The 8 Inhabited Islands of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago
Europeans, South Americans, and Central Americans have vacationed here for years, yet few Americans have heard of Bocas del Toro, let alone visited. American singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffet serves as one exception as he’s vacationed in Bocas del Toro over the years.
It’s time for more Americans to join the fun in this Caribbean paradise. So, it may be appropriate to ask, “What would Jimmy Buffet do?”
The Bocas del Toro Archipelago is composed of eight inhabited islands and over 200 small mangrove islands perfect for kayaking.
Isla Colón is the largest and what most consider the main island in the archipelago. Here you’ll find Bocas Town with a small international airport—offering flights from Panama City and San Jose, Costa Rica—brand-new hospital, charming hotels, restaurants, and bars in addition to Starfish Beach, Bluff Beach, Paunch Beach, and Bird Island.
A trip to the region is not complete without at least one visit to Carenero. This small tropical island resides directly east of Bocas Town. The two-minute boat ride requires a $2-$5 boat taxi fare depending on the area of Carenero you want to explore.
Locals and visitors alike head to Bibi’s on the Beach for the over-the-water restaurant’s delicious lobster dishes. Bibi’s aquamarine views make it an ideal spot to swim before or after a meal. If you’re taxiing to Carenero after dark, guests often head to Aqua Lounge Bar & Hostel to enjoy a cocktail and watch the lights of Bocas Town across the water.
Ambitious hikers walk Carenero’s perimeter path for spectacular views and beaches. Depending on the time of year, swimming may be unwise on the east side of the island, home to famous Carenero Point surf break. The rip tides on beaches facing the open sea can be dangerous when swells are large.
A 10-minute water taxi from Bocas Town will bring you to Isla Bastimentos, home to some of the most spectacular beaches in the area. The rickety dock is on the mangrove side of the island. Visitors are required to pay $5 per person to use the path that ends at stunning Red Frog Beach. The fee is well worth the well-groomed path through a verdant jungle.
Red Frog Beach is perfect for swimming, hanging out at Caribbean-style bars, and enjoying miles of crystal-clear water and white sand.
To the south, Polo Beach is about a half-hour walk from Red Frog Beach. Just follow the water on your left and you can’t miss this idyllic snorkeling locale. Polo, the beach’s namesake, built a small hut here 55 years ago when he was 20 years old. Today, visitors find Polo at this same hut, grilling lobster, crab, fish, and coconut rice. Lobster and coconut rice costs $15, and Polo will tell you, “Eat until you full.” We call it “all you can eat lobster” in the U.S.
Surfers head to secluded Wizard Beach, typically accessed via a jungle path from the town of Old Bank.
Just beyond the southern tip of Isla Cristóbal lies Isla Frangipani, Bocas del Toro’s private island. To the west of Frangipani and on the southern shore of Cristóbal resides Dolphin Bay Preserve. The northern side of Cristóbal is home to a farm with horseback riding tours.
This mangrove island is a short boat ride from Bocas Town. Scuba divers and snorkelers love Isla Solarte’s fantastic coral reefs, including the famous Hospital Point dive site.
Only a small percentage of visitors to the Bocas del Toro Archipelago have the pleasure of experiencing Isla Popa. A 30-minute boat ride from Bocas Town, this paradise is worth a visit for bird lovers.
Closest to the mainland, Isla Pastores, or Shepherds Island, is the second smallest of the eight inhabited islands in the archipelago. This peaceful sanctuary was named after an Englishman who lived here in the early 1800s. He built the original trail between Almirante and Chiriqui Grande, which later became a highway.
Isla Cayo Aqua
The only island without accommodations, beautiful Cayo Agua is the farthest from Bocas Town so visitors don’t hear much about it. Although little is written about Cayo Agua on the internet, its beaches are the most untouched, left for the most adventurous tourists to enjoy.