After leaving beautiful Pavones, we crossed the border from Costa Rica to Panama and headed straight for the colorful islands of Bocas del Toro off the northern caribbean coast of Panama. We had heard good things about the islands, there was surf, and the kicker was that we had friends, Meghan and Conor, that had just moved to one of the islands, Bastimentos, and we were REALLY excited to visit them!
Getting to the islands of Bocas del Toro was a little bit of a trek. We drove over and through the Reserva Forestral Fortuna tropical forest during a torrential downpour, but it was an absolutely stunning drive. We then made our way to the coastal town of Almirante where we would catch the Taxi 25 water taxi to the islands. Just one minor detail to take care of before heading to the islands for a week…parking Titus. Lets just say that Almirante leaves a bit to be desired when it comes to safety and security. The two paid parking lots didn’t have room for Titus, so we left him in the care of a local’s “uncle”, which consisted of a front yard surrounded by a chain link fence and barbed wire, and a gentleman’s handshake agreement to put his dog in the front yard at night for added security.
Isla Colon – Bocas Town
With our fingers crossed and locking up/taking everything valuable, we got on our water taxi to the first and main island, Isla Colon, home of the largest town in the island chain, Bocas town. We walked around until we found this great, clean, affordable hostel called Hotel Hansi. It really was a great central place to stay in Bocas Town (albeit not on the water). Bocas town has great restaurants, and a very lively party scene. Combine that with the caribbean colonial architecture, a little grit, and you really have an island version of New Orleans right there in Panama.
We didn’t love Bocas Town, but there were a few things that drew us to stay for a few days: 1) George found a free dive course that was offered over the course of a few days – he really loved the course; and 2) there were several beaches on the island of Colon that you could take day trips to. One day we rented a golf cart type 4×4 ATV and took the coastal road to Playa Bluff. Great way to see the island jungle and beaches. [Note: we didn’t make it to Starfish beach but I heard that is an awesome day trip as well.]
Isla Carenero (AKA home of the sand flies)
Next stop on our island hopping tour of Bocas del Toro was to one of the smaller islands, Isla Carenero. Isla Carenero is only a short 5 minute water taxi away from Bocas town. There are no cars and no roads on Isla Carenero, just a meandering sand/dirt path that goes all the way around the island at the water’s edge, and you could walk the whole thing in a couple hours. What was so lovely and so different than Bocas Town was how much access you have to the sea and all the gorgeous piers that jet out into the water.
We really loved the relaxed vibe on the island. We stayed at a great hotel, Tierra Verde that I would highly recommend (the owners are brothers from Panama and we spent a good amount of time chatting with one of the brothers, Cookie. Really great people!). I spent mornings doing Yoga on their dock while George surfed the waves of Careneros which turned out to be really great. And we spent afternoons exploring the island and having 2-for-1 cocktails at Bibi’s on the Beach. For dinner there wasn’t too many options on the island, but I HIGHLY suggest eating at the Gran Kahuna Beach Hostel restaurant. They have a new chef who is amazing and trained in France, and for $10 you can eat like a king.
Okay, now the bad of Isla Carenero…there are sand flies…lots of them…and they don’t really respond that well to bug spray, but I had some effectiveness with the local coconut oil remedy (only after I proceeded to get 50+ bites). The bites itch like hell and some people are more affected than others (AKA Jenine got eaten alive while George was only mildly annoyed). They are worse around sunset and sunrise, fyi. But I wouldn’t let this stop you from visiting this gorgeous island!
Isla Bastimentos with Friends
Next stop, the huge island of Bastimentos! Last year George and I met Meghan and Conor at our good friends Janice and Nick’s wedding (and I had previously met Meghan at Janice’s bachelorette). When we started talking, we realized how much we had in common – Meghan and Conor left everything to sail around the world starting in Florida, but made it to Panama and ended up loving the lifestyle in Bocas so much they bought property there (gualbynation.blogspot.com). They are so like-minded and just generally awesome people, that when we found out they had begun building their house and finally moved full time to Isla Bastimentos, we had to make a stop.
The island of Bastimentos is so huge, but also has no roads and cars. Old Bank is the only village on the island, and consists of a walking path lined with rustic buildings. Walking though Old Bank, you come to the “Oceanside” part of the island where Conor and Meghan are renting while building their new home down the path. They have two awesome kids, Elwood (woody) and Tohi, and even with all the craziness of the recent move with infant and toddler, they were nice enough to welcome us to stay at their beautiful rental in Oceanside. We had amazing times with the family – playing games and reading with Woody and spending time with the family, having late night balcony beers with Meghan and Conor and swapping travel stories, and just talking about our perspectives on life. It was such a wonderful time.
We also had so much fun getting to know the island with “locals”. There are jungle paths leading all around the island and the locals really know how to get around this way (I would be completely lost!). There are also some great restaurants tucked into the hills that are so quaint and refreshing. For example, we all went to a vegetarian restaurant one night that seats about 10 people. The local aussie that runs it was hilarious and the food was great.
A real highlight of our adventure on Bastimentos was a hike through the jungle to Wizards Beach (a surf beach). With surf board in tow we decided to embark on this journey after a heavy night of rains. It took us an hour to get to the beach and we ended up taking our shoes off since it was easier to trek through the mud (which was up to our ankles at this point) instead of hike in our shoes. What an adventure!
After being disappointed by no surf, we began our journey back, but took a different route when we saw a sign for “Up on the Hill Restaurant – just follow the plastic flowers”. So we did…for about 45 minutes…and it was the best jungle hike either one of us had done to-date (barefoot again). The rainforest jungle was so lush, and we even spotted a sloth up close! The sloth looks like such a funny other-wordly creature (Ewok comes to mind). We watched this guy for about 15 minutes and were so excited to show some other hikers our find, but alas the tourists that came along were only concerned with our lack of footwear and muddy feet, wondering what might happen to their new kicks…
Our time with Meghan, Conor and family sadly came to an end, but not before ceremoniously cutting into a huge Jack fruit that they had been saving for when it was ripe, which just happened to be our last day there! I didn’t even know this fruit existed (tastes kind of like juicy fruit), but we certainly had a fun time together digging in.
Thank you so much Meghan and Conor for the awesome time in Basti! We loved every minute and hope to catch up with you guys someday, somewhere…
As for our time in Bocas del Toro, we really enjoyed the laid back, rustic vibe and beautiful beaches and jungles. Oh, and if you are wondering, Titus did just fine as well. On to our next adventure…shipping our car to Colombia!
A map of where we went in Bocas: