As soon as the plans to visit Panama were put in motion, Bocas Del Torro was the very first thing I added to the itinerary. The archipelago of nine Caribbean islands is situated on the far side of Panama, just near the Costa Rican border. Unlike the untouched tranquility of the San Blas islands, Bocas was well-know for being a lively hub for adventure seekers, divers, surfers, and international partiers. After an absolutely blissful week enjoying the luxuries of city life and the remote slow-paced oasis of San Blas, we chose to close out our trip by spending five days living it up in the islands of Bocas Del Torro.
As our small plane touched down in the tiny airstrip in Bocas Town (the main island), I was honestly a bit surprised at the topography. As we waited on the tarmac, I surveyed the town, which looked like a menagerie of dilapidated housing. There were barefooted local children playing soccer at the end of the airstrip, feet from where our plane had stopped. For a moment, I was bit caught off guard at how impoverished and third-world the town appeared. I wondered if it was safe, but reserved my opinion until we had settled in. Bocas quickly taught me that first impressions are not always correct. Bocas town was undeniably rustic, and the people lived in very basic accommodations, but it turned out to be an extremely approachable and very safe community, very welcoming to newcomers.
Within hours, we were barefoot ourselves, bartering for groceries in open air bodegas in rough-looking neighborhoods, where the locals never gave us a second look. I became fascinated by the diversity of it all: the juxtaposition of trendy juice bars and hipster cafes directly next to hostels with tarps for roofs. The locals who peddled coconuts and tapestries lived harmoniously next door to expats running online businesses from their laptops. The blend of different cultures and people from varying socioeconomic status and walks of life was odd… but very refreshing. The influx of digital nomads and backpackers brought in significant revenue for the islands. And while the large community of expats clearly had money (Bocas was not cheap), the demographic was clearly people who enjoyed a simple life, and so it all seemed to work well together. Bocas was a haven for burn-outs, beach bums, and locals who appreciated them for stimulating their economy. It didn’t take long before I acclimated and found myself imagining a life in one of the hipster hostels or communes working as a freelancer and fading into the obscurity of tropical island life.
We spent our first night on the main island at the Diver’s Paradise Hotel. It was one of the fancier locations on the island. The first floor of the hotel was an open-air waterfront restaurant and lounge, where we enjoyed cocktails while making small talk with visitors of all ages who flocked from around the world to enjoy some of the best diving in all of the Caribbean. After dinner, we wandered into the city after dark, only to find it was a bit of a ghost-town. Dozens of bars and nightclubs lined the streets, but most didn’t open their doors until 11:00 p.m. We began to see for ourselves that the lore of Bocas being a party town was well-founded.
The following day, we woke with the sun and hailed a small boat to load our baggage and head to our next destination: Isla Bastiamentos. The only method of travel in Bocas is water taxi, and as the days went on, we became much more skilled in haggling for the best rate. After bobbing along over the waves, the boat pulled into the dock of our next home. Once again, we had found an absolute gem on Airbnb, and our over-the-water bungalow was everything I dreamed of. It was a large cabin on stilts, with our own private balcony where you could lounge in hammocks over the water or jump directly into the sea. The main room of the bungalow boasted a dreamy king-size bed with flowy nets and floor-to-ceiling glass doors, which could be left open to sleep in the breeze, or kept closed and still wake up with uninterrupted view of the water. A narrow elevated boardwalk connected our bungalow to an identical one 50 yards past. Each of the cabins connected to large over-the-water common area, which served as a lounge and restaurant for the exclusive use of the bungalow guests. We listed to reggae and relished in morning cocktails and one of the best breakfasts I’d ever had, prepared by the friendly full-service staff.
On one of our first days in the islands, we decided to travel to the most famous beach first. Starfish Beach was located on the far side of the main island, seemingly worlds away from the busy town. The beaches were adjacent to a lush rainforest, which ended abruptly just feet before the shoreline. Beneath the massive palms were lounge chairs each a different color to correspond with the tiki bars, where were erected in thatched huts beneath the forest every few yards along the beach. The sand was golden, and as the sun rose, it almost glowed a reddish hue, in stark contrast to the green waters. It felt like we were in our own world, with just a small section of beach separating us from the jungle and the clear lagoon ahead. As soon as we found a place to land, we were approached by the tiki bartenders who took our orders. While drinks and food were in no short supply, it all felt very authentic. In a far departure from commercial resort beach bars, these little shacks were run by generators and open flames. And despite the modest set-up, they kept a steady flow of frozen tropical cocktails that looked like the came straight off the pages of a Travel & Leisure magazine. The hours melted into one another as we alternated from beach chairs to floating loungers, or dunked into the cool waters while looking for the neon red starfish that gave the beach its name. The background sound was a pleasant mix of tropical music mixed with the rustling of massive palms in the breeze and gentle waves lapping the sand. It was no easy feat getting to this stretch of beach, so despite being “the most famous” of the Bocas beaches, were never more than two of a small handful of sunbathers.
Although I could have very happily stayed on Starfish beach for the entire five days, we knew there were many more unique beachscapes waiting to be discovered, so after a relaxing day, we gathered our belongings and decided trek through a narrow trail in the jungle to our next destination. The trail ran parallel to the water, giving us many opportunities to stop along the way at little openings of uncharted beaches to enjoy all to ourselves. At the end of a sun-soaked day of beach and hiking, we returned to our bungalow to watch the sun set over the bay from our hammock. We enjoyed another fantastic meal cooked by our staff, and were joined by other backpackers staying around Isla Bastiamentos, who must have learned the secret that the staff of our bungalows were some of the best cooks in town.
Over breakfast the next morning, the owner of the bungalow introduced herself. She was an American expat from California, who told us about her grad school experiences at NYU before falling in love with Bocas and deciding to relocate her family to the simplicity of island life to open the bungalow outpost. We also met a local guide, who asked us if we’d like to join him on an excursion to some of the lesser known islands for the day. We had no plans, and a young Canadian couple staying in the other bungalow (who had taken the same small plane to the islands with us) perked up when they heard the proposition. After throwing on a bikini, the four of us found ourselves in the boat of the friendly local heading off into the open water for a day of exploring. He stopped his boat at a small sandbar, where we looked over into the crystal waters to see hundreds of colorful starfish covering the sea floor. We traveled on a bit and he silenced the engine and told us to look out for dolphin. Being a Floridian, I was skeptical that we would just stumble upon dolphin, because I know it is usually a chance encounter. Our local guide certainly knew the area well, because sure enough, within minutes the dorsal fins of a family of small dolphin were jumping around the boat. Next, he pulled us up to the shallows of a small mangrove island and told us to look up. Just where he pointed, we saw a sloth, climbing in the mangroves searching for breakfast (and moving a lot faster than I thought sloth were capable of.)
After showing us some of the natural wildlife, we finally pulled up to Cayo Zapatilla. I had read that this island was one of the most remote and known to be the most beautiful beach Bocas had to offer – and it was. It was a long stretch of white sand beaches and the bluest clear waters you could imagine. The island had no structures, just coastline and trees. He told us to “enjoy,” and left us for hours to worship the sun and swim in the sparkling azure seas. Again, we found ourselves to be the only people on a deserted beach all to ourselves. The sun was incredibly strong, and there was little shade, so we spend a lot of our time swimming in the rejuvenating waters. After hours of direct sun, I was relived to hear a whistle from afar, as our guide returned and waved us back to the boat to continue our journey. We stopped at another small island of colorful over-the-water houses on Cayo Coral, where our guide had arranged a lunch. After eating and drinking our fill of cuba libres, he handed us snorkels and masks to discover for ourselves why this island was named Cayo Coral. Just below the colorful houses was an incredible reef of vibrant color and schools of tropical fish, eel, and starfish. The dock above had dozens of netted hammocks and a water slide, where I repeated plunged myself back into the sea whenever I needed to cool off. We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the Caye before we loaded back into the boat for our long boat ride home.
After a sound sleep, we woke early the next day for a new adventure. We returned to Bocas town, where we had reserved a full-day ATV trek. We were picked up in a tuk-tuk and whisked to the edge of the island to the Flying Pirates outpost. We met the man who owned Flying Pirates: a one-legged American expat named Skully with a peg leg, giving new meaning to the pirate theme of the excursion and hostel he ran. After a quick safety speech, Skully set us up with our own ATVs for the day. I was happily surprised to learn that unlike most ATV tours, our adventure did not come with a guide. There were no governors controlling the speed of the bikes and no set course to travel. There was a map painted on a wall depicting the expansive selection of private beaches, dense rainforest, rivers, swimming lagoons and wilderness to chose from. Our only instruction was, “go where you want and be back by nightfall,” and the only caution was “you break it, you buy it.” Skully explained that he came to Bocas before the rush of tourism, and had single-handedly purchased almost the entire island, including all the rainforest and beaches. He and a crew of locals took nearly two years to bushwack and forge trails just wide enough for ATVs to explore the huge plot of land. After being set up on our four-wheelers, he gave us the code for a gate at the entrance of his preserve, and once we passed through we were on our own to explore the entirety of it. After getting the hang of manning the machinery, we zoomed off down the trails and into the rainforest. The trails varied from relatively well-paved pathways along the beach to steep and treacherous hilly inclines through the forest. We rode along the beach, stopping along the way to bathe in the idyllic beaches (also to wash off the mud that had covered us after zipping through riverbeds.) We navigated to a natural pool where the sea water spilled into a protected cove of calm crystal waters with a huge arch of coral reef at the bottom. We spent hours climbing to the heights of the jungle, trying to keep our eyes on the difficult terrain while also looking up at the tree canopy, where we saw dozens of howler monkeys and tropical birds. At many points, we got the ATV stuck in deep sand dunes, muddy patches and large fallen trees and stumps. I was very appreciative to have endeavored the journey with Dani, who was strong enough to push and pull the ATVs while I revved the engine to dislodge us.
The entire day blazing trails, we did not see another soul, just miles and miles of nature and wildlife. It was truly an adventure like I had never experienced before. After 6 hours of riding and exploring, my hands were tired and we headed back toward the outpost. On a stretch of beach, almost out of nowhere, we stumbled upon a beachfront restaurant. We left our ATV by the side of the road for a cocktail before we ended the day. The restaurant was a surfers haven, but was so remote, I almost couldn’t believe how it could stay in business. Much to our surprise, they had a coal fired oven where we had delicious Napoli-style pizza while sitting on loungers and watching the huge waves ahead and surfers on the horizon. After an action packed day, we got the ATVs back to base just as the sun was setting. Upon our return, Skully greeted us and informed us that as a thank-you for not wrecking the ATV or requiring rescue, we were invited to as many complimentary drinks at his hostel bar as we desired before returning home. We took the offer and sat in the charming hostel pool overlooking the water sipping beers and unwinding with The Eagles playing the background. Skully, who was quite friendly, joined us and told us about his path to Panama after having a corporate job in LA before losing his leg. He gave us the advice to work as hard as we possibly could while we were young and save up, and then stake out a piece of paradise to invest in before it was discovered, as he had done in Bocas. I have to say, I was truly inspired by his story (so don’t be surprised if you one day find that Dani and I have retired to a Central American island to run a laid-back hostel.)
For our final two days in Bocas, we left our indulgent bungalow accommodations to try our shot at hostel life on the nearby Red Frog Island. I’ve had my share of European hostels in my younger days, but Dani had ever been, so it was a good opportunity to check something off his bucket list and get more acquainted with the large community of backpackers our age. We stayed at the Selina, which is a large chain of international hostels, which got their start in Panama. While it was a “hostel” by title, it was trendy and immaculately designed compound with a pool, bars, open air lounges with pool tables and hammocks, and colorful installations of art and murals. We also booked a private room with air-conditioning, so it was hardly roughing it. After checking-in we explored the island, which was most known for surfing. The island was home to the Selina hostel, where young people stayed, and the Red Frog Resort, which was an opulent property of resort accommodations and large estates which could be purchased. As we pulled up to the dock and saw a private marina filled with yachts and massive sailboats, I immediately sensed that this was the island of choice for international expats with off-shore Panamanian accounts who wanted a real-property asset to add to the portfolio. One positive aspect of sharing the island which such an upscale resort was that the grounds were perfectly maintained and protected as a wildlife preserve. The paths leading up to the hostel were lush with tropical flowers and foliage and the forest was a symphony of bird calls and tropical frogs chirping. We enjoyed drinks and dinner at a beachfront restaurant on the sand, where backpackers fraternized under a canopy of colorful lights strung through the trees. We headed to bed early, knowing that the next day of our time in Bocas would be the craziest yet.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit that we planned our entire itinerary to make sure we were in Bocas for Filthy Friday. Filthy Friday is proudly hailed as being “the biggest party in Central America.” Upon coming to Bocas, we noticed that almost every restaurant, hotel, hostel and water taxi was advertising the party. And as we spoke to people, we learned that it wasn’t just a tourist attraction – Bocas local and Panamanians from across the country flocked for the weekly party. It was a full-day bar crawl spanning multiple islands, where the bars were entirely booked by the hundreds of party-goers who patronized the wild event. The party began before noon at a large nightclub on the main island, where we were granted entry by being branded with a Filthy Friday temporary tattoo and neon tank top. Even in the morning hours, the first bar was wild. It was like a music festival, beach party and bar crawl all combined in one. We had already realized that although the country of Panama was large, the community of travelers and backpackers was small. Upon entering, we saw familiar faces from our time in Panama City, and even met up with a local we had become fast friends with while staying in San Blas. It was an unusual feeling, because although we were on an archipelago in the middle of the Caribbean, we entered the party with our own crew full of international friends. The music blared, bikini clad masses danced, and the Filthy Friday staff circulated the dance floor pouring shots into your mouth as they passed. It didn’t take more than a few minutes before all inhibitions were thrown to the wind. At the sound of a piercing air horn, the mass of hundreds of people were led to the docks where dozens of boats waited to whisk us away to the next island. The next leg of the crawl was a huge multi-level over-the water nightclub on an island where equal number of people danced on the platform and swam in the waters below. With complete disregard for the time of day (or amount of drinks we had consumed) we danced with our new friends until the sun began to set. Once again, the large group was taken by boat to the final destination, the Aqua Lounge, which was a bar and hostel over the water surrounding a large opening of water and platforms of differing heights where we jumped into the salty pool below. As night fell, the party grew more wild. Before we knew it, Filthy Friday hype men were firing flame throwers into the air and handing sparklers out of the people who danced in a mass to the base-driven reggatone. We danced, and drank, and danced some more under the stars. It was one of the most fun days I’d ever had, and certainly the most unique party I’ve ever been a part of. As the night turned to the wee morning hours, most of the party dispersed to their own after-parties and their respective hostels. I was proud even to have endured the entire crawl, so we decided to quit while we were ahead and hugged our friends goodbye as we hopped onto a water taxi back to our own island to catch a few hours of sleep before it was time to leave.
The next morning, we reluctantly rose in the early morning to pack our things and catch our flight. When we arrived to the one-room airport terminal, it was clear that most of the passengers of our plane had also attended Filthy Friday and were feeling equally as unpleasant. With a few snacks, I shook off the hangover just as we boarded our plane and watched the nine islands of Bocas Del Torro fade into the background as we headed back to Panama City. Our time in the islands was everything I had hoped…and more. We had days to ourselves on private beaches, time to unwind in a luxury bungalow, adventures trekking the rainforest, animal encounters, and ended with a wild party and a handful of new friends. I don’t know if there is any other place quite like Bocas Del Torro, and I could easily understand why so many people who came for vacation decided never to leave. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the stamina to endure another Filthy Friday, but I would jump at any opportunity to return to island life in Bocas and enjoy the lifestyle mantra coined by its inhabitants: “Sweet Love Bocas.”