Bocas Del Toro: Surfing & Sustainability

Conscious Connection’s most recent adventure brought us to Bocas Del Toro, Panama. This small chain of islands on the northern Caribbean coast of Panama boasts one of the most lush and biologically diverse ecosystems in the world. During our adventure we stayed on Isla Colon, the island Christopher Columbus named after himself because he was so enamored with its tropical beauty.

All travels to Bocas Del Toro begin with a trip to Panama City.  From Panama City, there are two options to reach Bocas Del Toro. If your budget is limited, you can take an overnight bus trip (ten to eleven hours) to Almirante; once there, a thirty-minute boat ride will shuttle you to Bocas Del Toro. Alternately, Bocas Del Toro can be reached by taking a connecting flight via Air Panama, which is located about thirty minutes away from the Panama City airport.

If you choose to fly via Air Panama, you may find you need to spend one night in Panama City due to the airline’s limited flight schedule. We chose this option, and during our brief but enjoyable stay we learned that this well-developed, architecturally stunning city offers a variety of entertainment. We highly recommend dining in the historic region of Old Town. If time permits, a side trip to the spectacular Panama Canal is only a twenty minute cab ride away.

The next day, a brief one hour-flight transported us to Isla Colon, the largest island of Bocas del Toro. After paying a small entry fee to the island, we were approached by a man who offered to be our tour guide for the week. Thankfully, he agreed to simply take us to our hotel, Tropical Suites.

Tropical Suites Bocas del Toro
The Tropical Suites is situated right on the water in Bocas del Toro.

Tropical Suites was a quick six-minute trip from the airport, and upon arrival we knew immediately that we were in a prime location. The hotel is centrally located in town and within walking distance to local restaurants, grocery stores and bars. The friendly staff gave us a warm welcome and promptly showed us our room. The hotel was clean, fresh, and well-kept, and compared favorably to the other hotels in town. The spacious accommodations included a kitchen area, a couch, and a large bathroom. The balcony overlooked a panoramic view of the other islands, crystal clear water, boats, restaurants and lush green palm trees.

Tropical Suites Bocas del Toro 3
Spacious well lit suites are available at the Tropical Suites in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Shortly after we settled in, we set out in search of waves. We asked around and learned that a lot of breaks are only accessible by water taxi, which costs about five dollars per person (though there are drivers that will charge you more if you are not savvy). We took a water taxi to Camerones; upon arrival, we negotiated the time of our return trip with the water taxi driver, grabbed our boards, and leapt off the edge of the boat.

We surveyed our surroundings and found four ascending left reef breaks with a few surfers at each. The waves were of varying heights, and we loved the options that this location offered. The largest breaks were about a two-hundred- yard paddle out. The paddle to the smaller waves was not as far, but there was more of a queue to catch a wave.

Surfing at Red Frog Beach_Bocas Del Toro
Surfing at Red Frog Beach, Bocas Del Toro

We had a blast. A forgiving drop-in led to fun sections, allowing a turn or two before we fell into the turquoise water. Before we knew it, our water taxi returned to pick us up. Day one was a success.

The next day, some locals advised us to check out Paki Point. A ten-minute cab ride brought us to a cool beach-side bar and restaurant located by a shallow reef break called Tiger Tail. Waves were waist-high and breaking fast over a foot of water on top of reef. We watched some guys paddle out to the left of the break in a small channel and quickly followed suit. We caught some good waves at this spot.

Next we headed to a nearby break called Bluff Beach. Bluff Beach seemed to be the go-to surf spot; it was all the talk in town for having a super-fast pounding beach break notorious for snapping boards. From what we saw, they weren’t lying: the waves were overhead and dumping right on the beach. If surfers made the drop, they caught about a two-second ride before being launched into the sand. Not our cup of tea.

The next location we tried was a beginner spot only about a 4-minute water taxi ride from our hotel called Black Rock. Black Rock has a reef break with a rolling wave perfect for beginners, and we enjoyed a long boarding session there.

The waves fizzled out, so we turned our attention to exploring the gorgeous scenery. We decided to rent a quad from the Flying Pirates. The Flying Pirate Tour Company is owned and operated by Pirate Steve and his wife, both of whom relocated from Los Angeles three years ago to begin their ATV business here. We highly recommend this company over their competition for several reasons. First of all, Flying Pirates is devoted to the safety of their clients. Secondly, this company has exclusive rights to fifteen kilometers of trails which boast secluded beaches, blue lagoons, jungles, monkey and sloth-seeing, and snorkeling. We feel that our trip would not have been complete had we not explored this part of Bocas Del Toro.

#CCZine Contributor, Abby Taylor, stopping for a quick a dip off one of the quad trails.
#CCZine Contributor, Abby Taylor, stopping for a quick a dip off one of the quad trails.

Our only disappointment with our visit to Bocas Del Toro is the region’s lack of environmental sustainability. Proper sustainability requires time, focus and resources, but those ingredients are lacking since the Panamanian Government is focused on the development of central Panama. Both locals and tourists have expressed frustration about the region’s lack of consistent trash and recycling (recently stopped). New convenience stores have brought much needed every-day products to the area, but they have also created some environmental problems. While hotels and retail outlets have invested in water storage tanks in the event of outages, the town water supply for the locals is inconsistent. And because the area is becoming more popular, development is a growing threat to the area’s pristine beauty.

Despite this shortcoming, the islands of Bocas Del Toro are very special and offer a lot to do for many different types of travelers. In addition to the fine surfing we enjoyed, the area offers many other attractions including a relatively pristine ecosystem, Isla Bastimentos National Park (an outstanding site for snorkeling and diving), excellent dining options, and a variety of other activities. The area’s rich diversity and rustic charm provide the backdrop for an unforgettable tropical getaway.

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