This post was originally written in 2012
Most travellers who visit Panama go to Bocas del Toro. Those who stop over in Panama City usually visit the islands of San Blas. The Pearl Islands on the Pacific side of the country have been featured in multiple seasons of the TV show Survivor, but are the least visited of the three.
When I decided to go to Panama last year, getting to all 3 was on the top of my "to do" list.
When speaking to other travellers in Latin America, it seemed that there was always time when something that was once exciting became "just another handcraft market/Mayan temple/colonial building/volcano/monkey", the list goes on. By the time we arrived in Cartagena after sailing through the San Blas islands, everyone who was on my boat decided to skip over Playa Blanca because we had just been spoiled with beaches. On a side note, it was me who made the "volcano" comment in an attempt to convince myself that it didn't matter that I'd missed Pacaya because I would see active volcanoes in Costa Rica. I can say now, it definitely mattered that I missed Pacaya! Arenal has been quiet each time I've been to La Fortuna, and by the time I made it back to Guatemala, Pacaya had erupted and there was no more flowing lava. The moral of the story, don't drink too much the night before you plan to do something really unique.
Back to Panama, despite being being located in the same small country, I could never use the phrase "just another island" about Bocas, San Blas or the Pearl Islands. They each offer a completely different experience, and really have nothing in common aside from being a mass of land surrounded by water.
I had been to Bocas (officially called the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, in the Bocas del Toro province on the Caribbean coast of Panama) once before in 2009, that time I flew there from San Jose. Getting there by bus involves a bit more adventure. A bus from San Jose will take you to the border, where a long wait and a trek across a precarious looking bridge are followed by purchasing a fake bus ticket to confirm you are leaving the country. I couldn't help but laugh when the immigration officer checking our documents before we got to the window was scrutinising the completely legitimate airline tickets most people had, and barely glanced at the ticket I'd just purchased from the dodgy looking booth set up at the border, even though he knew there was no way I'd be taking that bus out of the country.
After getting through immigration, a shared van ride then a boat will get you to Bocas. It takes a bit of effort, but the end result is worth it. There are 8 main islands in the group, but most of the action is in Bocas Town, on Isla Colon. The town is small enough that most places are within walking distance, but not so small that you will see everything in one day. The surrounding islands have plenty to offer, and most people seem to stay longer than they had planned. Island life in Bocas is casual and laid back, with days spent snorkeling, diving, surfing, zip lining or at the beach, with Red Frog being one of the most famous.
After sunset, to put it simply, Bocas is a party town. The nightlife on the islands is popular with locals and travellers, who spend their time dancing above the water on the decks of Barco Hundido (there really is a sunken ship visible in the water under the club), over on Isla Carenero jumping off the trampoline into the water at Aqua Lounge, or at one of the many other bars or clubs on the islands. Transport between the islands is a short trip in a water taxi, that will usually cost $1 per person. One of the first things you learn when travelling in Latin America is that you have to be flexible and go with the flow, because things often operate a little slower than you might be used to at home. When it rains in Bocas, water taxis don't operate at all. If you find yourself stranded in a bar during a storm, my advice would be to settle in for the long haul and play drinking games because you won't be leaving anytime soon.
The party atmosphere in Bocas is not for everyone. Some people choose to stay on Isla Bastimentos, which is a little more low key. However for something completely different, San Blas is worlds away from the sounds of reggaeton pumping out of Barco Hundido in Bocas Town.
The San Blas islands are most commonly visited on sailing trips, either by boats on their way to or from Cartagena, or on shorter trips that start from and return to Panama City. This is the first of many difference between a visit to San Blas and a visit to Bocas. In Bocas, you are likely to stay in a hostel, in San Blas you are sleeping on a yacht. In Bocas, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from, in San Blas the crew on your boat prepares all your meals. In Bocas, you can party all night if you want to, in San Blas the only alcohol you will encounter is any that you bring with you. Most of the San Blas islands are uninhabited. The ones which are, are home to the Kuna people, who have a completely different way of life to those living on the mainland.
The islands which are uninhabited offer postcard perfect pictures, with white sand, palm trees and clear blue water. When visiting the islands that are home to the Kuna people, there are no restaurants, shops or internet cafes, instead a way of life based around hunting and fishing that has been passed on through families living on the islands since the Spanish arrived in Panama. When sailing between the islands, especially the ones that are uninhabited, it is common not to see any other boats or people. When you get off the boat on your own "private island", it is very easy to forget that the rest of the world is out there.
The Pearl Islands had been on my list of place to visit since I saw Survivor All Stars in 2004. I couldn't get there when I first went to Panama, but last year it was a "must do" as I was going to be in Panama City. The islands are reached by a 25 minute flight from Panama City, or a 2 hour boat ride. The boat doesn't operate every day of the week, but since I prefer to avoid to small planes when I can, I decided that was the best way to get over there. I stayed on Isla Contadora, and realised as soon as I started looking into it that it doesn't offer one thing that is common everywhere else I have been; options for budget travellers. It turns out the island is mostly used by rich families or celebrities, who have their second (or third) homes there, and the cast and crew of Survivor when filming is happening. But this was about ticking a box for me, so I went ahead with my plans.
I ended up going with a friend I met travelling, so was able to split the cost of the room. We stayed in a bed and breakfast place, which was located about a 15 minute walk from the beach. The island is very small, about 2 km from end to end, and most people use golf carts as transport. The hotels are in the centre of the island, so you always need to walk or be driven to the beach. There are a few restaurants, which are all again, pretty expensive, and nothing in the way of nightlife. There is one small supermarket that sells snacks, drinks, beer and does amazing local food for lunch (which was reasonably priced).
After the first day, it seemed like the only good thing about the experience was the nice beach and the cheap lunch. But in a lessons not to jump to conclusions, our second day there turned out to be amazing. We hired a boat, and the driver took us to the "Survivor islands", Chapera and Mogo Mogo. We had the beach at both to ourselves to swim and snorkel. It feels like a cliche to say it was "the most beautiful beach I've seen", but it definitely has to be up there. I have always liked the beaches on the Pacific coast of Central America, because the jungle meets the shore. The combination of thick vegetation, white sand and sparkling water is hard to top.
On the way back to the main island in the afternoon, we said the only way the day could be more perfect was to see whales. A few minutes later, we spotted a mother and a calf no more than 10 meters from our boat. We watched them for about half an hour as they swam past the island. The calf was playful, constantly surfacing and splashing. We were extremely lucky to get to see it, especially because it was so unexpected.
We braved the 25 minute flight back to Panama City. The 12 seat plane was the smallest I have been in. It was a smooth flight, but I don't want to push my luck. Next time, I think the boat would still be my first choice!
The three groups of islands off the coast of Panama all have unique qualities that set them apart from the others. If you can only visit one, Bocas is the best choice if you are looking to hang out somewhere with a party vibe, San Blas can't be beaten for tranquility and the Pearl Islands has what I believe are the most beautiful beaches. One thing I can for sure, is that if you visit all 3, it won't be a case of "just another island".