I went to Panama about a year ago and played around with the Travel & Leisure format, writing a test piece about Bocas Tel Toro. A $300 roundtrip, direct fare trip to Panama over Labor Day was difficult to resist. The writing wasn’t easy, not because of the research but more because I’m not used to crafting things this way. It felt a bit dispassionate so I scrapped it. I just re-read it and realized that at the least, there’s some good information in here, so I guess it’s blog-worthy:
Owned by a Cincinnati native and worth the step up from hostel-land, Cocomo On The Sea (Avenida Norte; 757-9259; www.cocomoonthesea.com; doubles from $60) feels like the kind of classic B&B you’d find on Martha’s Vineyard. The four private rooms open onto the ocean that’s filled with comfy furniture to sink into for a quiet beer. Bocas Town is perfect if you’re eyeballing a cheap place to sleep – Mondo Taitu (myspace.com/mondotaitu) knows how to throw down a party and is the partypacker spot of choice. Those seeking an escapist experience will find it in Garden Of Eden Resort (459-3689; www.gardenofedenbocaspanama.co ; $160 Suites), which is located on a private island and allows no more than fifteen guests at a time.
The best way to start a day is at Lili’s Café (Calle 1; lunch for two $15), where you’ll rub elbows with expats in the know. The fiery house omelet is plated with a potent “Killin’ Me Man” sauce and the Curried Tuna sandwich is held together with homemade, brick-sized bread. Cosmic Crab Café (Isla Carenero, 757-9157, $20 for two) is a quick water taxi ride away and serves up the freshest seafood around, buying directly from fishermen who bring their haul to the local dock each day. The Carribean Coconut Chicken Soup will roll your eyes into the back of your head. Ditto the fresh lobster with a lime-garlic butter sauce. The best stop for a late-night snack is The Chicken Truck (intersection of Calle 3 and Av Central; $3.00, open late). Tourists and locals stand shoulder-to-shoulder to nab one of these grilled baguettes with marinated chicken nirvana.
Grab two wheels at Bocas Rent-A-Bike (Main Street, 6446-0787, $2 per hour) to explore. A more chill way to see the islands is to plant your ass on a seven hour catamaran trip (Hotel Dos Palmas; 757-9710; $40 per person, includes snorkeling). Island hopping via water taxis is an easy way to fill the day – taxis are abundant on the waterfront and most rides will cost under $5. A visit to Green Frog Beach (water taxi; $20 roundtrip + $2 admission) is a must if you’re looking for beaches with absolutely nobody on them but you. Boca Del Drago Beach sits on the western side of Isla Colon and is recognized as the safest beach to swim, as well as a popular place to spot starfish. Lovers of winged things will enjoy a trip to the Butterfly Farm (Isla Ca Carenero; $5) and surfers will do best to check in at Tropix Surf Shop (Calle 3; 757-9727), in order to find out the inside scoop on breaks and barrels. Jet skis are quite popular in the area and are tops for getting a feel of the islands’ geography – grab one on the dock behind Tropical Suites (Calle 1, 757-9081, $30/hour).
Sunsets are packed at Barco Hundido (Calle 1). Peak over the deck here and you’ll be able to see the sunken ship just past the end of the boardwalk. 6:30pm gongs two-for-one happy hour at La Iguana (Calle 1), where pink island drinks reign supreme. Party people head to Aqua Lounge Bar (Isla Canero; $1 Water Taxi) for $2 Balboa Lager and an ideal view of Bocas Town as the sun sets. There’s often a barbeque fired up here and if you’re still in your swimsuit, there’s a pool on the water which is perfect for that last swim of the day. The late night party ends at Mondo Taitu Bar (Av I), a hugely popular spot that is often packed with those who prefer a tequila shot as a nightcap.
The path of least resistance is to fly. Twice-daily flights make the trip from Panama City (Air Panama; www.flyairpanama.com; $200 roundtrip). The ride has killer views of the Panama Canal. Upon arriving in the local airport/soccer field, share taxis will take you anywhere in town for a buck.