Quarter Life Guide to Bocas Del Toro : Isla Colon

Isla Colon is often referred to as Bocas Del Toro (or just Bocas) by tourists, though that’s a bit misleading. In fact, Isla Colon is actually just one island in the varied archipelago known as Bocas Del Toro. Not just the most populated island in the chain, Isla Colon is also home to the most restaurants and hotels, making it extremely well-known.

Promoted for its beautiful beaches, active adventures, and an equally active nightlife, Isla Colon has something to offer everyone including beach bumming, boating, surfing, bicycling, snorkeling, bar hopping, studying Spanish, and more. It is well-connected and the perfect home base for exploring other islands in the Bocas Del Toro archipelago, most of which can be reached for just a few dollars on a day trip from any number of boat companies lined up along the main strip of Bocas Town, Isla Colon’s hub.

After spending a week in Bocas Town on Isla Colon, I realized how much it reminded me of Koh Phi Phi (in Thailand) or a much less developed, smaller Cancun. Why? The vibe was very much “have fun”!

I had an absolute blast spending my mornings learning Spanish and my afternoons exploring beaches! But there are just a few things I wish I would have known in advance, including which restaurants were vegetarian-friendly and which activities I should plan for.

I’ve retrospectively answered all of my questions and put together this guide for you!

Quarter Life Guide to Bocas Del Toro Isla Colon

Are you ready to get your island adventure started? This is the info you’ll need to know…


 

How to Arrive to Bocas Del Toro : Isla Colon

If you’re coming from Panama City (the most popular jumping off point):

You can take a flight to the small airport on the edge of Bocas Town, OR you can arrive via a bus and boat (which I did). The flight is about 45 minutes, while the bus is about 10 hours and the boat 30 minutes.

Bus Ride to Bocas del Toro : Isla Colon

If you decide to use the bus and boat:

From the Panama City airport, take a taxi to the bus station, or pre-order a pickup. At the bus station (called Gran Terminal or Albrook), you’ll need to buy a metro pass with a few dollars on it (necessary to use the bathroom and to enter the bus) AND your bus ticket.

The bus station is full of shops, places to eat, and is even connected to a mall. The waiting area for people who have purchased tickets is nicely air-conditioned and even has unlimited free wifi.

The bus ticket is around $30, and departs at 7pm, 8pm, and 830pm. Especially during the busy season and weekends the bus books up quickly so be sure to purchase your ticket as far in advance as possible (the morning of the trip should be fine). The buses are air conditioned (a bit too air conditioned – you’ll want a heavy sweater and maybe even a blanket and hat), have reclining seats, and usually show a movie in Spanish. Bring ear plugs and an eye mask if you’re a light sleeper, and request the window seat.

The bus will arrive to Almirante between 530am-730am, and you’ll need to take a taxi to the boat ($3-6 depending on your bargaining skills). The taxis will be ready and waiting for the bus to arrive. Once at the water taxi, you’ll need to pay $6 for the boat ticket, which will bring you to Bocas Town of Isla Colon.

Not coming from Panama City or need more info on how to get to Bocas? This helpful guide from Habla Ya Spanish School is the best I could find on the web, and what I used to get around.


 

WHAT TO Pack for Bocas Del Toro : Isla Colon

I used my same Costa Rica packing list for Panama and Bocas del Toro, and it worked splendidly!

Plan for the heat, and pack sweat-wicking, lightweight clothes. The clothing in Isla Colon is VERY laid-back. Some guys don’t even wear shirts in Bocas Town and you’ll see girls on and off the beach in bikini tops and shorts. The typical “uniform” is uber casual as shorts and t-shirts are standard.

Isla Colon in Bocas del Toro

Bocas Town – everyone in shorts and t-shirts

Make sure to pack sunscreen, but if you forget there are many little grocery stores that sell it (though vastly overpriced).

Some of the beaches are plagued by sand flies, so bug repellant is also useful.

I’d always recommend bringing a canga or sarong to any beach destination, to use both as a place to sit and also an after-beach coverup and towel. Isla Colon is no exception.


 

How to Get Around Bocas del Toro : Isla Colon

All of Bocas Town can be easily reached on foot (my favorite!)

If you’re feeling especially lazy or drunk, or you want to go further afield, taxis are an easy and cheap choice. Within Bocas Town, most taxis are just $1.

If you’ve got a bit of energy and you don’t mind the heat, a bicycle rental is a great way to explore the island, and starts at just $5 a day. For more tips on bike rental and a suggested excursion, check here.

Bluff Beach Bike Ride Bocas Del Toro


 

Get Out and About in Bocas Del Toro : Isla Colon

While Isla Colon itself is full of beautiful beaches, it’s beyond easy to check out some surrounding islands. How do you do it? Go to any of the boat taxi operators in Bocas Town, pay the fee (usually $3-$10), maybe wait for some other passengers, and off you go!

Carenero Island is the closest to Bocas Town, and is just a few minutes away by boat (under $5 on a boat taxi). It’s quite small, and you can hike the entire island.

Bastimentos Island is also nearby, and is lined with secluded, wild beaches. This island was my favorite beach excursion while staying in Bocas.

If you’ve had your fill of beaches (um, what?) or you just want to mix it up a bit, another worthy day trip is to the mainland to visit a chocolate farm. $6 will get you a boat back to Almirante at regularly scheduled departures, and from there you can visit Oreba, the organic cacao farm.

Chocolate Tour Bocas Del Toro-11

learn about chocolate production and see the process in action


 

Rest Your Head in Bocas Del Toro : Isla Colon

Bocas Town is the happening hub of Isla Colon, with lots of restaurants, grocery stores, bars, and shops. If you like to be in the center of the hustle and bustle, Bocas Town is the place for you. If you prefer a bit of peace and quiet, staying just outside of Bocas Town will place you closer to beaches, away from the noise, and still near enough to get in on the action.

During my stay in Bocas, I crashed at Tungara Hostel. It is located right on the main street smack dab in the center of the action of Bocas Town. With private rooms of varying size and dorm rooms, they’ve got something to suit every need and budget. The hostel is equipped with a HUGE kitchen (extremely clean by hostel standards), plenty of common area space both downstairs and upstairs, and ever-so-important air conditioning. Tungara also has its own bar, which makes getting to know fellow travelers a total cinch, and the staff are beyond helpful and friendly. If you happen to be studying Spanish like I was, or you just enjoy your peace and quiet, you should bring ear plugs as all of Bocas Town tends to be quite boisterous into the night. Prices range from $15-25 for a dorm (depending on the season), and $45-75 for a private room (depending on the season).

Tungara Hostel Tungara Hostel

I <3 Tungara Hostel

Selina Hostel is also located in Bocas Town, and has an awesome restaurant and bar, along with live music some nights of the week. Rates start around $20 per night for a dorm room, $60 a night for a private room, and always include a delicious breakfast.

For a bed and breakfast experience, Bahia del Sol is one of the best in Bocas. Suites with balconies start around $80 per night and of course include breakfast.

For more options, check out Isla Colon and Bocas del Toro accommodation on Agoda (which gives points for each booking towards future free stays)


 

What to Do in Bocas del Toro : Isla Colon

Aside from the aforementioned island hopping, chocolate tours, and bicycling

The main attraction for Isla Colon (and all of Bocas Del Toro) must be the ridiculously picturesque beaches and stunningly cerulean water. Whether you want to read on the beach, work on your tan, swim your heart out, or snorkel the day away, Isla Colon has beachside activities on lock.

Bluff Beach Bike Ride Bocas Del Toro

Isla Colon is the perfect place to get your beach on

Speaking of beach activities, the island also draws a LOT of surfers! Since I’m awful at swimming, a bit terrified of the ocean, and have yet to brave a go at surfing (maybe someday!), I can recommend these guides for further surf info: Magic Seaweed and Habla Ya Surf Guide

If you’ve ever wanted to learn Spanish (especially if you’ve made 2016 your year of language too), or you’ve been hankering to improve existing skills, there are few places more relaxing, gorgeous, or effective to learn than in Isla Colon. Habla Ya runs an amazing school, and studying Spanish in Bocas Town is truly like learning in paradise. Classes start in the morning and are finished by 12, leaving plenty of time to enjoy the beach. Even easier, Habla Ya organizes activities and guided excursions every day, so you can just sit back and take advantage of their planning and expertise.

Studying Spanish in Bocas Del Toro with Habla Ya

learning Spanish and making friends


 

Bites and Beverages in Bocas Del Toro : Isla Colon

As a vegetarian used to being disappointed in Latin America, I was pleasantly surprised by Isla Colon’s veggie offerings. A few of my favorites:

Raw Fusion

This Asian fusion restaurant is slightly pricey compared to other offerings in Bocas Town, but totally worth it with a decent variety of Asian dishes like sushi, noodles, and soup! With a great atmosphere, live music every now and then, and seating on the water with incredible views, you shouldn’t miss it.

I’d recommend the $7 sushi (veg and non-veg options available) or the $12 noodles (veg and non-veg available as well). Delicious and big portions!

Tom’s

A local favorite, Tom’s has super cheap dishes and a ridiculously good view for the money. The value is almost impossible to beat at just $4 for a set meal (a variety of meat options available as well as an awesome veggie alternative).

Bluff Beach Bike Ride Bocas Del Toro - Tom's Restaurant

I’m still craving this dish!

El Ultimo Refugio

The choice for my last night in Isla Colon, I definitely didn’t regret it!

With an apparently ever-changing menu (written on a huge chalk board and carried around by the waitstaff to deciding tables), the night I visited had a couple veggie options. I went with the vegetarian pasta for $12, and wasn’t disappointed. The portion was huge, the pasta was delicious, and I washed it all down with a pitcher of jungle juice. The sweet drink didn’t taste alcoholic at all, but apparently was quite boozy as I stood up and felt a bit woozy!

More Drinks…

If you’re looking to satisfy your thirst, Bocas Town hosts quite the booze fest almost every night of the week during busy season and beyond (with weekends and holidays especially rowdy). Simply walk down the main street and the party will find you! If you’re looking for something a bit more low key, many of the nicer restaurants offer happy hour specials, and a happy hour bar hop never did anyone wrong, especially when you’re sipping a cocktail while looking out to the ocean.


 

Pin this guide for later!

Quarter Life Guide to Bocas Del Toro Isla Colon


 

Have you been to Isla Colon? Any tips I’m missing that you’d add?

Or – if you’re currently planning a trip, do you have any questions?

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Steph

A short vacation in Thailand turned into a life abroad with a canceled ticket home. 6 years later and after living in Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, and Puebla, Steph is on to her next adventure and living in sunny Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. She is traveling and living around the world to find the beautiful, inspirational, and interesting while sharing it with you!

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2 Comments

  1. March 22, 2016 / 12:45 pm

    Great post! Isla Colon certainly seems like a great place to relax – and it’s wonderful that you weren’t disappointed as a vegetarian by the place’s culinary options.

    • March 23, 2016 / 6:30 pm

      Hi Mary! Yeah it definitely was an amazing place to just unwind, while also concentrating on improving my Spanish. The great veg options were definitely a positive bonus!

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