Scuba Diving & Snorkeling
Scuba diving and snorkeling are among the most popular activities in Bocas del Toro, owing to well-preserved displays of hard and soft coral, mangrove swamps, volcanic-rock walls, underwater caves -- and balmy water temperatures that average around 86°F (30°C). Beyond tropical reef fish, divers are privy to larger species such as nurse sharks, spotted eagle rays and southern rays, turtles, and more unusual species such as batfish and toadfish. You might also see colorful sponges, and there is even an underwater landing craft that was sunk to create an artificial reef. Snorkeling and diving sites that are recommended are Crawl Cay (or Coral Cay), with shallow waters and some of the best coral formations in the area; Hospital Point, just a 10-minute boat ride from Bocas and easy to reach by water taxi; Polo Beach, a shallow system of caves suitable for snorkelers but reachable only 6 months of the year; Swan's Cay, with interesting rock formations created by battering waves and also a migratory-bird site; and Cayos Zapatillas, two delicate islands with white-sand beaches surrounded by an extensive reef system that attracts lots of tropical fish. Cayos Zapatillas, it should be noted, has currents and is for strong swimmers only. Divers also head to Buoy Line near Isla Solarte, which is a deep-water channel where pelagic and larger marine species can be seen; the same is true of Tiger Rock, an offshore site and rocky outcrop whose long distance from Bocas Town keeps the crowds away. Adventurous divers and snorkelers really looking to get away from other travelers might consider visiting Isla Escudo de Veraguas, which is a full-day trip and a fairly large undertaking (available usually only Sept-Oct). The beaches here are generally considered to be the loveliest in the entire region.
The principal shortcoming of Bocas del Toro as a diving and snorkeling destination is the unpredictability of the weather, with spontaneous downpours and wind gusts that can churn up the sea and cloud visibility. If the focus of your trip is diving and snorkeling, come from September to early November, when the sea is tranquil and flat. Other months with better visibility are March and April, but rain and wind can occur at any time during these months. Dive sites with deeper water and larger species (mostly offshore sites such as Tiger Rock) can be visited only during these more tranquil months.
There are two top-notch scuba-diving operations in Bocas, both of which are PADI Gold Palm Instructor Development centers, and thus qualified for scuba certification courses and diver-instructor courses. Bocas Water Sports on Main Street (tel. 757-9541; www.bocaswatersports.com) is the oldest operation in town, and has recently been taken over by new American owners. Dive trips include all gear; a two-dive trip is $50 (£25) per person, a one-dive trip $40 (£20) per person. Trips last 3 hours and must be taken before 2pm. Dives to Tiger Rock and Cayos Zapatillas are $75 (£38) per person and only available during calm months. Night dives from 6:30 to 8:30pm are $50 (£25) per person. Snorkeling tours are $17 to $20 (£9-£10) for a full day, not including lunch.
Starfleet Scuba, at Calle 1A (tel. 757-9630; www.starfleetscuba.com), has a spotless record and a British owner who last ran diving operations in Indonesia. Starfleet has three boats plus a new, 80-kmph (50-mph) inflatable Zodiac boat that gives the company the edge in terms of more quickly getting to remote destinations like Tiger Rock ($90/£45 for minimum of four people; lunch included). Two-tank dives cost $50 (£25), a one-tank dive $35 (£18); snorkeling tours are $20 (£10) per person. Starfleet works in conjunction with the U.K.-based Ocean Pulse, a marine-research group that offers 2-week "eco-ventures" to travelers with advanced diving experience. Participants accompany marine biologists exploring new dive sites to monitor for conservation, and are treated to lectures and presentations about species and habitats throughout the day. Packages vary depending on accommodations requirements, so it's best to contact them for prices (tel. 0175/220-2101 in the U.K.; www.oceanpulse.co.uk).
Several companies offer snorkeling trips in addition to the two companies mentioned above. Day trips include equipment; lunch is extra so bring cash for a local restaurant, or bring your own food. J & J Transparente Boat Tours offers trips to all the islands, but they're garden-variety. Tours cost $17 to $22 (£8.50-£11) per person, and suffer from a get-em-in and get-em-out mentality. However, J & J is the company to call for charter-boat rentals, which cost $200 (£100) for a full day, not including lunch.
Catamaran Sailing Adventures at Main Street (tel. 757-9710 or 6625-8610; www.bocassailing.com) has a 12m (40-ft.) catamaran for laid-back and enjoyable full-day snorkeling trips to Bocas del Drago or around Isla Bastimentos for $30 (£15) per person (four-person minimum, 18 maximum), including a sack lunch. Charter rentals cost $250 (£125) a day. The catamaran has little protection from the sun, so bring sunscreen and a hat.
Tip: Ask a lot of questions before embarking on the standard, full-day snorkeling tour that starts in Dolphin Bay and ends at Hospital Point. Boat drivers and guides on these tours practice poor environmental management by racing around a dolphin breeding site, and then they dump guests at an expensive restaurant where they are left to "snorkel" around dead coral and bits of trash.
Next Vacation: Pick Up a Skill -- Take advantage of your trip to Bocas del Toro to learn a new skill. Scuba courses taught in swimming pools may earn you the basic dive certification you need, but it doesn't give you much practical experience in open water. Starfleet Scuba and Bocas Water Sports offer well-respected scuba training academies for everyone from absolute beginners to divers seeking to brush up -- and even for those who want to be certified as instructors. The Discover Scuba course is a half-day introduction to scuba diving for $65 to $85 (£33-£43) per person; the Scuba Diver course is 1 1/2 to 2 days for a partial certification program that allows you to dive up to 12m (39 ft.) with a certified dive master, and costs $185 (£93) per person; the Open Water Course that is the standard certification program for worldwide independent diving takes 3 to 4 days and costs $210 to $235 (£105-£118) per person. Contact the companies for more information about Rescue Diver and Instructor programs.
Stop blaming your rusty Spanish for misunderstandings with locals, and start doing something about it. Spanish-by-the-Sea language classes, Calle 4, behind Hotel Bahía (tel. 757-9518; www.spanishbythesea.com), has inexpensive classes that are as long or intensive as you want them to be. Monolinguists can dive into a Traveler's Spanish crash course that lasts 6 hours and is spread over 2 or 3 days ($40/£20 per person). Weekly programs (5 days only) include private courses at $130 (£65) for 2 hours a day, at $250 (£125) for 4 hours a day. Minigroup courses cost $85 (£43) for 2 hours per day, and $160 (£80) for 4 hours per day. Spanish-by-the-Sea also has packages that include lodging in a rustic backpacker hostel that caters to younger adults.
Bocas Water Sports offers water-skiing for $45 (£23) for 1 hour, gear included, using their 7.6m (25-ft.) tour boat (maximum four people). There are many mangrove-fringed canals in the area that provide for glassy water year-round. Full-day water-skiing trips can be arranged; contact the company for price information. Bocas Water Sports also rents one-person kayaks that cost $3 (£1.50) per hour, or $10 (£5) half-day. During bad-weather days, you'll only be able to navigate around mangrove swamps and the coast, but on calm days experienced kayakers can make it all the way to Hospital Point.
Boating & Sailing
For catamaran tours, see Catamaran Sailing Adventures, under "Scuba Diving and Snorkeling," above. Boteros Bocatoreños (tel. 757-9760; email@example.com) is a group of local boatmen who have banded together in the face of encroaching competition -- they can provide custom tours at slightly lower prices than outfitters. Most speak at least some English, and have local knowledge. Another good source for local boatmen is Ancon Expeditions. Sailing Explore has a 9.1m (30-ft.) sloop for day-sailing excursions and overnight trips to Boca del Drago, Crawl Cay, and as far as Isla Escudo de Veraguas (Sept-Oct). For overnight trips, the sailboat fits four people (it can fit up to six if you're really willing to squeeze in, or if you have kids), and costs $150 (£75) per person for 1 night; $240 (£120) per person for 2 nights, including meals, kayaks, and snorkeling gear. Day excursions leave at 9am and return at 6pm, costing $30 (£15) per person (four-person minimum), which includes lunch, soft drinks, and snorkel and kayak equipment.
Bocas experiences the largest and most consistent swells from December to March, and during June and July, with reef point breaks, beach breaks, and huge, challenging waves recommended only for experienced surfers. The waves in Bocas are more suitable for shortboarding and bodyboarding; if you're bringing your own board, check with your airline about requirements because some smaller planes may not accept a long board. Del Toro Surf (tel. 6570-8277; firstname.lastname@example.org) offers surf lessons and board rentals to clients participating in lessons. Rancho Paraíso (tel. 757-9415; www.ranchoparaiso.biz) offers lessons, board rentals, and multiple-day packages with transportation to various surf sites; they also offer all-inclusive packages with stays at their pleasant surf hostel located on the road to Bluff Beach. To rent a surfboard, try Tropix (tel. 757-9415), located on Main Street across from the plaza, or Flow surf shop (no phone) on Avenida H below the Om Restaurant. All offer tips and maps to the best surf spots in the area, as well as information on how to get there.
If you're winding down from a day of activity (and a hammock isn't doing the trick), try Spa Flora Bella (tel. 6591-3814; www.spaflorabella.com), which offers deep tissue massages, reflexology, and hot-stone treatments, as well as an assortment of beauty services such as hair cuts and facials. The spa is located behind Bubbles Laundry at Calle 4 and Avenida Central. Several massage therapists provide in-hotel services; try Therapueutic Body Work at tel. 6632-6269; Bocas Delight Massage at tel. 6577-9915; or Holistic Alternative Therapy at tel. 6686-0235, which has Zen-Shiatsu massage and Thai foot massages. The new Playa Tortuga Resort , located about 3.2km (2 miles) outside Bocas Town, offers the only hotel spa in Bocas Town. The Best of Both Adventures for Women (www.bestofbothadventures.com) offers women only adventures throughout Panama (and Latin-America), which feature yoga, spa, and massage treatment. For more information, call Dez Bartelt at tel. 787/823-0610 or check out the website.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.