Skip to main content

Bocas del Toro: A Cruising Hideaway

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.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
    Original:

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. 

Related

00-LEAD-210918_11HR_AZIMUT48HRS_AMO_00411

11th Hour Racing Team's Green Mission

“I’ll admit, it’s still hard to watch the boat leave the dock sometimes,” says former Volvo Ocean Race sailor Mark Towill. Since meeting during a Transpac campaign over 15 years ago, he and his teammate Charlie Enright have sailed thousands of miles together aboard two Volvo ...read more

D61_JKELAGOPIAN-3

Boat Review: Dufour 61

Dufour, long one of France’s most well-respected builders, has been producing sailboats in La Rochelle since the dawn of fiberglass boatbuilding. Having recently merged with another La Rochelle-based builder, Fountaine Pajot, Dufour has now joined other European mass-production ...read more

m138123_14_00_210609_TORE02_SE_2152_2504-2048x

The Ocean Race to be “Climate Positive”

The 2023 Ocean Race intends to be one of the world’s first climate positive sporting events, offsetting more greenhouse gasses than are produced. The two-fold effort means cutting emissions by 75 percent and investing in ocean projects that sequester carbon and restore ocean ...read more

01-LEAD-Ancients-3-2048x

Cruising Lake Superior

Almost anywhere a sailor drops the hook someone else has been there before. We are hardly ever the first. That remote Maine harbor without a soul in sight: there’s a lobster trap. The south coast of Newfoundland: the crumbling remains of a fisherman’s cabin lie hidden among the ...read more

01-LEAD-Tablet-Holder-4

Fabricating a Tablet Holder

During the pandemic, I was stuck aboard Guiding Light, a Lagoon 410, in St. Lucia for over a month. During that time, as I worked on the boat, I started by doing a spring cleaning in my spares locker and finding some parts and material that I forgot I had. As soon as I saw them, ...read more

00-LEAD-AdobeStock_486335954

A Catamaran for a New Era

Anacortes, Washington, is an unassuming sea-salty town near the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound, and the Betts Boats yard is easy for a passerby to miss. But within Betts’ facilities, the dawn of an era in Pacific Northwest production boatbuilding could be breaking with the ...read more

X5_plus_slide-01

Boat Review: Xquisite X5 Plus

The Xquisite X5 Plus is a major update of the boat that SAIL awarded Best Large Multihull and Best Systems titles in 2017. The changes were not just cosmetic, but genuine improvements to an already fine boat, making it lighter, faster and less dependent on fuel. The builder’s ...read more

01-LEAD-AdobeStock_40632434

Cruising: Offshore Prep Talk

When I began preparing Minx, my 1987 Pearson 39-2, for extended Caribbean cruising, I had to balance my champagne wish list against my beer budget. Every buck spent on the boat before leaving would be one less frosty can of Carib down in the islands. On the other hand, I had to ...read more