Bocas del Toro, Panama, lies in the southwestern curve of the Caribbean. Those who have found it, consider it the undiscovered Caribbean.
These are some of the pleasures of Bocas del Toro: Dozens of unspoiled and often deserted anchorages. Three modern marinas complete with interesting features and friendly staff. A laid-back and friendly town (a secret once shared only by backpackers and surfers), reasonably priced provisioning and scores of interesting ex-pats scattered around the islands.
Bocas del Toro is the name of the main town, but it also refers to the archipelago surrounding it. There are nine major islands and dozens of smaller ones. Many of the little ones are mangrove islands that don't exceed periscope height. But the larger islands have elevations in the hundreds of feet, which creates a gorgeous tapestry of plant and animal life. Here, you can find flora as diverse as bananas, cacao and bamboo, and fauna as charming as toucans, sloths and howler monkeys.
The area is essentially an inland sea, which means you can savor a good sailing breeze without having to suffer from big, confused waves. If you don't like the sea conditions in one direction, then head off to another equally enchanting destination. The backdrop for this mostly tranquil cruising area is an incredible mountain range capped by the 10,000ft Volcan Baru.
The reefs are young and healthy and the most spectacular, at Zapatillos Cays, is protected as part of a Panamanian Marine Preserve. The shallow water off Starfish Beach, filled with its namesake echinoderms, is a delightful anchorage. Another, that boasts fantastic body surfing, is just a short walk from the Red Frog Marina. A rental bike from town will take you to one of the great surfer spots known as Bluff Beach.
After a day spent enjoying time on or in the water; a wealth of drinking and dining options awaits you. I'm amazed at how many good, reasonably-priced bars and restaurants this little town supports. In Bocas you can begin your evening's revelries aboard an old shrimp boat converted into a bar and end the night at a disco perched atop an underwater wreck.
The Red Frog Marina features a nice restaurant/bar overlooking the body-surfing beach and a very cordial BYOB happy hour most evenings on the dock. There is also excellent hiking in the surrounding hills.
Marina Carenero is the budget cruisers' friend. They host a Friday evening dockside pot luck and offer a great view of the mighty four-story skyscrapers of Bocas Town. Any place where the palm trees are higher than the buildings scores points with me.
Of the three marinas, my favorite is the Bocas Marina. It features good modern concrete docks, reliable water, electricity and WiFi, clean shower rooms, beautifully landscaped grounds, laundry service, propane runs and a very helpful and professional staff.
This marina is also the home of one of the world's great cruisers' bars. The Calypso Cantina, and hosts, Dyllan and Darrion, serve up superb food and drink. They combine this with all sorts of extra events such as swap meets, DVD exchanges, fire shows, movie nights, all in a take-your-breath-away setting. The bar juts out on a narrow peninsula with the anchored boats on one flank and the marina docks on the other.
This magical place is so alluring that many cruisers have swallowed the hook here. It is still possible to buy affordable waterfront property and then have a nice house built on it. To complete the dream, you just sink a mooring and enjoy happy hour admiring your boat from your front porch.
Panama has recently streamlined its clearance and cruising procedures. Upon arrival, you will receive a six month cruising permit, which is easily renewed for another half-year for an additional $30.
You will not find U.S. style chandleries, but most items can be obtained locally or shipped in from Panama City. For trickier requests the Bocas Marina represents Marine Warehouse of Miami, and a shipment arrives every few weeks.
Technicians for electronics, dinghy repair, or refrigeration are all available. And the news is that a full-service boatyard should be online in about a half a year.
As I finish up this article, I can look out of my porthole and see Jimmy Buffett's yacht docked about 40-yards from my little sloop, Aventura. This is his second visit. A few years ago he sat on a barstool in the Calypso Cantina strumming and singing for a couple of hours to the delight of a few dozen cruisers. If Jimmy chooses to chill out in Bocas del Toro, it probably says far more about what a great place this is, than any words of mine.
Ray Jason is the author of the humorous, offbeat sailing book, Tales of a Sea Gypsy. He's still out there happily wandering the wide waters in his lovely 30-footer.