The Bocas del Toro Archipelago, comprising 9 islands, 52 keys and 200 small islets surrounded by azure Caribbean, is an island hopper’s dream located in Panama’s northwest. Part of the Bocas del Toro District, in the province of the same name, it is quickly changing from what was once a backpackers’ destination to a more upscale resort area, with several luxurious hotels, restaurants, and ecotourism and other adventure facilities, in addition to a diversity of wildlife and people.
Boasting half the archipelago’s population is province capital Bocas del Toro Town (or Bocas Town), located on Isla Colón, the largest, most developed island. A popular tourist destination year-round, the friendly, laidback community comprises weathered clapboard houses on stilts; wide streets arranged in a grid; and several businesses including a variety of hotels and restaurants and an abundance of dive shops (most on or near Calle Principal, the main drag), making it a prime base for exploration, where opportunities for boat trips, snorkeling, swimming, surf sports, diving, sunbathing (Isla Colón home to several white-sand beaches itself), and mainland adventures and more abound.
About 10 minutes from Bocas Town is the archipelago’s 2nd largest island, Isla Bastimentos. The island is one of the most popular destinations in the region for its standout snorkeling and diving, in addition to some of the archipelago’s best beaches such as Red Frog and Wizard Beach, which are nesting sites for 4 of Panama’s 5 kinds of marine turtles; indigenous villages such as the Ngöbe-Buglé village of Quebrada Sal (Salt Creek) and Bahía Honda (home to subterranean river cave, the Nivida Bat Cave, a popular visit); a handful of highly-recommended lodges and 68 bird species; the island’s main settlement, Bastimentos Town (referred to as Old Bank by locals) – a community of some 200, mostly Afro-Caribbean inhabitants that has origins in the banana industry; and the popular, Panamanian-style seafood of Crawl (or Coral) Cay’s Crawl Cay Restaurant.
The island is also home to the Bastimentos Island National Marine Park – Panama’s first marine reserve, which protects approximately 32,000 acres of various ecosystems including mangrove and species-rich virgin tropical forest in addition to endangered and threatened reptile species such as leatherback and hawksbill turtles. While a lot of the park is inaccessible, particularly the forest interior, most of its flora and fauna can be seen in the private reserves of nearby jungle lodges including tiny, bright-red poison dart frogs; two-toed sloths; and toucans. The two Cayos Zapatillas islands’ impressive, 1,200 acres of protected coral reefs boast even greater biodiversity including sea stars, spiny lobsters, angelfish and parrotfish, spotted eagle rays, and countless other marine creatures – which makes for world-class snorkeling and diving.