling chocolate and watching for monkeys in the undisturbed jungle.
Day One: Zapatillas in the National Marine Park and Sea Turtles
Arrive at Casa Cayuco on the remote Isla Bastimentos. The eco-resort run by American couple Dave and Suzanne Smith is a 45-minute ride from the main island of Bocas. Here, the world is truly your oyster. Hang out at the beach; snorkeling, kayaking, SUPing, or explore the area which just happens to be home to Panama’s first national marine park.
There are no roads on Isla Bastimentos but a short boat ride from Casa Cayuco takes you to Zapatillas, two uninhabited islands within the National Marine Park that are the Smith’s must-do activity while in Bocas. The turquoise water will beckon you in to explore the coral reefs full of fish, starfish and other interesting creatures. The islands are small enough to walk around in about 30 minutes and the Smiths will pack you a lunch to picnic with on the white sand beaches. Visiting the Zapatillas is wonderful year round but if you’re lucky you’ll be there when the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtles nest on the shore from April through September.
Day Two: Green Acres Chocolate Farm and Dolphin Spotting
Take a boat ride to mainland Panama, where nestled on the south shore of Dolphin Bay is Green Acres, one of several working chocolate farms in the area. The American owners, retired dentists from Miami, will assure you this kind of chocolate is actually good for you before taking you on a guided hike around the property showing off the plants and wildlife before stopping at a little shack. ‘Shack’ is charitable; really it’s just a small wooden shed that doesn’t look as if it would survive a good gust of wind. Inside, in space no bigger than a closest, is the most Macgyver-esque chocolate production facility you could imagine. There’s an old petroleum tank that they roast the chocolate beans in. Throughout the tour you learn more about the chocolate production process, sampling plenty of chocolate along the way.
The chocolate at Green Acres is delicate and sweet, not as bitter as the dark chocolate found elsewhere thanks to the criollo cacao trees on the property. Grown mainly in Central America, criollo cacao trees represent only 1 percent of the world’s chocolate production. After the tour, eat lunch on the dock before heading out into Dolphin Bay to look for pods of dolphins. The dolphins are as curious about you as you are of them, swimming next to the boat and jumping from the waters ahead.
Day Three: Water Sports
It’s hard to resist the allure of the water when you wake up to the sound of surf and eat breakfast dockside. Bocas del Toro has a myriad of water sports for those of all adventure levels. Yes, lying on a beach and occasionally swimming to cool off is a water sport. If you’re a bit more adventurous, though, spend a day surfing, fishing or both.
The waters that surround Bocas del Toro boast surf breaks for all levels and interests. First timers can take lessons from one of the surf schools in Isla Colón. The sandy bottom beach breaks are forgiving and more experienced surfers can get in on the action in the picturesque reef breaks.
After catching the waves, it’s time to find dinner. Fishing in Bocas isn’t your normal ‘sit in a boat with a pole waiting for hours’-fishing. Here, it’s local style, and a guide will teach you how to spear fish with harpoons. Hunt for the venomous lionfish or dive for lobster. Whatever you catch can likely be prepared for dinner.
Day Four: Salt Creek & Jungle Hike
It’s easy to spend all your time snorkeling; but you can’t leave Bocas del Toro without also exploring the jungle. Grab some supportive footwear and follow the trail from Casa Cayuco to the closest village, the Salt Creek community. At the Salt Creek Tourist Center, you’ll be asked to sign a yellowing notebook with your name and where you are from. Russia, Paris, New York – the list of those who have journeyed to this place goes on and on. An English-speaking guide will give a quick tour of the community. It takes only about 15 minutes, but it’s the people you want to stop and talk to. Most of them have never been outside the island; but with the visitors that come from all over the world, they have a unique view of society at large.
After the village tour, the guide takes you into the rainforest. Watch for caiman, red frogs, monkeys, sloth and numerous birds, and listen as the guide provides information on the local flora and fauna and the plants used for medicinal purposes. After about 90 minutes to two hours, you’ll find yourself at another gorgeous beach, Los Pelicanos. Swim, lunch and then complete the loop back to the eco resort where you’ll prepare to leave this magical place.
Four days in Bocas del Toro will surprise and humble you, and the journey back feels unreal, as though you’re leaving a part of you behind.