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Bocas del Toro Archipelago

With its turquoise waters, sugar-sand beaches, and funky island towns, the relatively isolated archipelago of Bocas del Toro has the same attractions as major Caribbean destinations with a fraction of the crowds, development, and price. An astounding variety of flora and fauna cover its six major islands, 52 cays, and 200 islets, with an overlay of a fascinating Afro-Caribbean and indigenous culture.

As you fly over the archipelago, you see brown blotches of coral reefs scattered across the sea between islands. Below the surface is a kaleidoscope of corals, sponges, fish, and invertebrates. The crystalline waters that hold those coral gardens wash against half a dozen beaches ranging from forest-hemmed Red Frog Beach to the ivory sands of the Cayos Zapatillas, where lanky coconut palms stretch out over the tide line. The islands have a dozen surf spots—from fun beach breaks to challenging barrels over coral reefs. It also boasts myriad trails leading into the jungle where you might see monkeys, sloths, and colorful poison dart frogs.

POINTS OF INTEREST

BOCAS TOWN

The offbeat, colorful town of Bocas occupies a spit of land on the southern tip of Isla Colón, the westernmost island. It offers a mix of historic architecture, mellow locals, good food, nightlife, and abundant views of the surrounding sea and islands. Many visitors arrive and depart from the tiny airport here. Water taxis and a ferry ply the waters between the town and the mainland port of Almirante, from which roads lead southeast to Chiriquí and the rest of Panama and west to banana farms and the Costa Rican border.

PLAYA ISTMITO

Referred to by several names including Playa Bocas, Playa La Cabaña, and Bahia Sand Fly, this beach is the closest one to Bocas Town. It stretches along the narrow isthmus that connects the town to Isla Colón, overlooking tranquil Bahia Chitre (Sand Flea Bay). Just north of the beach is Playa Tortuga Hotel. Due to the proximity to town, this stretch of sand is popular with locals that come for an afternoon swim or cheap beers at nearby food shacks.

ISLA COLÓN

Isla Colón is the most developed, with a road running across it and the provincial capital occupying a peninsula on its southern tip. Across a channel from that urbanized headland is the smaller Isla Carenero. Boats regularly travel between the two communities that are home to the bulk of the archipelago’s residents and most of its hotels and restaurants. Most travelers stay in Bocas del Toro town and make day trips to the other islands, beaches, and dive spots other islands, beaches, and dive spots.

SWAN’S CAY (ISLA DE LOS PÁJAROS)

Swan’s Cay is a rocky islet off the north coast of Isla Colón that is commonly visited on boat tours to Boca del Drago. The swan it was named for is actually the red-billed tropicbird, an elegant white seabird with a long tail and bright-red bill that nests on the island in significant numbers. The rugged island has a narrow, natural arch in the middle of it that boatmen can slip through when the seas are calm, usually September and October. The surrounding ocean is a good scuba diving area.

BOCA DEL DRAGO (STARFISH BEACH)

As the best beach on Isla Colón, Boca del Drago is part of a tiny fishing community in the northwest corner that overlooks the mainland. The water at the coconut palm-lined beach is usually calm, which makes for good swimming and snorkeling. It’s a popular destination for boat tours and makes for the quintessential photo of orange starfish beaming beneath clear, shallow waters. There are several food vendors and the small Yarisnori restaurant on the beach serves decent seafood with plenty of cold beer.

PLAYA BLUFF

The nicest and biggest beach on Isla Colón is Bluff Beach, a 4½-mile stretch of soft golden sand backed by tropical vegetation and washed by aquamarine waters. It’s a great place to spend a day or even an hour, but it has virtually no facilities, so pack water and snacks. When the waves are big, Playa Bluff has a beach break right onshore, but it can also develop rip currents, so swimmers beware. When the sea is calm it’s a decent swimming beach—always exercise caution—and the rocky points at either end have decent snorkeling. Leatherback turtles nest here from April to September when night tours are led by members of the Grupo Ecológico Bluff, a local Ngöbe group. If you’re lucky, you may find baby turtles on the beach between June and December.

ISLA CARENERO

Five minutes by boat east of Bocas Town. Just east of Bocas is the long, forested Isla Carenero (Careening Cay), the southern end of which holds a mix of fishermen’s shacks, the large homes of foreigners, a few hotels, restaurants, and a small marina. Staying here is a quieter and more natural alternative to sleeping in town because it has only 450 residents and no roads or automobiles. Because the island lacks a sewage system, swimming isn’t recommended. The island’s name comes from the practice of using its narrow beach and shallows to pull ships onto their sides— careening—in order to scrape and repair their hulls. That beach is now dotted with homes and other buildings perched over the water on pilings. The eastern side of the island has a rocky coast but is more forested and sparsely populated, whereas its northern half holds only a handful of foreign-owned homes and a popular surf break known simply as Carenero.

ISLA BASTIMENTOS

Cutting through the glassy waters, with Bocas Town in your wake, the “road” to Isla Bastimentos leads to picture-perfect beaches and mangrove tunnels where howler monkeys, exotic birds, and sea crabs clamber through the thick brush. Over-the-water bungalows and hillside cabanas are the perfect places to unplug, while shallow reefs beckon to an afternoon of snorkeling, surfing, or kayaking just offshore. The eastern half of Isla Bastimentos is a wild and beautiful area that is partially protected within Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos, as are the two idyllic isles of Cayos Zapatillas to the southeast. Here, you can choose to stay in an isolated eco-lodge tucked in the jungle or in an over-the-water bungalow.

Isla Bastimentos covers 20 square miles of varied landscapes, including lush tropical forest, mangrove estuaries, a lake, and several of the archipelago’s nicest beaches. It also has several Afro-Caribbean and Ngöbe indigenous communities, and some excellent snorkeling and surfing spots. Old Bank, the archipelago’s second-largest town, overlooks a cove on the island’s western tip. The northern coast holds four beaches separated by rocky points, the longest of which, Playa Larga, lies within Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos.

OLD BANK (BASTIMENTOS)

Ten minutes by boat east of Bocas Town. Spread along a bay on the island’s western tip, between the ocean and forested hills, is a colorful, crowded, poor collection of simple wooden buildings known as Old Bank. It is a predominantly Afro-Caribbean community where Guari- Guari—a mix of patois English and traces of Spanish—is the lingua franca. Most people live in elevated wooden houses, some awfully rudimentary, that line the sidewalks and dirt paths instead of streets. Old Bank doesn’t have a proper sewage system, so avoid swimming in the bay, even though the local kids do. Head to one of the nearby beaches instead.

RED FROG BEACH AND BAHIA HONDA

This beach is located 5 miles east of Bocas, and 2½ miles east of Old Bank. A couple of miles east of Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos gets narrow—a mere ¼ mile wide—and the sea to the south is dotted with mangrove islets. Here you can find a small dock that marks the entrance to a footpath across the island to Red Frog Beach, one of the loveliest spots in the archipelago, with its golden sand shaded by tropical trees but undergoing major real estate development since 2012. East of the beach, the island becomes wide again and is largely covered with lush rain forest that is home to everything from mealy parrots to white-faced capuchin monkeys and countless tiny, bright-red poison dart frogs. The scattered homes of local Ngöbe line the bay to the south, known as Bahia Honda, where an indigenous organization has cut a trail through the forest and built a rustic restaurant for tourists. To the east is Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos and to the south a narrow channel through the mangroves that is the main route to the island’s eastern coast and the Cayos Zapatillas.

MACCA BITE

Bastimentos’s southernmost point has an odd name, and its origin is as mysterious as Bocas del Toro’s, though the theory is that wild macaws once lived here. That hilly headland hemmed by mangroves and draped with lush rain forest is a mere 30 minutes from Bocas by boat, yet it feels like the end of the world.

PARQUE NACIONAL MARINO ISLA BASTIMENTOS

About one-third of Isla Bastimentos and the Cayos Zapatillas, to the southeast, lie within Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos. The park’s 32,000 acres comprise an array of ecosystems ranging from sea-grass beds to rain forest and include some spectacular and ecologically important areas.

NEPTUNE’S GARDENS

The submarine wonders—from the sponge studded reef beneath Hospital Point to the seemingly endless coral gardens of the Cayos Zapatillas—can keep you diving for days.