Travel Guide: Bocas Del Toro


All Photos: Corey Wilson

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Then he did again. And again. And in 1502, during his final voyage to the “New World,” he stumbled upon Bocas del Toro. Ol’ Columbo was so taken aback by Bocas’ beauty, he went and self-titled a few of his favorite sites: Isla Cristóbal (Christopher Island), Isla Colón (Columbus Island) and Bahía de Almirante (Admiral’s Bay). Pompous prick. Of course, Columbus wasn’t a surfer, so none of Bocas’ bright blue, barreling Caribbean breaks are named after him. They are, however, inexpensive and easy to get to. You may not know it yet, young wanderer, but the Mouths of the Bull (yes, that’s English for “Bocas del Toro”) boasts waves on par with Indo. So, if you’re looking for a wintertime surf trip destination, look right beneath the (Bull’s) nose. —Jake Tellkamp

At a glance:
Best Airline: Air Panama and Nature Air are both relatively inexpensive regional carriers that fly directly to Bocas from San José, Costa Rica. That’s your path of least resistance.
Best Swell: Northeast or East
Best Months: November through February (though Bocas pulls in swell nearly all year round)
Best Boards: One sled for the board-snapping barrels of Bluff Beach, a pintail step-up for Silverbacks, and your favorite shortboard, of course. Bonus: Bring an extra beater to give away to the friendly neighborhood grommets (surfing saves lives).

Bocas Del Toro is on the Caribbean side of Panama, yeah? Sure is. It’s an archipelago (aka an island chain) on the northernmost, westernmost nook of Panama’s Caribbean coast. There are nine major islands in the chain, but the main ones are Colón, Bastimentos and Carenero. A healthy Jamaican influence provides a Caribbean flair that differs from most of Latin America. Rasta-mon vibrations are alive and well in the Bull’s Mouth.

So, how do I get there? While flying from San José, Costa Rica straight to Bocas is easiest, the convenience takes some dough. If you have time to spare, but not money, take the low road and catch a bus from San José to Puerto Viejo, a solid (and cheap) alternative. From there, a ferry will carry you straight to Bocas in less than three hours and for under a hundred bucks.

OK, but is the bus the only cheap ride at the carnival? Believe it or not, Bocas won’t break your bank. Food is cheap, water-taxi rides run less than $5 each way, and the drivers will even wait around for you while you surf. Accommodation varies (as it does in all tourist areas), but there are plenty of backpacker hostels that run $15 to $20 a night. Red Frog Bungalows is a good bet. Convenient, affordable and — in January — packed with beautiful Argentinean women.

I haven’t heard much about Bocas; are the waves really worth the trek? Absolutely. Most of the breaks (and did we mention there are a shitload of ‘em?) are mainly accessible by boat, which makes for an adventure in itself. The famed lefthander on Isla Carenero is comparable to Uluwatu’s Racetrack section, Silverbacks handles huge swell, the Bluff is a beachbreak beast and Wizards offers proper, hollow drainers. Variety is the spice of life, and Bocas is well-seasoned.

And the crowds? Mellow. Bocas is certainly not as packed as Indonesia. And here’s the thing: In addition to world-class waves, Bocas has some of the best nightlife in Central America. Many surfers get caught up in carnal pursuits after dark and therefore miss the morning session. Keep surfing at the top of your list and you’ll be the early bird with the worm.

So where do I get amongst it on my last night? There are plenty of establishments that cater to the young and restless. The Aqua Lounge is the premier waterfront nightclub, and it’s got trampolines and swings to toss bikini-clad lushes into the Caribbean blue. So, yeah, don’t forget your party attire — don’t worry, boardshorts qualify in Bocas.