Let’s Go Exploring! Scared Shitless in Bocas Del Toro

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When I first came face to face with a shark, my immediate thought was “Oh shit, that’s a shark!” closely followed by “Um, I think I’ll just drift in the opposite direction now. Do-di-do.”

Before coming to Bocas Town in Bocas Del Toro, I always thought sharks were something you see way out in the middle of the ocean, hidden far far away, along with those scary ass squid with the football sized eyes that terrorized my nightmares.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Officers and Crew of NOAA Ship PISCES; Courtesy of Commander Jeremy Adams, NOAA Corps.

So imagine my surprised when, on a crystal clear blue day, while snorkelling around nearly deserted beach, we came within an inch of a massive shark.

Every cell in my body screamed at me to run.

Except I couldn’t run. The current was too strong, and pulled us against our will right on top of the shark!

So how did we live to tell this tale?

Well, number 1, luckily the shark was asleep. And #2, it was a harmless nurse shark.

I’m still not quite sure what a bottom dwelling nurse shark was doing so close to shore, but once the ominous jaws theme music finally stopped playing in my head and my heart started up again, I realized “hey we just saw a shark! That’s actually pretty cool!”

Once the current carried us back onto the sand, I excited told the beach-goer next to me I’d seen a shark. This didn’t quite have the effect I wanted, as he quickly yelled “tiburón!” and then all I could see was a bunch of people bolting and running out of the water. 


The next day, we decided to take it easy and go a beach that’s home to a creature with a much less terrifying reputation.

This beach, aptly named “playa estrella” or “Starfish beach”, was littered with starfish as far as the eye could see.

It also ended being one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever stepped foot on– and we’ve seen a LOT of beaches in Thailand, Mexico, Malaysia, the Caribbean, and Greece.

Since this little slice of paradise is pretty far from town (around a 45 min drive through dirt roads), it also had the advantage of not being very crowded—which is another thing we loved about Bocus Town. Unlike Cancun and Phuket where every inch of sand is mobbed by beach goers, we got to this view all to ourselves:

And the cost to get to this nearly deserted part of the island? $2.50/person each way. All you need to do is go to the park at the center of Bocus town and wait for the “collectivo” (a shared taxi van) going to Boca Del Drago. It leaves every 2 hours or so, with the last one coming back to Town at 6pm.

Once you get to Bocas Del Drago, there will be water taxi’s offering to take you to Starfish beach (Playa Estrella) for $1.

$1 is minuscule but don’t do it. Walk instead. Trust me on this. The walk to the beach is infinitely better than the beach itself.

Just like when we unexpected missed the shuttle bus in Switzerland, trekking alongside the palmed-trees gave us one of the most breath-taking views ever:

Even though it should’ve taken us only 15 mins, we spent almost an hour getting there because I kept stopping every 5 mins to stop and take pictures and marvel at the Starfish, which were perfectly visible through the glassy, turquoise water.

Once we got to the beach and had our fill of starfish pictures, we sat down to have a delicious lunch of fish ceviche, burger, and plantain fries.

A note about Panama—they LOVE their plantains. You’ll get plantains pretty much with every meal, usually served fried up as plantain chips or patacones – plantains pounded into oblivion and fried twice.

So if you love plantains and fried things, you’ll feel right at home.

One thing that didn’t make us feel at home in Panama though was the millions of little blood-sucking assholes hiding in the stretches of white sand, just ready to pounce on your exposed skin.

Because thanks to Bocas Del Toro, I got to experience first hand what it was like to have 125 sand flea bites on my legs in one day.

If you thought misquote bites were bad, wait until you’ve experienced having more bites than skin and then seriously considering scratching your own skin off with a serrated knife.

Yeah. Not fun.

Though, I guess I can’t exactly blame the sandfleas. I mean, we were the ones dumb enough to take a boat across to Isla Carener, which we later found out was nicknamed “Sandflea island”.

BUT, despite all that, I’d STILL go back to Bocas Town in a heartbeat.

That’s how much I love it. How could I possible say not to a whole beach full of starfish?

Though next time, I’ll definitely remember to arm myself with a tank of mosquito spray and a truckload of tiger balm.

Here’s how much we spent in Bocas Town, Panama:

CategoryCost in USD/coupleCost in CAD/coupleNotes
Accommodations:$37 USD/night$46 CAD/nightWe stayed 5 nights in a hotel in Bocus Town near the main park. Compared to the place we stayed in at Boquete, this one was much smaller with way fewer amenities. When it rained the roof leaked but luckily the owner was nice enough to move us to a suite with way more space to make up for the inconvenience.
Food:$31 USD/day$39 CAD/day ($33/day for eating out, $6/day for groceries)Since it was an island food was pretty expensive–even groceries–since everything has to be shipped in from the mainland. We ended up eating out at this cafeteria which had $5-10 meals .
Transportation:$13 USD/day$16 CAD/dayTransportation around the island was relatively cheap. You could take a collectivo for $2.50 to the Starfish island or rent a bike for around $8-10USD a day. Our biggest cost in transportation was getting there, which ended up being around $50, including the bus and boat fare.
Entertainment:$15 USD/day$19 CAD/dayWe bought a day tour package for $35 USD a person, which included a trip to a deserted island where we saw the shark.
Total:$96 USD/couple/day$120 CAD/couple/night

If you love pristine, deserted beaches and sleeping sharks that don’t try to murder you within an inch of your life, go to Bocas Town in Bocas Del Toro, Panama.

It’s only a 3 hour bus ride from Boquete Panama to get to Almirante. Then a short boat ride to Bocas Town. And the best part is that you can cross the border by foot directly to Costa Rica once you get back to Almirante.

What do you think of Bocas Del Toro? Have you ever seen a shark in the wild?

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15 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Scared Shitless in Bocas Del Toro”

  1. Thanks for the write-up! Love reading about your travel adventures.

    The first picture up there is actually what I look like on a Monday.

    I like to eat my plantains raw once they are ripe — more nutritious than cooked.

    1. That’s also how Wanderer looks when I tell him we’re out of beer.

      I’ve actually never eaten plantains raw. What does it taste like? Banana?

  2. Tiger Balm can be an insect repellent?! I’ve always just used it for headaches. Good to know!

    That beach looks gorgeous. Panama has now been added to my list. Thank you for sharing your experiences!

    I have seen a shark in the wild: snorkeling in Fiji. I actually want to swim with Great Whites in South Africa, but my travel buddy (my Mom) is against it. One day. I love sharks :).

    1. I use Tiger Balm as “after bite” to sooth the scratching. I wish it could repel insects. Maybe if was actually made of tigers…

      Swimming with Great Whites in South Africa would be SO badass!

    1. Thanks, Steve! And to think I didn’t even know it existed until we got to Panama! Hooray from recommendations from locals!

  3. My first shark was kinda like that too. Some initial terror, and then a “I’ll just be cool he’s ignoring me” moment.

    Looks like a wonderful destination FireCracker, and fairly affordable too! Panama looks pretty good! The sand fleas sound a little sucky though.

    We just got back from Japan, where the beaches were pristine (in Okinawa) and there were no blood-sucking sand fleas.

    1. Oh man, your pictures of Okinawa looks amazing! I can’t wait to check it out the next time we’re back in Japan (hopefully soon).

  4. Those are great photos and a great story … hmmmm sand fleas? … I wonder if Off works on them … we did a similar deal outside Dalian in July this summer … but still could not excape the hordes … though they were less … with nice cliff side view, beaches and sun umbrellas to rent …. again nice story 🙂 Michael CPO

    1. Off isn’t useful against sand fleas unless it’s the deep woods stuff. We had to buy extra strength bug spray later in Costa Rica. That seemed to work. Those bastards are evil!

  5. Hey it’s great to hear the report on Bocas. I travelled to Bocas and Boquete to study Spanish at really good schools run by Habla Ya- highly recommended. For those sand fleas, called chitras there, they use coconut oil and it can be found all over. Even restaurants on the beach will often have 2 – 3 bottles handy. It’s good for the skin, but you can feel pretty oily- still it beats having the bites. Kayaking is great there too, as they have 95% of all species of coral found in the Caribbean there and you can see them as you paddle over through the crystal clear water- just beautiful.

    1. Interesting! I didn’t know coconut oil worked against sand fleas. Will have to try that next time.

      Yeah, we loved the crystal clear water too. Beautiful and so calm. Oddly not crowded for such a gorgeous place.

  6. First time I came face-to-face with a shark the dive master basically pushed me into the cave with it. Needless to say, I was completely freaking out. I’ve gotten better when seeing sharks in the water now. It was cool to see the school of hammerheads swim by when we were in the Galapagos. Not so cool when Mr.Wow told me that one was swimming right over my head while I was checking out a sea turtle and I had no idea.

    1. Yeah, being pushed into a shark cave would not go over well with me. I’d totally be freaking out too.

      I had an experience where a seal pup was following me while I was swimming on Isabela, but I had no idea. The whole time I was like “where are all the seals? Where as they?” Wanderer tried to tell me but he was on land so I couldn’t hear him. I feel like we need to all have waterproof walkie talkies for these exact situations.

      1. Totally! It would make this whole talking under water thing much easier. Though, I’d much prefer being followed by a seal than a shark. Years ago I had a harbor seal think my fins were a pretty neat toy. He kept trying to nip at them, still one of the highlights of all my dives.

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