SAINT LUKE focus: Bocas del Toro

January 15, 2016

In Panama's northeastern corner—a one-hour flight from either Panama City or San José in Costa Rica—is a sanctuary where the main mode of transportation is a wooden motorboat, dolphins swim through crystalline waters, and dockside restaurants serve the local fishermen’s catch of the day.

Super colourful and utterly Caribbean, this town of clapboard houses was built by the United Fruit Company back in the early 20th century. Today, Bocas del Toro is home to an eclectic community of West Indians, Latinos and resident gringos, with a friendly atmosphere that rubs off on all visitors. In fact, travellers to this island town have a reputation for cancelling future plans – it’s an easy place to get stuck and an even easier place to stay.

Bocas Town, the archipelago’s main village, is equal parts rickety and charming, with tin-roofed wooden houses converted into colorful boutiques, guesthouses, and restaurants. And while Bocas isn’t losing its ruggedness anytime soon, a new hotel is likely to redefine tourism there, so visit sooner than later.

If you're lucky enough to get there, here are a few recommendations from us:

1. Surf

Surfing the Islands of Bocas del Toro is truly a world-class experience. The Caribbean Sea offers warm, crystal blue-green water and swells that can be enjoyed whether you're a seasoned veterans or a total beginner. The key surfing season is from December to March, when storms deliver waves around 4-12 feet.

Bocas itself has a smaller wave season from May through July when smaller 3-8 feet waves can be enjoyed. Most of the breaks in the area are coral reefs but there are some beach breaks. The most accessible spots are on Isla Colon, Isla Carenero, and Isla Bastimentos. For the experienced and adventurous surfers, boat charters can be a great way to travel a few hours to breaks for a ride you won't forget. Many of these secret spots offer excellent waves with just you and your friends in the line up.


2. Red Frog Beach

About a 10 minute boat ride from Bocas town gets you to the Red Frog Marina, where a 15 minute hike across the narrowest point of Bastimentos Island will get you to Red Frog Beach. With just under a mile of white and golden sand, Red Frog Beach is one of the most idyllic beaches in Panama.
The north shore of Bastimentos Island hosts some of Bocas' most beautiful beaches and Red Frog is one of the more accessible ones. It receives its name from the poison-dart frogs that are abundant in Bastimentos' hills. If you're lucky enough, you may even encounter a three-toed sloth or some monkeys as well!

3. Aqua Lounge

Built entirely on water so surrounded by crystal clear waters, this place features Bocas's biggest parties.  Full of hammocks, swings and trampolines that propel you into the sea, this is probably one of the most impressive custom-made hostels in the world.  It may not be for everyone - the parties can certainly get a bit out of control - but definitely worth a visit.

4. Punta Caracol Acqua-Lodge

Quite an unusual resort, this ecolodge consists solely of 9 overwater bungalows stretched off a deserted section of the island, offering a pretty convincing alternative to those who want to stay in an overwater bungalow without having to go to Bora Bora.

A welcome break from the hectic party life of Bocas, it's secluded location is a big part of its appeal, and the clear water beneath the bungalows is a novelty rarely found outside of the South Pacific of the Maldives.  Each handsomely crafted cabin is built upon stilts which support a wooden frame over the water and covered by a palm leaf roof - an unforgettable habitat congruent with the native communities of the region - rustic but in a beautiful setting.


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