Our first night in Bocas del Toro it finally hit me — we’re really doing this. We had reached the one week mark on our trip, and instead of getting ready to head home, we were settling in.
I was a bit anxious heading out to Bocas. This was going to be our first stay at a hostel, ever, and there was a small part of me that was nervous that I’d hate it. That it would be crowded, dirty, and filled with 20-year-olds partying all night while making me feel way too old for this. So much of our trip (the experience, as well as the budget) was banking on staying in hostels, and yet neither of us had ever done so before. Eek.
Happily, my fears were completely unfounded and we had such an amazing time. Emy and Laura, our hosts, were super sweet and laid back. Our room was clean with a comfortable bed and windows overlooking the ocean. It was small and sparse in terms of furniture, but it was perfect for what we needed. I’d take the hammocks on the over-water deck over an in-room desk any day.
The other guests were equally great, and we quickly realized that we are definitely not too old for this. Most everyone staying there was around our age or older and had travelled pretty extensively. We met some really cool people from Wales, Chile, Portugal, and the US, and had fun sharing stories over the family-style dinner and $1.50 beers. One of our first nights there I asked about yoga classes on the island and got the response:
“They used to have yoga classes over by Red Frog Beach, but the yoga instructor ran off with the surf instructor awhile ago. They took the paddle boards with them….”
This was followed by a lengthy debate about what day of the week it was. We finally agreed on Friday. Yep, I could get used to this island life…
We were happy with our choice to book transport all the way to Bocas with one of the hostels in Boquete. Though it was a few dollars more than taking the local busses it was also a few hours shorter. The scenery was beautiful, with the road winding through the jungle. We saw mountains, waterfalls, and a lot of small houses on stilts. I also got to experience The Worst Bathroom. After that my standards were lowered and any bathroom not literally covered in poop is “not so bad!”.
Our van dropped us off in the small, run-down port town of Almirante, where we caught the first water taxi over to Bocas Town. It reminded me of similar towns in Belize and I was happy to not have to navigate it on our own. Once in Bocas it was easy to catch a quick water taxi to the island we were staying on — Bastimentos (or, Basti, as the locals referred to it).
We found our hostel, Bubba’s House, on Airbnb and I can’t recommend it enough. Good rooms, great atmosphere, nice hosts. The hammocks were perfect for reading or napping, and they had paddle boards we rented, as well as tubing and wakeboarding from their boat.
The town took some warming up, but we got there. It’s a pretty poor community, with standoffish residents, and quite a bit of trash. After a couple days though, we realized that it’s actually a pretty safe place. And while no one is going to go out of their way to say hi to you on the “street” (there are no cars on Basti, the main street is really a small sidewalk), why should they? For most residents, their families have been here for generations. We are just part of the weekly turnover of tourists passing through.
Do / See
Our first night in town a couple from Montreal dropped by our hostel inquiring about the Zapatillas tour that was listed. Upon finding out that it was a 4-person minimum to do the tour, we decided to jump on board. This ended up being the only actual tour we did in Bocas and it was perfect. Though it was little more expensive at $35/pp, we definitely felt that it was worth it.
The boat picked us up at 10am-ish, and headed out to this area where the water was filled with starfish, large and small. From there, the boat circled a couple inlets at “sloth island”. Hanging out with sloths was one of my “must-do’s” on the trip so I was pretty excited for this part. For a short time we had actually looked into adding French Guiana to the itinerary just for their awesome sloth rescue reserve but ended up passing due to costly flights, rabies vaccines, and malaria meds.
When we got to the island it was pretty hot out so most of the sloths were taking cover in-land. But we did see a few hanging from the trees!
Next stop was snorkeling where we saw bright coral and a bunch of fish. Then lunch at a nearby restaurant that clearly catered to all of the snorkel tours.
The last part of our day was spent on Zapatillas, a small island with a walkways that allowed tourists to explore the swampy mangrove landscape without harming the environment, and ended at a gorgeous white sand beach. By the time we arrived it was about 2pm and we were the only boat there, which meant that our tour group had the island to ourselves. We swam in the warm water and got some great photos of the island with a storm rolling just past us. Overall, a fantastic day.
Another somewhat impromptu trip — we met a girl from Denmark over breakfast who was looking for a budget beach day. She corralled a group of Germans as well, and Emy agreed to take us all out to coral cove for snorkeling, for less than half the cost of a tour. The coral wasn’t quite up to the spot the other day, but we had the small beach completely to ourselves, and the water was warm and clear. The highlight for me though, was finding and opening my own coconut with only a found tree branch and a broken knife. Yum. Maybe I wouldn’t be totally useless in a shipwreck situation?
Emy took us out fishing on his boat one night. Kyle brought back 3 fish; one became a ceviche app for the next night’s dinner. He also caught a terrifying 2-foot long needlefish with lots of teeth. Huge thanks to Emy’s fisherman friend for returning that one to the sea without any injuries! I didn’t catch anything, but after seeing the needlefish I didn’t mind.
While exploring is fun, arguably the best part of Bocas was the lazy days spent in a hammock over the water, napping, reading, and getting to know other guests.
We ate literally every breakfast and dinner at our hostel. The food on their rotating family-style menu was just that good, and reasonably priced.
A delicious, laid-back lunch spot a short walk away. It’s run by locals, with an over-water dining area, and really good fried chicken.
A cute little vegetarian restaurant at the top of the island. Luckily there was no rain the day we went because the only path there is up hill through the jungle and can become impossible to navigate in the mud. We split a bean salsa trio with homemade tortilla chips and a pumpkin quesadilla – both were delicious.
Up in the Hill
Another 7-minute jungle trek past Coco Hill is the most unique coffee shop I’ve ever been to (take note, San Francisco). The whole space is outside, a combination of bohemian decor and nature. And you share it with Basti’s famed red frogs, some nesting chickens, and an adorable cat.
Then there’s the coffee/food. They roast their own coffee beans, and make their own organic chocolate from cocoa that grows on the farm. I wish we had room for for a few more pieces of the banana bread in our packs…
Since the night-life scene on Basti was non-existen partiers would hop a water taxi to Bocas Town. We opted instead to hang out at our hostel with local beers (Panama and Balboa) and our new friends. We also splurged on a couple of Laura’s delicious piña coladas!
Tips & Lessons
- Paddle boarding is hard work. Especially in the rain, and when you get a bit too far out to sea. Those ocean currents are no joke…
- Don’t over-schedule. Our favorite memories came from having an open schedule that allowed us to say yes to an impromptu boat trip, sing along with our guitar-playing hostel-mates, and watch dolphins play in the bay.
Puerto Arroyo, Isla Santa Cruz, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador; Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, Isla San Cristobal, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador; Puerto Villamil, Isla IIsabela, Galápagos Islands, Ecuador *
* This one took awhile. Internet has been slow, and the WordPress iPad app doesn’t quite have formatting down yet. Lots of writing my own html!