Dreaming of an off-the-beaten-path, tropical escape? Put Bocas del Toro on your radar. This archipelago off Panama’s Caribbean coast packs in jungle scenery, virgin beaches and some of the best underwater sights — but few visitors.
Bocas is best for those bringing a spirit of adventure. No big resorts or five-star hotels have made their way here yet. Fly into Bocas Town on Isla Colon, then transfer to your small eco-friendly lodge (most use only solar power and collect rainwater for drinking). You won’t have air-conditioning, but you’ll dine by candlelight serenaded by cicadas and occasional monkey howls.
Here are our three top picks for basking in Bocas your way. And, don’t worry, you won’t be completely off the grid — all three have WiFi.
Overwater Bungalows: Punta Caracol Aqua Lodge
Snorkel right from the deck of your thatched-roof overwater bungalow at Punta Caracol Aqua Lodge. The entire nine-bungalow lodge, whimsically painted in lemon and mint-green, is built on stilts over the water. (Bonus: few mozzies.) Ladders lead down into the sea, where a carnival of marine life unfolds on a coral reef — parrotfish, pumpkin-colored sea stars and giant slow-crawling conch all vie for attention. If lucky, you might even spy harmless barracuda! Topside, dolphins often swim by; a comfy place to spot them is from the hammock on your deck.
Dreamy sunsets and ginger margaritas go hand-in-hand in the breezy restaurant-cum-bar, crowned by a giant palapa roof. Come dinnertime, white tablecloths add a European touch of elegance (many guests are European or South American). When it’s time to retire, climb the funky wooden stairs to your bungalow’s second-floor bedroom, outfitted with a king-size bed, and let the sound of lapping water lull you to sleep.
Where is it? Punta Caracol perches off an isolated tip of coastline on Isla Colon. A 20-minute boat ride (included) from Bocas Town gets you there.
Who’s it for? Couples and families who love swimming, snorkeling and kayaking (gear free to use).
Bali-Style Beachfront Inn: Island Plantation
A hillside yoga platform and rooms with louvered shutters, outdoor showers overlooking an explosion of green and four-poster beds draped with clouds of mosquito netting — you could be in Bali at Island Plantation. Confusion forgiven. The Norwegian owner and manager looked to Bali for inspiration when creating this evolving adults-only inn. Eight rooms huddle around a swimming pool, serenely set in a garden of flowering ginger and hibiscus. Two new 600 square-foot thatched-roof bungalows with beach views have stone bathrooms and second-floor living rooms.
Steps away across a sand road, the inn’s beach club with hammocks, loungers and a tiki bar beckon. Wild waves discourage swimming. But who needs to swim when you can kick back with fresh-cut coconut juice and soak up the killer views? Between February and September, the beach is an important nesting site for giant Leatherback and other endangered sea turtles. Marvel as mother turtles crawl up from the ocean to lay their eggs in the sand; in season, help tiny babies scamper back into the sea.
Island Plantation also earns kudos for its organic bath products, wood-fired pizza and nuzzles from the owner’s friendly golden labs.
Where is it? On Bluff Beach, Isla Colon, a 20-minute bumpy drive from the airport.
Who’s it for? Couples who want to float in a garden pool, listen to the surf and stroll a secluded 3-mile beach with no other footprints but theirs.
Eco-Adventure Lodge: Casa Cayuco
No promises, but a white-faced capuchin monkey is often seen eating berries in a tree beside the Delphin cabin’s porch. Or you could glimpse green parrots while brushing your teeth in the Loro suite’s open-air bathroom. Casa Cayuco’s six simple cabins and rooms — built by the local indigenous Panamanian tribe — immerse you in nature. But the reason for coming here is not to cocoon in your room, but to play outside.
Itching to kayak or try stand-up paddle boarding? Paddle for miles on the calmest water imaginable and spot stingrays gliding below the shallow surface. Or tour an organic chocolate farm, look for caimans and sloths on a jungle hike and snorkel with sea turtles in a national marine park.
The ridiculously delicious food is another reason to book Casa Cayuco (meals are included). Dinner is served at a communal candlelit table, where the set menu might include a ginger-and lime-flavored mushroom soup, followed by freshly caught seabass in coconut curry sauce. Red and white Chilean wines are generously poured. Indulging is a must — you need the calories for the next day’s adventures.
Where is it? On Isla Bastimentos. A thrilling, 45-minute, high-speed boat ride past mangrove forests deposits you directly on Casa Cayuco’s dock.
Who’s it for? Adventure-seeking adults and family groups (kids must be five or older). Some cabins can accommodate up to five people.