Eco-friendly Bocas del Toro

Explore the natural and scientific attractions of this laid-back Panamanian archipelago oasis.

I’m at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Bocas del Toro, an archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama, that is an ecological wonderland rich with coral reefs, mangrove lagoons, tropical rainforests and wildlife. “Islands draw scientists like flies because they’re natural laboratories,” says Andy Kratter, a visiting research scientist from the University of Florida. “We use island biogeography to explain other places.”

And there’s no better natural laboratory than Bocas del Toro, Panama, with its immense system of islands creating a remarkably diverse ecosystem. Throw in some gorgeous beaches and rolling surf, and you’ve got the makings for a pristine island getaway. Some come to Bocas to study rich ecosystems, others are happy just studying the surf and sunsets—no matter, because it’s all about going with the flow in this laid-back island oasis.

Surf and Turf in Bocas Waters

For many, going with the flow on their Bocas del Toro vacation means riding the huge swells in places like Bluff Beach, a surfer’s delight. The beach is four miles out of town along bumpy dirt roads, but once there, the area has some of the prettiest views in Bocas, along with one of the best places to stay—the newly renovated La Coralina. In addition to lovely accommodations starting at just $60 per night, La Coralina offers scrumptious meals including three-course dinners for less than $20 a person—including entertainment by Edgar, the resident white-faced monkey whose playful antics charm all. La Coralina also offers horseback riding along the lush tropical coast.

Touring the 200 Plus Islets

Complement a stay at La Coralina with a night or two in the town of Bocas del Toro. (Note: the name Bocas del Toro refers to the region of Panama, the archipelago, as well as the town). Though the town encompasses only a few blocks, Bocas del Toro has a rustic ambience of days long forgotten. Many of the town’s colorful buildings, including most restaurants and hotels, sit on stilts along the waterfront providing a quaint, seafaring atmosphere. I like Hotel Bocas del Toro for its old world charm and simplicity with rooms starting at $126.

Along the waterfront are an abundance of tour boats offering trips to the 200 plus islets dotting the calm waters. A favorite of mine is Isla Bastimentos with a National Park featuring trails through a rich tropical rainforest still inhabited by indigenous Indians who farm the forest and fish from wooden canoes. The trails also lead to the spectacular Red Frog Beach, named after bright frogs that are no larger than a thumbprint. Children especially enjoy searching for the tiny creatures, and if unsuccessful in their quest, they can be sure that the local indigenous children will share a peek at their frog pets for a small donation.

Another site of interest is Hospital Point, an island holding the remains of a hospital built by Chiquita Brand International when the area was a banana mecca. The hospital was abandoned, but headstones from the late 19th century are scattered throughout the surrounding woods. Hospital Point also has good snorkeling and scuba diving, which are big pastimes in Bocas. Visit Starfleet Scuba for scuba and snorkel trips. Or, for mini-excursions, pay a small fee for a water taxi to restaurants amidst the mangroves for fresh octopus—pulpo dishes—each more delicious than the next.

A Tropical Laboratory

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute is located a short cab ride from town and offers free tours Thursdays and Fridays from 3 to 5 p.m. The tours offer a fascinate look at a plethora of tropical creatures being studied at any given time. There are also marine touch tanks for a hands-on experience, and the grounds are lovely for strolling.

Whatever the reason for coming to Bocas del Toro, whether to visit the Smithsonian and learn about the island’s biodiversity or to partake in less strenuous tasks like getting to know its beaches, prepare to slow down on your Panama vacation, because in Bocas del Toro the biggest pastime of all is doing nothing. So kick back and enjoy this tranquil, natural “laboratory.” The price of ecotourism can’t be beat, and gorgeous sunsets are included free of charge.

Getting There

Air Panama serves Panama City to Bocas del Toro. Visit for flights, which are less than one hour to Bocas.

For more information on Bocas del Toro travel, go to or

Destinations: Panama City

Themes: Beach Vacations, Ecotourism, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Horseback Riding, Scuba Diving, Sightseeing, Snorkeling

User Comments

Be sure you swim far away from villages,Bocas town or hotels in "Eco Friendly bocas" because there is no such thing as sewer treatment. They just dump into the ocean.

Sorry, here's a link to El Ultimo Refugio for those interested:

Bocas Del Toro is a wonderful place. Don't miss the delicious food and drinks at El Ultimo Refugio when you visit.