Discover Bastimentos: the secret gem of Bocas del Toro, Panama

Since the archipelago of Bocas del Toro was discovered in 1502 by Christopher Columbus, the island of Bastimentos has served as a base for vessels; hence its name that literally translates as “supplies”. Its fertile soil and tropical climate are ideal for a wide variety of plants to grow plentifully as we are about to discover, setting off for a jungle and beach hike with our specialized guides.

After a brief walk along the traditional colourful wooden houses on the shoreline on one side and the mangrove on the other, we enter a private trail on an experimental farm. There, many species were planted back in 2004 to be preserved and studied. The forest is dense as the trail winds uphill and we pass cacao trees and many tropical flowers. Stopping at a citrus tree, our guide Tom cuts open several lemons and gives us one red berry each, he just picked. The lemon tastes sour, as it should. Sucking on the red fruit before tasting another slice, to our great surprise, the lemon now tastes like a sweet orange! This is the effect of the miracle berry which leaves a coating in our mouths that will last for about 30 to 60 minutes, giving a sweet taste to everything we consume, even water!

Walking uphill across the island, we spot white-faced capuchin monkeys and Montezuma birds in the trees. While enjoying a fabulous view on the ocean from a high point, our local guide Titi climbs up a tree to get some guava seeds. He presents an oversized bean which he opens, showing a white and sweet meat of a spongy texture surrounding the seeds that we suck on. A treat!

With this sugar boost, we start hiking down to Second beach, photographing local residents on the way: sloths, snakes and the bright red poison dart frogs where the red frog beach gets its catchy nickname from. The beach is stunning with lush vegetation and powerful waves pounding on the yellow sand shore. The many coconut trees are sources for the delicious fruits, either young for their tasty water or older for their hearty meat.

Back into the jungle on our way to Wizzard beach, more red frogs hop on the grounds or along trees where they breed in the epiphytes providing them with water and food. They are tiny (about 2 centimetres tops) and their bright colours from orange to red, with more or less black dots on their backs, scream out that they are poisonous. The venom seems to be stored in their skins from the plant chemicals carried by the insects they eat (ants, termites, centipedes…) and provides a defence against predators (this is an aposematic coloration tactic). Indigenous tribes of Central and South America have been dipping the tip of their hunting darts into the poison, hence the common name of the species. If their level of toxicity varies greatly, the golden poison dart frog has enough toxin to kill ten fit adults! In fact, the only natural predator of most of these amphibians is a snake which has developed a resistance to their venom. And of course, man causing habitat loss… Man who is also actively researching medical applications of these toxins with promising painkillers and muscle relaxants in test tubes.

We keep exploring the island until we reach our departure point where a Caribbean barbecue awaits. In the same low key and friendly atmosphere, we end the day listening to the local Bob Marley who invited himself to the barbecue with his guitar and his reggae vibes.

Bastimentos is only ten minutes by water-taxi from Bocas del Toro, but it feels like a world apart. Its generous nature, varied wildlife, beaches, and authentic vibes make it very enjoyable. Even though we hiked for the whole day, we explored only a tiny part of the island, and there is a lot more to discover from snorkelling by the beautiful Polo beach to visiting the national park (PNMIB, Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos) on the southern coast.

Claire & Marcella

Travel tips:

  • Bastimentos Alive is a one of a kind tour company in the Bocas del Toro archipelago. They focus on experiencing the jungle and educating people about fruits that can be eaten and their properties. Most likely, you will also spot wildlife: sloths, red frogs, monkeys, snakes, caimans, birds,… Their approach is very respectful of the environment, contrary to many operators locally based, and this is why we highly recommend them. 
  • While visiting the Bocas del Toro archipelago, every day someone drowned as the riptides are powerful, and we picked up a few lost hikers along the trail. Even if you are not planning to tour with Bastimentos Alive, make sure you stop by as they also act as an information center about beaches and trails. 
  • Bastimentos has a completely different feel than Bocas del Toro, and we clearly preferred it much better. A lot smaller and quieter, its atmosphere is authentic and low key, with a few nice bars and coffee shops hosted in traditional colourful wooden houses on the sea with music at night. There are various options to stay. Enrique, right by Bastimentos Alive runs Hostal Bastimentos in a massive wooden house overviewing Old Bank with all possible accommodation options.
  • Take a visual tour of Panama!
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!

7 thoughts on “Discover Bastimentos: the secret gem of Bocas del Toro, Panama

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