Nestled on a sliver of land between Costa Rica and Columbia on the Northern Caribbean coast, boasting two pristine oceanic coastlines and unique indigenous cultures, is Panama.
Within this captivating Caribbean country, positioned just off of Panama’s Northwest coast, are the Bocas del Toro islands; an idyllic archipelago of nine major islands and 300 islets. Lying nine degrees outside of the hurricane belt, the region is gaining popularity among visiting superyachts as a true destination, rather than simply a layover location for those hoping to cross the Panama Canal.
With the region’s prime cruising season now upon us, our media partner, Yachting Pages spoke to Dan Olsen, general manager at IGY’s Red Frog Beach Marina about the reasons why he loves Bocas, and what makes it a great cruising destination.
Visitors to Bocas del Toro will find that there is plenty to see and do. Simply known as ‘Bocas’ to the locals, it’s a place that boasts the stunning white sandy beaches associated with the Caribbean, with the added adventure and unique ecology that made Costa Rica famous – and all without the crowds.
A nature lover’s paradise and one of Panama’s most popular tourist spots, the residents of Bocas are still outnumbered by the surrounding wildlife. Most visitors say that Bocas feels like a quaint Caribbean outpost lost in time, yet modern amenities and marine facilities have slowly but surely made their way into the area, catering to the increasing number of superyachts that are anchoring up to explore the archipelago’s treasures.
Although still not overprescribed, the tourism culture of Bocas has been primarily developed by surfers and nature lovers, and for this reason, there are more unique sights and activities on offer here than anywhere else in the Caribbean. Plus, there is still a great feeling of privacy and seclusion when desired.
The region is fondly known as the ‘Venice of the Caribbean’ as visitors and residents alike explore emerald rainforests, hidden beaches, coral reefs and mangrove gardens by water taxi rather than car. There is something to suit all tastes; from quiet shore-side relaxation and bird watching, to captivating wildlife tours, exciting watersports and unique nightlife experiences.
To the north of the archipelago, Isla Colón is the most populated island, and the home of Bocas Town, the capital of the Bocas del Toro province.
Discovered by surfers, the vibe here is laid-back Caribbean. Streets are lined with colourful clapboard buildings, handicraft shops and an impressive choice of over-the-water bars and restaurants pumping out the sounds of salsa, calypso and reggaeton. Locals and tourists walk the Bocas main street and you will meet people from all over the world who have made the journey to visit this interesting place.
During peak cruising season, those hoping to take a dip in Bocas waters can expect to find welcoming temperatures of around 28°C (82°F), but the clear waters can be appreciated both from above and below.
Take off on a Jet Ski or paddleboard, or arrange a local diving tour with one of four operators in Bocas Town; Bocas Water Sports, Starfleet Scuba, Dutch Pirate or the 5* PADI dive centre, La Buga Dive & Surf.
Just a minute’s boat ride from Isla Colón, Isla Carenero is a fairly small island with a more sedate vibe. Named for being the place where Columbus careened his ships, visitors can explore it all by foot in around an hour.
If there isn’t one on-board, visitors should stop and rent a standup paddleboard from Bibi’s on the beach as it’s the most peaceful way to view the colourful coral reef, or enroll at the surf school - a good place to start either as a beginner or intermediate surfer.
As the largest island, Isla Bastimentos is home to picture-perfect beaches and the National Marine Park, which is best explored by hiking tour – you’ll stand a good chance of seeing sloths, capuchin monkeys, exotic birds, poison-dart frogs and caimans.
Noticed here especially, Bocas is lusher than any other Caribbean destination; explore unique flora and fauna and meet the local wildlife by foot, bicycle, zip line, horseback, boat or kayak.
If anchored here, you are within walking distance of great surf spots, and just a boat ride from some of the island’s best fishing spots, where, six miles out, there is a ocean shelf that drops out. Not a lot of fishermen have explored here, but it is known among our locals as a great place to catch big fish.
Farther south, Isla Solarte is one of the region’s best snorkeling and scuba destinations with the sea wall at Hospital Point home to a rich sea life. Here you may see sea lobsters, moray eels, lionfish and beautiful corals. The mangroves surrounding the island are also home to plenty of small and juvenile wildlife hiding from predators.
San Cristobal Island – Bocatorito
Moving west, visitors should, and often do, make a stop at Laguna Bocatorito, San Cristolbal Island to visit the family of bottlenose dolphins who live within Dolphin Bay, and the Cerruti Chocolate Farm, a 12-acre farm that can be toured, and local chocolate sampled.
Elsewhere on the Bocas islands, you will find local businesses offering all sorts of tours, including underground cave tours, zip line canopy tours, hiking tours, ATV quad, snorkel and diving adventures - your local agent should be able to point you in the right direction.
Isla Popa – Loma Partida – Isla Tigres – Cayo de Agua
Whether travelling by superyacht or water taxi, visitors should ensure that they don’t miss out on the more distant islands of the region, each of which has a different feel and vibe.
In the south of the region, Isla Popa and the surrounding islands of Loma Partida, Isla Tigres and Cayo de Agua are great snorkeling, surfing and fishing destinations, with reefs teeming with snappers.
Once you have finished fishing, take your catch over to the Cayo Coral where the local restaurant will prepare your fish for you, serving up other fresh local seafood alongside. Or, visit at night to see the waters illuminated by bioluminescent algae.
Whether travelling by superyacht, tender or water taxi, visitors should ensure that they don’t miss out on the more distant islands of the region.
Typically pictured in the tourist brochures, the Zapatillas Cays are two islands to the southeast. It is not widely known that, on request, these can be made private for the afternoon for superyacht owners for complete seclusion and privacy. Anchor in a protected bay 300 feet away and tender or snorkel to the islands.
As an integral part of the National Marine Park, these islands are home to the critically endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtles who can be found nesting on the beaches here between June and November. Eco-friendly nesting tours can be arranged throughout the region.
As many guests do, we recommend to stop by Coral Caye on the way to the Zapitilla islands. This iconic restaurant is built out over the water above scores of fish where guests snorkel over the coral reef while they wait for fresh seafood.
Cruising regulations and clearances
Despite its natural beauty, Panama is not the cheapest country to visit by international superyacht.
The new government administration is upgrading maritime standards, recently having introduced some new fees and formalities for those cruising the waters, but once you port in Panama, you are able to travel all the way through the canal without any further maritime paperwork.
The law concerning the pre-registration of visiting vessels is now in force in Panama; this requires details about the yacht and its crew to be submitted to the Authorities (AMP) online or by email before arrival in many Panamanian ports.
Regardless of whether this has or has not been completed, it is recommended that vessels arriving check-in as soon as possible, or risk possible fines.
A representative will need to visit the Panama Immigration Office, Port Captain’s Office and the Central Immigration Office, which can take a few hours or more. At Red Frog Beach Marina, we have managed to refine the process, but for ease, it is often worthwhile using a local yacht agent when visiting the region.
Yachts sailing between the different districts of Panama no longer require a Zarpe, but should always still report to the Port Captain’s Office.
To clear out of Panama, take your original Cruising Permit with crew list and passport copies to the Port Captain’s Office where you will pay for your International Zarpe.
There are over 50 unspoiled anchorages in Bocas del Toro, but there are far fewer superyacht marinas, which is surprising when you consider that yacht owners can keep their yachts in Panama indefinitely without paying tax – the only requirement is that an annual current cruising permit is maintained.
Red Frog Beach Marina - Isla Bastimentos
Located 133nm from the Panama Canal within a protected mangrove lagoon, IGY Red Frog Beach Marina offers 86 wet slips for berthing of superyachts up to 90m (300ft).
With the marina offering ample provisioning and dining facilities, as well as yacht maintenance services and access to resort amenities, the location is both beautiful and fun.
Bocas Yacht Club & Marina – Isla Colón
This smaller marina offers up to 100 slips for visiting superyachts up to 37m (120ft), and is also equipped with crew facilities, guest amenities and boatyard to assist visiting vessels.
Climate and cruising conditions
Temperatures vary across the Bocas islands, with average annual temperatures spanning 21°C (70°F) to 32°C (90°F). The archipelago enjoys Caribbean breezes and interspersed rain showers that keep everything lusher than anything you have experienced in the Caribbean.
As one of the few hurricane-free places in the Caribbean, the peak cruising season spans May to October. The archipelago manages to maintain perfect flat cruising waters, 365 days a year. Cruisers have however reported half-sunken logs along the Panamanian coastline, and, although there are new rules in place to change this, some water taxis do travel without lights during the evening, so care should be taken for such hazards.
Originally written for MegaYacht News.