Bocas Town Carnival
A water taxi is most people’s introduction to Bocas town in Bocas del Toro, though you can also fly directly to their small airport not far behind the town. Since we were travelling in by bus from Boquete, we made our way to Almirante and took a boat from there
Our initial impression was of a town out of the wild west movies: Wooden shacks with boardwalks and upper level balconies. Most of the buildings seem to be constructed on stilts overlooking the water on the seaward side.
And in fact, there are quite a few ‘cowboy’ establishments that will soon have you reassessing your budget.
Our first priority after arrival was to find our hotel. We were booked into the Hotel Residencial La Terraza. This turned out to be an excellent little hotel resort with a swimming pool and large deck area facing the sea.
The chalet-style rooms are arranged around the central swimming pool.
Our room had a comfortable bed, bathroom, fridge, tv and safe. There is also a locked gate to the compound and an all-night watchman sitting in the grounds.
We paid $69 per night for the room, including taxes and excluding breakfast. A little on the expensive side, but in our experience the quality of hotels in Panama starts to plummet as soon as you go below $50 per room.
We liked the hotel so much, we returned for another 2 nights 6 days later after our disastrous experiences on Islay Bastimentos.
Eating in Bocas Town
We ate at some relatively cheap buffet-style places as well as a few of the more upmarket restaurants in town.
Apart from one exceptional case of mild food poisoning from one of the cheap sandwich bars, we ate quite well in Bocas town.
The amusingly-named El Ultimo Refugio at the far end of town had good reviews and didn’t disappoint. However we didn’t get much change out of $80 for 2.
The Indian Om restaurant on the main high street was a little cheaper, but delivered at best a mediocre Indian meal for close to $50.
‘Noo, Don’t stop de carnivaal…’
In Bocas town they were preparing for Carnival the following week. The Bocas carnival is an odd event. It lasts for 5 days spanning a weekend at the end of February.
During this time they cordon off the small central garden square with a wire fence. The entrances at either end are controlled by police who perform body and bag checks.
In fact, there is a heavy police presence throughout the town.
There are lots of deafeningly loud sound systems blasting out Spanish rap, hip-hop and salsa. Street vendors set up stalls to sell drinks and food. Apart from that, not much happens during the day. There aren’t even that many people about. Not quite the ‘party’ we were expecting.
Towards the evening the ‘diablos’ start to make an appearance. These are young men and boys dressed in devil outfits, with large garish masks, brandishing whips.
They represent the Spanish slave masters, and are free to whip anyone who enters their area, or who ‘challenges’ them.
Adult diablos are dressed all in black. Their little demons’ costumes are red, but as they get older they gradually get to add black bits to their costumes for each successive year they participate.
You’ll hear a lot of whip-cracking and see a lot of posturing, but that’s about it.
Don’t expect Rio.
Renting a quad bike and following the Flying Pirates route around Isla Colon is apparently the top-rated activity in Bocas Del Toro. Here they call quad bikes ATVs (All-Terrain Vehicles).
We didn’t try it, but saw plenty of others who did. The experience will cost you $110 for half a day (4 hours). For 2 people sharing one quad bike, you’ll pay $60 each.
For the more energetic (or less affluent) you can follow most of this route on foot. You’ll lose some calories but will get more of the feel of the place this way.
‘Where the heck are the beaches?’
You won’t see any worthwhile beaches in or around Bocas town. If this is what you’re after, you’ll need to spend money on taxis and/or boats to get to anywhere decent. The closest beaches of interest are Bluff Beach and the Blue Lagoon 5km or more north of Bocas town in Isla Colon.
Boat Trips to the islands
There are various boat trips you can take from Bocas to visit spots of interest in the surrounding islands.
The Red Frog trip takes you to Bastimentos to try to spot their elusive red frogs (you won’t see any).
Bastimentos is also hyped for its beaches and jungle trails. Wizard beach is one of the best with clean, white sand. However, the killer waves and powerful undertow make it a hazardous place to bathe, and almost impossible to swim.
Another option from Bocas is a full-day boat trip to 5 locations, including snorkeling. This isn’t a bad option for just $30 per person.
The jungle trails, both in the north of Isla Colon and in Isla Bastimentos, offer some serious uphill trekking exercise. However, don’t try this alone or late in the day.
The daytime police presence on the trails is testament to the danger to tourists of robbery or worse. Just 2 weeks earlier a foreign tourist was found murdered not far off one of the trails in Bastimentos.
Getting Cash – ATMs and Bank
The main street is called Third Street. When you run out of money (and you will…), head over to the north end of Fourth Street.
There you’ll find the one bank and the only 2 ATM machines.
But get there early on a weekday. We found large queues of tourists at both ATMs, and it isn’t uncommon for the machines to run out of money. The machines charge a $4 or $5 ‘service’ charge, so make sure you take out the maximum.
Personally, we were never able to withdraw more than $500.
After spending our first couple of nights in Bocas town, we were next heading to the beaches and jungle trails further north on Isla Colon.
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