Frequently Asked Questions
Bocas Del Toro is now on the radar. Chances are, when you told your friends you were thinking of these islands, they knew about us, sort of. In line with our mission of "Know Before You Go..." we added this frequently asked questions page. This FAQ page has been organized in sections on Bocas Town, How To Get Here, The Weather, The Swell and Surfing, What To Bring.
It is also important to point out that for folks that book rentals with us, we send up-to-the-minute reports of where to eat, shop, places to avoid and most importantly, the surf spots to hit based upon the swell direction/size as well as what the fishing conditions are like, what is biting..."Know Before You Go..."
FAQ's on Bocas Del Toro
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 not found anywhere else in Central America. Latino, Antilian, Aboriginal Americans, Chinese, Europeans and Americans, both north and south, all pitch in to the deep Caribbean flavor-vibe of this place. In season, Bocas Town is unquestionably, a robust, funky party town. 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.
The buildings along the main streets of Bocas Town over the last few years are slowly being renovated and some fear that the town is loosing its character. But all one needs to do is get off the main roads where the mercados are, and the original Bocas is thriving. And as you get out of town, the character comes through.
An important marker for distance from town is "The Y", where the roads splits off towards Bocas Del Drago, or continues straight to Big Creek, then followed by the main town surf breaks of Paunch, Dump and further out, Bluff. The Y sort of represents the entrance to life "outside of town". It is about three miles and less than a ten minute drive from the center of town. If you turn left (west), towards Bocas Del Drago, you'll find several small communities as you go up the hill such as Vista Linda and at the top of the hill, La Loma, where Island Path Panama is based. You are in the jungle, with lots of wildlife, yet town is only 5 to 10 minutes away by cab...really peaceful out here.
If you go straight, you'll come to Big Creek, one of the original expat communities with nice places over looking the water. Further, more communities until you reach the corner bending onto the road leading to the main surf breaks in town, Tiger Tails, Paunch, Inner Dumps, Dumps, La Curva and finally, Bluff, a good 10 to 15 minutes past The Y, depending upon the conditions of the surf or rain.
Do I need a car? How do I get around?
Bocas is mainly a taxi cab transportation town. The taxis are comfortable, usually 4-door Toyota pickup trucks. The roads were repaved in 2009 but are in reasonable shape, except going to Bocas Del Drago...it can get rough. Also, the road out to Bluff recently washed away (the surf really pounds on this stretch) and they augmented the road with a small rock-in-cage seawall. We'll see how long that lasts.
You can also rent electric golf carts from Tyson William in town. This is the way to go, they are rugged and a full charge gets you pretty much where you want to go all day.
You can also rent bikes. Be prepared, these typically breakdown given the salt air and abuse they get from overuse.
Can I use Credit Cards in Town?
In a few places, yes, and that is growing. But Bocas is really a cash town. At the bank, there are two ATM's and they work well most of the time, but not always. Bring cash just in case. 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. Again, 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. And there too many grocery stores...some are to be avoided.
Is the food and water safe to eat/drink?
The food is fine but the water is sketchy...OK to wash but we encourage only drinking water that has been purified, regardless of what people tell you about town water. 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 and depends upon your plan, 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 typically limited to occasional petty theft. Some of the notorious crime has actually been committed by gringos - Carenero Brim and Wild Bill are examples. But overall, Bocas is safe if you use your head. Emphasis on being smart.
Step #1 - Recognize that tourists are "Haves" and the locals tend to be "Have Nots". Don't take valuables to the beach (including your camera) or tempt the possibilities. Just don't. A big part of avoiding crime is ensuring you don't participate - leave your stuff behind. Especially places like First Beach (Wizards) and sometimes, Bluff. If you go there, leave your valuables 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.
Step #2 - We also suggest not staying out past midnight unless you are with a crowd. And if you buy and take drugs...expect bad things to happen. Your call, but if you do, you are a part of the problem.
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, the Smithsonian Tropical Research facility is here, 1 mile outside of town. Even the tours on the boats don't really get you close to the vast array of animals and birds that are everywhere on the islands. If you want to see wildlife, get out of town, walk the road towards Bocas Del Drago...you'll see lots of wildlife up there, especially around La Loma, just past Vista Linda...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 on NatureAir making a multi-country trip even easier and cheaper. There are buses and boat ferries but they take a longer 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 takes 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. Think of it this way, there are 4 flights in and out per day, each hold 50 people. The math says 200 people coming by air to a town that usually has more than 1000 visitors daily. If you want to fly, book ASAP or you may be in for a very long bus ride.
When coming to Bocas, almost everybody has to overnight in Panama City, then fly to Bocas the next morning. When leaving, you often can get the early flight out of Bocas in time to catch your connection back to the States or Europe. Also, check to see if your airport is serviced by Panama's airline COPA. If so, you may well be able to fly into Panama City's Tocumen airport, then get to Albrook in time to make it in Bocas in one day. A good example is Boston's Logan airport.
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. If you are here for longer than a week, you actually learn to appreciate the rain squalls that come and go.
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.
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, but when the sun breaks out, it does warm up. The winter season from November through the end of March can actually have chilly mornings.
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.
FAQ's on the Swell and Surfing
One of the biggest myths is that the Caribbean has no waves. Clearly, with Bocas in the surf media as much as it is, and being visited by international surfing pros, this myth is slowly being dispelled. But for those of you who still can't wrap your head around this, the fact is that Bocas gets tons of heavy surf that lasts for weeks and rivals any swell magnet on earth.
What weather patterns make for the swell in Bocas?
There are two different swell seasons in Bocas.
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, 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.
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 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.
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 or SUPs?
The airlines will not take longboards.
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:
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.
• Insect repellent
• Button down shirts as they tend to keep you cooler than tee-shirts
• 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.
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.