FAQ's about Surfing Fishing and Bocas Del Toro Panama

Frequently Asked Questions

Bocas Del Toro is still not on the radar, which is just great with us.  So we have added this page to help dispel some myths, and to hopefully answer some questions for you.  This FAQ page has been organized in sections on Bocas Town, How To Get Here, The Weather, The Swell and Surfing, What To Bring.

FAQ's on BOCAS TOWN
We suggest reading a tour guide of Panama before you come.  We have read them all (Lonely Planet, Moon, etc.) and for the most part, they provide good information. 

Some key things to consider about Bocas Town is that it is a remote place, on the Caribbean Sea, in a developing country.  Many of the buildings are situated along the water's edge on stilts which gives the town a unique character.  The buildings over the last few years are slowly being renovated and for the most part, they are doing a great job of maintaining the look and feel that has made Bocas' culturally special.   


Bocas town is funky and a lot of fun.  The nightlife and restaurants make it a "must go" place to see when in this region if you want something beyond the rainforest and surf.   Bocas Del Toro is Panama's #1 tourist destination for a reason, and while most of the tourist draw appropriately is due to the rain forest and islands, the town is culturally important.   



How Far is Town from the Island Path Panama?
About three miles and less than a ten minute drive.  But town feels much farther away.  Town is situated on a small peninsula that is connected to Isla Colon by a causeway called Saigon.  From Island Path Panama, you can not see town, hear town nor feel its presence.  This is why we are here in the hills.  So close, yet so far away...

Do I need a car?  How do I get around?
Bocas has one main road that leads right past the Island Path Panama cabanas.  This road leads to Bocas Del Drago and is just up from the "Y".  Bocas is mainly a taxi cab transportation town.  It costs very little to get from the Island Path Panama to town - around $3.  The taxis are comfortable, usually 4-door Toyota pickup trucks.  The roads were repaved in 2009.   

Can I use Credit Cards in Town?
In very few places, yes.  But Bocas is really a cash town.  At the bank, there are two ATM's and they work well most of the time.  Contact your credit card company before coming here and tell them you'll be using the ATM in Bocas.  Also, if you bring traveler's checks, you'll be waiting in long lines at the bank.  The best option is to bring cash.  

How is the shopping?  
There are some pretty cool street vendors and shops that have everything from Molas (cloth designs from the Kuni Indians that are really interesting pieces of art) to jewelry and tee shirts.  There are also some new shops opening up that have interesting furniture and homewares that are of a tropical flavor.  You'll pretty much see and get what you want in an afternoon.    

Is the food and water safe to eat/drink?    
The food is fine but the water is not.  We encourage going into town for dinner at the restaurants by the water.  But only drink water that has been purified.  Your best bet is bottled water, beer or beverages that you buy at the store.  

Is there Internet and do cell phones work? 
Yes on the Internet.  There are several internet cafe's and WIFI hotspots in town.  Your cell phone may or may not work at Bocas if you bring it from the States or Europe, but there is good cell service.  What we suggest is buying a cheap cell phone ($30) and use phone cards.  This way, you'll be able to call family and friends and tell them about the cool place you are in.  

Is there crime?  
Bocas is a reasonably safe place to visit and crime is limited to occasional petty theft.  Still.......be smart.  Don't take valuables to the beach (including your camera) or tempt people that don't have as much as you.  Just don't.  A big part of avoiding crime is ensuring you don't participate - leave your stuff behind.   

Also, Panama is a conservative catholic country.....wear your shirt when walking through town or else the Police might tell you to put one on.  Same goes with a bikini.  Just look at the locals and respect the way they dress by doing the same.   

We also suggest not staying out past midnight unless you are with a crowd.  Again, avoiding crime by taking yourself out of the window of opportunity is just plain wise anywhere you travel. 

When I am in Bocas, will I see wildlife and birds, such as parrots? 
They fact is that most people that come to Bocas and hang around town don't really see much wildlife...and this is one of the world's best places to experience tropical diversity.  Even the tours on the boats don't really get you close to the vast array of animals and birds that everywhere on the islands.  The Island Path Panama Rainforest Home is in the jungle.  You'll wake up every morning to Parrots roosting in the trees.  You'll hear the Howler monkeys and chances are, you'll see them as well.  Bring your binoculars.......Welcome to the Jungle! 


FAQ's on HOW TO GET HERE
No matter the way........Bocas is a remote place and therefore, takes an extra bit of effort and time to get to.  Trust us on this - it is well worth it so please be patient. 

What is the easiest way to get to Bocas Del Toro?
Without a doubt, fly.  You can fly from many places in Panama and now, you can fly into Bocas from Costa Rica, making a multi-country trip even easier and cheaper.  There are buses and boat ferries but they take a long time and are somewhat agonizing. 

What if I am coming from the US or Europe?  
You'll most likely be flying into Tocumen Airport which is Panama City's international airport, then connecting to Bocas on a domestic airline.  The only option is Air Panama.  The challenge is that this airline flys out of the domestic airport located at Albrook, on the opposite side of Panama City from the international airport, and that take 45 minutes to get to.  You may find it tough to book on Air Panama unless you DO IT WELL BEFORE YOU COME.  Bocas is really drawing attention so don't delay.    

www.Flyairpanama.com

When coming to Bocas, almost everybody has to overnight in Panama City, then fly to Bocas the next morning.  If you need out assistance, we can help you with where to stay and how to get around.  When leaving, you often can get the early flight out of Bocas in time to catch your connection back to the States or Europe.  
 
FAQ's on the WEATHER
Bocas Del Toro is a rain forest......OK, lets try this again........a RAIN forest.  It rains close to 200 inches yearly and there are reasons for this.  But before you get turned off..... the rain is kind of nice and if you come at the right time, it is sporadic and welcoming.  It keeps things cool and you learn to appreciate it.  

Why does it rain so much in Bocas? 
The southern edge of Central America and the northern part of South America have a unique weather system called the inter-tropical convergence zone.  The ITCZ is basically a conveyor belt of rainy weather that hugs the entire earth's equator.  It fluctuates north and south based upon the seasons and it is anywhere from 50 miles to 300 miles wide. 

During the winter in the US, the ITCZ moves north over Panama and gives Panama a good bit of rain in November and December.  Then, during the summer in the US (winter time in South America), the ITCZ moves over Panama again in June and July, giving another soaking.  It never sits in one place, but when it moves over it, the conveyor belt of rain really lets loose for awhile.

The ITCZ fluctuates, it is not perfect like all things weather.  This fluctuation sends periodic rains during the seasons when there is not suppose to be rain.  These seasons are called the shoulder seasons.  January and February still see rain even though it is really the dry season.  So does May for the same reason.  Classic shoulder seasons.  

Lastly, Bocas sits in a huge lagoon parked on the edge of the Caribbean at the foot of some very impressive mountains that bottle up a lot of moisture.  Sounds like a rainmaker.  

Does it always Rain?   
NO!  You'll get a lot of sunny days in Bocas and in the last few years, sunny days have stretched into weeks and months.  This is actually not welcome given the water supply is based upon the rain.  If you come to Bocas in the dry season, you'll get a lot of sun. 

We are closed during the rainiest months anyway.  

Is it Hot?  
Bocas can be a lot cooler than you would think.  Most days are mid-80's and the evenings can get down to the low 70's.  Island Path Panama, being on the crest of the highest hill on Isla Colon is even cooler and the breeze is perfect.  Bocas rarely gets hotter than 88 degrees. 

How is the weather TODAY?
Here is a link commonly used by surfers that shows the swell size as well as anticipated weather conditions for the day as well as a weekly forecast.   

http://magicseaweed.com/Bocas-del-Toro-Surf-Report/470/

FAQ's on the Swell and Surfing
One of the biggest myths is that the Caribbean has no waves.  The fact is that Bocas gets tons of heavy surf that lasts for weeks and rivals any swell magnet on earth.  As an example, the summer season in 2009 had head high and bigger surf everyday starting in mid-June through mid-October, with no crowds.      

What weather patterns make for the swell in Bocas?  
There are two different swell seasons in Bocas.  

  • November through April (winter)
  • July / August (Summer)

The winter season has two primary swell contributors.  The most dominate is the ITCZ conveyor belt's feeding storms off the northern coast of Colombia and Venezuela.  In looking at Google Earth, the northern coast of Colombia shows some surprising attributes........it is bone dry.  Almost a desert.  Think of the Abaco, Bonair and Curaco (the ABC islands).... all are basically deserts.  Very windy deserts.  

Combine the ITCZ (very wet) with the northern coast of Colombia (very dry) and then add the Caribbean High Pressure that forms every winter in the mid Atlantic, providing significant push and pressure gradient differences, and you get a massive acceleration of low pressure pushing constant swell in to Bocas' wave window.  This weather pattern is as comprehensive a system as the lows that push across the North Pacific in the winter, or the Southern Hemi pulses coming out of the roaring 40's.  The only difference is that the pattern is localized.    

Once it sets up, it DOES NOT STOP for weeks at a time.  The surf in this part of the world is constant during the winter, some of the most consistent surf in the world.  

Note below the explosive swell (and low pressure) off of the northern coast of South America.  Look where it is pointed.....Bocas Del Toro.   This is a classic winter pattern that sets up for weeks and sometimes, months. 

 

The second swell contributor in the winter season comes from the low pressure systems that sweep across the US.  These systems, though infrequent, drive swell down from the Gulf of Mexico in the north lighting up a completely different set of surf spots in Bocas.  They only last a day or so, but they deliver the goods and get the locals stoked in anticipation of the secret spots that fire on these direct north swells.  

The following shows swells building in from the Gulf of Mexico, created by low pressure sweeping across the US.  These are the same storms that create Nor'Easters, the surf loved from New Jersey to New Hampshire and Nova Scotia
.

Look at the swell in the upper left, pushing in from the Gulf of Mexico while the typical swell is pushing in from the East-North-East.  These N-NE swells can last for a month and longer.

The wave fetch expands significantly once below Cuba.  This new swell sucks the energy away from the N-NE swell.  It'll be in Bocas in 24 hours.

 

The swell fetch expands from Cuba into the southern Caribbean basin, Bocas is hours away from full-on double overhead swell from the north - note the light green indicating 12 to 15 foot swells in water that is over 9,000 feet deep.

Bocas is getting SLAMMED from the north.  A completely different set of spots are going off that favor this direction while the other named spots are breaking at a new angle. 

The summer season has one primary contributor being the early hurricane season's increased energy coming from Africa.  Tropical storms don't need to be evident, just the energy that consistently pours out of Africa starting in July and lasting into September.  Like the winter season, this energy sweeps across the Atlantic, being accelerated by the high pressure that sits in the Caribbean and hits the bone dry coast of South America.....bingo!  Waves, and lots of them for weeks on end.  

Below, look at the energy coming off of Africa with the Caribbean High pressure that sets up all summer long in the mid Atlantic.  The energy then hits the north coast of South American and the acceleration of low pressure cells and associated swell ignite.  This is a classic summer pattern. 


But why does the surf get so big and break so hard?  
Bocas is just like Hawaii's north shore.  One mile off the coast and the bottom drops to a thousand feet deep.  Ten miles out, and the bottom is nine thousand feet deep.  Open ocean swells slam into Bocas unimpeded by a continental shelf creating large, steep waves that jack into serious barrels.  Add some reef, a little sand or angle to the coast line and there you go........consistent, world class surf in a tropical setting.  

This is what you came looking for, right?  

What type of board should I bring?
You'll do great on your standard short board and a step up board.  It is advisable to bring two, especially if you surf Bluff as you may buckle or break a board.  There is a surf shop in town so buying a board, as well as leases, wax etc. is usually not a problem.  

The airlines fly smaller planes and limit the board sizes to seven feet.  We have gotten 7' 6" boards on, but it may prove best to not push it.  

What about Longboards?
The airlines will not take longboards.  But don't dispare, we'll rent you a quality longboard.     

I want to learn to surf, do you provide lessons?  
The answer is a big YES.  We'll teach you how to surf at spots that have perfect waves for learning.  This is great for couples where one may be an experienced surfer, and the other wants to learn.  We'll split you up, and make sure the beginner has the right environment while the ripper gets to go to the main spots.  
 
What are the best links for projecting the swell? 
There are a ton of links and ways to look at the surf.  Here are some of our favorites:

http://magicseaweed.com/Bocas-del-Toro-Surf-Report/470/
http://www.lajollasurf.org/nata.html
http://www.oceanweather.com/data/


FAQ's WHAT SHOULD I BRING?
Bring the obvious things like sunscreen, swim suit, etc.  But depending upon what you are doing, you may need some unexpected items.  

  • If you are coming for eco-tours bring a pair of rubber boots and several pairs of long white socks. 
  • Long pants and a long sleeve shirt will also save you from getting scratched when hiking.  
  • A good pair of sun glasses and a hat
  • Everybody should bring a nice set of binoculars for bird watching.  Even if you are not a birder, bring them.  You'll be amazed at what you see from the cabanas.  
  • Insect repellent
  • Button down shirts as they tend to keep you cooler than tee-shirts
  • Camera
  • Cargo pants
  • A waterproof boat bag to keep a towel and your stuff in when you go out on boats
  • Snorkeling gear 
  • Athletic shoes 

Are the Bugs bad?
This is one of the favorite FAQuestions.  Are you going to get eaten alive by mosquitoes and the answer is NO.  You'll be surprised by how few mosquitoes you'll encounter.   Many houses have no windows, meaning no glass in the windows - just big square openings.  The mosquitoes are not bad, honestly.  

The one insect that is a problem is called the Chitre' or as we say in the states, NOSEEUM's.  Depending upon where you are, these tiny guys can be no problem or really bad.  They come out mostly at night so this is why it is good to have a long sleeve shirt and pants.  Island Path Panama, being up on the hill have minimal problems with Chitre's but they can come up. 

Be advised, places like Carenaro, Red Frog Beach, Saigon and Bluff can be bad.  They like mangroves so low lying areas really can get bad.