The Bocas del Toro Archipelago

Our arrival in Panama City after our sailing adventure was short lived. Our stint in the San Blas Islands had given us a taste of paradise and we weren’t ready to end our time in the sun, sand, and sea quite yet. After killing some time in Panama’s largest mall – eating comfort food, soaking up the air conditioning, and taking in a rom-com – we jumped on an overnight bus to the Bocas del Toro Archipelago on the Caribbean side of western Panama.

One 10-hour hyper-air conditioned bus ride later and we opened our eyes to lush, tropical islands and clear, turquoise waters. We had found paradise once again.

The sprawling Bocas Archipelago consists of nine main islands, hundreds of tiny ones, and two aggressively protected national parks: Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park and La Amistad International Park. The setting and the chilled out hippy vibes makes for the perfect attraction for backpackers, ex-pat lifers, animal enthusiasts, and sailboat cruisers. The mix of these personalities including the friendly English-speaking Caribbean locals creates an irresistible “no worries” vibe that relaxes you instantly.

The furthest west we have been on our whole trip

The lush, jungly islands of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago

Colourful banana company era houses line the waterfront

A home that met a not-so-pristine fate

We would have been happy to lie in a hammock under a palm tree and read for our four days here, but Bocas offers a mind-boggling selection of inexpensive daily activities that we couldn’t help but take advantage of.

On our first day, we got in a hired boat and set off to get our bearings in this 4,644 square kilometer slice of heaven. We saw dolphins in what is called Dolphin Bay. We went snorkeling in Coral Cay in what looked like an underwater garden – coral has never been so colourful. We swam with a swarm of parrot fish, batted away harmless jellyfish, and had a scuffle with an aggressive fish the size of a playing card that was vehemently protecting his turf. Later we took in some sun and some cheeseburgers on white-sand Red Frog Beach.

The toilets at our lunch spot during our snorkeling excursion

Arriving through a secret passage to the entrance of Red Frog Beach marina

Perfection at Red Frog Beach

Someone was a little tuckered after all the snorkeling action

Some of the softest sand we've encountered

Paradise

Today, having received a $10 discount on two dives, we went for a scuba expedition. The South African co-master diver on the trip said that the beauty of the reef was in the details. And he was so right. The poor visibility offered little in the way of breathtakingly colourful coral, but the marine life was like nothing we had seen. The first dive was a wall which we dived to the bottom of at 60 ft and explored as we rose slowly. We spotted a stinging jellyfish, a giant grouper, angelfish the size of basketballs, and tons of lobster. The second dive was a shallower wreck dive to 48 ft. Only the base of the sunken ship survived the persistent coral take-over leaving a toilet comically exposed in the centre of the ship. We saw hundreds of starfish, a bunch of harmless jellyfish, a sea spider, a dinner-plate sized crab, three stingrays, and countless sea cucumbers. Unfortunately there wasn’t an underwater camera at our disposal this time, so all our GFW readers will have to use their imagination.

The mountainous background almost made us feel like we were on a lake

Beautiful homes were nestled among the hills

The setting sun over the waterfront

Having been inspired by our underwater sights, as a celebration for having made it relatively unscathed as far as Panama, we went for a big lobster feast. Parsley-butter lobster, potatoes au gratin, bacon-wrapped sweet and sour shrimp, with a salad and a brownie with ice cream for dessert later and we were perfectly pickled for a new activity tomorrow.