Boca del Toro, Panama is an easy one hour flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, so combining the two countries into one trip is a natural fit. We sandwiched our first trip to Panama in between Costa Rica on the front end (Nosara, Nicoya peninsula) and back end (Puerto Viejo, Caribbean coast). And while Panama can still be a “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” experience with the transportation involved, we had no problems along the way. Our entire trip was roughly two weeks long, but this post covers our 4 days in Panama only.
Fly from San Jose, Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro, Panama
4 full days in Bocas Town
Take water taxi from Bocas Town to Changuinola, bus from Changuinola to Guabito, cross Panamanian/Costa Rica border on foot carry luggage over inter-country bridge to Sixaola, Costa Rica (yes, you read that correctly). Local tour companies can help arrange this transport "package"
Van transportation from Costa Rica border to Puerto Viejo on Caribbean coast
Geographically, the Bocas del Toro archipelago lies just south of Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, yet transportation between countries can be challenging. Flying into Bocas town from San Jose avoids the customs hassles you may encounter by driving, unless you have a private car. Car rental companies won’t allow you to bring their cars across country borders, but ground transportation can easily be arranged going into and coming out of Panama. There are a ton of things to do in Bocas del Toro, and Bocas town makes an excellent base to explore them all, whether you stay on island or head out to the outer islands like Bastimentos, Isla Popa and others.
As we flew into Bocas del Toro in the small 6-seat commuter plane, all we saw was beautiful water with a million shades of turquoise. There were small islands everywhere. We landed and went through Customs and Immigration - a room the size of a janitor’s closet, not kidding. Then we encountered our first obstacle - getting out of the terminal. Construction workers had just poured a cement floor - the entire floor - of the main terminal. There were no cones, no flags, no DETOUR signs in sight - welcome to Central America, where personal safety is your own responsibility. It’s actually refreshing in some ways, but I digress. So we walked the plank - literally a 12” wide wood plank used as a temporary walkway, down to the street.
Coming up to greet us was Jack, our host and owner of KoKo Resort and Bahia del Sol, our home for the next few nights. Jack is a big guy with a booming voice, and he had on a bright Hawaiian shirt and multiple woven ankle bracelets. I don't think he stopped smiling the entire time we were there. He and the cabbie loaded us up and we're off to the resort. We arrived to find a narrow path winding its way through a small neighborhood on the edge of Saigon Bay. A little way down the path, we met Jack's wife Lee, and they gave us the lay of the land. They own Bahia del Sol, their home which has a few rooms on the second floor for guests, and KoKo Resort next door, where we’ll be staying. Jack and Lee run both places out of their kitchen and make breakfast for their guests every morning.
KoKo Resort isn't a 'resort' at all, but a collection of eight bright yellow, wooden bungalows built on pilings over the water of Saigon Bay. The pilings are about 6-8 feet deep and the water surrounding them is crystal clear, with lots of fish, a few crabs, and big orange starfish dotting the pilings and sandy bottom.
Our cabina was painted inside, comfortable and clean. There was a hammock on the porch (always a plus) but no railing (bad for drinking in the dark), a nice kitchen and a/c in our loft bedroom upstairs. We spent our first night checking out the neighborhood with little kids smiling and running around, and later headed into town to buy some snacks and a few things for our fridge. Restaurants and bars are plentiful in Bocas town. Most places we saw were filled with locals and expat locals and European backpackers.
Jack cooked up a delicious bacon and eggs breakfast, all the while joking and talking politics. We also met the other guests who were staying at Jack and Lee’s place, a nice couple from England on an extended holiday.
In Bocas town there's a pretty little park with big shade trees and a few small eateries with local food. It reminds me of what Key West must have been like many years ago, just a very laid-back vibe. We ate lunch at Bocas Blended, an old blue bus transformed into a funky lunch spot selling healthy wraps, salads, and smoothies. After lunch we walked past kids playing baseball in the street, and they even gave us a turn at bat. Everyone’s so friendly, and these kids epitomized that. Back in the hood, we were surrounded by the peaceful night time sounds and music from around the bay.
I really like this place and Saigon Bay is beautiful. The locals don't have much but they are warm and greet you with a smile. The local kids loved having their photos taken and it wasn't long before they were seeking out 'the photographer'.
The next day, we arranged for a driver to take us and the couple from England to Starfish Beach on the outskirts of the island. It was a beautiful beach with bright orange starfish everywhere, and visibility for snorkeling was crystal clear. One site of interest we saw was one of Manuel Noriega's beach homes near Boca del Drago, which was still being maintained by locals working there. We ate lunch at a local joint - with ceviche so fresh and delicious it must have been made-to-order, then headed back to Bocas town.
Back at KoKo that afternoon, we used their complimentary kayaks to explore Saigon Bay, which was calm and peaceful. All around the bay were colorful, small homes on stilts. Locals in long, carved dugout canoes made their way in and out of the bay. We spent the rest of the afternoon on the porch watching storms roll over the mainland, sharing the hammock and sipping local rum.
Our senses are beginning to dull from the idleness of our days, or maybe the rum, and we're content to just live in this small neighborhood on the bay. Funny, we had every intention of exploring some of the outer islands, but this place has put the brakes on any ambitious plans we may have had, no matter how slight. On our last night in town we splurged on a moderate restaurant near the marina called 9 Degrees.
Headlining that night was a local reggae group, no doubt playing the usual set of Marley favorites. Dinner was very good, and the view over the water was the perfect accompaniment to our meal. As the band started to play, we asked for the check - not sure we wanted to endure the bad karaoke that was sure to come. We couldn’t have been more wrong. The band started their set with Bob Marley's "Redemption Song”. It was pretty good, but what happened next was a moment I'll never forget, one of those beautiful moments in time that you can't describe, you just savor the moment and the imprint that lasts.
Day 5 - Panama to Costa Rica Border Crossing
The journey from Bocas del Toro to Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica was an adventure. The water taxi from Bocas town to Changuinola was loaded to the gills with passengers crossing back to the mainland. One more may have sunk us as we sat at the waterline watching the wake spray high above our heads.
Once on terra firma, we loaded onto a bus to Guabito where we completed our customs declarations, waved goodbye to the armed guards and headed out of Panama, across a rickety old bridge into Sixaola, Costa Rica, dragging our luggage behind us. I've never been happier that we travel light.
The only delay at the border was due to their lack of personnel - only one guy was there to check herds of people into Costa Rica. No worries though. Standing in line gave us the opportunity to chat with people from other parts of the world. We loaded into a van and headed down the twisty, windy road to Puerto Viejo. It was like being on a two hour long roller-coaster ride. Luckily the vomit from the young girl hanging out of the window in the van ahead of us passed us by. Ugh.
We thoroughly enjoyed Bocas del Toro and will visit again, for a much longer stay. I want to return to that idle state of mind and go even deeper into the sleepy Caribbean where barefoot kids know Bob Marley by heart.