The Bocas del Toro Archipelago is a scattering of seven islands and more than 200 islets off the northwestern coast of Panama, near the border with Costa Rica. The region has all the trappings of a Caribbean fantasy: dreamy beaches, thatched-roofed huts, aquamarine sea, thick rainforest, and soft ocean breeze. Add to that a funky, carefree ambience and a large English-speaking population, and it's easy to see why Bocas del Toro is quickly emerging as an eco-tourism hot spot faster than any other part of Panama.
But scratch the surface and you will find an island destination that is as much a paradox as it is paradise. Backpackers and surfers first discovered Bocas, lured by big waves, an underwater playground, and cheap accommodations. Midrange hotels and restaurants moved in, and retirees and expats with disposable income followed, snapping up beachfront properties and building their own tropical Xanadu. Considering that Bocas consists mostly of Ngobe-Buglé and Teribe Indians plying the waters in dugout canoes, as well as Afro-Caribbeans who go about living much as they have for nearly a century, the contrast between the mix of ethnicities and nationalities here is striking.
The principal island in the region is Isla Colón, 62 sq. km (24 sq. miles) and home to Bocas Town, the regional capital and the center of activity in the archipelago. A smaller island called Isla Carenero neighbors Isla Colón, and is a quieter location with a few hotels and restaurants just a minute or two away from Bocas Town by water taxi. Isla Bastimentos and Isla Cristóbal offer accommodations and amenities, and are better choices than Bocas Town for travelers seeking a more intimate, castaway-like experience in wild, natural surroundings. Visitors to island lodges also benefit from in-house tours planned by proprietors with local knowledge, but there are plenty of tour operators in Bocas Town to fill your days if you choose to stay closer to shopping, restaurants, and nightlife.
Bocas can hold its own against nearby Costa Rica when it comes to adventure travel in the Caribbean. The diving and snorkeling are outstanding in this region -- Bocas is home to some of the best-preserved hard and soft coral on the planet -- but make sure your tour operator is willing to take you to the finest examples instead of bleached-out coral in "typical" tourist spots. There are sailing tours, boat tours to deserted islands and visits to Indian communities, hiking through luxuriant rainforest in Isla Bastimentos Park, and riding waves in what is largely considered the surfing epicenter of the southwest Caribbean.
Historically there has always been a rough, end-of-the-line feel to Bocas del Toro, which is perceptible even today. Weathered, plantation-style homes -- many of which look as if a good sneeze would level them -- line dirt streets, Jimmy Buffett types hold court at waterfront dive bars, and residents and foreign visitors languidly stroll from one point to another, or kill entire afternoons on a park bench in the town's central plaza, which is choked with overgrown tropical foliage. But underneath this are the rumblings of an upcoming boom in tourism, with multimillion-dollar hotels, gated residential communities, and waterfront condominiums either in the works or already breaking ground. Still, the laid-back friendliness that characterizes Bocas del Toro endures.
A Word about Water -- The major drawback to Bocas del Toro as a destination is its climate. While the rest of Panama enjoys a generally predictable dry season from December to April, Bocas can experience cloudy skies and downpours any time of the year. The most trustworthy months for sunshine are late August to mid-October, and February and March.
Tourists with sensitive digestive tracts should stick to bottled water when in Bocas Town. Tap water is treated but not to the same standards as it is in the rest of Panama. Hotels on outlying islands use filtered rainwater that is okay to drink -- but you still might want to play it safe and drink bottled water only.
Visitors should be extremely careful when swimming in the ocean because of strong riptides. The day before I went to Red Frog beach, a 26 year-old tourist was caught in a riptide and died. Even my experienced, native Bocas guide got caught in a riptide and had to struggle to keep his head above water. It can be the scariest moment of your life, and can affect anyone regardless of his or her abilities as a swimmer. At a beach, find a section of the water that isn't being churned up by looking for clear, not sandy, waves. If you're caught in a riptide, don't panic, no matter how much the waves are tossing you around. Swim parallel to the shore until you feel yourself released from the current, then head back to shore. To play it safe, stick close to the shore at beaches with strong waves and riptides.