Bocas del Toro
Where I saw the night sky underwater
After La Fortuna, I spent a night in Puerto Viejo and met up with my Portuguese friend, Rita, who asked me to join her in Bocas Del Toro, Panama the next day. Bocas had been on my bucket list for years because I heard the diving was amazing. So when she asked I said, “hell yeah!” and we went the next day. I was able to go on my first night dive here. I saw bioluminescent plankton underwater that looked like galaxies under the sea and fell in love with night diving.
Getting From Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro, Panama is a journey. You’ll need a taxi, a bus, a van, a boat, and your feet to get there. But once you’re in Bocas, you can dive all day and dance all night, then lay on the beach and gorge on ceviche and basically find paradise.
But first, getting to Bocas is an adventure in itself
I started from Puerto Viejo and ended on Isla Colon. You’ll need a taxi, a bus, a van, a boat, and your feet to get to these beautiful islands. And I would totally do it all again.
From Puerto Viejo, you’ll go to the bus station right in town and get a ticket to Sixaola. (I’d also suggest getting a ticket the day before you plan to leave so you’re guaranteed a seat) and it should cost you around 1,700 Costa Rican Colons, which comes to about $3USD, aka pocket change.
Once you arrive in Sixaola, you’ll get let off at the bus stop and you’ll need to gather your things and walk up the hill towards the bridge. You’ll see various tables with CDs, purses, jewelry, fruits and beverages up there- so head that way.
You’ll need to pay the departure tax that Costa Rica requires, so make sure you have $7USD and 3000 colones (but check rates before crossing). Having cash on you will save you extra fees at the kiosk inside immigration. And don’t listen to anyone saying that you have to go to the pharmacy or any different location to pay the tax because it’ll be cheaper. That is a lie to get you into their store and don’t fall for it! You don’t need their help- just go into the building right where the sign says to pay the departure tax and you’ll be fine.
Once you pay your departure tax, get your passport and forms filled out and stamped, you get to walk across the bridge to Panama! It was a super cool experience to walk across a giant bridge and cross into a brand new country.
After crossing into Panama, you’ll take your forms to the building on that side and there you get to pay another tax! This time it is an entry tax for Panama. Central American countries really want your monies… After you hand your forms over and pay more monies, you’ll head down the hill towards a bunch of buses and vans where you’ll need to get your passport scanned and stamped. Depending on when you get there and how many other people are trying to cross when you are, you could be here at the border for a couple of hours. You should count on spending at least 1 hour here dealing with forms, monies and various drivers.
Finally, after 4 or 5 different lines (depending on if you found the baño or not), you get to start working and bartering for a van to get you to the dock in Almirante, where you’ll catch a boat to the islands.
I was traveling with my friend Rita, but we quickly banned up with another couple of people to get a better rate for the next part of the journey. The more people you have on your side, the more likely the driver will accept the rate you all offer. Rita, the other couple, and I ended up paying $5 a person, and two other people in our van ended up paying $10 a person. So barter and just see what rate you can end up with! After finding a van and coming up with a price, it’s about an hour drive to the dock where you’ll find your boat to the islands.
From Almirante on mainland Panama to Isla Colón, it is $6USD a person and takes less than an hour to get there. It’s a beautiful ride and you’ll be able to see the brilliant green coast and the beautiful blue sea of Panama.
Some helpful tips:
-bring snacks for the journey! I think the whole thing took about 5 hours
-keep valuables and breakables with you (luggage sometimes gets thrown to the top of the van and strapped on for the ride)
-have USD on you! Panama only accepts USD
Where to stay
Bocas del Toro is a set of islands in the Caribbean ocean. You can stay on many of the islands, but the main island is Isla Colón and that is where all the night life is.
Rita did all of the research here and the hostel she found was great! We stayed at Hostel Heike which is right in downtown Bocas Town. Hostel Heike has a really great roof patio where you can eat meals and mingle with other travelers while enjoying the perfect Bocas weather. The shared bathrooms seem tiny and like they would pose an issue, but we never had any during our stay. The stalls are actually graffitied super beautifully and the stories they tell are amazing. I did find that the shower farthest from the sink had the best hot water availability, so take note. Other than that, the kitchen is nice but closes early- so grab your beer before they lock the doors at night. And the dorm rooms are typical of a normal hostel, the beds were comfortable and the sheets were clean. There is even a hostel cat that roams around and loves to be petted.
Another popular hostel on Isla Colón is Selina. I didn’t stay here or even check it out, but I heard that it is a more of a party hostel. Selina’s has a great location right on the water and great night life.
I met a Spanish guy in Monteverde who stayed here and told me about this hostel where you can slide from the roof of the hostel into the ocean and when he showed me pictures I knew that I had to go there. Bambuda Lodge is on the quiet island of Solarte and looks like a zen paradise.
WHAT TO DO
Go scuba diving or snorkeling! Boca Diving Pirates Dive Shop is amazing! They have amazing rates for dives, awesome instructors, and great equipment. I was able to go on three dives with them for a total of $100USD!! Which is amazing for scuba diving rates.. I did one night dive and two morning dives and all three were absolutely incredible and beautiful. I saw bioluminescent plankton, a nurse shark, a beaded sea cucumber, a sunken catamaran, sting rays, lobsters, crabs, hundreds of fish and so much more. I was in heaven under the sea ♥
Below is an idea of what the bioluminescent plankton look like, but we were about 50 feet below the surface when we saw them, so imagine total darkness surrounding you… There were 5 of us who dove this time and it was a good group! After exploring the reef at night for a while, we found a sandy patch and knelt on the floor of the ocean, turned our flashlights inward towards our wetsuits and let the pitch black ocean depth take over.
For about 15 seconds it was eerily dark, quiet, and serene. It was a beautiful, and truly humbling experience being underwater with zero visibility. Then one of the dive masters waved his arm around and lit up the water all around us. The movement of his arm stirred up the bioluminescent plankton and the next thing I knew it looked like we were in night sky surrounded by glowing stars. The plankton even gathered together in some areas and looked like underwater galaxies… This was one of my favorite moments of my trip, if not my life. After completing this epic dive, we came back up to the top and were greeted by the night sky that was full of stars glowing above us.
Surf! Bocas is highly regarded for their waves and surf vibes. And even if you don’t surf, surfers are cute and fun to dance with 😉
Ladies Night is every night and La Iguana is where it’s at. Head there before midnight and your drinks are paid for (if you’re a lady). And if you see an 82 year old man, his name is Bob and he will shut the bar down with you. Bob is one of the coolest ex-pats I’ve met so far. He danced with us all night until the place closed at 4AM. Bob is the man!
What to eat
Hungry Monkey has amazing tacos. I tried their fish and octopus tacos and holy amazeballs… I am now officially a huge fan of octopus tacos.
Bibi’s! This restaurant is on Isla Carenero and has absolutely amazing and picture perfect ceviche with plantain chips.
All of my other meals were made at the hostel, with this fancy ass dinner below being the staple of the week:
When I go back (and I definitely will be going back) I want to stay on the main island for a few nights and then go over to Solarte and stay at Bambuda Lodge for a couple of chill nights. I’ll also go on as many night dives as I can afford with Bocas Diving Pirates. And beach hopping all around the other islands. Who wants to join?
Next post is all about Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica!
Onward and upward,