Panama boasts two pristine oceanic coastlines and unique indigenous cultures. Positioned just off the northwest coast are the Bocas del Toro islands. This idyllic Caribbean archipelago features nine inhabited islands and 300 islets. Lying nine degrees outside of the hurricane belt, Bocas del Toro is gaining popularity among superyachts as a destination rather than a layover location for Panama Canal crossers. The region’s prime cruising season is now upon us. Our media partner, Yachting Pages, spoke with Dan Olsen, marina manager at IGY Marinas’ Red Frog Beach Marina about why he loves Bocas del Toro.
BOCAS DEL TORO OVERVIEW
Bocas del Toro is a nature lover’s paradise that, in my opinion, includes some of the best beaches in Central America. The residents of Bocas are still outnumbered by the surrounding wildlife. Superyacht owners like that the destination is outside of the hurricane belt, yet still in the Caribbean. Plus, there’s a certain amount of uncommercialized privacy to be found here. In fact, visitors often say that the region feels like a quaint Caribbean outpost lost in time, yet modern marine facilities have made their way in to cater to the increasing number of superyachts that are anchoring up to explore the archipelago’s treasures.
Captains appreciate the safety and convenience of Bocas del Toro, perhaps en route to the Panama Canal, while crews repeatedly tell us that Bocas is one of their favorite places to stay. With nearby surfing and an electric nightlife, these islands have a dynamic vibe.
Still not overprescribed by tourists, and with more unique sights and activities here than anywhere else in the Caribbean, Bocas del Toro is fondly known as the “Venice of the Caribbean.” People here explore emerald rainforests, hidden beaches, and coral reefs and mangrove gardens by water taxi rather than car.
The new government administration is upgrading maritime standards, recently having introduced some fees and formalities for cruisers. Once you port in Panama, you can travel all the way through the Canal without any further maritime paperwork.
Panama requires visiting yachts to pre-register. Submit details about the yacht and crew to the authorities (AMP) online or by email before arrival in many ports. Regardless of whether this has been completed, arriving vessels are urged to check in as soon as possible, or risk possible fines.
A representative will need to visit the Panama Immigration Office, Port Captain’s Office, and the Central Immigration Office, which can take a few hours or more. At Red Frog Beach Marina, we have managed to refine the process, but it’s worthwhile using a local yacht agent when visiting the region.
Yachts sailing between the different districts of Panama no longer require a zarpe (outbound clearance document), but should always still report to the Port Captain’s Office. To clear out of Panama, take your original Cruising Permit with crew list and passport copies to the Port Captain’s Office, where you will pay for your international zarpe.
There are over 50 unspoiled anchorages in Bocas del Toro, but far fewer superyacht marinas. Regardless, you have access to remote beaches as well as the nearby airport, 20 or so restaurants, grocery stores, and great nightlife in Bocas Town.
Red Frog Beach Marina – Isla Bastimentos. Located 133nm from the Panama Canal within a protected mangrove lagoon, Red Frog Beach Marina (above) offers 86 wet slips for superyachts up to 300 feet (90 meters). The marina offers ample provisioning and dining facilities, as well as yacht maintenance services and access to resort amenitiesn.
Bocas Yacht Club & Marina – Isla Colón. This marina offers up to 100 slips for superyachts to 120 feet (37 meters), and is also equipped with crew facilities, guest amenities, and a boatyard.
Isla Colón. Isla Colón is the most populated island of Bocas del Toro, and the home of Bocas Town, the capital of the province. Discovered by surfers, the vibe here is laid-back Caribbean. Streets are lined with colorful clapboard buildings (below), handicraft shops, and an impressive choice of over-the-water bars and restaurants pumping out the sounds of salsa, calypso and reggaeton. Locals and tourists walk the Bocas main street, so you’ll meet people from all over the world.
During peak cruising season, Bocas del Toro waters are around 82°F (28°C), and the clear waters can be appreciated both from above and below. Take off on a PWC or paddleboard, or arrange a local diving tour with one of four operators in Bocas Town: Bocas Water Sports, Starfleet Scuba, Dutch Pirate, or the 5-star PADI dive centre, La Buga Dive & Surf.
We recommend discovering the island’s remote jungle and beaches by ATV tour. If that’s not your activity, make a reservation at the lesser-known Guari Guari restaurant. Open seasonally, it offers one of the region’s best dining options for Caribbean seafood, just $25 for five-courses.
Isla Carenero. Just a minute’s boat ride across is Isla Carenero. Named for being the place where Columbus careened his ships, it is a fairly small island with a more sedate vibe. Visitors can explore it all by foot in around an hour. If your yacht doesn’t have stand-up paddleboards, rent one from Bibi’s on the beach. Itt’s the most peaceful way to view the colorful coral reef. You can also enroll at the surf school, a good place to start either as a beginner or intermediate surfer. Afterward, anchor up at the Aqua Lounge, which once a week hosts one of the regions wildest parties around a selection of natural pools and trampolines.
Isla Bastimentos. As the largest island, discovered by Columbus in 1502, Isla Bastimentos is home to picture-perfect beaches and the National Marine Park, which is best explored by hiking. You’ll stand a good chance of seeing sloths (below), capuchin monkeys, exotic birds, poison-dart frogs, and caimans. Noticed here especially, Bocas del Toro is lusher than any other Caribbean destination. Explore unique flora and fauna, and meet the local wildlife by foot, bicycle, zip line, horseback, boat, or kayak. If anchored at the Red Frog Beach Marina, you’re walking distance of great surf spots, and just a boat ride from some of the island’s best fishing spots. Six miles out, there is a ocean shelf that drops out. Not a lot of fishermen have explored here, but it is known among locals as a great place to catch big fish.
Isla Solarte. Farther south, Isla Solarte is one of the region’s many diving destinations, with the sea wall at Hospital Point home to sea lobsters, moray eels, lionfish, and beautiful corals. The mangroves surrounding the island are also home to plenty of juvenile wildlife in hiding. Here you will find the Blue Coconut, a new secluded bar and restaurant with an expansive sundeck adjacent to the colorful coral reef.
San Cristobal Island. Moving west, visitors should, and often do, stop at Laguna Bocatorito to visit the family of bottlenose dolphins who live here. You can also tour the nearby, 12-acre Cerruti Chocolate Farm and taste samples.
Cayo Zapatilla. Whether traveling by superyacht, tender, or water taxi, don’t miss out on the more distant islands of the region. Typically pictured in the tourist brochures, the Zapatillas Cays are two islands to the southeast. It is not widely known that, on request, these can be made private for the afternoon for superyacht owners. Anchor in a protected bay 300 feet away, and tender or snorkel to the islands. As an integral part of the National Marine Park, these islands are home to the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles, which nest on the beaches between June and November. Eco-friendly nesting tours can be arranged.
As many guests do, we recommend to stop by Coral Caye on the way to the Zapitilla islands. This iconic restaurant is built out over the water above scores of fish. Guests snorkel over the coral reef while they wait for fresh seafood. Visit at night to see the waters illuminated by bioluminescent algae.