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A Bust in Bocas del Toro // Things to Do in Bocas del Toro, Panama (When it’s Not Raining)

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What with me crying on the causeway in Panama City and the title of this post, you might be starting to think that I had a straight-up awful time in Panama. And it’s true. There were times in Panama that I was e x t r e m e l y miserable. Like when it rained through almost all of the five days that we had in Bocas del Toro.

Let me tell you: when you go somewhere expecting a tropical beach destination, you don’t generally remember to think that it might just rain while you’re there. Which, like, our bad. It was the tail end of the rainy season, so we probably should have guessed that there would be a bit more rain than usual. I never said we were smart.

So, we went into our five days in Bocas del Toro with the full expectation that we would have some beautiful, amazing days on pristine beaches. I had pages and pages bookmarked in my guidebook, and I was rearing and ready to go.

Unfortunately, most of those bookmarks never got put to use. You know, because of the rain.

So instead, I thought I’d share my plan of things to do in Bocas del Toro, Panama with you–and then tell you what really happened. Maybe you can base your own plans for things to do in Bocas del Toro off of this post if you’re heading there soon. Just maybe don’t go in the rainy season.

Five Days of Awesome Things to do in Bocas del Toro

Are you ready to get some awesome advice and laugh at my pain all in one go? Then keep reading to find out more!

Day One // Or, that time we slept through half the day

What Should Have Happened

There are a few things that should have happened on our first day in Bocas del Toro that didn’t, but the first thing we should have done really should have been done the night before: take motion sickness pills. Neither Daniel nor I had ever had trouble with motion sickness before, but we had also never travelled by bus in Central America before. In this case, we should have listened to his sister’s much more experienced advice and taken some motion sickness pills. That way, we might have actually gotten some sleep on the overnight bus from Panama City to Bocas del Toro.

If we had actually gotten some sleep, then maybe we would have been able to enjoy one of our only sunny days in Bocas del Toro. Here’s what we would have done:

  1. Rested, but not as long, before heading out for the day
  2. Made the short, 20 minute hike to Up in the Hill for a tour of their eco-friendly organic farm, which grows ***chocolate*** among other things.
  3. From there, hiked to Wizard Beach to spend a lazy afternoon working on our tans getting sunburned.

Up in the Hill Sign Isla Bastimentos Bocas del Toro Panama

What Really Happened

Taking a ten-hour overnight bus from Panama City to Bocas del Toro was our first mistake. Getting to our guesthouse at 6 am was our next.

By some work of God, the owner (an English guy by the name of Simon who looks straight out of the 70s) was already awake. Of course, we couldn’t check into our room yet, but he sent us down the hill for breakfast to a place we ended up visiting every morning of our trip – Tio Tom’s Hostel. Seriously guys, if you’re looking for a breakfast place on Isla Bastimentos, Tio Tom’s is it.

When we got back from breakfast, Simon took pity on us and showed us to our room. Where we proceeded to pass out for the next five hours.

The winding roads of Panama just aren’t conducive to sleep, okay?

Up in the Hill

Once we woke up again, we decided we weren’t really up for too much adventure. So instead, we decided to explore our new home turf and made the short hike up to Up in the Hill, a small chocolate and coffee farm lauded in my guidebook and everywhere on the internet. There, we indulged in cold mochas, truffles, and the most perfect brownie I have ever had in my entire life.

Truffles, a brownie, and mochas on a tiled table at Up in the Hill on Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Truffles on a tiled table at Up in the Hill on Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

With our stomachs slightly regretting the decision to make our first ‘meal’ after a long bus ride completely chocolate based, we stopped at the island’s main dock and took a seat on one of the many benches scattering the area. There, we did one of our favorite things to do while traveling: people watch.

We saw newcomers like ourselves stepping off the boats and heading to their accommodations, dogs begging for food, and a group of young kids throwing rocks at seagulls. They seemed to have a pretty good recruiting scheme going on because their numbers were much larger at the end of the night than at the beginning.

We watched as the sun fell below the horizon line before going to find some real food for dinner.

Docks on Isla Bastimentos Bocas del Toro Panama

Day Two

What Should Have Happened

If we had managed to stay awake the previous day, then we would have been able to scratch off one of the biggest musts on my list. That would have meant that we could have used our second day in Bocas del Toro to do EVEN MORE exploring. Here are just a few of the awesome ideas that I had:

  • Take a taxi boat from Old Bank, Bastimentos, over to Red Frog Beach, one of the most beautiful beaches in Bocas del Toro.
  • Get ourselves on a boat tour through the mangrove trees and take a hike to the Nivida Bat Cave on Isla Bastimentos. Sure, not what you imagine you’re going to do on a tropical vacation, but the place sounds SO COOL.

What Really Happened

The next morning, we made took the day to explore the beaches on the island–or at least the ones that you could walk to from where we were. We ended up knee deep in mud (more on that later), but couldn’t have had more fun – and the weather was absolutely beautiful.

Palm trees hanging out over the ocean in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Day Three

What Should Have Happened

Everything I ever read about Starfish Beach on Isla Colon made it sound like it was by far one of the best things to do in Bocas del Toro. And if it had been 2012, it very well would have been. Starfish Beach was, at one point, known for the hordes of starfish that flocked to the calm waters surrounding it. Unfortunately, tourism seems to have gotten the best of the place, because it’s mostly just bad environmental practice and loads of tourist-aimed food booths at this point.

Instead of Starfish Beach, I suggest visiting one of the millions of other awesome beaches in Bocas del Toro. Here’s a list of 6 beaches in Bocas del Toro you’ve never heard of that look way better!

What Really Happened

The sky the morning of our third day on the islands didn’t seem to be warning us of any impending weather, and we spent the afternoon at Starfish Beach, on Isla Colon. By the time the sun was starting to set, however, we could tell that rain was moving in.

Boat on the each on Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Panama

That night, it poured.

Day Four

What Should Have Happened

Our optimistic plan for the day was to go to Bibi’s on the Beach, a popular restaurant on Isla Caranero for lunch. Then, we were going to have a little adventure and rent kayaks to paddle around the island. We got the idea from an awesome blog post from Habla Ya (a great resource for planning your trip to Panama), and I still think it sounds like one of the best afternoons ever.

What Really Happened

The next morning, trying to remain optimistic, we headed over to the main island of Colon during a break in the rain and immediately regretted it. What had already been a choppy ride had turned into a full-blown, stomach dropping five minutes, and we were absolutely dreading the way back – especially because it was impossible to tell when the rain was going to start up again.

We ended up taking refuge with food – first at Cafe del Mar for lunch, and later at the Buena Vista Bar & Grill for cocktails and another brownie. While I’m sure the view is a sight to behold when nice weather shows its face, it was a pretty gloomy sight while we were there.

Sandwich and Smoothie from Cafe del Mar on Bocas del Toro Panama
The food and views from Cafe del Mar weren’t really that bad, though!

Day Five

What Should Have Happened

Taking a boat tour to the surrounding islands is one of the most popular things to do in Bocas del Toro, and for good reason. The islands of Bocas del Toro are absolutely beautiful, and you shouldn’t limit yourself to just one of them. Taking a boat tour is one of the best ways to do this!

If you’re staying on the main island (Isla Colon), then organizing a boat tour shouldn’t be hard. There are loads of operators all over the place–though it probably wouldn’t hurt to do a bit of research if you want to travel ethically!

We booked a tour with Bastimentos Alive which left from Old Bank on Isla Bastimentos and were over the moon excited about it.

Isla Zapatilla
Isla Zapatilla is one of the more popular options for boat trips in Bocas del Toro

What Really Happened

We had planned to join a tour to Zapatilla and Sloth Islands the following morning, but the combination of a faulty engine on the tour guide’s end and more rain, that didn’t happen. Instead, we stayed holed up in our guesthouse for the majority of the day, only venturing out for food. Once again, the views weren’t exactly the greatest…

The next morning, we packed up our bags and dashed at a break in the downpour, once again braving the choppy waters in order to make it back to the mainland to catch our shuttle for Boquete. On that shuttle, we met an American expat who so helpfully told us that, according to a cab driver he once had, although we were technically at the beginning of the dry season, every four years it took a little bit longer to start. Guess which year we were lucky enough to visit Panama in? That’s right, the year with the longer rainy season.

Of course, I’m not too worried about having been rained out of half of our days in Bocas del Toro (although it did suck). Yes, the rain really put a damper on our time (that’s one of the downsides to visiting a place that has so much to do outside), but because my dad is dating a woman from Panama, I’m pretty certain that I’ll return to the country sooner rather than later. And while I’d love to explore some new places, I have a feeling I’ll make my way back to Bocas del Toro as well so that I can finally get to do all of the cool stuff that I had been hoping to do the first time around. It’ll just take me a little bit longer than I thought it would.


Addie Gray is a recent college grad and a passionate solo female traveler. Having traveled to more than 20 countries, she now shares her knowledge on budget travel, solo female travel, and travel photography.

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