I apologize for the long trip report right now. I love reading long trip reports as I get so much great information from them. So I will try to be as detailed as possible.
Background info: we are a family of 4: 2 adults, 15 year old girl, 13 year old boy from the Toronto area. We are fairly athletic, LOVE food and enjoy fine wine. We are not “crazy” but enjoy adventure. We have been to Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras (main land, Roatan and Utila), South Africa, most of the Caribbean (on cruises and in resorts), Bahamas is NOT our idea of a vacation (too American) and are avid skiers in the winter and cottagers (in Ontario) in the summer. We are not “fancy” people, however the food quality is important to us. I am telling you all of this so you can decide if you have the same experience/taste as us.
We decided on Bocas Del Toro because we wanted something similar to Roatan and our wonderful Trip Advisor experts guided us that way. We ended up booking the trip now because we got flights from Toronto to Panama City for $300 each! Then the task was finding a place to stay. After a lot of research I narrowed it down to: Palma Royale (penthouse 2-bedroom), Casa Cayuco (but they were closing for a break, in the middle of our vacation), Careening Cay Resort (worried about the bugs), Playa Tortuga (wanted the 2-bedroom suite and it was booked and 2 separate bedrooms were expensive and not anything special). We also looked at Red Frog (didn’t like the “bad press” about this development and didn’t want to support it), Eclyspe De Mar (expensive), Hotel Angela (expensive for 2 bedrooms compared to other places), and a few others. We ended up thinking that Villa Paraiso would suit our family very well.
Villa Paraiso has 2 separate Casitas that share a pool and common outdoor kitchen area. This was perfect for our family as we could rent both and have the entire property to ourselves! Included was a stocked fridge, snacks, cell phones with pre-programmed numbers of taxis, restaurants and the owners (they live next door), bikes, pool toys, etc. Angie would bring us treats (brownies, cinnamon buns, local treats) and they were there when we needed them and were invisible when we wanted them to be. See my review of Villa Paraiso for more info (coming soon).
We arrived early the first day (7:30 a.m.) so walked from the airport to town (5 – 10 minute walk) to have breakfast at Lili’s (recommended by Angie). It was such a great start to our vacation. Delicious breakfast on the water. We then took a taxi to the Villa and dropped our bags off and met Angie and Steve. We were not able to check in then, so grabbed another taxi to Starfish Beach. What a great day! I wish we realized how wonderful it was at the time. So beautiful! We took the taxi to the end of the road and then walked to Starfish Beach (easy walk, don’t bother taking the water taxi). We rented two “beach chairs” which floated, so we all played with them in the water. It was so nice! The water was very warm and calm and clear. We had a couple beers and then walked back to Yarisnori for lunch. It was only okay. I had high hopes as it is listed highly on TA. Our taxi driver promised to come back for us (we didn’t pay him ahead of time) and he did! That was nice!
We checked into the villa and it was so fantastic! Bags of chips, beer in the fridge, a gorgeous warm pool overlooking the beach. This was our own little hideaway!
For dinner on the first night we wanted something quick and easy. We had been awake early and travelling all day. We chose Bueno Vista for our son’s favourite meal (burgers) and got a great burger! They were huge and $6 including fries. My daughter couldn’t finish hers and I barely got mine down. Great deal!
The next day we went surfing with Luis and Miguel at La Escuela del Mar Surf School on Carenaro island. The sea was VERY calm so not great for surfing. We are not very experienced but did surf in South Africa. These waves were very small in comparison and not worth it. Luis gave us a bit of a break but still expensive for little waves. I am sure it would be great when there are waves. Luis was wonderful and lent us his USB cable as we forgot ours and wanted to download our photos to our laptop. Great guy!
On day 3 we rode the bikes to Bluff Beach. The weather was so great the week we were there, super hot, dry and sunny. The ride was very hot and we couldn’t wait to jump in the water. We played on a deserted beach for an hour or two, jumping in the waves. Great day and wonderful photos!
Another day we took a tour with Honky. Honky is GREAT! Everyone knows him on Bastimentos (and elsewhere) and he is truly a gem! Call Roots restaurant and they will be able to get you in touch with him. He took us to the Bat Caves. WOW! Favorite day of our entire trip. It is difficult to explain how great it was. As we were boating to the caves, Honky noticed dolphins in the distance so headed over to them. Got lots of great shots of 4 dolphins playing in the water. From there we went to the mangrove river that takes you to the caves. I think it was approx.. 1 hour ride down the river. Beautiful! Saw sloths, monkeys, cayman, frogs, and lots more.
Arrived at the home of an local Indian family who own this area. They provided us with rubber boots and Honky had hard hats with lights. Now the adventure started! Approx. 1 hour into the caves and 1 hour out. Saw beautiful stalactites and stalagmites. At times we had to swim and other times we walked knee deep in cool water. Big rocks to climb over and narrow passages where we needed to swim on our backs with just our noses above water. Meanwhile bats overhead. It was so cool that it wasn’t scary. Worst part was the blisters I got on my ankles. Bring socks to wear under the boots. Warning: you need to be relatively fit, thin and flexible.
Next we went to Up in the Hills for coffee (amazing!) and brownies. The owner (and young sons) are very sweet!
Next day we took a tour to Zapitilla, Dolphin Bay and snorkeling at Coral Cay. It wasn’t as great as we thought it would be. Zapitilla was beautiful but 2 hours in the sun was a bit much for us. Dolphin Bay was fun. Coral Cay restaurant was excellent but twice the price of other restaurants. The snorkeling there was not very good in our opinion and our driver did not speak English. This is something you should ask about. It made it very difficult to know what was going on. Ended up not eating lunch until 3:00 and we were not warned about this. We were starving!
Another couple days my son got his SCUBA certification, which was his dream! Bugas SCUBA (Jill) was the best! She was so good with him. He got one-on-one instruction that was way more thorough than what my husband and I got in the city. He loved it!
My daughter and I had another great meal at Bueno Vista for lunch when the boys were diving. Huge nachos and BLT sandwich. Also a great margarita!
Best part of the vacation was a few of our meals. Here are my comments on food:
Best meal by far: Guari Guari, unreal!!!! 6 courses for $23 each. Beyond explanation. You must go here.
Second best meal (but a close #1): Raw Sushi and Martini Bar – The food is so good here and the owner (Brittany) is from the Toronto area and knows good restaurant service. She was great with our kids and the food was delicious. Try the sweet and spicy chicken, $10 and worth much more.
Biggest disappointment: Bocas Wine Bar – we thought they would have good wine, and a good selection. Basic wine selection. Not great. Appetizers (dips) were very good and the location is interesting but I wouldn’t go back.
Drinks: Because the wine selection was not good in Bocas, we ended up switching to Sangria after a couple days. Very delicious at all the restaurants.
Best Tour: Bat caves with Honky
Best dessert: Bueno Vista brownies and ice cream!!!!
Other restaurants: El Ultimo Refugio – pretty good. Owner was a bit strange, but she is very pregnant, so perhaps not on her game. Pulled pork was great. Also the black bean dip, deviled eggs and ceviche. Ceviche was just okay. Black bean dip was very good.
El Pecado and Bibi’s – good, but after Guari Guari and Raw, not up to their standards.
Many of the restaurants took credit cards, which was so convenient. We heard that we might be charged a premium to use a credit card. The only place that charged us 4% was Bugas SCUBA. None of the restaurants charged a premium.
1) walk from airport to town, don’t take taxi.
2) if you get really hot, go into Super Gourmet, it has A/C ☺.
3) rent a bike.
4) in October, the water is flat! It is wonderful for boating and swimming but not for surfing.
5) Bocas Town is VERY casual, even the nicest restaurant (Guari Guari) so no “fancy” clothes or shoes are required. Flip flops, shorts and tank tops seem to work everywhere. Don’t over pack.
6) bring lots of bug spray as the mosquitos and other bugs can eat you alive. Even being very diligent about putting the spray on, I got dozens of bites. This could ruin your vacation. Put on spray as soon as you arrive and keep it going until the last day.
7) check the restaurant bills for an automatic service charge. Some of them charge an automatic 10%.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.