This past spring marked five years since I graduated high school. (Um, what?!) It also marked 6 years since my first trip abroad to Guatemala and 5 years since the last time I visited Guatemala and Panama as a senior.
There was no five year high school reunion (are those a thing?) but I decided to do something even cooler – return to Panama!
Similar to my first trip in high school, I went with the intention of improving my Spanish. However, this time, instead of heading to the mountains of Boquete, I headed to what many consider Caribbean paradise – Bocas del Toro.
Bocas del Toro is made up of nine main islands and many tiny islets. It’s less than 2 hours from the Costa Rica border, making it a popular destination for backpackers coming from Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. It’s talked about as being a bit of a Caribbean paradise, a must-see in Panama, and I’ve heard more than one person say it’s the most beautiful tropical destination they’ve ever visited.
I was pretty psyched – despite living a few blocks from the beach I am always looking for new beaches to relax on and I couldn’t wait to improve my Spanish.
I spent nearly two weeks in Bocas del Toro…and I made a huge mistake. I never left Isla Colon. As I mentioned, there’s nine islands in Bocas del Toro and while Isla Colon is the main hub, it turns out that none of the breathtaking locations are actually on Isla Colon.
Leaving Isla Colon isn’t a big deal – there are water taxis running for just a few dollars to the nearest islands and you can take tours to many of the others. I just…didn’t. Big regret on my part.
So, please consider the following to be a guide not to the entirety of Bocas del Toro but rather to Isla Colon. And while you’re there, be sure to head to the other islands as well!
There are many ways to get to Bocas del Toro, the most common being via boat from Almirante. However, there is also a small airport on Isla Colon with frequent flights from Costa Rica, Panaama City, and other destinations.
I arrived after crossing the land border between Costa Rica and Panama at Sixoala. I’ll have a full post on that coming soon.
Shuttles are available from several destinations in Costa Rica as well as Panama City and Boquete.
Taking local transportation is, as always, the cheapest option but be prepared to lose a day traveling.
Habla Ya has a great resource on how to get to Bocas del Toro from most destinations.
What To Do
Study Spanish. The reason I didn’t get to do a TON while I was in Bocas del Toro is because I was busy studying Spanish for four hours each day at Habla Ya. Habla Ya is the top rated Spanish school in Panama and Bocas del Toro is one of their three locations. You can read my review of my experience studying there here. There is also another Spanish school, Spanish by the River, ont the opposite end of the island though I’ve heard mixed opinions about them.
Head to the beach. Though the iconic beaches of Bocas del Toro are not on Isla Colon, there are still many popular beaches. The two I visited were Parki Point and Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach). Of the two, I recommend Playa Estrella though there is a restaurant at Parki Point which is perfect if you want to relax in a beach chair and read a book. If you want to swim, though, Playa Estrella is where it’s at. Just please, please respect the signs and do NOT touch the starfish.
Take yoga classes. There are a few studios that offer daily yoga. Ask at your hotel – they’ll probably have information!
Learn to salsa. I, unfortunately, did not get a chance to try this – my self-doubt and anxiety got the best of me and I ditched lessons. Oops. But, Panama is a great place to learn how to salsa and there are both paid and free lessons all over Isla Colon.
Learn to surf. Again, this is not something I personally did but it is a very popular activity on Isla Colon.
Where to Eat
There are countless food options on Isla Colon and, honestly, I barely scratched the surface of them. I kept returning to the same few budget friendly spots over and over. I’ll be making a post just about those restaurants soon but here are my favorites:
Restaurante Tom. $5 lunch, anyone?! I ate here nearly every day for lunch after Spanish class because the food is cheap but oh, so good! It’s right on the water too so you get to enjoy a nice ocean breeze!
Cafe del Mar. When I wasn’t eating lunch at Tom’s, I was eating here. I loved how cozy the atmosphere was and that the coffee was real coffee. I had one of the sandwiches and it was delicious.
Where to Stay
My accommodation was included with the work I was doing with Habla Ya so I didn’t get a chance to stay anywhere else on Isla Colon. I recommend checking Booking.com and Hostelworld to find the best accommodation.
Would I Go Back?
I didn’t fall in love with Bocas del Toro. Or, more accurately, I didn’t fall in love with Isla Colon. I enjoyed my time there and am glad I went but I was also ready to leave when I did.
Panama in general doesn’t hold my attention in the same way that Costa Rica does, though I haven’t been able to put my finger on why. Maybe I just haven’t found “the” place yet.
That said, I would still return .I actually plan on heading back to Panama sometime later this year or early 2018. There are so many places to visit in Panama that I still want to explore. I’ve heard so many good things about Panama City and San Blas sounds incredible. Bocas del Toro will likely be my first stop. This time, though, I would head to the other islands. I’ve heard so many great things about the islands neighboring Isla Colon and some super cool accommodation projects on them
Panama seems to be pretty strict about requiring proof of onward travel – I know several people who were forced to buy flights at the border – so I definitely recommend having some type of printed ticket to prevent any issues.
Isla Colon is just one of the 9 main islands in Bocas del Toro It can be easily accessed from Almirate and makes a great base for exploring the rest of Bocas.
While in Bocas I studied at the Habla Ya Spanish School. The teachers were great and I learned so much. If you’re thinking about learning Spanish, I highly recommend Habla Ya!
There is an hour time difference between Panama and Costa Rica so if you’re heading from one to the other, be sure to change your watch. I didn’t and I missed a tour because of it!
Check out my other posts on Panama here.
Want to do more in Panama besides visit Isla Colon? Check out this great 10 day itinerary!