Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Beach Hopping in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Okay, enough with the city parts of Panama that you read here and here in my first posts about Panama City and on to the real reason you visit...the rainforest and the beach!  Since there are not many resorts in Bocas del Toro, every single beach in the islands is still lined by plush rainforest.  The scenery is stunning and truly unlike anything I've ever seen in my travels!  

What makes the beaches of Bocas del Toro even better is that they each give off their own vibe so that no two days of the trip are exactly the same...Cayo Zapatilla was the most remote and serene, Red Frog Beach had massive waves and some funky beachside restaurants and Playa de las Estrellas, clad with hundreds of starfish, was a pure daydream.  Can you just take me back already?

I'm on a Boat (in the pouring rain).

But first.  Remember when I told you back in my Panama Part 1 post that you always need to keep electronics in a ziploc bag and carry a rain jacket with you while you're traveling throughout the tropical rainforest?  Well, consider this awful rainy, foggy, taken-on-a-moving-boat picture a reminder - don't forget it!

Cayo Zapatilla

Ahhhh Cayo Zapatilla...the furthest island out in the Bocas del Toro archipelago and the closest I'll ever get to being on Survivor, Lost or Castaway.  It's the quintessential untouched island that graces the home page of every Bocas del Toro tourism website and is located in the middle of nowhere - but really, it's almost an hour boat ride from Bocas Town which already feels like it's in the middle of nowhere.  Even though it was a colossal downpour when our boat first docked on shore, Howie and I decided that we might as well make the most of our 3 hours on the island...which meant exploring the rainforest in the pouring rain!  Let me tell you that it was a blast and one of my best memories on the trip, looking back.  And in case you wondered, the sun finally peaked out!

Welcome to Paradise.

One of my favorite things about Cayo Zapatilla were the vines of flowers that grew between the rainforest and the beach.  It was unlike anything I had ever seen before!  While I walked around the island, I got the feeling that it would've looked exactly the same if I had walked around 300 years earlier.  It's a pretty crazy feeling because there's so few places in the world, especially this beautiful, that you can say this about.  That's why you need to come to Bocas del Toro now before the hotel chains do!

Howie, are we in The Jungle Book?

After we swam and played in the virtually flat 85° water for an hour, Howie and I hiked around the island on the edge of the jungle.  It's hard to decipher the scale of the rainforest from my photos, but some of the palm trees are 50-60' tall!  It was wildly beautiful and humbling at the same time when you realize just how small humans are in comparison to nature.  If you had to take away anything from this post, I would say EXPLORE when you visit Cayo Zapatilla- you can walk around the entire island in under an hour!

Scale Reference: the bright green leaves on the "small" plant are about 8' long

The craziest part about Panama is that I still got a little burned using SPF 70 in this weather.  Don't let the clouds fool you...

Unlike the other beaches, which Howie and I explored on our own, Cayo Zapatilla is best visited on a boat tour.  Because of it's ultra-remote location, you can't really rely on taking a water taxi an hour away and have one come back for you later when there aren't any restaurants or hotels that would require a water taxi service.  Our 6-hour boat tour cost $45 each and took us Dolphin watching, snorkeling in Crawls Cay. sloth watching in the mangroves and to Cayo Zapatilla.  Worth every penny!

Red Frog Beach

If Cayo Zapatilla is Lost or Castaway...Isla Bastimentos, home to the popular Red Frog Beach, is Jurassic Park.  Isla Bastimentos is one of the largest islands in the Bocas del Toro archipelago and has the densest rainforest by far!  Before we hit the beach, we ziplined through the rainforest on the 2 hour Bastimentos Sky Canopy Tour at the Red Frog Beach Resort.  But really, click on the sky canopy tour link and watch the video on the home page.  Did your heart drop?  Because mine still does every time I think about it.  Let's just say I was looking forward to relaxing on the beach all afternoon to get my heart rate down from the morning.  Though Red Frog Beach didn't have the bright turquoise patches of water and tranquility of Cayo Zapatilla, it did have a few restaurants along the massive beach with delicious coconut cocktails and huge crystal clear waves that we had a blast playing in!

All smiles before I realized how much scarier 200' tall and 1000' long ziplines are when you actually do them vs. when you read about them online.

You might've noticed that my pictures, for the most part, don't have other people in them.  While we weren't completely alone, each couple or group of friends did get approximately 300' of beach to themselves because we were in Bocas del Toro during the low season.  We absolutely loved it!  If there were crowds and crowds of people like there are during the winter party season, I don't think you would be able to fully appreciate the beauty and serenity of the islands.  Did I mention that hotels and tours are about 25% less on top of it during the low season?  Just be sure to go during late-August to mid-October if you choose to avoid the crowds because I hear it can rain for days on end in late spring/early summer!

I can't write about Red Frog Beach without giving credit to the Palmar Tent Lodge for inventing the mind-blowingly delicious Coconito, which is a mix of fresh coconut water, gin, lime and sugar.  It's probably the best cocktail I've ever had because the bartender disappeared for 5 minutes (at which point we're thinking, ummmm did he ditch us??) and then came running back with 2 fresh coconuts from the beach.  I found out that coconut water comes from green coconuts and the flake coconut comes from brown coconuts.  You learn something new every day!  We also learned that it's very fun and very scary to play in the massive Red Frog Beach waves after consuming said drinks [that were a heck of a lot stronger than we could taste]...

I could get used to this lifestyle.

Playa de las Estrellas

Last, but certainly not least, Starfish Beach.  Let me preface this section of the post by saying that Playa de las Estrellas is a daydream that takes a little effort to access.  A surprising amount of effort for it being the most popular beach on the main island of Isla Colon.  That's actually code for a lot of effort.  After a 45 minute bus ride, we started walking.

I bet the beach is right over there.  Do you see any starfish??

Oh Howie, we're like, in the jungle now.

Do you think we're close yet?  Where are we?  Should we have taken a boat?

25 minutes later...
We'll there's sand again.  I thought this bus dropped us off at the beach?

You can ask Howie...there was this whole 12-foot-wide-creek-with-murky-water-that-looked-like it would-be a-crocodile's-paradise situation during our hike that I was not having at all.  You had to cross the creek on two 3" wide sticks that had a stick hand rail supported by another stick that wobbled like no other when you were crossing.  I'm just trying to get to the damn starfish!

Case in point: Take a boat if you aren't into the whole Robinson Crusoe thing.  And if you are into it, don't try to balance a foot on each stick and walk straight across like I did the first time.  Shuffle sideways like I did the second time.  

Okay.  Thank God We're Here.

Even though the journey to Playa de las Estrellas was a little rough around the edges, the beach was magical.  In addition to there being hundreds of Starfish all over the place, the water was as still as a bath tub.

Ahhhh, this is what I came for.

Howie and I rented a pair of goggles to share so that we could look at the starfish underwater, even though the water so clear and flat that you could see every ridge of the starfish just looking down - they're so much larger than you imagine them when you're sitting at home in Ohio!  I'm actually fairly certain that the whole renting goggles thing might've been an ego-boost to make up for our terrible snorkling skills in Crawl's Cay 2 days earlier.  Hey now...swimming in open water in the middle of the Caribbean with the waves is tough!  Playa de las Estrellas was more of my cup of tea!

This is so freaking awesome.

After a delicious fish, coconut rice and fried plantains lunch on the beach, we made the trek back to the bus.  An important tip to take away is that every single thing in Bocas del Toro is on island time.  Like hardcore island time. The small buses only come to pick you up from Playa de la Estrellas 4 times per day, about every 2 hours.  If the bus comes a half hour early and 16 people are waiting and ready to go, they will just leave and it's tough luck for you.  So be sure to get back to the bus stop about 45 minutes prior to when you're scheduled to leave.  But hey, if this is the "bus stop," there could be much bigger problems in your life...

Adios beaches of Bocas, I'm still daydreaming about you.


  1. Gorgeous!! These pictures are incredible. Glad you had a great time despite the rain.

    1. Thanks Rach! Sometime you will have to leave the sunshine in Naples and make a visit to Bocas ;)

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