Bocas del Toro digital nomad guide (2022)
Bocas del Toro is a stunning archipelago on the Caribbean coast of Panama where people tend to get stuck — in the very best way. Once travellers taste the sweet nectar of these nine magical islands, they are temporarily immovable. Sun-seekers are transfixed by the stunning beaches, laid-back Caribbean vibes, and the water taxis that transport them between Isla Colon, Isla Carenero, Isla Bastimentos, Isla Solarte, and the dreamy Zapatilla Cays.
Between Bocas’ palm-lined streets, you’ll find whatever you’re looking for whether that’s world-class surf or great beaches, wonderful seafood, or wondrous vistas. Bat cave tours, hiking, birdwatching, snorkeling, and diving are also reasonable pastimes here (diving schools are literally littered all over the place). Also, the novelty of actually having to take a scenic water taxi as your primary means of inter-island transport never, ever wears off. Wi-Fi is also decent for getting work done (if you’re able to pull yourself away from the beach). Read on for the ultimate Bocas del Toro digital nomad guide.
Fast facts about Bocas del Toro
No one is entirely sure where the archipelago gets its name from (Bocas del Toro means “bull’s mouths” in Spanish), but rumour has it that the last chief who ruled over the region was called “Boka Toro”.
Bocas del Toro has nine main islands, dozens of cays, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the form of Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. The US dollar is the currency in Panama and you can expect warm temperatures year-round, but the most picture-perfect weather in Bocas is between October and November.
Photo Credit: Azul Resort, Isla Bastimentos
How to get there
There are two ways to get to Bocas from within Panama. The nice and easy method is to fly there in 50 minutes from Panama City. Flights start from USD 105 one way with Air Panama. I include only one-way prices as many tend to intentionally miss their return flights. It’s about an hour’s flight from Marcos A. Gelabert Albrook Airport (be sure not to go to Tocumen international). Once you land at Bocas airport, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s only a five-minute walk from the town centre on Isla Colon.
The slightly more long-winded, treacherous bus route takes ten hours and favours the penny-wise. The journey involves driving to Almirante and then taking a 30-minute water taxi to Bocas Town on Isla Colon, the main island. Annoyingly, one may only purchase bus tickets in person by going to Albrook mall and buying one in person. The bus ticket costs around $30 and then the water taxi from Almirante to Bocas is about $6 on top of that.
For the trip, it’s best to dress like you’re going on an extended outdoor expedition in the arctic, as that’s how cold the bus is. If you manage a wink of slumber or two, be sure to wake up at Almirante and not the final stop, which is Changuinola.
Where to work in Bocas del Toro
Selina Bocas del Toro (Isla Colon)
Most digital nomads in Bocas del Toro will inevitably head to Selina in Bocas Town at some point or another. This is the place with the most reliable Wi-Fi on Isla Colon and the views are great.
Selina Red Frog (Isla Bastimentos)
If you’d like to get away from the hustle and bustle of Bocas Town, over on Isla Bastimentos, Selina Red Frog will provide beach lodging and a coworking space where monkeys and sloths hang around in the nearby trees.
Mamallenas (Isla Colon)
Mamallenas is a hostel chain but they have the best dock in Bocas (in my humble opinion). You can work on the bean bags overlooking the water or on the chairs. There’s a bar to stock up on refreshments or play a game of pool once you’re off the clock.
Tres Palmas Cafe (Isla Colon)
The photogenic smoothie bowls, tropical decor, and parked surfboards make Tres Palmas Cafe the most paradisical office you could hope for. It’s airy, bright, and just off the main square in Bocas Town.
Bocas del toro budget hostels and hotels
Spanish by the Sea (Isla Colon)
When you stay at Spanish by the Sea, you’ll find yourself having shared dinners and conversations over cards against humanity. The hostel is situated a little bit further away from the action of Main Street, but that adds to its charm. It has a large, open kitchen, which is one of the focal points of social interaction, as people will often cook together there. It’s a Spanish school as well as a hostel so there are lots of breakaway areas and desks for working. Taking Spanish lessons is also one of the popular things to do in Bocas del Toro.
Aqua Lounge (Isla Carenero)
Aqua Lounge Bar and Hostel on Isla Carenero used to have a trampoline that you could bounce directly into the water from but that has since been done away with. There is still however a tightrope and a high jumping platform that invites copious amounts of water play. You probably won’t get the best night’s sleep of your life here though owing to the loud music from the bar.
Selina Bocas del Toro (Isla Colon)
Selina Bocas Toro is certainly the biggest powerhouse hostel in Bocas (and all of Panama probably). The rooms are air-conditioned all day and the Wi-Fi here is strong enough to stream your favourite shows from back home. They have also an inexpensive buffet breakfast every day as well as a lovely lounge area and dock for swimming.
Bocas del toro mid-range and luxury hotels
Sun Havens Apartments (Isla Colon)
For couples, groups, or families, Sun Havens Apartments are exceptionally convenient and comfortable for your stay in Bocas. You get a tropical welcome drink on arrival and there are studios, suites, apartments, and penthouses with kitchens, lounges, and balconies. Remember that one of the loveliest things to do in Bocas del Toro is sweet nothing, so the balconies come in very handy. The owners are Italian (and also speak French, English and Spanish, of course). It’s terrific value for money so do book in advance where you can.
Photo credit: Booking.com
Gran Hotel Bahía (Isla Colon)
Stay in one of Gran Hotel Bahía’s 19 luxury Caribbean-style rooms and you’ll be treated to a generous buffet breakfast each morning. The building’s first plank of wood was laid in 1905 and its owners have since restored it to become one of the loveliest accommodations on Isla Colon.
Eclypse de Mar Aqua Lodge (Isla Bastimentos)
Sequester yourself in nature at Eclypse de Mar, an over-the-water bungalow resort on Isla Bastimentos. Snorkel, kayak and paddleboard to your heart’s content, or enjoy spending time in your private ocean top bungalow, all of which have glass panels for marine observation.
Azul Paradise (Isla Bastimentos)
Make all your dreams come true at once with a stay at the fabulous over-water bungalows at Azul Paradise. Here one may unashamedly binge on all the blessings the water brings: fresh seafood caught by the on-site staff, decks stretched out onto the water for night stargazing, as well as water sports galore – pedalos, kayaks and paddleboards. They don’t call it paradise for nothing.
Photo credit: Azul Resort, Isla Bastimentos
Azul Paradise Bocas (Isla Colon)
The Isla Colon outpost of Azul Resort is undeniably the most stylish hotel on the lively Main Street. This boutique property is a relatively new addition to Isla Colon’s collection of hotels and all rooms are pristine with blue and white accents, luxury rain showers, and the on-site restaurant is just fabulous.
Things to do in Bocas del Toro
Read the Bocas Breeze
To keep up to date with all things Bocas, bookmark The Bocas Breeze, an English-language print newspaper and digital magazine run by a boisterous guitar-playing long-term resident.
Listen to live music
Bocas del Toro is a melting pot of cultures and you’ll definitely notice that you can always hear music wherever you are. You should be able to find a rocking band playing on Main Street (Calle Principal). One surefire spot to find some sweet live jams is at La Buga, a dive shop with a restaurant on the water and an outdoor rooftop deck and bar. The soft sound of the waves crashing around the restaurant doesn’t hurt either.
Do sunset at Bibi’s on the Beach (Isla Carenero)
If you take just one thing away from this Bocas del Toro digital nomad guide, it’s that you mustn’t leave the archipelago without visiting Bibi’s on the Beach. Though many come to Bibi’s primarily for the best piña colada of their lives made with love by Lady (her real name), you are urged to try the seafood creations too. The seafood soup crammed with octopus, shrimp, potatoes, and mussels is simply divine. Also, just by peering over the corner of your table, you might see a manta ray or two.
Best Bocas del Toro beaches
Red Frog Beach (Isla Bastimentos)
The most famous beach on Isla Bastimentos got its name from the red poison dart frogs that can be heard croaking thunderously throughout the day. You won’t have many neighbours here as it’s a little on the quieter side, but you can always pop into Palmar Beach Eco Lodge, which is directly on the beach for a snack and on to play on the swings when you’re once again ready for human contact.
Palmar Eco Lodge on Red Frog Beach, Isla Bastimentos
Paunch Beach (Isla Colon)
Fabulously, at Paunch Beach you can choose to lay on the sand or on the seriously snug lounge chairs at Paki Point — you’ll enjoy melting into them. Accessing Paunch beach will require getting on your bike as it’s off the beaten track on Isla Colon but it’s a scenic and noteworthy journey during which you may see crocodiles resting.
Paki Point at Paunch Beach, Isla Colon
The Zapatilla Cays are two uninhabited paradise islands in Bocas. You’ll want to bring your own picnic gear as there is no infrastructure whatsoever. No restaurants, no shops, nothing but bliss. If you ever wanted to feel like Tom Hanks in Cast Away for a day, Zapatilla is just the place. Day trips to these cays often include snorkelling stops and a visit to Dolphin Bay.
Starfish Beach (Isla Colon)
What starfish Beach lacks in waves, it makes up for with the abundance of gorgeous echinoderms (starfish to you and me) trickled all over the bottom of the ocean. The waters are ever so still there, the main sounds that will envelop you are from the local families who come ridiculously well prepared for their beach days with chairs, tables, parasols, board games, boom boxes, and multiple coolers. There are also a delightful number of beachside restaurants, each selling juicier octopus dishes than the last. Starfish Beach is a wonderful place to just lie, watch, breathe and exist. Don’t leave your snorkel gear at home.
To get to Starfish Beach (Playa Estrella), take the bus from Isla Colon’s Main Street towards Bocas del Drago. The bus departs from the central park and one leaves every 30 minutes. From Bocas del Drago you can take a short boat ride directly to Starfish Beach.
Carenero Beaches (Isla Carenero)
You know you’re at Carenero when you see the pretty yellow houses on the water (Hotel Faro del Colibri). Many will argue that Isla Carenero is more picturesque than the main island of Isla Colon as it “looks more like paradise”. Be prepared to make friends with all the fiddler crabs traipsing along merrily. Carenero is certainly quieter than Isla Colon. With the exception of Aqua Lounge, there isn’t too much going on here. Long stretches of white sand beach and jungle are all yours for the taking. All yours.
If your beach day extends past sunset, be sure to look all the way up; there are more stars to be seen from Isla Carenero at night than on Isla Colon. Walk up to one of the extended boat docks so the water surrounds you, lay flat on your back, and look at the stars. If that isn’t bliss, I don’t know what is.
* Updated 14 April 2022