A Visit to Panama’s Caribbean Paradise

This is the Caribbean as it should be—clean, white-sand beaches; the freshest fruits and seafood; colorful wildlife; and smiling, laid-back locals.

You won’t find the huge resorts of other Caribbean destinations in Bocas del Toro, Panama…just an easygoing, water-lover’s paradise, where snorkeling, island-hopping, and beach-combing are the order of the day.

Plus, this province on Panama’s northern Caribbean coast is easy to reach. Its jumbled and enchanting archipelago is just an hour’s flight-time from Panama City and around $230 round trip.

Here’s how to make the most of your visit.

Dive into the warm Caribbean waters.

These impossibly clear waters aren’t just made for swimming. All over Isla Colon, tour companies offer the chance to get up close and personal with the marine life. Starfish, iridescent parrotfish, sponges, and dozens of types of coral are on view.

There are plenty of prime snorkeling spots. Tour companies usually take you to a combination of the best (such as Crawl Cay, Admiral Bay, Zapatilla, and Hospital Point). Expect to pay $20 to $30 for a full-day tour.

Don’t miss your chance to see a nesting turtle.

Take a 30-minute taxi ride at about 7 p.m. to Playa Bluff ($15 each way) and stop at Playa Bluff Lounge. Tell the staff you want to see the turtles—they’ll let you know when a guide has spotted one for you to see. While you wait, have a drink or dinner (I had catch-of-the-day red snapper, fries, salad, and a coffee for less than $15). But be prepared to leave when the guides telephone the restaurant.

I was lucky the day I was there: The guide spotted a leatherback turtle—the largest turtle species in the world. Our group was ready to go—but first we had to stand for three minutes on the edge of the beach to allow our eyes to adjust to the darkness. (Artificial light disorients the turtles.)

The trek up the beach is by starlight, but that’s not the only light you’ll see. Underfoot, we mistook the sparking red light for fireflies, but our guide attributed the phenomenon to new sand and coral.

We found our leatherback just as she finished laying her eggs. For the next hour we watched her bury and camouflage them with her powerful flippers before she returned to the sea.

Spend a day relaxing.

Work out the kinks with a massage at the Lil’ Spa Shop by the Sea (about a 15-minute walk from the town center). Choose from a head, neck, and shoulder massage, a hot stone massage, or go the whole hog and have a 90-minute “Ultimate Escape” massage.

And ask for a gourmet popsicle while you’re here. Made with fresh island ingredients, the choice range includes passion fruit, organic chocolate-coconut, creamy ginger, and key lime. Cost: $2.

Head to Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos.

A 15-minute water-taxi ride will bring you to a wooden walkway through jungle growth. You can walk to the beach from here in 10 minutes…but you’ll be rewarded for taking your time. Tropical birds and wildlife lie behind the coconut trees—at a little lagoon halfway to the beach, I saw a family of six tiny crocodiles (the length of my forearm).

Spend the day here relaxing with a cocktail or a good book. No need to pack lunch. An empanada and cold soda is just $2.50 in the beach bar at the entrance to the beach; a hot dog and soda will set you back $8 at Punta Lava beach bar at the opposite end.

In high season, take a 10-minute walk from this popular beach to the adjacent Turtle Beach, a quieter, more secluded spot. At Punta Lava beach bar I was told that Turtle Beach is “clothing optional”—so make sure to bring plenty of sunscreen…

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