Close your eyes and imagine taking a leisurely stroll along a secluded white sand beach. The sun is languishing in its final moments before tucking down below the horizon to sleep for the night. Every shade of pastel orange, pink, and purple are dancing high above in the sky. Your only company are the curious hermit crabs who emerge from their sand tunnels to peek out at you as you meander along the warm water’s edge. Taking a glance along the coastline, thousands of palm trees sway in the gentle breeze within the shadows of magnificently carved mountains looming far in the distance. There are no sights or sounds of civilization – no traffic jams, no construction zones, not even the subtle buzz of others’ distant conversations. The hum of the soft waves breaking gently at your toes is the only melody included in this soundtrack. What is this surreal place, you may be wondering? Some might call it paraíso. Others are lucky enough to call it home. Regardless of its title, welcome to the Panamanian paradise of Bocas del Toro.
I was fortunate enough to fit in a quick two-week adventure to the meeting place of the Americas earlier this month. While I did go for business (more on that in a future post!), I certainly made the most of my downtime by exploring the natural wonders of this often-overlooked Central American gem. I am incredibly excited to share these stories with all of you, especially in recognition that this is the first international travel post we are bringing to all our wonderful clients since the world shutdown in March of 2020. We hope it inspires your creativity and curiosity. As always, when you are ready to get back out there and explore this wonderful world of ours, we at Your Concierge NYC are standing by, ready to create your personalized itinerary and vacation of a lifetime.
Let me first start by saying that getting from New York City to Bocas del Toro is somewhat challenging. I was traveling solo – the first international trip I have ever attempted on my own – in a foreign country with a subtle language barrier during the ongoing pandemic, which required additional layers of screening and complexity. Logistically, it took two planes from separate airports, multiple Ubers, and a variety of boats to get to my destination in Bocas del Toro. Thankfully, my Spanish is fairly advanced, and I was able to get through it all without a hitch. I’m not saying all of this to scare you off from this awesome location. On the contrary! This is a perfect example of why we highlight certain itineraries on our blog: yes, it is not the easiest place to get to on your own. But, having personally taken this trip, we can easily set up all aspects of your journey to eliminate any guesswork or unnecessary anxiety that might otherwise prevent you from experiencing this exquisite corner of the globe.
Now, on to the fun stuff! There are a variety of accommodations available throughout Bocas del Toro. In fact, there are multiple islands to choose from within Bocas del Toro. I spent some time on Bocas Town, the main hub of the island region and home to the airport you’ll be using to access your own slice of paradise. I chose to book a two-story oceanfront villa at the Island Plantation eco-resort located on the calm and secluded Bluff Beach (aka Playa Bluff). Keep in mind, an eco-resort typically prides itself on being one with the environment and minimizing its carbon footprint. You will likely not have air conditioning at such a place, but honestly that really was not a problem at all. Given that it was oceanfront, a lovely breeze made its way through the villa and a fan was available should you need some extra cooling. The beautifully appointed villa included a stunning open-air shower, full kitchen with filtered drinking water readily available, and the most picturesque viewpoint from the large sliding bay windows on the second floor that allows guests to peer through the palm fronds to the unspoiled beauty of Bluff Beach below.
After settling into my resort with a relaxing 90-minute beachside massage and coconut oil hair treatment, I made my way down to the water’s edge and watched the waves crash softly over my toes. In the winter months, the surf is too dangerous to swim in. In fact, Bluff Beach is internationally recognized as one of the world’s best surfing spots for those advanced enough to brave the aggressive waves. I am by no means even an inexperienced surfer, so thankfully my trip coincided with forgiving surf! After watching the giant hermit crabs poke their claws at each other – and me – for a while, I went back and got cleaned up for a lovely dinner at The View. Given we are on the secluded side of the island, it’s not too challenging to grab a coveted seat on the second story balcony attached to their quaint bed and breakfast. You’ll be glad you did, especially if you time it perfectly and sit down to a meal during the golden hour. Pro tip: get the Mongolian fish for dinner and top it off with a generous portion of toffee banana pie!
If you are on the island in August or September, you may be lucky enough to coincide with turtle season. Unfortunately, I arrived directly in between to the two peak times and didn’t get to spot any cute baby reptiles on my evening beach walk, but it was still a lovely night with my toes in the sand, nonetheless! In case you are a turtle aficionado and wish to time your trip to maximize your chances of laying eyes on this natural spectacle: starting in mid-August, mama turtles make their way from the ocean to lay their eggs in the sand. Unlike other species, they do not wait with their babies to hatch, but rather return to the water once this is done. Roughly one month later, in mid-September, the baby turtles begin to hatch and make the dangerous journey from their nesting area to the inviting waves. Next time I’m in Panama, I’m going to try to time it so that I have a better chance of spotting the migrating baby turtles. I’m told that you should wear dark, plain clothing so as not to catch the young reptiles’ eyes and distract them from returning directly to the water as this extra time increases their risk of being visible to nocturnal predators.
The next morning, I grabbed my things and met a local captain on a private charter to escort me through some of the popular islands surrounding Bocas Town. There are a variety of options to choose from in terms of a private charter, including everything from a small dinghy to a large luxury yacht. I opted for a smaller speedboat able to maneuver the mangroves easily. We set out first to Dolphin Cove to spot the wild aquatic mammals in their natural environment – and boy were they abundant! We even spotted a pod with a few babies playfully twirling through the air and frolicking in the wake of the boat. On a different island, we spotted three-toed sloths – or perezosos in Spanish – high up in the trees. Fun fact: sloths only come down once per day in order to do their business! Otherwise, they spend all their time hanging from the tree
The most visually stunning of all the beaches we visited belonged to Parque Nacional de Zapatilla (aka Zapatilla National Park). This is actually a collection of two islands, which got their name from their interesting shape as seen from an aerial vantage point. Essentially, they resemble a large footprint walking over the crystal clear, turquoise waters. Hence, the name “Zapatilla” was born, which literally translates to “shoe” in the native tongue. We were unable to step foot on the first of the two islands as it is a protected zone for turtle hatchlings. I found it really comforting that the locals and government alike go to such great lengths to protect their wildlife. For instance, each nesting site was marked with a neon pink stake to alert nighttime guardians (mainly local volunteers) where the little ones are resting.
After taking in the natural beauty of Zapatilla #1 from the boat, we sailed up to the shores of the second island and “docked” directly within the shallow sand. My first mission was to scout out the area and find the most picturesque locations, so I meandered around the island’s perimeter. These are not huge land masses – it took me maybe 30 minutes to make my loop around the entirety of the island, most of which had a rudimentary path to follow. I’m glad I did because the coast on the opposite side of the island was truly untouched without a soul or a boat in sight. The surf was gentler on this side, as well, which was a welcome relief to the powerful sun. Another pro tip: bring a wide brimmed hat and lots of sunscreen. I promise you that whatever amount of sunscreen you predict is enough, you will need to at least double it! (Coming from a future doc here, please always be mindful of the sun’s harmful UV rays and its detrimental effects on your sensitive skin.)
Most organized tours typically end their day on Zapatilla before taking clients to a local seafood restaurant for a late lunch. Given that I was on a private tour with me, myself, and I – our itinerary was more flexible. We did pop over to the tasty fish shack standing on stilts over the water. I felt a little guilty watching the colorful fish chase each other as I was simultaneously ordering the fresh catch of the day – but when in Rome, am I right? So, after I tried to make a dent in the very generous plate, we sped off to another popular location known as Playa Estrella or Starfish Beach. This place is something out of an aquatic fairytale. Hundreds of giant starfish the color of fresh orange juice were once scattered about the shallow waters of this coastline for as far as the eye could see. Unfortunately, heavy tourism coupled with unsafe sunscreen and physically handling these delicate creatures has led to a severe drop in their numbers. In speaking with my local guide, I learned that the act of gently touching the starfish is not inherently harmful to their wellbeing. Instead, touching them while having applied sunscreen that is unsafe to marine life or raising them above the surface of the water is what becomes dangerous. The lack of tourism during the pandemic seems to have given the starfish a chance to recover and more are beginning to appear along the shores once again. I highly recommend you visit this magical beach and swim among these creatures during your travels. It truly is surreal. I also implore you to respect their habitat – remember that we are merely visitors in their home. We all have a responsibility to protect the wildlife and their environment, which in this example is as simple as choosing reef-safe sunscreen and not removing the creatures from the water.
Our final stop around the islands took us to a secluded, off the beaten path alcove known as La Piscina or the swimming pool. The allure of this location is how swimmable it is – thus, its very fitting name. The land juts out into the sea on either side to provide 270o protection against the relentless sea. It is chock full of colorful schools of fish that scurry about the rocks and boulders that appear to be haphazardly strewn amongst this serene paradise. Not to mention, the white sand beach is among the softest, finest sand I buried my toes in while in all of Panama. It is impossible to do this spot justice with words alone, so let some of my pictures below persuade you of the need to go float in sun.
While this wraps up my tour around the islands and a brief stay in Bocas Town before moving onto my true business within the islands, this represents only the tip of the iceberg in terms of activities and ways to spend your time while on holiday. Perhaps start your day with a surf lesson during surfing season and spend your afternoon shaded by the jungle’s generous canopy while hiking for hours to hidden coves and beaches with an astute guide. If you are anything like me and try to incorporate interacting with animals during your vacation, then why not go horseback riding through the jungle and end the journey trotting through the shallow waves at sunset? For the adrenaline seekers, there are a number of biking, ATV, and zip lining tours available. Prefer to be immersed in local culture? Then look no further – cacao and botanical garden tours abound with a variety of highly regarded restaurants and nightlife locations to keep your fueled for your next adventure. I would be remiss to include a plug for the diving scene in Bocas del Toro as it is widely considered a premier dive spot amongst avid international divers. While I am not yet PADI certified – it is on my to-do list, I promise! – I was really tempted to take a certification course at The Dive Shop in town so I could explore the top attractions below the water’s surface. But alas, I only had a limited amount of time to explore this gem of an island paradise one my own. You could easily spend a month here and just scratch the surface of all of the awesome things to explore. The world is truly your oyster in stunning Bocas del Toro, Panama. Contact us here to get started planning your next adventure of a lifetime alongside people who have experienced this trip firsthand.