We arrived in Bocas del Toro with high expectations and no reservations — literally. And so while we had planned to base ourselves on Isla Colon and explore the rest of the archipelago via day trips, lack of desirable accommodation availability meant island hopping would not be optional.
And that was a beautiful thing, really, because had we not spent three nights on Isla Bastimentos, we might not have discovered so many lovely sides of it. The day we were set to head over, the sky was threatening to unleash a torrent of rain any moment, so we scrambled to gather any groceries we may need. While only a ten minute boat ride away, we had been warned that heading to Bastimentos was like going back in time. Our hostel was up in the hills and even in the main town, Old Bank, supplies would be hard to come by. By the time we found a boat driver and the engine fired up, we were in the middle of a downpour.
While our private room at hostel was one of the tiniest I’ve come across, we were won over by the hilltop location and the open-air kitchen where we could cook our own meals and get to know our fellow travelers. Over the next three days, the rain would be our regular companion, providing me with plenty guilt-free work hours. But we did manage a few moments of clear-sky exploring, and each one convinced me that this island is worthy of some serious love from Bocas-bound travelers. And thus, I present, my three top reasons for getting your bum to Bastimentos.
1. AcroYoga with Soyela Yoga
On our first night on Bastimentos, we found ourselves in the outdoor kitchen chopping and dicing alongside a yoga instructor, Soyela. She enthusiastically told us about her at the nearby Palmar Tent Lodge, which I enthusiastically agreed to attend and which Anders not-so-enthusiastically had no choice but to agree to. The next day, we took the fifteen minute jungle trail down to Red Frog Beach, and made our way to the yoga sala set just a few yards back from it.
The class began with a basic vinyasa flow to warm up and ease into the partner portion of the class. Soyela and her demonstration partner wowed us with some beautiful moves that brought me back to my first time trying AcroYoga in Ubud, Bali.
That time, I went to class alone and had to deal with the awkwardness of touching strangers pretty intimately moments after meeting them. This time, I brought my own partner, but we had a new problem. In AcroYoga, ideally you are matched with someone around your own size. With me clocking in at 5’1″ and Anders topping 6’6″, we were not exactly an AcroYoga match made in heaven.
Still, we made it work and had a lot of fun doing it. AcroYoga is all about stacking your body correctly so that you aren’t using muscle to support the other person — meaning in theory Anders could be the flyer and I could be the base. We were skeptical (and giggly) but with the support of a spotter we actually made it happen!
A beautiful setting, a lovely group of people, a fun workout and a clear mind — this class is one of my favorite memories from Bocas.
2. Diving with Scuba 6
After our four days of hardcore diving on the Pacific side of Panama, we were eager to try out the Caribbean coast for comparison. One one hand, diving in Bocas is a popular activity and I know plenty of people who have done certifications and in the area. On the other hand, experienced divers warned us we’d be completely spoiled after our experience in Coiba National Park.
While most dive shops in Bocas del Toro are centered on Isla Colon, there is one that strays from the pack — is proudly located in the Old Bank community of Bastimentos. Old Bank has a completely different feel than its counterpart on Isla Colon, Bocas Town. While Bocas Town is bustling and cleaned up for tourists, Old Bank is still a very poor, very authentic, and very laid back Caribbean town.
At the far end of the dirt footpath that effectively makes up Main Street in Old Bank sits Scuba 6, perhaps the most scenic dive shop I’ve ever had the pleasure to visit. There, new owners Arron and Iza have been working overtime to integrate themselves onto the island, and bring a beautiful diving business back to life on Bastimentos in the process. On sunny morning, we hopped a boat down to Old Bank to join them on a little exploration of the reefs around Bocas.
After being treated to a dolphin show en route, we moored up at Hospital Point, a popular dive site off Isla Solarte. After the crazy diving conditions in Coiba, I was looking forward to the lack of currents and warmer waters brought on by the archipelago’s sheltered bays. Unfortunately, there was one factor working against us. The heavy rains that had been dousing the area were also producing serious runoff, reducing the bay’s visibility to almost nothing. Only a few minutes into our exploration of the site’s sloping wall, we decided to call the dive due — we could barely see each others’ hand signals.
Next, we headed to an area less affected by runoff and found the conditions slightly more agreeable. While the area is still reeling (pun fun!) from a severe overfishing problem, there is still a decent diversity of corals and sealife to explore.
What I like about Scuba 6 is they don’t rush you — while I heard complaints that other dive shops in the area call their dives at forty minutes, regardless of air consumption, we were able to dive for a full hour and take our time really getting the shots we wanted.
Unfortunately, considering the storms in the area, our timing was quite poor for diving in Bocas. And it’s true — after diving in Coiba, Bocas didn’t have much of a chance to stack up. However, Coiba is really only an option for the most experienced of scuba enthusiasts. So, considering the shallow sites, warm water, lack of currents, and, usually, the decent visibility, I think Bocas del Toro is a great location for newer divers to explore Panama’s underwater scene. And regardless of the number of dives under one’s weight belt, I highly recommend checking out Scuba 6 for both their personal service and the chance to experience the Old Banks way of doing business.
3. Lunch and a Farm Tour with La Loma
On our final day in Bastimentos, we hopped a boat towards the mangrove-covered remote South coast to learn about the special things happening at . With only four ranchos, the popular property is almost perpetually booked up, however cheerful owners Margaret and Henry invited us to join them for lunch and a tour of their organic gardens and chocolate farm.
If I hadn’t already been planning to return to Panama someday, our arrival at La Loma would have cemented that decision for me. The open-air lodge, built from naturally fallen trees and sustainably harvested lumber, was the perfect blend of noticeably chic and inconspicuously blended into the jungle. I almost inhaled the lovely lunch that was set out for us, which my body confirmed was both the healthiest and most delicious thing I’d consumed in several weeks.
But even more impressive than the innovative architecture or the gourmet meals is the way that La Loma is supporting and celebrating the local community they are so deeply ingrained in. The lodge is located in the Bahia Honda community, a population of about 30 Ngobe families. From talking to Margaret, I realized this was not an example of a business throwing around buzzwords like “sustainability” and “social responsibility.” There is a deep and profound mutual respect between La Loma and the Bahia Honda community that should be a model to tourism development everywhere. Just look at this they have achieved!
One of my favorite initiatives was one to work with local artisans to produce jewelry made from old bike tire inner tubes — materials that would normally be tossed to a landfill. The designs were so fabulous and the story behind them so beautiful I couldn’t help but snapping up several pieces as gifts.
After lunch — and delicious organic brownies — we stretched our legs with a tour of the farm by the main chocolate man, Mr. Kelly. At times I had a hard time concentrating on what he was saying, transfixed as I was by his amazing accent. Our walk ended with the ultimate discovery, one of the tiny red frogs that the island is known for, yet had been alluding us for our entire stay. It was the perfect ending to a beautiful island exploration.
In three days we really only brushed the surface of what Bastimentos has to offer, from beaches to hiking to ziplining, to a few fantastic restaurants (I’m still bummed we missed out on and !). But what we absolutely experienced was the pride in local people and local businesses of being part of the special Bastimentos community, an attitude I truly adored. In the end I’m not too worried about all we missed — I know I’ll be back someday.
Where I stayed: , where we paid $16.50 each for a small private room. We also considered Palmar Tent Lodge, but decided against it due to lack of wifi.
Where I ate: We mostly took advantage of the open-air kitchen at Bocas Bound and cooked for ourselves. We were not fans of the Bocas Bound restaurant and otherwise ate at , which had fantastic family-style dinners for $7-10 (sign up by 5pm).
How I got there: Red Frog Beach Marina (the access point for Bocas Bound Hostel) is a $5 one way boat ride from Bocas Town. It is possible to negotiate round-trip for $7.
Bonus Tip: It is possible to drink the tap water at Bocas Bound, unlike much of the archipelago. Bring as many supplies as you need as groceries are limited and pricier even in Old Bank (which is also a boat ride away from Bocas Bound).
Many thanks to Soyela Yoga, Scuba 6, and La Loma for their hospitality. As always, you receive my thorough and honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.