Isla Colón and Bocas del Toro

Across the bay are the rainforest, reefs and beaches of the
Bocas Islands
, the most important of which is
Isla Colón
. The protected bay offers all forms of watersport and diving, beautiful sunrises and sunsets. All the islands harbour plenteous wildlife but especially those east of Colón where tropical birds, butterflies, red, yellow and orange frogs and a great variety of other wildlife abounds. For some, this is being called the new Galápagos, but, as in that fragile paradise, attraction and concern walk hand in hand. Formerly a major banana producer, the industry failed to revive alongside the mainland plantations and the main sources of income are now fishing and tourism. Bocas del Toro town, where most visitors stay, is on the southeast tip of the island. Most activity takes place around the broad main street - Calle 3 - and the leafy square. The
Feria del Mar
is at the end of September/early October, but for most of the rest of the year it is peaceful and quiet, although more hotels are appearing each year. English is spoken by most of the black population. At the
tourist office
, www.bocas.com, there is an informative permanent exhibit, with English translations, about Columbus' landfall, indigenous peoples in the province, the fire at Bocas in 1904 and the United Fruit Company years. Bocas del Toro and Bastimentos are two of the most rapidly developing places in Central America. Keep an eye on local issues with the monthly Bocas Breeze, also online at www.thebocasbreeze.com.

Islands and island trips

Trips can be made to the islands of the archipelago; to the bird sanctuary of
Swan Cay
(
Isla del Cisne
); and to the beautiful
Islas
 Zapatillas
, for beaches and fishing. Do not go to deserted stretches of beach alone and if you do go, be wary of strong ocean currents. Many of the island names relate to Columbus' landfall here on his fourth voyage in October 1502 (Caranero was where he careened his ships, Bastimentos where he took on his supplies). The islands also have a rich buccaneering history.

On Isla Colón
there are some attractive beaches:
Playa Bluff
, 8-9 km northwest of Bocas, is one hour by bike; take the paved road out of town past the cemetery until it runs out and then carry straight on following the shoreline;
Playa Boca del Drago
, on the northwest point, is reached by a newly improved road across the island. Regular buses head over to
Boca del Drago
daily, leaving from the main square in town. This is a little- visited part of the island. Behind the beach there's a good restaurant and a cheap hostel. A local conservation project has an office here and it might be possible to hire dive and snorkel gear.

Colón also has
La Gruta del Drago
, a cave occupied by long-beaked white bats, which fly out at dusk. You can walk to the cave, a pleasant day, but ask locals for directions and advice on safety.

Opposite Bocas, 200 m across the channel, is the small island of
Caranero
, reached by
panga
either flagged down from a waterfront restaurant/bar, or boarded at the small quay just beyond
Le Pirate
or
Taxi 25's
quay next to the tourist office.

A 15-minute boat ride from Bocas town, the quiet island of
Solarte
is a very quiet retreat and good for day trips. For those into frogs,
Hospital Point
(good snorkelling) is the orange frog hangout.

Both this island and Isla Colón are turtle-nesting grounds and their protection is being improved with the help of organizations like
Caribaro
, on Calle 3, who set up beach patrols. There is snorkelling and a lunch stop at Cayo Crawl. Many tour boats also visit
Laguna Bocatorito
(no snorkelling), part of Isla Cristóbal, to view dolphins before going on to the Zapatillas Cays in the park.

On
Bastimentos
it's a 30-minute walk to northern beaches with soft off-white sand and strong undertow; ask directions, take food and drink, or ask if anywhere is open selling meals.
Red Frog Beach
is the best known; it has a strong rip tide, but
Polo's Beach
(with red-and-black frog accompaniment) is also recommended - look out for sloths and monkeys.
Playa Larga
, halfway along the north shore, is best reached by boat, as is nearby Polo's Beach. The Ngobe indigenous community of Bahiá Honda on the South Side of Bastimentos have opened a restaurant and small ecotourism project the '
Trail of the Sloth
', which involves a dugout canoe trip and hike through the rainforest to a cave that plays host to an important bat colony. For more information check the website www.bocas.com/indians/bahiahonda.htm.

Bastimentos village
is a stilted, ramshackle, wooden affair clinging to a steep slope on the leeward side of the island. Tourism once skirted round it, helping the place hold on to its old-style Caribbean charm; now a few smart places are opening up, but it is still very quiet.

Cayos Zapatillas Norte
is the quieter of the two Zapatillas because the tour boats do not generally stop here.

Isla Popa
and
Cayo Agua
, the other main islands in the area, are sparsely settled, heavily forested and have no beaches.

Diving

Several places throughout the archipelago are popular for diving. The joy of diving in Bocas lies in the details, with some wonderful intact coral gardens (74 out of 79 Caribbean coral species exist here) that seem to play host to a multitude of little gems. Brittle stars, spotted morays, arrow crabs, toadfish and squid are just some of the inhabitants you can expect to see, along with most of the common Caribbean reef fish. Occasionally larger grouper, rays and nurse sharks also put in an appearance.

Good dive sites include:
Tiger Rock
with stronger currents, deeper dives, larger fish and sometimes nurse and whitetip reef sharks; dolphin and wash rocks with rock pinnacles, overhangs and caverns and
La Gruta Polo
with good coral, canyons and caverns.
Hospital Point
is popular for both day and night dives. Several good locations near the resort for scuba-diving and for snorkelling in the clear waters around
Mangrove Point
.

Cavern diving
at
Polo's Beach
, only in calm sea,
Punta Vieja
on the northeast shore of Bastimentos and boat dives at
Cayos Zapatillas
.

The best
snorkelling
sites are
Hospital Point
on Cayo Nancy,
Punta Vieja
,
Islas Zapatillas
, but only outside the reef - tour boats will just drop you off at North Cay for snorkelling off the beach (points en route on tours are also disappointing -
Cayo Crawl
has two great sites with very colourful coral, known as Cayo Crawl Inside and Outside, referring to reefs several hundred meters offshore to the east and west - the area directly around the island is seagrass only; hire a boat and guide from one of the dive shops to see the best of the reef. Some areas, such as the islands around the entrance to
Laguna Bocatorito
, harbour habitats where large coral and sponge colonies run right up to the edges of the mangroves creating the unique and fascinating ecosystem. These areas are as a beautiful as they are fragile and require great caution to avoid damaging the reef and its inhabitants, so if not experienced and confident with your snorkelling ability it's best to leave these areas alone and stick to corals in deeper water.

Surfing

The break on the point of Bastimentos where the island curves away from Carenero to meet First Beach (or Playa Wizard) is the renowned and occasionally terrifying (reaching up to 25 ft)
Silver Back
, which attracts surfers from around the globe (peaks December to February).

Playa Bluff
is a good beach break,
Playa Paunch
is mostly reef, both are excellent breaks on Colón, and the northeast point of
Caranero
, a full reef, and the most popular of the island breaks.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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