Bocas del Toro
This lush archipelago off western Panama’s Caribbean coastline, near the Costa Rican border, remains largely unknown among North American divers, though Europeans and South Americans have dived these consistently calm, warm and marine-life-rich waters for years. The Bocas del Toro region is part of the larger La Amistad area, which, according to The Nature Conservancy, holds Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site statuses for its rich ecosystems, including the reefs of Panama’s Bastimentos National Marine Park.
Jon Schneiderman of Bocas Water Sports says his groups regularly dive about 15 different sites, most of which boast thriving coral gardens at depths that max out at around 60 feet. You can fin past healthy populations of staghorn, elkhorn and lettuce corals at Hospital Point, off the tip of Solarte Island, one of the most popular sites. And The Garden, also off Solarte, is a great spot for macro photographers looking for toadfish and seahorses. The most well-known artificial reef in Bocas del Toro, dubbed “The Wreck,” can be found at Mangrove Point, where an intentionally sunk car ferry sits in 35 feet of water alongside a reef system that drops to about 60 feet. — TM
Need to Know
Getting There: Colon Island is accessible by plane or boat. Take a taxi from Panama City’s main airport, Tocumen, to the regional Albrook airport for connecting flights on Aeroperlas or Air Panama to the small airfield near Bocas Town. Connecting flights are also available on Nature Air through San Jose, Costa Rica. To reach the islands overland, drive or take a bus (eight hours, $25) to the mainland town of Almirante, where water taxis depart on the 30-minute trip to Bocas Town for about $4.
When to Go: The trade winds die down in September and October, making the rarely visited windward sides of the islands accessible to divers.
Dive Conditions: Because of the region’s proximity to the equator, air and water temperatures stay in the low 80s year-round, and because the majority of dive sites lie in the lee of the islands, waves and current rarely pose a problem.
Operators/Accommodations: A handful of dive shops operate from the waterfront in Bocas Town, including Bocas Water Sports (www.bocaswatersports.com), the longest-running dive shop on the island. For accommodations, Jon Schneiderman at Bocas Water Sports recommends Lula’s Bed and Breakfast (www.lulabb.com). The waterfront property offers clean rooms, air conditioning, hot water and a great daily breakfast for a reasonable price.
Price Tag: Dive prices at Bocas Water Sports start at $35 for single-tank dives, $60 for two-tank, half-day trips, and $70 for two-tank, full-day trips that include a boat tour through the archipelago. Room rates in Bocas del Toro run the gamut from $10-per-night hostels to $500-per-night, all-inclusive resorts. For more info, check out www.bocas.com. Double-occupancy rooms at Lula’s start at $55 per night.
Insider Tip: Don’t bother changing money upon arrival. U.S. dollars are the official paper currency of Panama because the country’s national currency, the Balboa, is minted only in coins. The Balboa is also fixed at a rate of 1:1 with the U.S. dollar, meaning the two currencies are totally interchangeable countrywide.