Panama’s Caribbean: archipelago Bocas del Toro

One of the most famous tourist destinations in Panama is the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, located on the coast of Panama at the Caribbean Sea. Bocas has options for everyone: backpackers, traveler on a budget and also those seeking for more comfort. Among the attractions of the archipelago are corals, uninhabited islands, abundant fauna and vegetation. In addition, some beaches are quiet and crystal clear, ideal for diving and snorkeling, and other suitable for surfing. You can read in this article how to get there, where to stay and what to do in Bocas del Toro.

How to get there

If you are going to travel as a backpacker like us, you will need to take a night bus + taxi + boat to get from Panama City to Bocas.

The buses from Panama City to Almirante (main city to get to Bocas) leave from the bus terminal at Albrook Shopping Center. The trip takes around 9hrs30min. That is the reason why the buses are overnight buses. Arriving in Almirante, taxis (usually vans) will already be waiting for the passengers to take them to the pier in Changuinola, from where you can take the boat to Bocas City.

It’s a tiring trip, but it’s a lot more economical than a plane, and it saves about one night of accommodation.

The option, for those who are not on a tight budget and want to save time, is to go by plane. The company Air Panama has flights to Bocas del Toro via Isla Colón and Changuinola (necessary to catch the boat). The flight from Panama City to Isla Colon is only 1 hour and usually leaves early in the morning.

Accommodation

The choice of accommodation and on which island you want to stay, will depend on the style of your travels and your budget. The main island where Bocas del Toro is located is Isla Colón (Island). It is the location with most options of accommodation, restaurants, bars and also to go hiking.

Panama's Paradise Saigoncito – bedroom
Panama’s Paradise Saigoncito – bedroom
Panama's Paradise Saigoncito – kitchen
Panama’s Paradise Saigoncito – kitchen
Panama's Paradise Saigoncito – terrace
Panama’s Paradise Saigoncito – terrace

We stayed at Panama’s Paradise Saigoncito  in Bocas City. We split our cottage with two very nice Canadians. We became friends and still keep in contact until today. The cottage has a good size, very cute decoration and has a well-equipped kitchen. It also has a very spacious terrace with a table and hammocks.

Book your hotel in Bocas del Toro

What to do

Bocas City
Bocas City


Bocas has dozens of beaches and sightseeing options. In Isla Colón are the beaches of Bocas del Drago, Playa de las Estrellas (Beach of the Stars), Playa Bluff and Playa Pauch. You can get to these beaches by bus, leaving at various times (check in your hostel or hotel) from the central square of Bocas City. Otherwise you can also rent bicycles, quadricycles or go by taxi.

Several agencies or cooperatives of fishermen (more economical option) offer tours to the Zapatillas Cays (Cayo Cangrejo), Coral Key, Cayo Coral, Isla Carenero, Isla Pájaros, Bahía de los Delfines (Dolphin Bay), Playa Red Frog and Isla Bastimentos.

Bahía de los Delfines (Dolphin Bay)
Bahía de los Delfines (Dolphin Bay)

In Bocas City are plenty of restaurants, bars and nightclubs. One restaurant which we fell in love with and went to almost every day was Taco Surf Bocas, which is across the main square, and has delicious Mexican food.

Playa de las Estrellas (Beach of the Stars)
Playa de las Estrellas (Beach of the Stars)
Isla Bastimento (Island)
Isla Bastimento (Island)

As we traveled to Panama in July, it was rain season in the Caribbean. We caught quite rainy days in Bocas del Toro and in the end, we didn’t visit everything we wanted. Indeed it is important to check the weather for the time you want to visit the archipelago.

Sloth on one of the islands of Bocas del Toro
Sloth on one of the islands of Bocas del Toro



Costs

The travel costs in Bocas del Toro will depend a lot on the budget and chosen travel standard. But as the official currency Balboa (PAB) is 1:1 as the US-dollar and Bocas is one of the country’s favorite tourist destinations, it won’t be a cheap trip.

Translation to English by Juliane Boll

 


Cuba for the first time: 11 things you should know before departing on your trip

Cuba is a paradoxical country. It seems that the island stopped in time back in the 1950s, but at the same time it is constantly changing, especially in recent months, after the rapprochement with the United States. However, since the election of Donald Trump, the contemporary relations are getting more tense again. Before traveling to the island in September 2015, I did a lot of research and asked friends who had visited the country just a little bit earlier. When we got there many things were already different from what they had told me. So, to make it easier to travel to Cuba for the first time, I made a list of things you should know before you go.

1- Brazilians need a visa to visit Cuba, which you can get at the boarding airport (Brazil or, in our case, Mexico), which costs US $ 20 per person, or upon arrival at the airport in Cuba. In this case, it costs US$ 25. If you are issuing the visa at the departure airport, it is ideal to have the correct amount of the payment in US dollars, as some countries do not give change or give you a bad exchange rate.

Germans need a visa for Cuba (30 days, a “tourist card”) which you need before entering Cuba, either applying for it at the Cuban embassy in Germany or some airlines offer you to get a visa directly at the airport. Depending how you apply for your visa, you will pay between 25 to 35,00 €.

Cuba has two currencies: CUP for the locals (above) and CUC for tourists
Cuba has two currencies: CUP for the locals (above) and CUC for tourists

2- The currency used by foreigners in Cuba is CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos), which is always the equivalent of US$ 1. To get a better exchange rate, the ideal is to take Euros, because despite Cuba’s rapprochement with the United States, the US dollar continues to be taxed at 10 %.

3 – We visited Cuba in September 2015 and it was just after they started to allow tourists to withdraw money from the ATMs with a foreign card. We found ATMs in several cities that we visited and got money there. But the ideal way would be not to count on it and travel with cash. There are still very few establishments that accept credit or debit card payments.

4- The most economical and, in my opinion, the most interesting way to stay in Cuba is in the private homes. These are homes of Cubans who are regulated by the government to receive tourists. These accommodations are simple but comfortable. One of the requirements is that the rooms are suites. Prices range from $ 20 to $ 30 a day per couple, depending on the city. For me, the highlight of this type of lodging is that it facilitates contact with Cubans.

Our room at a Havana guesthouse
Our room at a Havana guesthouse

5- In Havana, most of the old cars function as collective taxis. Just wave your hand and wait for one to stop, then tell them your destination and ask if the driver is going the same way. The ticket costs 0,50 CUC per person. If the driver charges more, negotiate.

Most old cars in Havana are collective taxis
Most old cars in Havana are collective taxis

6- The best way to experience Cuban cuisine is to go to a “paladar”, restaurants frequented by locals. In general, prices are charged in CUP (Cuban Pesos), currency used by residents, but they accept CUC. Do not be surprised if you see on the menu that a meal costs 30, for example. In fact, it is little more than 1 CUC. The typical Cuban dish usually includes rice, beans, avocado, salad and meat.

Typical dish of a Cuban “paladar”
Typical dish of a Cuban “paladar”

7- To travel around the country, you can go by bus, which leave from the bus terminals, or you can rent a car. In general, the price of cars is almost the same as the bus fare per person, multiplied by four, which is the maximum capacity. If you choose to rent a car, check the cars conditions very carefully, as a lot of them break down during the trip. It also can take a few hours that the car will be full with all four passengers, otherwise you might end up paying for the entire car by yourself.

8- There is already Wi-Fi on the streets of the main Cuban cities, but it isn’t free yet. It’s still a novelty of recent months. I made a post explaining how the Wi-Fi system works in Cuba.

9- In Cuba it is very difficult to buy anything other than handicrafts. There are hardly any markets or shops. In addition, several products are practically nonexistent on the island or are missing for a while. When we were there, even buying water in a bottle was difficult for a few days. So, bring with you whatever you need like shower stuff, sunscreen …


10- In Cuba, people have the basics of everything: food, housing, education, health, but most of them have to be content with just the basics. And a simple soap can be something super special. In the ten days we were in Cuba, practically nobody asked us for money to buy food, but I lost count of how many times we were asked for soap.

11- In general, Cuba is a very safe country. It is possible to travel the country with tranquility, to walk the streets without fear until it gets dark. Also, you don’t see anybody on the streets using drugs. But it is good to be careful as they might mess around with tourists as in general, they are only “inflating” the prices of products and services. If you are staying in a private house, always ask first the owner for the prices of things and services to get an idea.

Written in Portuguese by Karla Larissa

Translation by Juliane Boll