13 Best Sights in Bocas del Toro Archipelago, Panama

Autoridad de Tourismo Panama

The local office of the Panamanian Tourism Authority, housed in a large Caribbean-style building on the water, can supply you with all the standard info about Bocas and Panama.

Bahia Honda

About 20 Ngöbe homes are scattered around Bahia Honda, and a group of indigenous families runs a rustic restaurant about five to 10 minutes by boat from the Red Frog dock. The restaurant is administered mostly by the women of Bahia Honda. Hiking and boating tours, organized through La Loma Jungle Lodge or directly with local guide Rutilio Milton (call one day in advance to arrange the tour), include exploration of a cave with bats clinging to the stalactite-laden ceiling. The trip up the creek to get there is as spectacular as the cave itself, with plenty of opportunities to see sloths, monkeys, cayman, birds, and the occasional snake. The adventure also includes a simple lunch, a weaving demonstration, and a chance to purchase handicrafts such as chácaras (colorful woven jute bags).

Boca del Drago

As the best beach on the island, Boca del Drago is part of a tiny fishing community in the northwest corner that overlooks the mainland. The water at the coconut palm–lined beach is usually calm, which makes for good swimming and snorkeling. It's a popular destination for boat tours and makes for the quintessential photo of orange starfish beaming beneath clear, shallow waters. There are several food vendors and the small Yarisnori restaurant on the beach serves decent seafood with plenty of cold beer. Amenities: food and drink. Best for: snorkeling; swimming; walking.

Isla Colón, Panama

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Bocas Butterfly Garden

A few minutes west of town by boat is the Bocas Butterfly Garden, where native butterfly species inhabit a screened flyway and a trail leads through a small forest reserve.

Crawl Cay

Just east of Macca Bite is Crawl Cay, a large reef that holds an impressive array of coral heads, colorful sponges, large sea fans, and hundreds of small reef fish. It is an excellent spot for snorkelers, who can simply float over the reef and watch the show. The reef also has enough marine life in and around its innumerable crannies to entertain experienced divers. It is sufficiently sheltered that the water there is usually calm and clear, even when the sea is too rough for diving at Cayos Zapatillas. Bring drinking water, reef-safe sunscreen, and cash if you plan to dine at one of the over-the-water restaurants.

Isla Bastimentos, Panama

Finca Los Monos Botanical Garden

Finca Los Monos Botanical Garden has a large collection of heliconia, ginger, palm, and fruit trees in a rain forest setting with plenty of wildlife. In addition to the standard tours offered twice a week, bird-watching tours at 6:30 am and 4:30 pm can be arranged with prior reservation.

Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos

Much of the park is virtually inaccessible, especially the island's forested interior, but you can see most of its flora and fauna in the private reserves of adjacent jungle lodges. That wildlife includes tiny, bright-red poison dart frogs, green iguanas, two-toed sloths, ospreys, parrots, toucans, and collared manakins. The park's coral reefs protect even greater biological diversity, including spiny lobsters, sea stars, barracuda, various snapper species, and countless colorful reef fish.

Most people experience the park's reefs at the postcard-perfect, coconut-palmed Cayos Zapatillas, two cays southeast of Bastimentos that are the park's crown jewels. The Cayos' most impressive scenery is actually in the surrounding ocean, which holds 1,200 acres of protected coral reef ranging from a shallow platform around the islands to steep walls pocked with caves. Scuba divers explore the reef's outer expanses, while snorkelers enjoy views of the shallow platform adorned with some impressive coral formations. The park tends to have more fish than Crawl Cay and other unprotected dive spots, and divers can expect to see tiny angelfish, parrot fish, squirrelfish, octopuses, eels, stingrays, and countless other marine creatures. When seas are rough (as they often are between December and March), scuba diving is limited to the leeward side of the island, making Crawl Cay a more attractive dive spot at that time. The island has a ranger station and a small nature trail through the forest. Bring sunblock, insect repellent, a hat, a towel, water, and snorkeling gear.

Parque Simón Bolívar

The town's central park site near the north end of Calle 3 is shaded by mango trees and royal palms. Children play here, and locals chat on its cement benches in the evening. North of the park stands the Palacio Municipal, a large cement building that houses various government offices.

Playa Bluff

The nicest and biggest beach on Isla Colón is Bluff Beach, a 7-km (4½-mile) stretch of soft golden sand backed by tropical vegetation and washed by aquamarine waters. It's a great place to spend a day, or even an hour, but it has virtually no facilities, so pack water and snacks. When the waves are big, Playa Bluff has a beach break right on shore, but it can also develop rip currents, so swimmers beware. When the sea is calm it's a decent swimming beach—always exercise caution—and the rocky points at either end have decent snorkeling. Leatherback turtles nest here from April to September, when night tours are led by members of the Grupo Ecológico Bluff, a local Ngöbe group. If you're lucky, you may find baby turtles on the beach between June and December. A taxi will charge about $20 for the trip from Bocas to Playa Bluff, but be sure to arrange return transportation since this area is rather isolated. Amenities: none. Best for: surfing; walking.

Playa Istmito

Referred to by several names including Playa Bocas, Playa La Cabaña, and Bahia Sand Fly, this beach is the closest one to Bocas Town. It stretches along the narrow isthmus that connects the town to Isla Colón, overlooking tranquil Bahia Chitre (Sand Flea Bay). Just north of the beach is Playa Tortuga Hotel. Due to the proximity to town, this stretch of sand is popular with locals that come for an afternoon swim or cheap beers at nearby food shacks. Biting sand fleas, the sound of passing cars, occasional litter, and dark sand make this a mediocre beach, but it will do in a pinch. If you have the time and energy, rent a bike and make the rough 40-minute ride out to Bluff Beach (4 km [2½ miles] north of Bocas Town, on Isla Colón), which is gorgeous. Amenities: food and drink. Best for: walking; swimming.

Red Frog Beach

Remarkable natural beauty and relative accessibility (a five-minute walk from a dock) combine to make Red Frog Beach one of the most popular spots in Bocas del Toro. The beach is almost a mile long, with golden sand backed by coconut palms, Indian almond trees, and other tropical greenery. It's the perfect spot for lounging on the sand, playing in the sea, and admiring the amazing scenery. Red Frog has unfortunately become a victim of its own popularity with a 170-acre condo development, a 150-boat marina, a jungle zip line, and an all-villas resort and spa. Although development dominates the eastern corner of Red Frog Beach, there are still plenty of unspoiled areas where expat-owned businesses provide small-scale tourism and a pleasant alternative to mass expansion. At the end of the public trail near Palmar Tent Lodge are a few relaxing spots to grab lunch and nap in the sun. Red Frog is usually a good swimming beach, but when the surf's up, rip currents can make it dangerous, so don't go beyond waist-deep if the waves are big. Amenities: food and drink. Best for: swimming; surfing; walking.

Swan's Cay

Swan's Cay is a rocky islet off the north coast of Isla Colón that is commonly visited on boat tours to Boca del Drago. The swan it was named for is actually the red-billed tropicbird, an elegant white seabird with a long tail and bright-red bill that nests on the island in significant numbers. The rugged island has a narrow, natural arch in the middle of it that boatmen can slip through when the seas are calm, usually September and October. The surrounding ocean is a good scuba-diving area.

Temples of Wadi es-Sebua

Two New Kingdom (1550–1077 BC) temples were relocated to safety on this shoreline, about 4 km (2.5 miles) from their original sites. Amenhotep III constructed the smaller, earlier temple, using both freestanding and rock-cut elements, which Ramses II later added to. The temple, consisting of a sanctuary, court, hall, and pylons, was dedicated to a Nubian form of Horus and later rededicated to Amun. In Arabic, Wadi es-Sebua means Valley of the Lions, so named for the Avenue of Sphinxes leading to the larger and more dramatic Temple of Ramses II. As in Ramses II's other temples, towering statues of the pharaoh demand attention. Early Christians plastered over the reliefs, ironically keeping them in a well-preserved state when the plaster eventually fell off. Look out for the odd scene of Ramses II offering flowers to St. Peter.