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:
Publish date:
Social count:
0
bocasDelToro0513-Cruising-Bocas-pg18

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.

Bocas-Del-Toro-map-clipmask

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.

 Should you prefer a marina, there are three to choose from.

Should you prefer a marina, there are three to choose from.

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. 

 All your basic boating and living needs are easily met here.

All your basic boating and living needs are easily met here.

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

GG17-SAONA47-DX0796

Boat Review: Fountaine Pajot Saona 47

Here’s a riddle: What is less than 50ft long, has two hulls, three big cabins and four decks? Answer: The Fountaine Pajot Saona 47. In fact, it may even be five levels if you count the large engine rooms. This boat is a “space craft” in every sense of the word.DESIGN & ...read more

RichardBennettMIDNIGHT-RAMBLER3249x202

Storm Sails: Do you Need Them?

Many sailors embarking on ocean passages will take along the obligatory storm jib and trysail, with the vague idea that they may come in handy. Few sailors, however, have a real understanding of how and when to set them.It doesn’t help matters when we hear from seasoned sailors ...read more

IntheWater(1)

Boaters University Unveils Rescue Course

Boaters University has just announced its latest online course, Safety & Rescue at Sea, taught by Mario Vittone, whose name you might recognize from the pages of our sister publication, Soundings Magazine and his Lifelines blog.Mario Vittone is a retired U.S. Coast Guard rescue ...read more

IMG_20170920_132819

How to: Installing New Electronics

I had been sailing my Tayana 42, Eclipse, for a few years without any installed electronics on board. I’d gone pretty far up and down the New England and Mid-Atlantic coasts with paper charts, the Navionics app on my Android phone, a hand-bearing compass and the ship’s compass. ...read more

02-Douglas-Adkins---Coriolis---Orcas-Island-KevinLightPhoto

A Phoenix-like Concordia

Cutting a fine wake on the cobalt-blue waters of West Sound on Orcas Island, Coriolis sparkles like a diamond. Her lovely silhouette is offset by emerald forests that frame the ocean, within spitting distance of the border with Canada. Seen up close, this Concordia yawl is a ...read more

IMG_1051

The Latest Boat Trends from Dusseldorf

The world’s biggest boat and watersports show, held in Düsseldorf on the banks of Germany’s Rhine River each January, is the place to scope out emerging trends in the boat design and building.What would be the new trends for 2018 and beyond? Hint—sophisticated electronics figure ...read more

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell.Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.comGood ConnectionsI wish I’d had a dollar for every time I’ve cobbled together an electrical fitting with a “that’s good enough” shrug. An old shipwright once taught me that “good enough is not good enough” ...read more

tides2

Gear Test: Tides Marine Sailtrack

Gravity is an important force at work on a sailboat. It keeps the boat upright, it makes the anchor drop to the bottom, and it makes the mainsail slide neatly down the mast to be flaked and put away at the end of the day… until it doesn’t.In the case of dropping the mainsail, the ...read more