Thanks to the canal, Panama City is a bustling hub full of western creature comforts and touristy things to do. It’s also a great place to get cheap flights... and if you’re an overlander, it’s where you ship your car (read this post if car shipping applies to you).
Unfortunately we ended up with very little time to explore Panama because shipping the car takes a few days and our sailboat trip had to coincide with the car’s schedule.
Nonetheless, we have a few recommendations and tips for travel.
Bocas Del Toro
HOW TO GET THERE + PARKING
Coming From Panama City by Car: the port town of Almirante (where you hop on the boat taxi to get to the islands of Bocas del Toro) is a 9-hour drive from Panama City.
Coming from the Costa Rican border of Paso Canoas by Car: it’s less than 4 hours. We came from the southern town of Pavones, Costa Rica (a 5.5-hour drive + a 2 hour border crossing + a 1-hour time change, that was NOT in our favor) so we were pushing it to make the last boat of the evening.
For backpackers: you can reach Bocas del Toro by boat from either Panama City or Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. If you take a bus by land, obviously allow for more than the above driving times.
I’m pretty sure everyone uses Leiza’s secure lot for $3/day. The main road into Almirante leads right to her place and she was standing outside the gate with a smile. You’ll think your car won’t fit in those tiny spaces (and if you have a large rig, you’ll need to ask Leiza for recommendations) but Tyler somehow squeezed our 4 Runner into a space meant for a Smart Car with the help from Leiza and one of her employees.
When you arrive, locals will swarm your car. They are trying to show you to Leiza’s and then walk you to the boat taxis in exchange for a tip (just ignore them unless you’re feeling generous and want a guide for the 1-minute walk).
The Almirante port has a number of little companies running taxi services to Bocas (and we heard from a friend that if you miss the last boat at 6pm, you may have the option to pay any local who owns a boat an outrageous amount of money for a ride). We stopped in at one of the first little shacks and paid $20 for 2 people, round trip. The ride took about 45 minutes to Isla Colon (the main island).
WHAT TO DO
ISLA ZAPATILLO, DOLPHIN BAY, & SNORKELING
There are a number of different beaches and islands to visit so we were a little overwhelmed because we didn't have more than a few days. Don’t worry… once you get to Bocas Town there are a million companies that lead the same tours to all the hot spots.
We used Gambit Tours and chose the full-day excursion that visits Zapatillo Island (it’s the one the locals recommended and it cost $35/person).
BOCAS DEL DRAGO, STARFISH BEACH & BIRD ISLAND
We were working and having a drink at Bocas Town Hotel and were lucky enough to meet the owner. We got to talking about our business and travel plans and before you know it, we’d been invited for a ride on his boat for the afternoon. Luckily for us, we got to see Bocas del Drago, Starfish Beach and Bird Island.
ISLA BASTIMENTOS & RED FROG BEACH
We didn't have time to explore Isla Bastimentos but most people usually check it out because of the Basitmentos Caves, Red Frog Beach, a couple of restaurants and nice lodging options (but there’s a tour from Isla Colon/Bocas Town that includes most of these).
If you know us, you know we didn’t party. But we hear the nightlife is awesome… it’s a large reason why so many young people visit Bocas. The important clubs to mention are Agua Lounge, La Iguana and what we heard should be the hottest new place in town: Summer Beach Club. It opened the weekend before we got there so we’re talking BRAND NEW.
But while everyone else was partying (and it was Panama’s Independence Day Weekend so I mean EVERYONE)… I was here :)
Laura Kay owns and leads great classes at Bocas Yoga. And despite that entire ocean outside, this place offers a different kind of peace & relaxation. The Pilates teacher in me says my arm should be under my shoulder, but its about progress not perfection ;) Laura’s classes focused on more heart opening poses (with so much lumbar and thoracic extension). She pushed my to try poses I’ve never done before and showed us a very cool way to practice. You can tell she loves what she does and I highly recommend checking out her place if you find yourself on Isla Colon.
Like we said, there’s a LOT to keep you occupied for a week or two but if you’re on a short trip like us, you can still knock out quite a few hot spots in 2-3 days (i.e. two tours + a bike ride on the mainland, a boat taxi to one of the other islands for a more self-guided experience, or even a private boat charter if you meet the right people!).
WHERE TO EAT
Who knew the food scene in Bocas del Toro would be something worth mentioning? Check out these cool little places for really yummy, not too expensive, meals.
Café del Mar: Such a great little breakfast spot. The wait staff were so awesome we’d go back just to hang with them. We ordered breakfast burritos, coffee and fresh green juice. The place is quaint and close to the water and the main road.
Munchies: Excellent service and a really great burger :) Tyler has been looking for a decent once since we left home and this was about as good as we’ve found in all of Central America. The veggie burger was really good too, which isn’t always the case.
F.O.Y: Good for me because of all the vegetarian options, but hearty enough for Tyler too. We had breakfast here and ordered eggs, yogurt, fresh fruit, and green juices. The ladies working there were really sweet and the patio overlooked the main street.
Om Café and Bar: Indian Food on the islands of Bocas del Toro? Believe it. We’ve had really great Indian food before and this place isn’t as authentic as some, but it’s definitely creative and delicious. Think Indian with a Caribbean twist :)
Hungry Monkey: tacos are another food item near and dear to us. Being from Texas, we are accustomed to delicious tacos (whether they’re authentic Mexican, creative/gourmet, or tex-mex). WE LOVE THEM. The Hungry Monkey takes the creative route and yes, adds a Caribbean twist. A little different than what we’re used to, but absolutely a nice surprise.
WHERE TO STAY
Casa del Mar: luxury private eco villas for $350/night.
Saigoncito: we booked through Air BnB and the price was great. No A/C (typical) but a nice fan with a fridge in the room, all located in a lovely little garden oasis with front porches and complimentary bikes. The cabins are located in a residential area of Isla Colon where you’ll see local homes and people walking around. The bike ride to the main street of Isla Colon takes about 15 minutes from this small neighborhood so keep that in mind.
Casa Max Hotel: option for rooms with A/C, closer to the main square with all of the restaurants but still far enough away from the noise. The accommodation is basic but the price fits.
If you’re a backpacker, you’ll have no trouble finding inexpensive hostel options with perfect party atmospheres. The Bambuda Lodge on Isla Solarte has the best reputation as far as hostels go. With a waterslide into the ocean, it seems like the perfect mix of luxury and relative affordability (but be sure you book ahead because it’s always full).
Lost & Found Hostel
We MUST mention our overnight stop at this cool hostel on the way to and from Bocas… Tucked away in the mountains (an incredible drive by the way) you’ll find the creative and adventurous Lost & Found hostel. Take a jacket because it gets chilly at night and be sure to read the book before you go. If you’re driving a car, you’ll have to leave it at the bottom with the family who owns the fruit stand. Getting to the hostel requires a quick hike up the hill and after you settle in, your options for exploring are plentiful. Check out the caves, the viewpoint hike, the treasure hunt, the nocturnal honey bear and enjoy the awesome staff. *You must book a bed in advance through their website.
If driving a car: be careful!
- Panama City is the first place in Central America where we’ve seen an actual radar gun so don’t speed. Luckily we had a nice officer.
- The traffic was brutal, be ready.
- If you’re staying in Casco Viejo (best place for views of the Panama skyline) you have to drive through a very poor neighborhood and in our case, deal with police officers (we encountered 2 bribes in 2 days). As usual, just stay calm and pretend you don’t know what the word “propina” means ;)
I’d be lying if I said we left this neighborhood except to ship the car. In our defense, we were busy with the car and we didn’t feel like venturing into the big bad city.
Plus! The neighborhood has been “westernized” to the umpteenth degree with plenty of restored old buildings, international restaurants and the best jogging trail we’ve ever seen.
Magnolia Inn is the best budget hostel we’ve stayed in to date. The beds were clean and comfy, the common areas were similar to a French Boutique Hotel, and if you want to spend $80/night then you’ll be directed to the private elevators for fancy hotel guests.
FOOD NEAR CASCO VIEJO
*there are SO many great places aside from those listed below
- Café Coca Cola: incredibly cheap typical food
- Forever Yogurt: oddly expensive but tons of toppings
- PalettAmérica: the BEST hand dipped popsicles
- Mercado de Pescado: Cheap ceviche served in tiny styrofoam cups + Passion Fruit Mojitos
Tell us about your experiences in Panama and all of the places we may have missed!
See you down the road :)