Standing on golden sand, palm trees overhead, tropical Caribbean sun beating down, boardies on and crisp, feathering 4ft A-frames unloading onto the sand, meters from the beach. You’ve surfed for 3 hours, and after a fresh coconut and some pre-packed snacks, you’re ready to hit it again for another fill of tube time until your arms give up or the wind goes onshore, whatever comes first.
This is just another day in Bocas Del Toro. Panama’s tropical Caribbean islands are somewhat of an anomaly in terms of surf. If you’ve looked at a map to scope out surf spots, you’d be excused in thinking Panama’s Caribbean coast would have nothing more than wind-swell novelty waves.
However, Bocas offers something significantly more appealing than novelty wind swell ripples, and from January through March, the breaks dotted around the Bocas come to life. Combine this with a tropical climate, bath water ocean, and thriving backpacker vibe; you have the recipe for an incredible Central American surf destination… Here’s everything you need to know about surfing Bocas Del Toro.
Table of Contents
Bocas Del Toro Surf Season
The best time of year for surfing Bocas Del Toro is January to March. This is the main season when the most significant storms happen in the Caribbean sea and sends waves to Bocas. The region also experiences a mini swell season, and swell pulses are common in July/August.
Surf Spots Breakdown
Bocas Del Toro has various surf spots suitable for all abilities. The waves are spread across the main islands, Isla Colon, Bastimentos, and Carenero.
On the island of the same name, this long left-hand point is a 5-minute boat ride from the main Bocas town. The wave has two parts…. The outside and inside.
A fun but somewhat mushy lefthander, sharp but not a shallow reef, and gets crowded due to its proximity to town! If you’re an advanced surfer, Carenero is only worth checking if the area’s premier breaks are blown out.
A downside to surfing Carenero is you can’t check it before you surf. And you’ll have to take the boat without knowing what the waves are doing, and yes, you’ll be paying even if it’s flat. On small days, this break can be one of the best beginner surf spots in Panama.
On Colon, the main island, the coast is dotted with surf setups; Tiger Tails is the first of many; a reef break that cranks on the right swell; you may have seen some photos of heavy slabbing tubes…
The wave is pretty average and looks nothing more than an obscure in-between spot, with a few random surfers having a punt to escape the crowds.
The most popular and user-friendly wave in the area… Paunch is an A-frame reef with fun lefts and rights; when it’s on, it’s a super fun, high-performance wave with sections for barrels and turns.
On a typical day, the wave is playful, although you’ll need to watch the end of your waves as the insiders finish abruptly onto dry reef. Oh, and it gets super crowded, so get in early.
Bocas’ main attraction and the sole reason I visited. Bluff is the famous frame beach break barrels you see in all the clips and photos. With the right-sized swell, favorable winds, and the sand in the right place, Bluff is one of the best waves you’ll ever surf.
When it’s 3-4ft, expect a-frames barrels breaking only a few feet from the shore. The stuff of dreams, and if you’re an advanced surfer, it’s why you come to surf in Panama. Playful, warm, tropical beach break barrels–the holy grail of surfing.
The infamous slab, tackled only by hard-charging psychos and visiting pros. Breaking off the tip of Batsiementos, the horror slab is a mushroom-shaped reef that stops swells in their tracks and folds them over into an exploding monstrosity of a wave.
The beast only gets going during the largest swells, rare in the Caribbean. If you want to score Silverbacks, pay attention to the surf forecast swell energy, which locals and frequent visitors told me is super important in determining how well a swell will perform in the area.
Just around the headland from Silverbacks, and things get a little calmer, Wizards is an average beach break with some of the most transparent, pristine waters you’ll ever ride waves in.
The beach is stunning and an excellent venue for a fun, stress-free surf. Located away from the main town on the island, Old Bank, you can score it to yourself.
On the inside of Carenero is black rock, a super popular, mellow reef break for loggers and beginners. Warm, friendly, and plenty of water over the reef means predictable waves without the danger of sharp, shallow coral heads—a short boat ride from Bocas town.
Where is Bocas Del Toro?
Getting to Bocas Del Toro
From overseas, fly to Panama City, then jump on a connecting flight to Bocas Del Toro Airport, the tiny Bocas town airport minutes away from the best accommodations and surf spots.
There are direct flights to Panama City from most major cities in North America or Europe. Copa Airlines is the national airline with Panama City as its hub.
From Costa Rica
Another option is flying to Costa Rica and crossing the border overland via a shuttle bus. There are various shuttle bus companies operating in Central America. Fly to San Jose, then book a shuttle to Puerto Viejo.
From there, get another shuttle across the border and then a taxi boat to Bocas Del Toro. You can even book direct shuttles from San Jose to Bocas Del Toro.
By Shuttle Bus
Shuttle buses are super common for travelers in Central America. You share a minivan with other travelers, and it’s an affordable and quicker means of getting around (compared to the famous Latin American chicken buses.
By Local Bus
Although it’s a lot more complicated to get to Bocas via local buses, it’s by far the cheapest way. However, you’ll need to take a series of small local buses, and your journey can take a long time! Check out the local bus routes on BusBud to find the best way to get to Bocas Del Toro.
Because of Bocas’ geography, getting around the place is unique, requiring short taxi boats or the famous yellow taxis that dominate the roads. Road and water taxis are cheap; for example, the taxi boat between Colon and Careneros costs $1. Here are the main Bocas surf spots on the map.
The only more expensive taxi ride you’ll do is going from Bocas town to Bluff, which as a standard, costs $15. If you’re going solo, this gets expensive but split between a couple of mates or fellow traveling surfers; you make it more affordable. Don’t snake or burn the guys you share a taxi with; it’s a fricking long walk back to town!
Bocas Del Toro Secret Spots
While I won’t name all the little nooks and crannies around the area, there’s a ton of coastline here. So if you’re lucky enough to have a boat or a friend who does, it may be worth getting the old-fashioned ordinate survey map out and going on a wave-chasing exploration mission; you never know what little gems you could stumble or sail across here 😉
Where To Stay in Bocas?
Across the main islands, Colon, and Bastimentos, there are abundant accommodation options for all budgets; here are some of the best options for where to stay in Bocas.
Best Budget Options
Spanish By The Sea
One of the cheapest hostels in Bocas! And while the place certainly isn’t luxury, it does the job if you’re surfing Bocas on a budget. Dorms at Spanish By The Sea start around $10 per night for a dorm room.
Twin Fin Hostel
Another super cheap hostel, Twin Fin, is considered one of the party hostels in town; while it may be loud, it’s cheap, basic, and located right in town. You’ll need to get a taxi from town to the surf spots.
The best place to stay in Bocas. Skully’s House is right on the sand, just a 15-minute walk to Paunch, one of the better waves in the area; the place has a restaurant, kitchen, dorm rooms, privates, and lounge/pool area right on the water. There’s even a shallow little left you can surf out the front.
While Selina is in town, The Selina hostel chain is always a fantastic option for great wifi, a social scene, and a co-working space. Selina Bocas is a party hostel located right on the water, an excellent place to stay if you don’t mind the noise and taking a taxi to the waves.
Selina hostels are standard across Latin America, and the chain is popular among digital nomads and surfers. Typically Selina has co-working, dorms, and privates, and you can expect good wifi and social life. I’ve stayed at Selina in; Florianopolis, Costa Rica, and Bolivia.
Azul Over the Water
La Coralina Island House
Where To Work?
On Bocas’ main island, Colon, there are several co-working spaces and cafes for getting stuck into some work. If you’re a digital nomad surfer, Bocas is a fantastic spot. Here are some of the best places to get shit done in Bocas:
Where To Eat In Bocas?
In Bocas town, you’re spoiled for choice of food. And while you’ll want to experience the full culinary charms of the islands through roadside ceviche and barbeques, there are some tasty vegan joints and places to get a sushi fix. While if you’re on a budget, there are some cheap eats and supermarkets!
Buena Vista Restaurant
Some of the best food in Bocas, everything you need, in a beautiful setting. You must try the peanut butter satay chicken washed down with a crispy cool Cerveza.
While Panama is affordable compared to North America or Europe, it still isn’t one of the world’s cheapest surf destinations and if you’re on a budget surf trip, you’ll need to be stringent with your cash. Here are a couple of waves I keep costs down and even make money while traveling.
Use Wise Card
Most places in town don’t accept cards and you’ll need to withdraw cash (the closest ATM is in Paijan) to save money, you’ll want to eat at the smaller establishments that don’t take cards. You’ll also need small coinage to pay for the buses and afternoon ice creams.
I’d suggest using Wise for withdrawing money as it doesn’t charge extra withdrawal fees. Wise also makes it easy to hold money in different currencies–super handy for traveling and something I couldn’t live without. Check out WISE card here.
Teach English Online
One of the best ways that I revolutionized my surf travel is by learning to work online. Right now there are heaps of ways to earn money online. (learn online skills on Udemy).
But one of my first was teaching English online. I began with a company called Cambly, where students call you and you chat with them and teach them English in the process it’s pretty cool.
While the pay isn’t amazing, you don’t need any qualifications or experience. Earn $10 teaching English online with Cambly today. A great way to supplement your income while on your surf trip to Panama!
Non-Surfing Activities In Bocas
If you’re surfed out or need to keep a non-surfing partner occupied, there’s more than just surfing in Bocas Del Toro. There’s a whole heap of other cool stuff to do.
There are numerous sites for snorkeling, and you’ll find many tour operators offering to take you to the spots in town. You can also take epic speedboat day tours, combine snorkeling, and check out the surroundings.
Bocas is a bucket list destination for any surfer. You can score perfect a-frame beachies in the tropics for an affordable price among a coll backpacker vibe. With waves for all abilities and other exciting things to do, head to Bocas Del Toro for a few weeks in the right season, and you won’t regret it.