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PLEASE NOTE: The official exchange rate at time of writing was US$1 = P$1 (Panama Balboa). Panama uses US$s and only uses Balboa as coins for small change.
I made my way from Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica to Isla Bastimentos, Panama by Shuttle Bus(es) and Boat(s).
On Isla Bastimentos, I booked a GRANDPAcking Double Room for 4 nights at US$31 / night (Bubba’s House). The room was expensive, basic and ‘tired’. The shared kitchen was small and almost unusable.
I decided to abandon Bastimentos and head back to Bocas Town on Isla Colon …
You land in one of the (many) boat docks in Bocas Town.
ABOUT BOCAS TOWN:
Bocas Town is the capital of the Panamanian province of Bocas del Toro. It is a town and a tourist resort located on the southern tip of Colón Island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. Bocas Town had 12,996 residents in 2008.
Relatively few Panamanians live on the island, opting to commute from cheaper housing on the mainland. Bocas del Toro is a popular tourist destination year-round. It is becoming the main ‘go to’ tourist destination in Panama. The streets are arranged in a (typical colonial Spanish) grid. Avenidas (avenues) run east to west and Calles (streets) run north to south.
PHOTO GALLERY – BOCAS TOWN:
You can walk around the whole of the town centre in 30 minutes.
PHOTO GALLERY – SAIGON:
You won’t find any restaurants nor bars in Saigon but, if you keep following this path to the main road, you will find a couple of locals bars (and a locals discoteque).
PLEASE NOTE: These locals bars are, usually, perfectly safe and friendly to drink in when the places are quiet. However, these are the places where the locals come to get totally drunk on weekends … it is not unusual to see a group sitting around a table with buckets of beer drinking themselves into oblivion. On busy nights, these sorts of places are best avoided.
There’s not a lot to Saigon really ...
PHOTO GALLERY – SAIGON TO BIG CREEK:
From Tony’s Supermarket, follow the road across the isthmus heading along the north east coast road.
Big Creek has another average beach.
WHERE TO STAY:
Accommodation-wise, this is typical of what you find online … this is for 1 night mid April 2018 (‘Peak Season’). This is after Santa Semana (Holy Week) …
HOTELS & HOSTELS (Nightly Rates):
PLEASE NOTE: Hotel and Hostel search sites usually display prices EXCLUSIVE of TAXES. You may have to add up to 15% to the displayed price to get the final price. Also, some of the cheaper rooms have a Shared Bathroom … so, check the details first.
VACATION RENTALS (Weekly Rates):
If you plan to stay a week or more, another good option is to use AirBnB or TRIPADVISOR.COM to book a Holiday Rental / Vacation Rental.
Due to additional ‘service’ and ‘cleaning’ charges, Holiday Rentals are usually best rented by the week. A comparable search reveals the following … Please Note: these prices are in US$s …
PLEASE NOTE: Vacation Rentals are usually displayed INCLUSIVE of TAXES but EXCLUSIVE of any ‘Security Deposit’ (if required). BUT, the displayed price may also be EXCLUSIVE of the host site’s Extra Fees (which can add as much as 16%).
In S.E. Asia, I wouldn’t touch AirBnB with a barge pole … in my opinion and experience the accommodation that you find is an absolute rip off. However, here, they are worth a look.
February / March is ‘Peak Season’ as they are the driest months. This Peak Season seems to have slipped to March / April and, now, encompasses Santa Semana / Easter / Holy Week.
There are very few GRANDPAcking options to choose from on the internet. However, there are several hostels around town that are not online. If they are not online, they are (usually) cheaper … however, I doubt that you will find any ‘hidden gems’.
To find something within the GRANDPAcker price range, you will need to come at another time of year (when there will be even more rain!).
Have a look yourself:
MY ACCOMMODATION (1):
I knew from my stay in Bastimentos, that I could not afford to live in Bocas Town to GRANDPAcking standard. So, first, I decided to try the Saigon Area which is about 1km west of Bocas Town centre. In Saigon, you can get apartments with a shared kitchen – which helps to keep costs down.
I booked myself into the Valerie Emanuel Apartments for 9 nights at US$27 / night. The entrance to Valerie’s is on the road as you come from Tony’s Supermarket towards the township waterfront.
The whole inside lacks windows and airflow. It was very hot and stuffy inside. I had to have 2 fans (set on their lowest speed to keep noise levels down) targeting my bed at night to keep cool enough to sleep. In my opinion, mosquito mesh needs to be put over the front windows so that these windows can be safely left open to allow the flow of fresh, cooler air.
One problem was that it was poorly equipped with many simple things (like a kitchen knife, kettle, tea towel, toaster, etc) missing. You had to use a small cooking pot to boil water for a tea / coffee.
Another problem was that the fridge was a free-for-all mess. Nobody knew who owned what and over half of its contents were left-overs from people that had left. But, nobody knew what was what. The problem was easily solved by numbering the shelves 1-2-3-4 so that each unit knew where to put their things.
There was only one sharp knife in the kitchen – it was falling to bits. We had 1 wok, 1 frying pan, one over-sized pot (too big to be of any use), 1 usable small pot, and a very small pot that was only useful for boiling water.
It wasn’t acceptable. I contacted the owner by email to ask for my TV to be fixed. I got no reply. On my 3rd day, he just turned up with a replacement TV. That was great – but, he could have let me know that he was bringing one.
On that 3rd day I talked to him about the kitchen. He said that he would bring a kitchen knife, a kettle, and clean the oven. He said no to a toaster. When I left at the end of my 9 day stay, all that we got was an old kitchen knife. He made no attempt to solve the other kitchen issues.
MY ACCOMMODATION (2):
I moved into the center of town and stayed in a Single Room in Hansi Hostel.
It had in-room wifi, cable TV, and furniture (including a clothes rack).
Yes it was smaller than the Valerie Emanuel Apartments but, overall, this accommodation was nicer and better value for money.
INTERNET / WIFI:
Your accommodation should provide reasonable free WiFi. Both Valerie’s and Hansi’s were very good and fast enough to stream video. Both had their ‘slow’ times but (I suspect that) this would be a town-wide overload problem.
I bought a +Movil SIMcard in a Supermarket in Bocas Town. The SIMcard was US$3.55, I topped up with US$15, and I bought a 2GB 1-Month Data Plan for US$14.99. I had a good 4G / 3G signal most of the time.
You can find a +Movil Store at the northern end of the Bocas Town waterfront road. It may have been cheaper for me to buy my SIMcard there.
You walk everywhere around town.
A taxi to anywhere around town costs US$1 per person during the day. Double or Triple that at night.
Meals are expensive for GRANDPAckers.
It was different from what I am used to but nice and tasty … so it should be at nearly double the price that I pay for a Ceviche in neighbouring Central American countries.
I bought groceries and ate most meals back at my hotel.
Expect to pay an average of US$5 for a cheap Breakfast with coffee.
Expect to pay an average of US$5 for a cheap Lunch Snack with fruit drink.
Expect to pay an average of US$10 for a cheap Dinner with a Fruit Juice / Small Beer.
There are no bars in Saigon township but walk 200 metres from Tony’s Supermarket along the main road heading north east across the isthmus, and you will find a large Pool Barn where you can buy a 590ml Balboa Beer for US$1.50. Next to it is a Discoteque where the locals go. Opposite, is a cheap, small open-air locals bar on the side of the street.
There are several Happy Hours around Bocas Town between 4pm and 7pm where you can buy a 350ml beer for US$1 to US$1.50. The normal price is US$2. Otherwise, you are buying your alcohol in a local store at about US$0.85 per can.
MY ADVICE: Try and pick up a Promo Chit from one of the street touts; these give you discounts at the restaurants / bars around town on different nights. BUT, be careful with them … many of the places don’t seem to know about them or try not to honour them. If you want to use one, make sure that they know that you have one and check that what you are getting is covered by the chit.
A beer was $2 and a Mai Tai $6. I showed the bar staff my Promo Chit and ordered one of each. When I went to pay I gave them US$5 (my bill should have been half price at US$4). They wanted US$6 (they tried to charge me at their higher Happy Hour Prices instead). I showed them the Promo Chit again and they accepted US$5.
THE BOOK STORE:
This place attracts an older crowd of, mainly, expat retirees from the USA. They put on music a couple of nights each week. Happy Hour beer is US$1.50. Their Happy Hour ends at 7pm. I had a ‘Half Priced First Drink’ promo chit but they wouldn’t accept it until after 7pm.
The only Sports Bar in town with sports focusing on a North American clientele. They don’t show any English Premiere League soccer (too expensive) but do show Champions League games. Otherwise, expect to watch American Football, Basketball, Cage Fighting, and Ice Hockey.
I tried their Nachos for US$8.95. It was ‘average’ value for money.
MONEY / PRICES / SHOPPING:
Shopping is expensive. I wouldn’t shop here unless I had to. Typical prices are:
- 2x Large White Bread Rolls = US$1.10 / US$1.65
- 1x 2.25L Coke = US$3.00
- 1x Can of Beer = US$0.85c +10% tax
- 1L Boxed Wine = US$3.65 +10% tax
- 1.75L Panama Rum = US$16.95+10% tax
- 1x Coconut = US$0.50c
- 1x Plantain = US$0.15c-US$0.30c
- 400g Macaroni = US$0.60 – $1.95
- 90g Margerine = US$0.55c
- 450g Cheddar Cheese = US$5.85
- Dozen Eggs = US$2.25
- 450g Sliced Processed Ham = US$2.45
- 1x Medium Potato = US$0.50c
- 1x Large Piece Ginger = US$1
- 1x Head of Garlic = US$0.25c
- 1x Medium Tomato = US$0.82c
- 1x Medium Onion = US$0.56c
- 400ml Bottle Cooking Oil = US$0.90c
- 1x Small Chicken Thigh = US$0.70c
- 10x Sausages = US$1.85
- 5 Gallon Water Bottle = US$5 (US$10 deposit on the bottle)
- 1x Pack of 20 Cigarettes = US$4.50
You are best to buy Fruit & Vegetables in the small shops on the edge of town. You pay almost twice the price for the same thing in the Supermarkets.
BANKS / ATMs / MONEY EXCHANGE:
There is one ATM which is located in town at the eastern end of the airport runway. You won’t find any Bureau De Change.
This second ATM accepted my Debit Card and I was able to take out the maximum withdrawal of US$500. I paid US$5.25 for the privilege (as well as my NZ$5 Foreign ATM Fee back at my home bank in New Zealand).
HEALTH & SAFETY:
Health care is available, but facilities are limited. A public health clinic operates in town.
Common medical problems include food and waterborne diseases, insect bites, sunburns, heat stress/stroke, and dehydration.
The Bocas del Toro Islands lack some basic infrastructure. A generator plant provides power to the towns of Isla Colon, Isla Carenero and Isla Bastimentos. The community does have a waste water (sewage) treatment plant, but it is not to ‘western’ quality. The town lacks a water filtration / treatment system. Most sewerage still gets flushed directly into the waters around the towns.
There is no reason to feel unsafe. As always, exercise normal levels of caution … don’t make yourself an obvious target. The main problem is Petty Theft … which is a ‘typical’ problem in Central America. Don’t leave anything unattended.
When I was there, mosquitoes were around but they were not a problem.
Don’t drink the tap water.
WHEN TO GO:
Between the months of April to June and August through October the water conditions tend to be the calmest. Although the larger wave season stretches from March to August, the island can still be accessed easily, many surfers come to the area, and there are many sunny days during this period.
Bocas Del Toro Province has a tropical wet climate with no dry nor cold season – as it is constantly moist (with all-year-round rainfall). The temperatures remain consistent during the year.
I targeted March on purpose – it is one of the few months with minimal rainfall.
WHERE TO GO / WHAT TO SEE / WHAT TO DO:
It showers almost every day – even in Peak Season. Be prepared to spend some of your time indoors reading or playing board games. For that reason, it is important that you choose accommodation that has a good-sized and well-equipped common area – as well as a decent location.
- Shuttle to Bocas del Drago and Starfish Beach (20kms each way) – $5.00 return per person
- Boat to Red Frog Beach – $7.00 return per person
- Red Frog Beach Entry Fee – $3.00 per person
- Boat to Carenero Island Beach – $4.00 return per person
- Sea Turtle Conservation Tour – $15.00 per person, plus transportation
- Boat to Almirante (mainland) – $8.00 return per person
- PADI Scuba Diving certification (Basic Open Water) – $250 (lasts 3.5 days and includes 6 dives)
- Snorkel Equipment Rental (on-beach) – $2.00 per hour
- Yoga Class – $5.00
- Board Diving, Dolphin and Sloth Watching and Transportation to Zapatillas Island – $50.00 (including Lunch)
- Half Day / Full Day Reef Snorkelling Trip – $20 / $35 (may include Lunch – negotiate)
- Push-bike rental – $7.00 per day
These costs add up very quickly.
From Bocas Town I head to Changuinola on the Panama mainland located up the main coast road near the Costa Rican border. I am seeking refuge there during Santa Semana (Holy Week). In ex Spanish Colonial Catholic countries, Santa Semana gets very busy … everyone takes a holiday … everyone travels … hotel prices over this week can more than Triple. A hotel in Changuinola was the nearest one that I could find for under U$25 / night in this period.
GRANDPAckers cannot afford to LIVE in Bocas Town to GRANDPAcking standard.
However, GRANDPAckers can holiday in Bocas Town by renting somewhere with a kitchenette and eating most meals at home.
Read About – GRANDPAcking Costs if you don’t know how to interpret my figures.
MY ACTUAL COSTS:
My costs are broken down into:
- Cost of Existence: The basic costs of just being there
- Cost of Living: The additional costs that make being there fun
COST OF EXISTENCE (COE):
I did not live in Bocas Town to GRANDPAcking standard.
I spent 9 nights at US$27 / night in an Triple Room in Saigon followed by 7 nights at US$21 / night in a Single Room in central Bocas Town.
I spent US$18.55 for a 1-Month 2GB Data Plan when I went to Bastimentos. I did not need to spend any more whilst in Bocas Town.
I averaged about US$2.20 / day on Breakfasts – I ate at home most of the time.
I averaged US$0.20c / day on Lunches – I don’t eat Lunch anymore so, this was mainly for snacks.
I averaged about US$4.10 / day on Dinners – I ate at home most of the time.
I got my drinking water in 5 Gallon Bottles (US$5 each).
My COE worked out to be about US$29 / day.
COST OF LIVING (COL):
In / Out Costs: It cost me US$3.00 to get from Bastimentos to Bocas Town.
Living Costs: I averaged about US$5.90 / day. I bought rum at the local supermarket for drinks at home. If I went out, it was mainly to hit the Happy Hours. I didn’t go on any paid tours.
My total COL was about US$39 / day.
COSTS FOR 2 GRANDPAckers:
Again, costs are broken down in Cost Of Existence (COE) and Cost Of Living (COL).
COST OF EXISTENCE:
You will need to deviate from GRANDPAcking Standard.
Accommodation: Book yourself into something for the first 2 nights at about US$30 / night. Anywhere will do. Once here, ask around. If you are here in February to April (the best 3 months) all of the good long-term accommodation may have already gone. By February to April, you will have to pay a premium price of US$700 / month to get something half decent. Make sure that you have a kitchenette or access to a shared kitchen.
Transport: You can walk everywhere around town. I include a weekly return day trip for 2 people to Almirante (the mainland) or a nice beach on a nearby island.
Communications & Fees: I include a US$19 +Movil SIMcard and 1-Month 2GB Mobile Data Plan.
Food & Beverages: Your budget is US$41 / day. This is to eat all of your meals in Cheap Restaurants.
Your COE is US$66 / day (119% of your total budget).
COST OF LIVING:
This leaves you nothing to LIVE on. You are already over budget.
To have some spending money, you will need to buy groceries and eat at home each day. You can eat at home for less than half the price of eating out. This does not meet GRANDPAcking Standard.
Bocas de Toro / Bocas Town DOES NOT make it into my Retirement Reviews.
Bocas del Toro is over-priced and under-delivers.
The weather is poor … too much rain for my liking … even in ‘Peak / Dry Season’.
The waters around town are too polluted for swimming. To swim, you have to get 30 minutes up the coast into Isla Colon and / or take a water taxi somewhere.
Bocas Town, itself, is ‘OK’. Living here would be a bit like living in a village on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala (but at twice the price).