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I decided to end my three months in Panama by spending a month in the Caribbean Archipelago of Bocas del Toro. It gave me enough time to dive, snorkel, mountain bike, kayak and hike across it, from Boca del Drago to Cayos Zapatilla. Bocas del Toro is home to the Bastimentos Marine National Park, Panama’s first marine park, created in 1988 and covering an area of 230 km² near the border with Costa Rica. It extends from the island of Bastimentos to the Zapatilla Cays and covers approximately 50% of the archipelago. With one national park, 9 main islands, 50 cays and more than 200 islets, it’s only natural to wonder where to go scuba diving in the archipelago.
Before diving in Panama, I often heard people praising diving in Coiba (rightfully) and having mixed feelings about diving in Bocas del Toro. I couldn’t help but wonder why. I had the opportunity to dive in the Caribbean coast during my stay in Panama City, in Portobello, and I loved what I saw. Besides, one cannot compare the environments of the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea: these are entirely different ecosystems.
My first guess was that people might be more easily impressed by the sharks of Coiba. Macro critters and other funny-looking sea creatures beloved by marine biology nerds might require more experience to appreciate fully. My second guess came when I started looking at the map more closely: I realised that some people didn’t know there was a marine national park in Bocas del Toro! I studied the national park boundaries and where most dive sites were. So here is my story of trying to understand the geography of Bocas del Toro’s reefs, the logistics of diving there and, of course, whether it is worth the trip (spoiler alert: yes!).
Diving in Bocas del Toro at a glance
How good diving in Bocas del Toro is?
Scuba diving in Bocas del Toro
I went scuba diving right at the beginning of my stay in Bocas del Toro since I stayed a couple of nights at the Palma Royale hotel on the southernmost tip of Bocas Town before moving to an apartment further north. The main dive centres are all in this area so that you can board your diving boat only 5 minutes after breakfast. The journey from Santa Catalina near Coiba National Parl took me more than 12 hours, including a boat arrival on Colon Island by moonlight. I couldn’t dream of a better set-up to start my Bocas del Toro adventure while making things easy to rest a bit.
Making a list of the best dive sites in Bocas del Toro isn’t easy. On the one hand, there is this marine playground which is so vast, and on the other hand, the area where most scuba diving boats go is quite limited (between Colon and Solarte Islands), but a few further sites. These are only accessible when the conditions of currents and swell are favourable, typically during the peak season of September/October, and I visited Bocas del Toro in March/April. But so you know, I heard many good things about the two dive sites: Sachen and Tiger Rock.
Finally, the area between Bastimentos Island and Zapatilla Cays is seldom scuba dived. A few resorts might offer it, but they don’t have scuba diving gear and a compressor: everything comes from Bocas Town, including the dive guides! So to make the logistics cost worthy, it means having enough people to join. I thought we almost had this, but unfortunately, the couple I was supposed to join cancelled.
Hence here are the 5 dive sites I visited from Bocas Town with Bocas Dive Center, scuba diving tank included (keep reading, you’ll understand why I’m saying this). Thanks to their limited depth, these dive sites are suitable for beginner divers. Besides, I never had any current on any of these dives. Bocas del Toro is great spot to get certified.
Pandora (reef + sailboat wreck) – 18 m deep
This is usually the instructors’ and divemasters’ favourite dive site because its atmosphere makes them think about the movie Avatar (hence the name of the dive site). The dive follows a coral and sponge reef with a gentle slope. It is possible to go deeper, but you won’t find anything other than sand. Among the colourful sponges, I found typical Caribbean marine critters such as spotted drums, spiny lobsters, squirrelfish and grey angelfish.
The second part of the dive leads to an unexpected sailboat wreck. The Godewind sailboat was sunk near the island of Solarte in 2019 for the greatest pleasure of scuba divers in Bocas del Toro: sailboat wrecks are uncommon. This artificial wreck offers incredible views and photo opportunities with its sail still standing, slowly getting covered in sponges. Stay close to your guide; they might show you too the nurse sharks sleeping inside. With a maximum depth of 18 m, even beginner divers can join.
Buoy’s Line (reef + trimaran wreck) – 17 m deep
A beautiful coral and sponge reef with many butterflyfish and feather worms near Solarte Island, where I found a few infamous invasive lionfish. But thankfully, not so many! Bocas del Toro actively hunts them, and even a butcher in town (yes!) is selling the lionfish filets.
The highlight of the dive site is the artificial shipwreck (yes, another one!) of a trimaran. The Mystic Wind wreck is covered in sponges and giant oysters. We were looking for rays and sharks, but I was still happy only finding yellow schoolmaster snappers hiding inside the cabin.
Mayday (shore dive + plane wreck) – 5 m deep
In 2006, a BAe Jetstream of Air Panama couldn’t stop after landing at Bocas del Toro airport due to heavy rainfall. It overran the strip to crash into bushes. There was no casualty, but the plane was beyond repair. This is how it became this surprising plane wreck dive site right in front of Bocas Dive Center pier after a few years of sitting near the airport.
So, imagine people doing their DSD and how exciting it must be; even experienced divers like me can enjoy a long dive with endless underwater photo opportunities around the plane wreck and below the pier. Between the butterfly fish, the surgeonfish, the angelfish, including many juvenile individuals, the feather worms, the swirling schools of sardines, the trumpetfish and the arrowhead spider crabs, you won’t get bored. The most surprising species of all? The upside-down jellyfish! So don’t look down at this 5 m deep dive site; make sure to have time for it.
Casa Blanca (reef) – 14 m deep
My favourite of all my dives in Bocas del Toro is where I found the reef to be the most interesting in shapes and colours while being full of life. The site is mostly flat at the same depth, with a mix of coral reefs, sponges and sandy bottom. Yellow, purple, red, green, orange: the array of colours from the different sponge species in the shape of barrels, tubes or candelabras was staggering.
We found several toadfish hiding in their rocky den. I’m glad I could count on the eagle eyes of Bocas Dive Center instructors and their expert knowledge of the reef. They might not be as colourful as their Cozumel cousin (splendid toadfish), but they are still an interesting marine critter you won’t see everywhere. The other remarkable species I spotted included butterfly fish, porcupine pufferfish, barracudas and spotted moray eels.
Loro Verde (reef) – 11 m deep
For my final dive with Bocas Dive Center, I had a couple of grey angelfish that decided to stick with me at the beginning. They obviously liked to pose for my pictures. Loro Verde reef had many sponge formations but in different shapes than the other sites. But the most surprising was the impressive number of star brittles covering most of them. With a little distance, it looked like the sponges were moving.
I had the pleasure of spotting another toadfish, but my favourite moment was my encounter with a squad of squids. Spring is the peak season to see them. It was so funny to see how they were both shy and curious. They gave me long minutes to take pictures and videos. The cherry on top was a beautiful stingray swimming by our group right before we ascended to our safety stop.
Free Diving in Playa Estrella
After scuba diving south of Colon Island, I took a small bus to its northernmost tip: Boca del Drago. It leaves from the main square (Simon Bolivar Park), and the ride costs only 3,50$. It takes about 50 minutes to arrive at the terminus, the famous restaurant Yanis Nori. They’re a local family business and have been serving the best Panamanian seafood recipes with a Caribbean touch since 1989 (if you are only eating lobster once in Bocas del Toro, this is where to have it for 25$).
Once in Boca del Drago, it is a 15-minute walk through the mangrove and along the sea until Playa Estrella. Don’t rush because the trail is beautiful, and you can spot cappuccino monkeys and three-toed sloths if you pay attention. The kind gentleman renting masks and snorkels helped me spot my first three-toed sloth. Indeed, I knew the space on the bus would be extremely limited, so I left most of my clothes and all my dive gear behind in Bocas Town. The rental wasn’t expensive (2$), but I regretted not taking at least my mask and snorkel. The mask kept flooding.
If many people flock to Playa Estrella (Star Beach), it’s because it’s the home of a colony of photogenic red cushion starfish. Most tourists book a boat tour from Bocas Town, which stops at Playa Estrella (35-40$), but I wasn’t the only one coming by bus either (the bus was usually packed). Unfortunately, despite some level of awareness that the starfish need to be protected (many signs invite tourists not to touch or move them), the loud music of some of the beach restaurants is pushing the starfish away.
You might only be able to see them by freediving to 2 to 5 m deep. I did this; it took me less than 5 minutes to find the first starfish. I spent about 15 minutes in the water taking a few pictures, and that was about it since there was nothing else than sand beside the starfish. Walking further down the beach in a quitter spot allowed me for a great picture in only 30 cm of water.
Special tip: Sleep at Yanis Nori’s guesthouse for at least one night to be the first on-site in the morning. In my case, I stayed for two nights and was invited by the owner’s daughter on a mountain bike ride through the jungle towards the east coast of Colon island. On the way, we spotted cappuccino monkeys, howler monkeys and a tiny green-golden dart frog. I used all my forces that day, but I made a new friend that day!
Snorkelling in Cayos Zapatilla
This is where things got a little trickier when I tried to go scuba diving in Bastimentos Marine National Park. Unfortunately, all the scuba diving resources, which means tanks, compressors, and divemasters, remain in Bocas Town. It means that the resorts on Bastimentos Island, even those advertising scuba diving, bring people and gear from Bocas Town based on demand. You can also directly go diving from Bocas town with a longer boat ride as a day trip. In both cases, it’s a matter of how many people will request it to make it economically viable. I was close to making it, but the couple I was supposed to dive with cancelled at the last minute.
The owners of Tranquilo Bay, the dream eco-resort I stayed at on Bastimentos Island, cheered me up, saying they would book me on activities with great snorkelling/free diving and that I would likely be surprised. I always wanted to improve my skills at taking underwater pictures with a single breath, so here was my opportunity (by necessity)!
My first day trip was to the jewels of the Bastimentos National Park: Cayos Zapatilla. Tranquilo Bay is ideally located just in front of them, so it only takes about 20 minutes to get there from their pier. Zapatilla 1 is fully protected and can’t be visited. Zapatilla 2 is dedicated to ecotourism, with marked trails and wood pathways to explore it without damaging anything. I loved spotting great kiskadee birds, freshwater turtles and basilic lizards in its swamp area.
Exploring Zapatilla 2 reefs was still the best part of my day. For safety reasons, the boat captain came with me. We used a kayak to approach the coral reefs of Zapatilla cay #2 in slightly deeper water. From there, I could snorkel and free dive in a beautiful coral reef with no one around. Breath after breath, I found many treasures under the waves: a stingray came to say hi and took me to a sea fan garden on a sandy bottom, I found a crack where the lobster party was, I caught a couple of French angelfish on a love parade, and at the end, a nurse shark came to say bye (but it was too quick for me to take a picture).
I was never deeper than 5 m, so it helped to have enough time to take pictures. But to be honest, without weights, even if I was only wearing my UV-protected rashguard and leggings, it wasn’t easy to stay long. I spent about 2 hours in the water and never got bored. Kayaking + Snorkelling in the heart of a Caribbean national park? Approved!
Snorkelling in Bastimentos mangrove reefs
Tranquilo Bay is a lodge on Bastimentos Island for all nature lovers, especially birders. As a diver, I was a little bit of an outsider but felt very welcome by their team of naturalist guides. They taught me everything I know today about bird watching, and I returned the favour by leading a night snorkelling session at Tranquilo Bay’s own mangrove reef that no other guest ever asked for.
I did a first session by day to get my bearings underwater. The part near the mangrove was shallow, maybe a meter of water, but from the pier, there is a slope going down to 10 m quickly. The corals near the mangrove were mainly unknown to me, but I did recognise the fire coral that you do not want to touch by any means.
My favourite discovery was the lettuce sea slug (Elysia Crispata), whose intricate ruffles come in many shades: blue, pink, purple and green! I had never seen these before: these mangrove coral reefs are staggering. These nudibranchs were in relatively shallow water and often fed on seagrass. Taking a good shot of them wasn’t always easy as they swung along the current. I was just mesmerised by them, and they were another reason to make me regret not taking my macro lens during my year in Latin America.
At night, it was like a crab and squid party. Many arrowhead spider crabs came out, but also a new species to me: the channel clinging crab, also called the Caribbean king crab. But my favourite moment was when we met once again a squad of squids: by night, with a pitch black background, right below the surface, my pictures look like the squid are swimming below a mirror.
My tops tips for going diving in Bocas del Toro
I summed up below everything you need to know to prepare for your trip to go diving in Bocas del Toro: the best season, water temperatures, dive centre and places to stay.
When to go diving in Bocas del Toro?
Another tricky point about Bocas del Toro is the best diving season. While Panama’s summer (dry) season is from December to April, the best diving season in Bocas del Toro is in September-October, Bocas’ mini-dry season. I was diving in Bocas del Toro between March and April, and most days were sunny, but we had one weekend with pouring rain, which created floods all over the archipelago.
The water is always warm, around 28°C, so technically, you can dive all year long. I used my wetsuit initially, but it was useless; I ended up diving with only my rashguard and leggings. What you need to take into account in Bocas are the currents. They tend to calm down in September-October, making some of the best dive sites (Sachen, Tiger Rock) on the northern side of the archipelago only accessible at that time.
But not all is lost when diving from February to April; this is also the season to meet squads of squids. This is a cool encounter I had more than once, and I had never seen so many of them before anywhere else in the world.
How to go to Bocas del Toro?
There are two main routes to Bocas del Toro: air or land+sea. The easiest but not the cheapest is obviously to fly (about 130$). Daily flights from Albrook domestic airport in Panama City link Bocas Town in only 1 hour. As someone who tries to avoid flying whenever there is a good land alternative and enjoys exploring more of the country, I took the road.
The cheapest is to take the bus between Panama City (Albrook bus terminal) and l’Almirante via David, the country’s second-largest city, and through the mountains of Chiriqui (28$). It takes about 10 to 12 hours, and I must warn you about the lack of leg space between seats (and I’m not that tall).
From there, you board a boat to reach Bocas Town on Colon Island for 10$, which takes less than 30 minutes. There is also a ferry service twice a day in each direction for only 1$. Be aware that the boats stop after dark. If you arrive (like me!) after the sun sets, your best chance is to go to the main gas station of Almirante and find a private boat agreeing to take you. I was so relieved I thought it was fair to give the double fare to the lovely family who welcomed me on their boat (instead of paying for a last-minute hotel too)
There are also some comfortable shuttles linking Bocas del Toro with Boquete (Panama’s coffee capital, a fantastic way to split the journey, 30$ – boat ride included, it was the best option to stop there on my way back) and Panama City (40$). I also met many people coming from Costa Rica this way (27$ for Puerto Viejo).
Which dive centre to book with?
I cannot recommend enough Bocas Dive Center and its spotless facility and friendly team. The dive centre is on the first floor of the Divers Paradise hotel, where you’ll also find their restaurant, Pier 19. The team of instructors offered courses and guided dives in English, Spanish, French, and German at the time of my visit.
Their large boat reminded me of my dives in the US. It was so comfortable, with so much space to gear up and relax at the surface interval. Even if most dive sites are not that far away, I’d go diving anytime in these excellent conditions. Thanks to their dive site by their pier, Mayday, people taking a Discovery dive or doing their Open water training have the best conditions to learn.
During the month I stayed in Bocas del Toro, I also had the opportunity to join their monthly dive against the debris. It’s every first Sunday of the month. The dive is free (donations welcome for PADI Aware Foundation) and is the opportunity for a meet-up between local divers and visitors. I loved it, but I soon discovered scuba diving in shallow water with an always heavier trash mesh bag is not as easy as it looked.
Where to stay in Bocas del Toro?
I stayed in 5 different places in one month in Bocas del Toro, including a one-bedroom flat to work from for three weeks. Here are the two best hotels I used at the beginning and the end of my stay.
Palma Royale Hotel, Bocas Town
Right across the streets from Bocas Dive Center, the Palma Royale hotel is located on the south tip of Bocas Town, where it’s mostly quiet at night while being close enough to the lively streets. The hotel offers rooms, suites and apartments with a kitchen. I stayed in a suite with a separate bedroom besides the main room.
I loved the coffee corner next to the sofa, where I could make a fresh brew when waking up or working. The small fridge was convenient for storing the delicious salads from the Super Gourmet Deli right next to the hotel. My balcony overlooked the water, and I could see the ferries coming in the morning.
Guests who book breakfast with the hotel have to walk 2 minutes to the Buena Vista restaurant, which belongs to the same owner. With a voucher system, you get a delicious choice of cooked breakfast served to your table.
Tranquilo Bay Eco Lodge, Bastimentos Island
I will go straight to the point: I absolutely fell in love with the Tranquilo Bay eco-lodge. Beyond designing the most eco-friendly lodge they could, the American family behind the project also set up a fantastic concept. Every guest is on full board from breakfast to dinner, including drinks AND day activities. Breakfast and dinner were at the main building, and there was a small trail through the jungle to reach it. I’m glad I thought of bringing a head-front lamp for after dinner!
You can join guided snorkelling tours, wildlife spotting hikes, and bird-watching sessions from their canopy observation tower, kayak through a mangrove to a bat cave, or even visit an organic cocoa plantation. Each day’s activity is only in small groups. I joined a dad and his daughter, and we connected quickly. A naturalist guide is always with you and will likely surprise you with their knowledge. They try their best to teach you everything they know (and I’m the non-stop question type!).
In 5 days with them, I saw all sorts of colourful poison frogs, met many three-toed sloths and cappuccino monkeys, discovered the oropendola birds and their amazing hanging basket nests and highly recognizable song, and even found a fossil shark tooth in the bat cave of Bastimentos Island.
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This article was written in partnership with the chamber of tourism of Bocas del Toro and the Authority of Tourism of Panama. As always, all my views and opinions are my own and reflect my experience honestly.
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