Cruising Grounds

Bocas del Toro: A Cruising Hideaway

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If you promise not to tell too many people, I’ll let you in on a little cruising secret: Bocas del Toro. Located on the Caribbean coast of Panama near the Costa Rican border, this unspoiled archipelago of nine big islands and many smaller ones creates an inland sea where the breezes are so tranquil the waves rarely exceed knee height. And because Panama is south of the hurricane zone, there is no “season.” You can safely cruise here all year round.

I first arrived here on my sweet little 30-footer in April of 2006. In the intervening years I sailed back to Key West a couple of times when the cruising kitty looked more like a hamster than a cat. But mostly I have been dawdling the years away here, assuming the mantle of sea gypsy tribal elder. When a new cruiser has a question like, “Where can I find a vet for my parrot?” I can usually help.

There are over 100 anchorages here: most completely empty, none completely full and absolutely zero with pay-to-stay moorings. From the water, layers of breathtaking hills, mountains and volcanoes are visible in the background. In the foreground, exotic toucans, sloths and parrots live amidst the bananas, cacao and bamboo. Truly, it is other-worldly.

The locals are a friendly mix of Latin, Indio and Caribbean that blend seamlessly with visiting sailors, backpackers and surfers, none of whom you’d find at your local mall. There is also a sizable group of ex-cruisers who were so dazzled by this unspoiled water world when they first arrived that they now live in homes along the shore. The camaraderie among the cruisers is strong, with an active morning radio net and lots of swap meets and potlucks.

Should you prefer a marina, there are three to choose from. My favorite is Bocas Marina, a U.S.-owned outfit with friendly staff, clean showers, reliable electricity and water, floating docks, and free Wi-Fi. The little town of Bocas is perfect for those who prefer that their paradise not be too cutesy. You can walk from one end of “Main Street” to the other in 10 minutes, and the palm trees along the way tower over the mighty Bocas skyline.

All of your basic boating and living needs are easily met here, with abundant grocery stores, pharmacies, open-air veggie stalls and hardware stores. In case you are in the minority of sailors who have things break on your boat, fear not! You can find diesel mechanics, welders, outboard wizards, refrigeration specialists and more. We are a bit thin on electronics techies, though, so if you have that skill, hurry on down. 

After a hard day of strolling and boat repairs, you’ll be ready for a rum drink. There are many pubs, and my favorite is the Riptide, an old “sinks-a-lot” shrimp boat that has risen from the depths to become a superb floating bar awash in eccentric characters. It’s the kind of place where you can hear lots of old sea stories and even, on occasion, a true one.

Cruising the nearby islands offers a cornucopia of delights. Take a trip to Starfish Beach where the shallows are teeming with…you guessed it. Or enjoy a broad reach down to the Blue Frog Restaurant where you can savor pizza in the jungle. Over at Red Frog Beach you can enjoy some superb body-surfing; in Dolphin Bay you might encounter a mother dolphin with her youngster; and at the Zapatillos Cays, you can dive amid healthy vibrant coral. 

Navigation is easy with the help of a terrific cruising guide by Eric Bauhaus that includes aerial photos with overlaid lat-long grids. Most cruisers meander down here at a magisterial pace with stops at the Dry Tortugas, Isla Mujeres, Belize, the Rio Dulce, the Bay Islands and then Isla Providencia. The route is full of delights and requires almost no overnight passages. If you wish to charter here, Tradewinds runs a nice 70-foot catamaran on one-week crewed trips. And if you just want to window shop Bocas, it is relatively easy and inexpensive to fly in and scout it out.

I could go on and on about the joys of this great cruising spot, but instead I’ll end with this little item: one year ago, Jimmy Buffet’s yacht was docked just 40 yards from my little sloop. It was his second visit here. If Bocas del Toro is cool enough for Jimmy, it’s cool enough for me. 

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