Bocas del Toro – Panama’s Jewel of the Caribbean

Bocas del Toro Waterfront

Bocas del Toro Waterfront

These palms at the Botanical Garden in Bocas were imported from Madagascar.

These palms at the Botanical Garden in Bocas were imported from Madagascar.

We are climbing off the water taxi in Bocas Town and walking the three blocks to our hotel when my friend, Bill remarks, “This place reminds me of New Orleans, Jamaica, and Key West and all rolled into one.” The comparison is appropriate. The town of Bocas is eight blocks of hotels, shops, hostels, and restaurants. Bocas is the focal point of an island tourism haven, part of an extensive tropical archipelago not far from the Costa Rican border. My first experience with Bocas was shared in Panama from the Caribbean Side. We are about to discover a couple of gems we overlooked on our first visit.

We are fortunate to be guests at the historic Gran Bahía Hotel where the owner, Tito Thomas, sits with us to discuss lesser-known attractions. No one knows more about Bocas del Toro than Tito. He was born and raised in Bocas, raised his family here, and still lives and works in Bocas as a hotel owner and as unofficial ambassador to the place he loves.

Tito drives us in the hotel van to our first stop, the Botanical Garden just a mile outside of town, Finca Los Monos. Because we are with Tito, owner-operator Lin Gillingham opens her gate and gives us a quick introductory tour. To say we are impressed with the beauty and diversity of the place is an understatement. Lin has created a haven for tours, weddings and receptions, retreats, and exploration and discovery.

Our friends Bill and Priscilla at Playa Bluff

Our friends Bill and Priscilla at Playa Bluff

Tito then takes us to Playa Bluff, a popular surfer hangout just a few miles from town. It is easy to find comfort and solitude as this beach stretches for over five miles up the coast. The golden sand and clear, warm water make this a relaxing picnic and sunbathing spot.

The following day we decide to divide and conquer. While the wives are heading back to fully explore the Botanical Garden, Bill and I hire a water taxi ($20/person round trip) to take us to La Loma Jungle Lodge and cacao plantation at Bahía Honda on neighboring Isla Bastimentos. Owners Margaret Ann and Henry Escudero welcome us even though we are unexpected, thanks again to the referral from Tito. Their 50 acre eco-lodge retreat puts visitors in the midst of nature with birds, butterflies, monkeys and lush forest literally at arm’s length. Among the adventure of nearby attractions is the fully operational cacao plantation. Henry invites us to join his guests on an interpretive tour of their estate with his extensive naturalist knowledge. Everyone gets the opportunity to help prepare and sample fresh chocolate after the tour.

Cacao pods harvestedPhoto credit: Henry Escudero,

Cacao pods harvested
Photo credit: Kate Malone

In Bocas Town the backpacking traveler will find several inexpensive hostel and guest house lodging options. Adults and family groups will find a wide range of hotel accommodations. The town can be reached by driving the mainland route to Almirante and catching a water taxi, flying in from Panama City, or arriving by boat. English is more commonly spoken in Bocas than anywhere in Panama. Whether you wish to explore jungles, snorkel or scuba dive, go surfing or swimming, or just hang out, Bocas has something for everyone.

living in Panama

11 comments on “Bocas del Toro – Panama’s Jewel of the Caribbean

  1. Reblogged this on Stanley Panama and commented:
    Bocas del Toro

  2. kristc99 says:

    Thanks for the great info! I’m looking forward to exploring this area very soon.

  3. annewoodman says:

    The jungle lodge and cacao plantation sound wonderful. And given that I love both Key West and New Orleans, I would love to visit someday. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  4. blade3colorado says:

    Wow! Small world . . . I LOVE THE GRAN BAHIA HOTEL! This is the Gran Bahia hotel at Isle Colon, correct? The front desk clerk, Aquilino, was so gracious during my stay, we became fast friends afterwards, e.g., on his own time, he gave me a tour of the town, assisted me with my Spanish (I was studying the language via a software program I loaded on my tablet), etc. I still communicate with him via Facebook and email.

    The restaurant adjacent to the hotel . . . Help me here – I think it’s called Carlos Steak House, and I had the best rib eye steak I HAVE EVER HAD IN MY LIFE!

    I went SCUBA diving at Isle Colon and quite frankly, it was the worst diving experience I have ever had. The water was murky and there was hardly any aquatic life. Some people attributed this to the many rivers that feed sediment into the Caribbean surrounding the island. Question – is this true? Did I just catch the SCUBA diving at the wrong time of the year?

  5. There is only one Gran Bahia Hotel! Sorry but no, it wasn’t the wrong time of year, Steve. You went to the wrong location. There are so many crystal-clear water beaches in the Bocas Archipelago that you simply missed finding a better venue. There is a water taxi ride involved to get to a good diving spot.
    Yes, that is the Carlos Steak House next door. We sat out a rain storm there, then we went across the street for fish and to dine overlooking the water. The next day we went down the street to eat at the Kasbah. Bocas has many jewels!

  6. blade3colorado says:

    Well, I will definitely have to touch base with you if I ever go back to Bocas. Thanks Mike 🙂

  7. JamieW50 says:

    Did you have any issues with bugs?

    • My wife got bit by mosquitos a couple of times at our open-air hotel. I didn’t. I would say insect repellent is a good idea. The bugs were no worse there than they were in Boquete where the noseeums can be annoying.

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