Imagine a cluster of white-sand islets unmarred by big development…warm, clear water in shades of translucent green and bright turquoise…and green palms swaying in the ocean breeze. There are no hawkers shouting and pressing you to buy their wares. All you can hear is the sound of the waves, and the occasional panga, or small boat, motoring by.
In Panama’s Bocas del Toro province, you won’t find any brand-name resorts…no streets lined with duty-free shops and teeming with tourists. This is one of the most laidback corners of the Caribbean—a region known for its diversity, slow pace of living, and pristine beaches.
Bocas, as it’s known, is home to Panama’s Ngobe-Bugle tribes, and you will see their beautiful handicrafts on display at local markets. Woven baskets, intricate bead necklaces known as chaquiras, and carved statuettes are just some of the items I’ve collected over the years. Many of the locals on the main island, however, are of Afro-Antillean heritage. During festivals you can enjoy rhythmic drumbeats and brightly colored costumes—just a part of their rich traditions.
The Bocas province is part mainland and part archipelago, bordered by the Ngobe’s vast reserve lands. The main hub is Isla Colon (also known as Bocas Town), where you’ll find a tiny domestic airport. You can walk from here to most inns, though there are always a few taxis on hand. Cute wood-shack restaurants and small shops line the main drag, which takes you past the large central plaza. Get a wonderful wood-fired pizza or seafood pasta for dinner…dance the night away at the old bar known as the Wreck Deck…or just take an evening stroll, perhaps stopping for a cocktail at one of the open-air bars.
Days in Bocas are for island hopping. There are any number of pangas that will take you on a day tour of three or four different locations. Go snorkeling, stop at a little jetty for a seafood lunch, then while away the time in the shallow, baby blue waters off the coast of Isla Zapatilla or Starfish beach. The velvety white sands and jewel-bright waters are like something out of a dream. Take it from someone who’s been to the Bahamas, Grand Cayman, Virgin Gorda, Bermuda, Barbados, and more.
And when you live in Panama—on the sultry Pacific Coast or in the temperate mountains—you’re always close to beaches just like this. After all, Panama boasts two long coastlines and more than 200 islands.
You can get to Bocas del Toro by car—it’s a spectacular drive from the international airport in Panama’s capital to the launch point of Almirante. But that will take you more than seven hours, whereas the domestic flight is just an hour.
If you really fall for Bocas, you may find yourself contemplating actually living here. There is a small but active expat community here—they are adventurous types who have learned to live without modern city amenities. (Though they make the occasional hop over to Panama City, to visit hospitals, shop at malls, take in shows, and more.) Just keep in mind that titling issues do make buying property in Bocas del Toro a risk. I recommend renting, instead.
That said, you’ll meet wonderful people from all over in Bocas. Expat Lorelei Kusin founded Isla Colon’s successful Super Gourmet, which stocks grocery and deli items, including local treasures like coconut oil, hot sauce, and high cocoa-content chocolate. She and her husband make their home on the small island of Carenero, just a few minutes away by boat or water taxi.
Laura Kay, who grew up in Washington D.C., lives in her swimsuit and sarong…except for when she’s teaching yoga. Then she dons her “formalwear”—a pair of shorts. “When I’m not teaching, I just nurture myself. I eat really well, take naps, and read on the beach. I love the islands. They’re all beautiful and diverse,” she says.
“I am so spoiled to be living here. The beaches go on forever. You can walk a mile and have no one around,” says Laura. “It’s not like Miami or any place where there are tourists all over, bumping into you and blasting radios. Some people do come here to party, and that’s fine. But when you want privacy, that’s available, as well. That’s what I enjoy the most.”
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