The small, Caribbean-flavored town of Bocas del Toro, Panama, 175 mi/280 km west of Panama City, has a unique, laid-back charm that makes it the country's most colorful and off-beat destination. Most of the residents are descended from Afro-Caribbean laborers who settled here more than a century ago, and their lilting patois speech, zesty Caribbean cuisine, and preference for bright colors combine to make Bocas del Toro a fascinating cultural experience. Until recently it was primarily popular with backpackers, but it has evolved and now boasts some classy hotels. Travel between the various neighboring islands is by water taxi.
It pays to be precise when using the term Bocas del Toro, because it can refer to several places: the province of Bocas del Toro, in the northwestern corner of Panama; the Bocas del Toro archipelago, a group of islands off the coast that are part of the province; and the town of Bocas del Toro (usually shortened to just Bocas or Bocas Town), on the island of Colon, part of the archipelago. The province's foremost natural feature is Laguna de Chiriqui, a large inlet from the Caribbean, where many of the islands lie.
All told, the Bocas del Toro archipelago contains nine sizable islands plus cays, islets and coral reefs. During August and September, green turtles use the islands as nesting sites, and more than 200 species of tropical fish can be found on the reefs. Not surprisingly, scuba diving and snorkeling are popular activities there.
The town of Bocas del Toro is the center of activity in the islands. Although remote, it is easily accessible and growing in popularity. Small hotels, bars and restaurants now number in the dozens. (Many of the latter are built on stilts over the water, adding to the distinctly Caribbean appeal.)
There are good beaches a few miles/kilometers from town and many more on neighboring islands. Across the bay, a small Guaymi Indian village can be visited on a boat tour. Although the islands don't offer much else for sightseers, you should allow plenty of time there to relax and enjoy the slow pace of island life. http://www.bocas.com.
Isla Bastimentos, a 20-minute ride from Bocas town, offers superb nature hikes in Bastimentos Island Marine Park (incorporating two-thirds of the island terrain plus much of its adjacent waters). The park is also a renowned dive spot with pristine coral reefs. http://www.islabastimentos.com.
Mainland Bocas del Toro province is mainly mountainous. A huge swathe is protected within International Friendship Park (administered jointly by Panama and Costa Rica), the world's first binational biosphere reserve and a World Heritage Site, and a rugged and difficult-to-access national park with elevations ranging from about 1,640 ft/500 m to the nation's highest peak, Volcan Baru (11,400 ft/3,475 m).
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