Bocas del Toro (“mouths of the bull”) is a province on the northwestern coast of Panama, near the border with Costa Rica. The region includes a large chunk of mainland rainforest and a Caribbean archipelago. With its pristine beaches, aquamarine, coral-rich waters and its vibrant Afro-Caribbean culture, it’s this latter cluster of tropical islands that lures most visitors to the province.
Where to Go
Comprising of seven islands (Colon, Carenero, Cristobal, Bastimentos, Solarte, Popa and Pastores), numerous cays and hundreds of islets, it can be hard to know where to go and what to expect when planning a trip to Bocas del Toro.
Most visitors, whether travelling to the archipelago by boat or plane will arrive in Bocas Town (‘Bocas’) on Isla Colon. This small, walkable town is the regional capital and particularly popular with backpackers and surfers. It is also known for it’s lively bars and party atmosphere. If travelling with kids, I’d personally think twice about staying in the town itself, and instead escape to one of the more peaceful and less crowded islands for a more castaway experience.
If you do want or need to spend a night or two in Bocas Town, you might consider Tropical Suites Hotel. Although we haven’t personally stayed here ourselves, some friends recently stayed there for one night and gave it the thumbs up. They told us the rooms were clean and comfortable, and with the exception of one, they all come equipped with a decent-sized kitchenette.
Bocas Town also acts as a springboard to a number of less developed islands. The one we have spent the most time on is Isla Bastimentos.
One of the most popular islands with families is Isla Bastimentos. The island takes approximately 20 minutes to reach by boat from Bocas Town and has a good range of accommodation options for families travelling with kids.
Red Frog Beach, Bocas del Toro
The Red Frog Bungalows
When we visited Isla Basitimento, we stayed in the Red Frog Bungalows. Set about 50m inland from Red Frog Beach – one of the most sought-after beaches on the island – Red Frog Bungalows is a small eco-property surrounded by thick vegetation. Accommodation includes three ‘bungalows’ (three-storey Bali-style huts) and one Caribbean-style clapboard house known as ‘The Frog House’. Each can sleep five to six people.
Despite having a wonderful time here with friends, I have mixed thoughts on whether this property is truly ‘family-friendly’. Although the owner was very gracious (we were a large group with many kids!) the amenities and services are definitely geared towards seasoned surfers.
La Loma Jungle Lodge
If we return to Bocas (and I hope we do!), La Loma Jungle Lodge would be at the top of my list. In fact, I’ve tried many times to get a reservation here but it gets booked up very quickly and I’ve always left it too late. A number of my (more organised) friends have stayed here and have all raved about it. One family who have lived in Panama for over eight years described it as ‘an extremely special place” and “one of the loveliest places we’ve been to” (and they’ve travelled extensively here).
Our friend and fellow travel blogger, Tara Cannon of Pint Size Pilot also wrote about her experience at La Loma here.
Red Frog Beach Island Resort & Spa
Not to be confused with the Red Frog Bungalows, Red Frog Beach Island Resort is an extensive (yet discreet) luxury resort positioned in the centre of the island. Villas with two- to six-bedrooms are nestled into the rainforest and the resort’s elevated position also allows for spectacular views over Turtle Bay and Wild Cane Key.
The resort offers parents plenty of create comforts and kids lots of activities. Besides the beaches on its doorstep, the resort can also arrange boat tours, snorkelling trips, cave trips and zipline tours. For younger kids, ‘fun beach activities’ are also organised on Turtle Beach. These include sand castle building, bocce ball and volleyball. For parents, the Susurro Spa offers a range of relaxing massages.
Isla San Cristóbal
Located just 30-minutes away from Bocas Town is the island of San Cristóbal, home to the Ngöbe indigenous community. You can visit as a day trip from Bocas and see how the Ngöbe prepare and dye fibers to make chacara bags. Visitors can also enjoy tours of the medicinal gardens. If you do decide to stay overnight, or for a few days, try the Dolphin Bay Hideway. A good friend of mine stayed here highly recommends it. She did mention however that there had been a change of management since her visit and so wasn’t sure if or how that would affect the place. But judging from the recent ‘excellent’ TripAdvisor reviews, it is still a top contender.
It’s important to be aware of the strong rip tides in Bocas del Toro. Tragically, some tourists have been swept away by the strong currents and have died. To avoid any such risk, we suggest staying close to the shore and of course keeping an eye on kids at all times. During our visit there was a lifeguard stationed on Red Frog Beach and warning signs dotted along the beach.
Those with smaller children may want to consider Boca del Drago and Starfish Beach in the northwestern tip of Isla Colon for swimming. Although there isn’t much of a beach, the waters are generally pretty calm in these spots and are also good for snorkelling.
Best Time to Visit
Unlike much of Panama that enjoys a fairly predictable climate, Bocas del Toro can experience rain at any time of year. Usually the showers are fairly short, but there can be days when it doesn’t cease at all.
- High season runs from Dec through to late April
- Low season runs from May – Nov
- The driest month on average is March (followed by Feb, Sept & Oct)
- Wettest month on average is July (followed by June, Nov, Aug, Dec)
- Main surf season runs from Dec to April
How to Get to Bocas del Toro
By plane: From Panama City: Air Panama offers two daily flights from Marcus A. Gelabert Airport in Panama City (the domestic airport located in Albrook), arriving in Bocas Town.
From Costa Rica: Nature Air offers flights from San Jose
By car: From Panama City: 9-11 hour drive. Head to Puerto Almirante, and from here you can take a boat to Bocas Town (25 mins)
From Costa Rica: From the border it’s about an hour’s drive to Puerto Almirante.
It’s unlikely that you’ll need a car in Bocas Town, but if you do there are taxis.
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