Text and photos: Winnie T. Sittón
Panama has many attractions and experiences to offer tourists but, without a doubt, Bocas del Toro is one of the country’s most popular and sought after destinations for foreign tourists. Strangely enough, the phenomenon is relatively new. Just twenty years ago this ten-island archipelago located in the province of the same name was a lost Caribbean paradise, practically unknown even to Panamanians. This, ladies and gentlemen, is no longer the case.
The archipelago is essentially unchanged and its relaxed atmosphere is typical of the island communities. Thanks to its natural beauty, seascapes, and the dreamlike sunsets that dominate its skies, it has remained a heavenly jewel. However, there is now a fine selection of hotels and culinary and tourist offerings to satisfy both demanding luxury-seekers and those with more limited budgets. There is literally something for everyone, even visitors who, in addition to getting away from it all, are looking to experience an epic party.
The name Bocas del Toro is now closely linked to Filthy Friday, a mega party that takes place every Friday of the year and has been listed as the largest party in Central America. The party’s huge popularity has become the area’s main attraction and one of the reasons why many young people are visiting Panama. To get an idea of the scope of this fiesta, in the three years that it has been in existence, nearly 30,000 people from more than 100 countries have attended, according to figures provided by the organizers.
The unique thing about this party, of course, is that it takes place in paradise. And not on one island, but three: Colón, Solarte, and Carenero. In addition to dancing and enjoying the rhythm of the music, attendees travel by boat to different corners of the archipelago to discover its beautiful landscapes, making this a truly unique experience. But come prepared: the party lasts for ten hours and you have to be a real party animal to make it to the end. Demand is high, so it’s best to secure tickets in advance at filthyfridaybocas.com
The traditional flavors of Bocas del Toro are currently on everyone’s lips thanks to the fine reputation of Chef Joseph Archbold and his Octo restaurant. Octo offers grilled Caribbean food and the specialty, as the name suggests, is octopus. In addition to excellent reviews from major international food critics and specialized media, I can assure you that every single island resident will ask you if you’ve tried the place. And I admit that it’s one of the best culinary recommendations I’ve ever had.
Octo is located on Avenida F, Isla Colon, between Calle 4 and 5. And Archbold has just opened another restaurant in Carenero, the island where he grew up and learned to cook as a young boy.
Receta Michilá (in the Hotel Doña Mara) offers diners a return to Archbold’s roots, reviving his mother’s original recipes with the chef’s own characteristic contemporary touch. Why stop at just one? Try them both!
In addition to these new hotspots, you won’t want to miss two classic local eateries. The popular Bibi’s, located on a seaside pier in Carenero, boasts a spectacular view, ideal for enjoying the sunset. The restaurant is known for its wide variety of cocktails and a menu brimming with fresh seafood, prepared with local ingredients. Essential specialties include the ceviche and lobster. Finger-licking good!
And, last but not least, the simple, laid-back Restaurante Tom offers Afro-Caribbean dishes at economical prices. The restaurant is no longer just for locals; its reputation for warm, welcoming service and delicious food have reached the ears of tourists. For a real taste of Bocas, you won’t want to miss it. Restaurante Tom is located on Isla Colón, at the corner of Avenida F and Calle 2, in the Municipal Market.
Avisit to Bocas del Toro to eat, drink, and dance would be more than enough, but I decided to take advantage of an invitation from Transparente Tours to travel to one of the archipelago’s most precious treasures: Cayo Zapatilla (Zapatilla Cay), a pair of uninhabited islands surrounded by a coral reef on the edge of the Bastimentos Island National Marine Park, which was created in 1988.
Besides being a sanctuary of biodiversity, this incredibly beautiful spot boasts lush vegetation, fine white sand, and warm, crystalline seas. There is nothing to see but an enormous blue sky all the way to the horizon. It was impossible not to feel that I had reached the furthest corner of the world and the best place to bid farewell to this tour of Bocas, a true paradise in the Panamanian Caribbean.
This article was written thanks to an invitation from the organizers of Filthy Friday, with support from the board of the Chamber of Tourism of Bocas del Toro. Our stay in Isla Colon was courtesy of the Swan’s Cay Hotel.
How to Get There
The Bocas del Toro archipelago, located in the Caribbean Sea, lies northwest of the Republic of Panama, more than six hundred kilometers from the Panamanian capital. You can reach the port city of Almirante by land (public transport or car) and from there board a ferry or a speedboat to Isla Colon, or any of the other islands. Several local airlines offer direct flights to Bocas Town, the archipelago’s main city.