Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos
A do-not-miss highlight in Bocas del Toro, this national park is an irregularly shaped swath of virgin tropical forest, pristine coral reef, and two white-sand islands called Cayos Zapatillas, or "Little Shoes Cays" (so-named for their resemblance to two footprints). There is no development here save a small park-service hut and a ranger who may or may not charge the $10 (£5) per-person entry fee to walk on the islands. The more westerly island has an easy nature path called the "forest behind the reef."
The national park covers 12,950 hectares (32,000 acres), more than 3/4 of which is marine park with a complex and diverse array of underwater life that makes an outstanding site for snorkeling and diving. Expect to see healthy brain, lettuce, and Elkhorn coral; tropical reef fish such as parrotfish and angelfish; and, in deeper water, spotted eagle rays. The wealth of coral species, fish, and marine invertebrates makes this one of the most extraordinary national parks in Panama. The park is also home to the largest concentration of mangrove swamp on the Caribbean coast. Note: When the sea is choppy, swimming and snorkeling here require extra work, and visibility is poor.
On land, the national park protects a portion of the island's dense tropical rainforest and endangered and threatened reptile species such as the Jurassic-era leatherback turtles and hawksbill turtles, which nest along with three other turtle species on Playa Larga ★★, a 5.6km-long (3 1/2-mile) beach on the northern shore. The trail to this beach is one of the unsung excursions in Bocas del Toro, starting in the indigenous village Salt Creek, at Old Point, continuing through thick steamy jungle, and ending on a beach with (usually) no one else around. Along the way you might see sloths or white-faced capuchin monkeys, and view many of the island's 68 species of birds. The trail is moderate, with undulations that can be difficult in some areas, requiring hands and shoes sturdier than sandals. Most tour operators offer this trek in conjunction with a visit to Salt Creek; or the village can be visited in conjunction with Zapatilla Cays; also contact Ancon Expeditions.
Quebrada de Sal, or Salt Creek, is a village community of Ngobe-Buglé Indians who no longer practice many of their traditions -- even the women here no longer wear the billowy, colorful dresses they are known for. Apart from a few cement buildings, a collection of thatched-roof huts, and a tiny souvenir shop, there isn't much to see here -- but combined with the enjoyable boat ride and hike to Playa Larga, this is a pleasant full-day trip if coming from Bocas Town. Visitors are charged $1 (50p) to enter. A round trip boat ride from Bocas town to Cayos Zapatillos will cost you at least $90 (£45), and this is likely to increase if the price of gas continues to go up.
The loveliest beaches in Bocas del Toro can be found here at Isla Bastimentos and at the Cayos Zapatillas on the eastern tip (part of the national park). Island beaches here play a critical role as the nesting sites for four of Panama's five kinds of marine turtles. From late August to October, when calmer weather prevails, visitors can get to Isla Bastimentos's beaches by taking a boat directly at the shore; the rest of the year you'll have to walk. The easiest beach to reach is Red Frog Beach, a heavenly stretch of white sand, arching palms, and turquoise water -- but be aware that riptides are treacherous here. The beach gets its name from a strawberry-colored poison frog that inhabits the surrounding forest. The frog is the size of a fingernail and can be difficult to spot; focus your search near trees and around loose leaves, and you'll find one. Standard tours include Red Frog Beach as part of their day tour, but a water taxi can get you here for about $8 (£4) (20 min. from Bocas Town). Visitors get off in Magic Bay, pay a $1 (50p) entrance fee, and continue along an easy path for 5 minutes. There is a rustic bar with soft drinks, beer, and snacks. Continue west along the shore (if you can) to arrive at Wizard Beach, sometimes referred to as First Beach. A trail leads from Wizard Beach to Bastimentos Town.
Crawl Cay, alternatively called Coral Cay, is located on the southern tip of Isla Bastimentos, about 30 minutes from Bocas Town. The area is known for shallow, translucent waters and an enormous garden of soft and hard coral, offering excellent snorkeling and diving. The Crawl Cay Restaurant is here too, making this one of the most popular excursions in Bocas del Toro. The restaurant, a collection of thatched huts over water, serves Panamanian-style seafood including crab, snapper, and shrimp ($8-$15/£4-£7.50 for a main course). Orders must be placed a full 1 to 2 hours ahead of time, so don't come hungry, or at least bring a snack to tide you over. Some unscrupulous tour companies save on gas by dumping guests here to snorkel around the restaurant -- insist that they take you out to the actual reef and then back for lunch.
Bahia Honda Community & Nivida Bat Caves
A visit to the Nivida Bat Cave in the Bahía Honda ranks as one of the most enjoyable -- even spooky, but in a fun way -- half-day tours in Bocas. After a 20-minute ride to Bahía Honda, visitors travel by motorized boat up a jungle-shrouded channel that provides excellent opportunities to see sloths hanging from tree branches and the occasional caiman silently resting in shallow water. Visitors walk through an old cacao farm, then don hard hats and rubber boots and enter a subterranean river cave that is home to hundreds of tiny fruit bats. The journey is an impressive, Indiana Jones-style adventure, though not for the ultra-squeamish; tours normally end with a visit to the Bahía Honda Ngobe-Buglé indigenous community for a typical -- and quite delicious -- lunch. The community comprises 20 indigenous families living in homesteads around the bay, with a small "village" center located on the lee side of Bastimentos Island. Here Ngobe-Buglé women demonstrate their process of weaving traditional bags, and have many on hand for sale. These tours are run by local operators; contact the Jungle Lodge, which can plan a trip. Spanish-speaking Rutilio Milton (tel. 6669-6269) offers tours, or try Oscar's Bat Cave Tours (tel. 6515-9276). Tours cost about $25 (£13) per person, and you'll need to make a reservation at least a day in advance for lunch.
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.