The Bocas del Toro Archipelago, despite its location in the warm, cerulean Caribbean Sea, is not a quintessential beach destination. That's not to say that there are no beaches here; in fact, there are a handful of idyllic beaches straight from the pages of a travel magazine -- it just takes a little effort to reach them. Also, most beaches in Bocas offer poor swimming conditions because of strong riptides. For this reason, those traveling with small children may want to consider another beach destination, or stick to Boca del Drago and Starfish Beach, which both have calm waters and excellent swimming conditions.
The closest decent beach to Bocas Town (Bluff Beach) is an 8km (5-mile) bike- or taxi ride away, and the beaches on Isla Bastimentos can only be reached by boat, followed by a short to medium-long walk. During the calm-water months (early Sept to early Nov), it's possible to arrive directly by boat at the beaches of Isla Bastimentos.
If you don't have an all-inclusive package with your hotel, or if your hotel simply does not offer trips, there are plenty of tour agencies to fulfill your excursion needs. Bocas is a good base for exploring the archipelago -- nearly every kind of excursion and destination can be reached from here, including spots for watersports and cultural visits. Trips to Isla Bastimentos and the Zapatilla Cays are better with fast boats that offer flexible itineraries. If you have a group or can afford a private-boat rental, do so because it offers you the freedom to plan your own itinerary.
Tip: The old cliché "You get what you pay for" rings true in Bocas. There are plenty of agencies pitching the same day tour to the masses, usually for dirt-cheap prices. These companies cut corners by hiring semi-qualified guides with little concern for the environment; others try to save on gas by not taking clients far enough to the best snorkeling and diving sites -- providing less-than-memorable experiences and the dreaded cattle-herd sensation. To avoid disappointments, when booking, ask detailed questions about destinations, snorkeling and diving sites, safety precautions, and schedules.
Beaches & Other Natural Attractions
Boca del Drago Beach, Starfish Beach & Swan's Cay -- Boca del Drago is the best beach on Isla Colón for swimming, and when the sea is calm visitors can snorkel from the shore. However, often there isn't much beach to speak of -- just a couple of feet or so for throwing down a towel or beach chair, but it's a lovely spot. The beach is on the north shore of Isla Colón. Tour companies include Boca del Drago as part of their standard day tour, including a visit to nearby Swan's Cay, a picturesque rocky outcrop and bird sanctuary that attracts nesting boobies, frigates, and the magnificent red-billed tropic bird. There is no coral reef at Swan's Cay, but the sea-battered rocks are still an interesting place to snorkel. Do not disturb nesting birds by going ashore. You can also get to Boca del Drago from Bocas Town by road in a taxi, which costs $25 (£13) round-trip and takes 30 minutes. Starfish Beach, located right next to Boca del Drago Beach, is one of my favorite beaches for its calm, crystal-clear waters, and the hundreds of starfish that dot the bottom of the ocean floor. To get here, simply keep walking after you pass Boca del Drago beach. There's not much of a beach at Starfish Beach either, but swimming conditions are perfect. Both beaches are home to schools of colorful fish and make for good informal snorkeling time. You'll have to bring your own snorkeling gear however, because Yasinori, the excellent restaurant on Boca del Drago Beach, no longer rents snorkel equipment.
Bluff Beach -- This gorgeous, golden-sand beach would be perfect if it weren't for a light sprinkling of trash. It's still the prettiest beach close to town for catching some rays -- but don't plan on getting more than your feet wet here because the ocean is fraught with riptides. The beach is about 8km (5 miles) from the city center and can be reached by taxi for $10 (£5) one-way. Some drivers are willing to hang around if you plan on staying an hour or two; if not, you'll need to arrange for pickup later. In this case, negotiate to pay when the driver returns (to make sure that he comes back). You can also rent a bicycle and pedal there, which is quite a pleasant ride if you're up to it. Rain can wreak havoc on the road, so be prepared for lots of puddles. (Incidentally, taxi drivers often inflate their price when the road calls for a 4WD.) On the way out of town you'll pass by the less-scenic Punch Beach, which is popular with surfers. Punch is known for its right and left breaks, reef bottom, and swells that average 1.5 to 1.6m (5-6 ft.).
San San Pond Sak Wetlands
The San San Pond Sak Wetlands, covering nearly 16,187 hectares (40,000 acres), are located on the coast about 4.8km (3 miles) north of Changuinola. The wetlands are home to sloths, white-faced capuchin monkeys, and caimans, but more importantly, San San is the natural habitat of the manatee, an aquatic, elephant-like mammal that weighs between 363 and 544 kilograms (800 and 1,200 lb.). Previously it was difficult to visit San San, but Starfleet Scuba now offers a full-day excursion (7am-5pm) that provides for an out-of-the-ordinary experience. Because there is so little human traffic in this region, your chances of spotting a manatee are very good, but please note that manatees are protected animals. Do not chase, pet, or harass these magnificent creatures -- and report anyone who does. The Starfleet tour takes visitors to the coast, where they are transported by minibus to the put-in site for the cayuco (dug-out canoe) to paddle quietly through the wetlands. There is also an easy nature trail for getting out and stretching your legs. The cost includes a full lunch, park entrance fees, guides, and transportation; contact Starfleet for prices.
The Soposo Rainforest
The Soposo Rainforest is home to the Naso culture, the only culture in the Americas still governed by a king. Though the Naso number only about 3,000, they are a proud people hoping to hold on to their traditions by promoting sustainable tourism in their native lands and sharing their culture and traditions with visitors. The rainforest on the Bocas del Toro mainland sees few visitors, so like the San San Pond Sak Wetlands above, the likelihood of spotting wildlife is high here. Soposo Rainforest Adventures (tel. 6631-2222; www.soposo.com) offers day trips as well as weeklong adventures to the Soposo Rainforest. Day trips cost $90 (£45) per person for three or more people, 2 night/3 day trips cost $500 (£250) per person for up to six people, and 5 night/6 day adventures cost $900 (£450) for three to six people. Prices are higher for smaller groups. Expect to see sloths, frogs, monkeys, and other wildlife. The highlight of the trip however, is the opportunity to interact with and experience the Naso culture.
The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute has a base in Bocas del Toro, and is open to the public every Friday from 3 to 5pm. If you're lucky, you'll be around for one of their monthly chats led by a scientist who highlights the center's work and discoveries in the region. Contact the institute at tel. 212-8000, or visit their site, www.stri.org, for information about upcoming lectures.
The Fería Internacional del Mar (International Festival of the Sea), which takes place around the second week of September, is a 5-day event featuring handicrafts booths, food stands serving local cuisine, and exhibits by the Smithsonian Institute and ANAM (the park service), with displays of animals and natural history information. Nightly events include folkloric presentations and dances, all culminating with the crowning of the Sea Fair Queen. Contact the ATP office for exact dates. The Fundación de la Provincia de Bocas del Toro (Founding Day of Bocas del Toro) takes place on November 16, and is celebrated with parades and other events; on November 23, residents of Isla Bastimentos celebrate Bastimentos Day, with parades and live music. There is a maypole dance in Bocas and on Isla Bastimentos for Palo de Mayo, which takes place on May 1. Lastly, on July 16 is the Día de la Virgen del Carmen, which honors the patron saint of Bocas with a parade; the following Sunday hundreds make the pilgrimage across the island to visit the shrine of the virgin at La Gruta.
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.