The archipelago’s largest and most developed island is home to the provincial capital of Bocas del Toro. Starting in the mid-1990s, foreign investors flooded the island, creating new hotels, restaurants and condos while infrastructure for water, trash and sewage lagged far behind.
Headquarters of the Chiriquí Land Company, the very same people that bring you Chiquita bananas, Changuinola is a hot and rather dusty town surrounded by a sea of banana plantations. Although there is little reason to spend any more time in Changuinola than you have to, overland travelers linking to Costa Rica will have to pass through here.
Humedal de San-San Pond Sak
These relatively undiscovered wetlands are located a mere 5km north of central Changuinola, yet they harbor an incredible variety of tropical fauna. In addition to sloths, river otters, white-faced monkeys, caimans, iguanas, sea turtles and poison-dart frogs, the fresh waters of San-San are also one of the few known Central American habitats for the manatee.
A few hundred meters from Isla Colón is the oft-forgotten Isla Carenero. The island takes its name from ‘careening,’ which in nautical talk means to lean a ship on one side for cleaning or repairing. In October 1502, Columbus’ ships were careened and cleaned on this cay while the admiral recovered from a bellyache.
If sun, sand and surf aren’t your persuasion, then consider a trip to La Gruta, where you can wade through waist-high water while trying not to disturb the thousands of sleeping bats overhead. Admission is paid to the Comunidad Bahía Honda. The entrance to the cave, which is marked by a statue of the Virgin Mary, is 8km from Bocas town along the road to Boca del Drago.
Boca del Drago
Located on the western side of Isla Colón, this sleepy beach earned fame for its huge numbers of starfish, a 10-minute walk around the bend. The recent addition of commercial stands and increased boat taxi traffic are taking their toll on the beach, which has seen a lot of erosion. Still, the calm and relaxed atmosphere at Boca del Drago will draw beach bums.
Playa Bluff & Around
A string of beaches on the eastern side of Isla Colón can be reached by an unpaved road that skirts up the coast from Bocas town. With bad roads, this has traditionally been the terrain of surfers, but as more lodgings pop up, travelers are discovering this more secluded option. Playa Bluff stretches for 5km all the way to Punta Rocosa.
Set in rainforest hills, the small indigenous community of Las Delicias lies along the Sixaola River, 20km from the Costa Rican border crossing at Guabito. The community has shifted its income source from harvesting and logging to preservation and ecotourism. Visiting is one way you can make a positive contribution.
Bosque Protector de Palo Seco
Set high in the Talamanca range, the 1600-sq-km Bosque Protector de Palo Seco is a lush cloud forest home to monkeys, sloths, armadillos and butterflies. Bird-watching is superb – keep an eye out for rarities such as the bat falcon, the wedge-billed woodcreeper and the golden-winged warbler. Unique to this area are ashy-throated bush-tanagers.
Tired of crowds? Find adventure by hiring a boat to try out these excursions: Cayo Crawl Get lost in these mangrove-dotted channels near Isla Bastimentos. Cayos Zapatillas Set out for these pristine white-sand beaches and virgin forests. Dolphin Bay Spot dolphins frolicking at this densely populated breeding ground.