Bocas del Toro is one of Panama’s unique treasures, a pristine archipelago located along the country’s remote, northwest Caribbean coast. Bocas del Toro, or ‘Mouth of the Bull’, offers some of the richest natural, historical and cultural diversity in the country.
A sprinkling of islands set like brilliant jewels on the limpid waters of the Caribbean sea, Bocas boasts luxuriant vegetation, a host of endemic and migrant animal species, and a dizzying variety of activities for the explorer and settler alike. It is also home to several of Panama’s indigenous tribes, whose communities are loosely spread across the islands.
A thick cover of rainforest, dense mangrove islands, sweeping white sand beaches and expansive coral reefs combine in complex ecosystems that support many of the region’s rarest species, including the leatherback turtle and West Indian manatee. Its incredible beauty and natural riches have earned Bocas del Toro special recognition as a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, and the warmth of the Afro-Caribbean culture and the relaxed island life are making Bocas a favorite for eco-tourists.
Lay of the Land
The province of Bocas del Toro is just 60 kilometers (35 miles) from the Costa Rican border, on Panama’s north-west coast. It is easily accessible by air, either by private charter, domestic airline or international airline from Costa Rica, as well as by land on well-maintained roads. There are also a couple of marinas to accommodate seafarers. Marine taxis and ferries are available to shuttle visitors from the mainland to the islands.
The province consists of a handful of larger islands, and dozens of smaller islands, including a myriad mangrove islets. The capital of the province is Colon, The temperature is warm and humid year-round at an average of 82° F, or 27°C. This corner of the Caribbean lies entirely outside the hurricane belt, and while rain can fall plentifully, Bocas sees none of the storms of the north Caribbean.
There are several tasty restaurants to choose from, with plenty of fresh-caught seafood on the menu, and the warm flavours of Afro-Caribbean cuisine. The atmosphere is very relaxed and friendly; visitors are warmly received. Spanish is the official language, but English is widely spoken, and the resident community is a cultural mosaic, with settlers from the West Indies, England, Scotland, and North America.
Bocas offers a full range of basic modern amenities, including banks, medical clinics, shops, cell phone service and high-speed Internet. But for those who just want to indulge in the wild tropics, wide stretches of deserted, white-sand beaches beckon, and piercingly clear waters offer a window onto a brilliantly coloured world of coral reefs for swimmers, snorkelers, surfers and divers. The rainforests are lush with innumerable plant species, and a patient visitor can spot two and three-toed sloths, white-faced and spider monkeys, tapirs, toucans and parrots, and the poisonous red frog whose venom was used by pre-Colombian Indians to tip their arrows.
Christopher Colombus dropped anchor in Bocas del Toro on his final visit to the Americas in 1501, as he headed south from Costa Rica. A couple of (likely apocryphal) stories have Colombus name the archipelago “Mouths of the Bull” after waterfalls shaped like bull mouths, or a large rock on Bastimentos Island in the shape of a sleeping bull, while others attribute the name to one of the last great Indian chiefs, or the roaring sound of the surf.
The remains of colonial architecture, particularly in Bocas Town, hark back to a pivotal time in Central American history, a time of banana plantations and the rise of the notorious United Fruit Company, whose influence on trade and agriculture dominated the isthmus for more than a century. The old UFC headquarters are today the Bahia hotel, in the town of Bocas del Toro. Many of the plantation workers and cooa growers came from the West Indies, whose culture still dominates this stretch of the Caribbean, along with settlers from the 19th century, and the indigenous tribes of Ngobe, Teribe, Guaymi, Bribri and Kuna Indians.
Bocas del Toro offers a diverse landscape of natural wonders, from large swaths of undisturbed rainforest, home to hundreds of bird, mammal and reptile species, including several endangered species, to a thriving marine environment with expansive coral reefs, and the largest stretch of Caribbean mangroves, unique ecosystems that border land and sea..
The region is part of a much larger protected area, La Amistad, crossing into Costa Rica and spanning some 2.5 million hectares. Its dense biodiversity and pristine state have made it aUNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.
Here four species of marine turtles, including the giant, rare Leatherback turtle, make the laborious climb onto shore to lay their clutches of eggs in the sand, and the endangered West Indian manatee can be found nibbling on seagrass in the shallow offshore waters. Dolphin Bay on the island of Cristobal is much frequented by dolphins with their young, and Swan’s Cay on Isla Colon is to many local and migratory bird species, including the magnificent frigate bird and the red-billed tropicbird.
The Bocas Breeze: A local English-Spanish, monthly publication on news and events in the Bocas del Toro community.
BocasDelToro.com: An informative website about the islands, with useful tips, services, activities, history and more.
Aeroperlas: Panamanian domestic airline offering flights to and from Bocas del Toro
Mapiex: Private/charter airline in Central America
Nature Air: Costa Rican domestic airline offering flights to Bocas del Toro