Surfing in Bocas Del Toro

Surfing in Bocas Del Toro, Panama is different from surfing in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua or other places in Central America.  The surf here is island/reef surf, similar to what a surfer might find in the South Pacific or Indian Ocean.  

Much has been written about surfing in Bocas Del Toro and Panama over the recent years.  Surfing Magazine, Storm Riders and Surfer Magazine have all featured Bocas Del Toro.  We'll let you be the judge of the media, but the three qualities they got right about Bocas are: 

  • Consistent Swell
  • Quality and Powerful Surf
  • A Tropical Surfing Experience

Our FAQ section provides significant details regarding where the swell comes from and why.  Please read this section.  What is key is that Bocas rivals many of the world's best known surf locations for power, size and most importantly, consistency.  Come here in the surf season and see for yourself - rarely do people get skunked.

Bocas Del Toro is also scalable, it is not just for hell-men.  If you are an advanced or professional level surfer, Bocas has the goods...OR...if you are a beginner or a surfer that wants to up your ante, Bocas has great surf spots for you as well.  
For the budget minded surfer, you can walk to the main breaks in 30 minutes.  But without a doubt, to get the goods, you need a boat and a guide.  Else, you maybe floundering in chest high waves when it is double overhead somewhere, spitting tubes.   

The following is a description of the local surf spots.  At the end of this page is a short description of the outer island secret spots.  Also, there is important information on Surf related topics on the FAQ page, don't skip this please. 
BLUFF BEACH is a pounding beach break situated on the exposed, north-east facing coast of Isla Colon.  Bluff Beach, at head high or under can be fun and manageable...but once it gets overhead, Bluff becomes an A-list surfers spot only.  The waves come out of deep water to unload on the beach with an intensity matched by only a few waves the world over.  This is not hype - Bluff is the real deal.  

You will get barreled at Bluff.  And chances are, if you surf Bluff at size, you'll break your board.  It breaks both right and left depending upon the swell angle.  Bluff is also exposed and wind sensitive so slack winds and swell size are critical considerations.    

 To surf serious Bluff, you will need to be an advanced level surfer.
SILVERBACKS is a well documented big wave spot that credibly can be compared to Backdoor Pipeline and Sunset.  Sunny Garcia says it is the heaviest place he's surfed...Sunny!  Coming out of deep water at the edge of the shipping channel off the island of Bastimentos, the waves jack as they encounter a sudden and dramatic change in sea depth caused by a large ledge.  Due to the speed of these open ocean swells, the wave drains water off the reef and pitches an ultra-thick barrel.  The trick is to get in early, and back door this beast.  Silverbacks is a expert or professional level spot only.  

There are a lot of pictures of Silverbacks on the internet.  

Inner Silverbacks or Pautai is the right that breaks along the reef bordering Bastimentos.  This long but fickle right needs slack winds and a swell out of the north.  If the conditions are perfect, this wave is one of the longer surf breaks and offers surfers of all skill levels a true reef/point break wave allowing for tons of maneuvers.     

Carenero Island is a sectioning series of left reefs that at size, will combine into a long hollow left.  On it's day, Carenero is world class and has become the wave which put Bocas Del Toro on the map.  The tropical backdrop enhances the lineup, it is stunning just to sit and look at the rainforest here.  Carenero can be surfed by intermediate to advanced surfers and strictly breaks left.  Unfortunately, Carenero has become somewhat crowded and localized.  The good news is that there are multiple lineups where crowds can be avoided and sometimes, these alternatives have better shaped waves than the tip of the island.  

Paunch Reef is a left and right breaking reef on Isla Colon's north east facing side, situated where the island bends towards the swell window coming from the north east.  At six feet and under, Paunch is a user-friendly spot offering intermediate to advanced surfers great waves for maneuvers and tricks.  At eight foot and over, Paunch begins to get a bit more serious and the thick lips begin to pitch as the wave sucks harder.  You'll need to be honest with yourself regarding your skill level at this size.

Paunch offers four lineups that can shift and merge.  Paunch does get crowded but for the most part, the various line ups spread it out.  You'll be sure to get plenty of waves.  Mostly, Paunch is a left, but on the west side of the reef, two rights break.  But size, the channel shuts down and the paddle out becomes seriously no fun. Make sure you can duck dive and stay off the reef! 

Dump is another well documented wave that has tons of pictures on the internet.  Dump is like surfing in a small arena, where the reef is fully exposed to your right and directly in front of you at all times.  What makes this even more intimidating is that the wave sucks off the reef hard offering advanced surfers a steep drop, a pitching shack and a two maneuver wall before the wave sucks dry.....that's it.  An intense, short ride.  

Dump is also a locals favorite.  Show respect and you'll get plenty of waves though.  It breaks hard enough that if you ride it well, the locals recognize this.   

Inner Dump is a totally different wave from outer Dump.  This lined up wave fires over a shallow reef just feet from the shore.  Using Dump as an indicator, the wave peels left flawlessly, sometimes as a non-stop barrel for about 100 yards.  Inner Dump would be a good challenge for intermediate surfers when it is uncrowded and head high.  Expert surfers will take this place apart whenever it breaks.  

Both Dump and Inner Dump take a solid swell to break. 

Tiger Tails is a sand/reef break that breaks in a small gap in the reef.  Best surfed at head high or just overhead, Tiger Tails offers intermediate to expert surfers a steep peak that breaks both right and left.  This wave is a good alternative when Paunch is crowded.  Rock solid duck diving skills are critical here as there is no channel when paddling out.  The wave breaks fast and at size, throws out.  Be advised, Tiger Tails, like all of the beach breaks in Bocas Del Toro will be hollow and will break hard.  Also, the new road has created a lot of backwash and the wave is not as good as it once was.  But who knows, it may return.

Punta Toro is a mystery as it breaks under everybody's nose, yet remains uncrowded.  We'll leave the exact location a secret.  

Punta Toro is actually three distinct right breaking bowls that are exposed.  When it is two feet at Old Man's, it is five feet at Punta Toro.  The first bowl is a peak that comes out of deep water and abruptly hits a shallow ledge.  The wave jacks, pitches and reels for a short 40 yard barrel that leaves the surfer in the impact zone for the second bowl.  The second bowl swings wider onto the reef and tends to double up and pitch into a pipe that walls up for a longer ride than the first bowl.  The third option we call the "Dessert Bowl".  It is a smaller wave than the first and second bowl but often, the wave is longer and offers the surfer better tube options.  At size, this is a sure bet. 

At swells up to six feet and with slack winds, Punta Toro is a ton of fun for intermediate to advanced surfers.  There is a well defined channel so duck dives are a minimum.  Once the swell hits eight feet and over, things get heavy.  Expect the water to drain off the reef as the wave doubles up into massively thick lips and intimidatingly hollow barrels.  The First Bowl really comes to life and the Second Bowl just gets scary.  We took one long time Bocas local there and he had his all-time longest hold down at Punta Toro.  Needless to say, it was a very heavy experience for all.       

Old Man's is a bowly reef break in the channel between Carenero and Bastimentos Island.  This right and left breaking wave is a favorite for surfers of all skill levels.  On the outside, the wave feels the reef and horseshoes into a bending wall that breaks both ways.  Pay attention, often, the left is longer than the right and outside sets can get hollow.  A really fun wave for all.  

Julio's Right is a long right that starts as bowl that peels down the reef.   This wave is perfect for all skill levels and under head high, it is a perfect longboard wave.  Once over head, Julio's presents the surfer with a near perfect wall that begs for lip bashing, roundhouse cut backs and airs.  The takeoff can get hollow, but the wave never gets intimidating.  Julio's Right is also under everybody's nose but chances are, you'd surf this wave alone.  We always keep an eye on Julio's Right.  

Sand Fly Bay (Town Beach) is the bay that borders Saigon.   If you are a beginner, or want to learn to surf, this is the place.  There are a series of spots, from Lilyana's Corner to Kristi Beach and more.   Offering a perfect venue to learn and enhance your skills,  the crowd is never a problem at Sand Fly Bay.  These gentle waves will keep you coming back for more if you are in the early stages of your surfing life.   

Breaks on Bastimentos are mostly beach breaks.  First Beach (Wizard Beach) and Playa Larga offer surfers an uncrowded alternative to the town breaks mentioned above.  Playa Larga is especially impressive and offers the intermediate and advanced surfer challenging drops and super hollow tubes.  Again, your duck diving skills must be in order.  If the swell is up, the surfer must be honest with themselves about their abilities before going to Playa Larga...given the right conditions, Playa Larga is a worldclass beachbreak that rivals Mexico and France for power and tubes.  The boat ride out is long and skirts the north facing coast of Bastimentos.  The tropical view alone is worth the trip.  You'll swear you saw a T-Rex in the trees.     

Discovery is out there in Bocas Del Toro.  We found a right breaking wave over an very live reef.  At 4.5 feet and 9 seconds, out of the northeast, the sets were double overhead and lined up with multiple barrel opportunities for 150 yards.  We went back at 6 feet... it was world class.    

Outer Island and Discovery Opportunities

Most surfers dream of finding their own spot, being the first to ride name it.  We are passionate about discovery and surfing alone - it is a big part of our mission and why we came to Bocas.   The following is a list of secret spots that we surf as much as we can.  These spots are only known to a few locals and a bunch, only to us as we discovered them.  

All of these spots require a boat to get to and the local boat taxis don't know where they are.  And many of these places are far away and on difficult to reach reefs surronding remote islands - they take care of themselves.  

Punta Gnobe 
We discovered this setup in 2004.  Natives climbed into the big trees overlooking the point and hooted our every wave.  Punta Gnobe is a long right reef/point on a remote island that has several personalities.  It takes a big NE swell to show, the bigger, the better.  The inside breaks over a shallow "live" coral reef and spins off for a quick 75 yards in front of a lagoon.  It has a great tube and wall for high performance surfing over clear, clean azure water.  On bigger swells, Gnobe pushes out farther onto the point and begins to look a lot like Sunset on the north shore of Hawaii.  We've surfed it at triple overhead, three hundred yard long rides with massive tubes.  If it breaks, it is one of the best waves in Bocas.  It is tough to get to and takes over an hour there and another hour back.

1/2 mile off a remote island's coast sits Hardwood...a classic offshore reefbreak.  Mainly a right, Hardwood swings out of very deep water, feels the reef and begins to bend into a massive bowling wall.  When Bocas gets huge, Hardwood gets even bigger with 18+ foot walls waiting for the hardy few who have guns.  Hardwood gets just as big Silverbacks, but is not as hollow.  The challenge is where to anchor up as sneaker sets will break on reefs even farther out.  There are other offshore reefs in this area that as yet have never been ridden.  Bring a real gun, not a step up.    

Knuckle Heads
Also on a remote island, Knuckle Heads is a jacking reef break right that breaks in front of a small island.  This spot was first surfed by two guests, one of which was a Pro Rugby player from Australia, hence the name.  This fickle wave needs the conditions just so...but when the stars align, Knuckle Heads really delivers.  You have to paddle in hard to get under the ledge as the wave jacks, then pitches HARD.  The wave is perfect, hollow and flawless...but rare. 

C Cup
Two New England surfers came down to Bocas skunked.  The only time when we had surfers that did not get waves.  So we got in the boat and went searching for waves...any waves... and found C Cup.  This remote reef is next to a small island and it picks up the smallest of swells.  When everything else was dead-flat, we rode waist high peelers that pushed over the reef for 50 yards.  It felt a lot like Queens in town on the south shore.  When it is flat...we know where to go...C Cup.    

Punta Dos Tortugas
This spot is one of Bocas' best waves and very few locals know about it...and we intend to keep it that way.  It is a right breaking point break that will handle double overhead+ waves, and break for 300 yards...easy.  It breaks frequently, but the prevailing winds are onshore.  So on glassy days...this is our go to spot.  It takes 45 minutes to get to so it is pretty remote, but it is worth it.  This is usually better in the summer due to the need for slack winds.  

The Reef
We had a writer from Hawaii come and stay - great guy and good surfer.  On our way to a beach break, we motored past this reef and from the outside, it look like it was firing.  We got to the beach break and turned around to go back and check it out...we still talk about that session to this day.  

Coming from a ENE direction only, this fickle wave walls and jacks.  The steep takeoff allows for a prolonged bottom turn in front of swirling boils, the reef plainly visible and intimidating.  The first barrel section is more of a slab.  You HAVE to back door it or kick out, the fire coral reef is too shallow to prone.  As you fly out of the hollow section, the wave continues to build in height and length with rides of over 150 yards, producing some of Bocas' highest performance surf.  The best thing about this wave is that it does not need a big swell, only a ton of eastery swell direction and slack winds.