Cerveza Panama
Adventure Sports, Central America, Panama

Quick & Dirty Panama, Part 1: Bocas del Toro

Typically, my preferred style of travel–if it hasn’t become obvious yet–is slow and thorough; plodding, one might even say.

In South America, I spent anywhere from three to nine weeks in every country I visited, limiting myself to a handful of cities so as not to spread my time too thin.

I love to get to know a new destination well, beyond the major sites and tourist attractions and Lonely Planet “Top Picks.”  I like to wander aimlessly around cities taking in the energy, the nuances, and the distinct flavors of life each place has to offer.

I like to think Mak and I achieved this to some degree in Panama despite flying through the country in just 10 short days, a quick and dirty visit by my standards.

How could we possibly achieve slow travel with only 10 days in a country, you ask?

Quite simple, really–we only visited two destinations (not counting our sailing trip through the San Blas Islands, of course–only mainland Panama).

Bocas del Toro, a stunning, postcard-worthy archipelago in the Caribbean a few hours’ drive from the Costa Rican border, was the first on our two-stop tour of Panama.

The glowing reputation of Bocas del Toro certainly preceded it; having been underwhelmed by many of the beaches we’d seen in Central America up until that point, I was already daydreaming of the white sand and leaning palm trees that awaited us in Bocas as we boarded our ferry from the mainland.

We had just come that morning from Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica, having arranged a door-to-door transfer and border crossing all in one convenient package.  The price was great ($26 for everything) and saved us the hassle involved with DIY border crossings, and with our onward travel secured, the process was a breeze.

The ferry was taking us to Bocas del Toro Town on the main island of the archipelago, Isla Colón.  We then hopped on a $1 water taxi for the quick jaunt to the smaller Isla Carenero that was home to the hostel my traveling friends just wouldn’t shut up about, Aqua Lounge.

Ferry to Isla Colón, Panama

Ferrying to Isla Colón.

They were absolutely right to rave about this place.  Built entirely over the water, Aqua Lounge is half hostel, half water park.  Swimming holes, swings, a trampoline, and a slackline were all at our disposal to indulge our inner 8-year-olds and stay cool in the unrelenting Caribbean heat.Aqua Lounge, Bocas del Toro, Panama Aqua Lounge, Bocas del Toro, Panama Aqua Lounge, Bocas del Toro, Panama Aqua Lounge, Bocas del Toro, PanamaIndoors, hammocks were slung everywhere and friendly hostel dogs nuzzled their perpetually wet muzzles into your hand at every opportunity.

Hostel dogs at Aqua Lounge

Oh hai friend!

Almost immediately upon arrival, we made friends with a group of Canadian girls and joined their tour for the following day.  We visited Dolphin Bay, chilled on beautiful Zapatilla beach, snorkeled terrifyingly close to jellyfish, and hunted for starfish and sloths.  Zapatilla Beach Zapatilla Beach Zapatilla Beach

The wildlife sightings were rather disappointing and I didn’t much care for the way the boats chased the dolphins around the bay when we did finally find them, but the rest of the day was relaxed and carefree, a Cerveza Panama in-hand at all times.Bocas del Toro

And it was great to have new friends to hang out with.  Not that Mak and I don’t love each other, but too much time with the same friend can drive a person…well…you know.  But in nine years of friendship we haven’t killed each other, so there’s that.Bocas del Toro, Panama

The next few days were spent wandering Bocas Town discovering the most delicious jerk chicken, a pineapple that refused to be like all the other pineapples, cool local markets, and the chilled out essence of the Caribbean beach town.Caribbean Jerk Chicken Mutant pineapple in Bocas del Toro Town Market in Bocas del Toro Shells at a market in Bocas del Toro, Panama Bicycles for rent in Bocas del Toro, Panama

We debated heavily how to spend our final day in Bocas del Toro; should we visit Starfish Beach?  Red Frog Beach?  Bird Island?  But what I really wanted to try ever since reading about my friend Alex’s experience earlier this year?  Deepboarding.

Imagine, if you will, that waterskiing and snorkeling got together one night.  Maybe they drank a little too much, maybe some mistakes were made…and nine months later (or whatever the gestation period is for water sports) a baby was born, and they named it Deepboarding.

Sometimes known as coral surfing, this aquatic adventure involves being pulled behind a boat while holding onto a curved piece of plastic that allows you to dive deep under the water and resurface for air as needed with a simple flick of the wrists.

With nothing more than a head strap to secure my GoPro, I was unable to get any useable footage of this experience.  What I do have are some pretty spectacular shots of the secluded beach where we snorkeled, a much less jellyfishy location than our previous tour.  We thoroughly enjoyed our tour with Undersea Panama ($25 for deepboarding and snorkeling), but I’ve heard mixed reviews so keep in mind they are not the only such tour operator in town.Bocas del Toro Bocas del Toro Snorkeling in Bocas del Toro, Panama Snorkeling in Bocas del Toro, Panama

All up, I was pretty satisfied with how our days were spent in Bocas del Toro.  It didn’t feel rushed, we squeezed in a fair amount of activities, exploring and chilling, and when it came time for us to shake the sand out of our bags and head for our next destination, we were ready.

Coming up in Part 2 of the Quick & Dirty Panama Tour: Panama City.

Do you prefer to spend less time in more destinations, or more time in fewer destinations when you travel?

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  • Reply Rodrigo December 21, 2014 at 4:45 pm

    It is understandable that yourd friends would be stoked about that hostel; it does look pretty cool! And the beach was so gorgeous! In fact, aside from the dolphin chase, there was nothing about this post that I wouldn’t have enjoyed doing or seeing.

    • Reply LaMochilera December 22, 2014 at 12:22 pm

      Sounds like you better get yourself to Bocas del Toro ASAP!

  • Reply V December 21, 2014 at 5:16 pm

    Yeah for hostel dogs!!

    Loved your photos. I’ve never been to Panama but I loved visiting Costa Rica. I went just before the big tourism boom. It’s so beautiful out there.

    I had a lol moment when I scrolled down and saw the photo of you ‘squeezing’ Mak’s head. Awesome.

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    • Reply LaMochilera December 22, 2014 at 12:24 pm

      If you loved Costa Rica you would definitely love Panama too! Apart from the gorgeous coastline, I also loved the culture and the history of Panama city.

  • Reply Justine December 21, 2014 at 9:08 pm

    I’m so glad to hear that you liked Bocas. I’ve been dying to go there for so long. I swear that one day I’ll actually make it there, and when I do I’m definitely staying at Aqua Lounge. On another note, I can’t believe you went snorkeling with jellyfish. I would have been totally freaked out!
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    • Reply LaMochilera December 22, 2014 at 12:26 pm

      We didn’t really know there would be jellyfish, it freaked me out too! They were the kind with the insanely long tentacles too so you had to swim really wide around them to avoid touching them! Not cool! I actually think a few people got stung…it wasn’t too serious but STILL!

  • Reply Ashley December 22, 2014 at 7:19 am

    Deep boarding sounds like so much fun and I definitely need to try it when I make it to Bocas del Toro! And that is quite possible the weirdest looking pineapple I’ve ever seen, ha!
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  • Reply Charlie December 27, 2014 at 6:15 am

    Hey Leah! Awesome photos, love the underwater shots. I remember seeing Aqua Lounge from the dock. We went over to that island for a walk around too. How much was a night there? Do you know how much you spent per day in Bocas? (I know you said it was cheaper than me!) 😉
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    • Reply LaMochilera December 27, 2014 at 5:05 pm

      If I remember correctly, our dorm beds at Aqua Lounge were $12/night. Breakfast was included so that helped us keep our spending down, and we could eat inexpensive food from their kitchen. I don’t know if we spent less than you guys in Bocas but I know we spent less per day in Bocas than we did in Costa Rica!

  • Reply Liz February 6, 2017 at 3:23 pm

    I’m planning a similar trip for the end of this month! Sounds wonderful!
    I’m wondering about “arrang(ing) a door-to-door transfer and border crossing all in one convenient package. The price was great ($26 for everything) and saved us the hassle involved with DIY border crossings.” What arrangements did you make and how? I’d love your advice on this as we’re planning to do the same.


    • Reply Leah Davis February 9, 2017 at 5:39 pm

      Hi Liz! This was quite awhile ago now so my memory is a bit shaky, but I think we just booked our transfer through our hostel’s front desk. They helped us arrange it and the van picked us up from there. I don’t remember the name of the specific company we went with though, I would just suggest inquiring with your hostel/hotel. Good luck!

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