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Marisa went to...Panama!

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

Hello and welcome to I Went Somewhere!

Our story today is about the beautiful country of Panama where Marisa took a quick weekend break while studying abroad in Costa Rica.

So slap on that sun screen, and let's go to Panama!


Hello! Tell us a little bit about you and where you traveled to...

Hi! My name is Marisa, and I currently live in San Diego, but grew up just north of Boston. From a young age, I have been obsessed with traveling the world. It all started when I was about six years old and my mom got me a computer game for our old Microsoft desktop.

The game involved solving puzzles and games while traveling around the world. I remember that the main character in this game was not a warrior or super hero, but rather it was a little girl. I saw myself in this character, and I wanted to be just like her.

Around the same time–with my new knowledge of this crazy invention called "the internet"– I started Googling different landmarks and cities, and I would draw and paint them obsessively. I probably painted at least 50 different versions of the Eiffel Tower alone.

Flash forward 15 years later to the Spring of 2018, and I'm studying abroad for the first time in Costa Rica. To me, this felt like my first time REALLY traveling. The only time I'd left the country before had been with my family to a resort In Aruba that we didn't really leave or explore away from too much. I don't shame my family for traveling this way-- it's just not the type of immersion traveling I'd been craving.

In Costa Rica, I was in an immersion program that involved living with a host family and attending the local university with Costa Rican students as my peers.

As much as I LOVE Costa Rica and could talk about it for hours on end, I'd like to use this opportunity to share about a weekend trip I took to Panama while living in Costa Rica. I traveled with some friends from my program that I've unfortunately lost touch with over the years, but the experiences I shared with them will remain with me forever, and hopefully with them too.

Nestled on the Caribbean coast of Panama, Bocas del Toro is an archipelago made up of nine main islands and over 50 smaller ones. I spent most of my time on the main island– Isla Colon. The islands are a haven for outdoor enthusiasts, with activities ranging from hiking through the rainforest to snorkeling and scuba diving in the vibrant coral reefs. The local culture is as rich and vibrant as the natural surroundings. With a mix of indigenous and Afro-Caribbean influences, the people of Bocas del Toro are warm and welcoming.

How great was this trip?

This trip will forever remain as one of my fondest traveling experiences.

Crossing country lines on foot as three young women take guts, and I'm so proud of my travel companions and I for doing so with grace. While on the main island, we did several excursions. Through an event planned by our hostel, we went on an all-day island-hopping adventure. We saw sloths, dolphins, and even a Piranha! We also went wakeboarding, snorkeling, and had a few drinks while lounging on the beach. It felt like an island dream.

While on the main island, also enjoyed the night life, and spent our nights out dancing. All of the clubs we went to were right on the water. I remember at one of the clubs I jumped off the dock and went swimming with friends! This was no problem, because I actually was wearing a bathing suit out that night. It felt so good to be out with salty hair and sunkissed skin, not worrying about my make up or outfit. I felt so free. We spent two nights on the main island and two nights on Red Frog Island. Unfortunately, it rained the entire time we were on Red Frog, so instead of excursions, we took a dance class, ate plenty of the local cuisine, and relaxed by the misty sea.

What did you do while you were there?

The Selina Hostel chain played a huge part in our trip. Selina Hostels are an international hostel chain that have many hostels in Costa Rica and Panama.

During my 6 months abroad, I think I stayed in nearly 10 different Selina Hostels. All Selina hostels are great because they organize excursions at an affordable price, serve the local cuisine daily, have a bar on-site, they put together group activities like yoga and happy hour, and the premises is monitored by security guards for 24/7 for safety. Oh, and not to mention– it's super cheap (if you don't mind sharing a room with strangers).

We stayed at the Selina in Bocas del Toro as well as the Selina in Red Frog. The staff was incredible. We genuinely felt taken care of by them. They helped us maneuver the water taxi system, the local bus system, and they gave us good recommendations for night life, local cuisine, and shopping. The Selina staff do what they do because they love helping travelers like us.

I would say, however, that a Selina hostel is not a great place to bring a family. Most Hostels are notorious for late-night partying and other shenanigans, and the Selina Hostels are no different. Sure, they were fun for us... but I wouldn't recommend them to a couple looking for a peaceful getaway or a family looking for child-friendly fun.

How did you learn and prepare for this trip?

The best way to prepare for this trip was honestly to talk to other people who had been there before. I had a few friends who had already traveled to Bocas prior to my trip, who told me everything I needed to know. One friend recommended that I stay at the Selina hostel, because of the lively energy and the organized excursions.

Another friend informed me make sure I brought a copy of my return flight to the border, or else I wouldn't be allowed entry into the country.

A different friend told us about the vans that wait to shuttle travelers at the border, which ultimately eased my apprehension in using it. While I know the internet is a great place to get information for traveling, nothing is better than getting first-hand advice from someone who has been there.

I hope those who read this blog don't hesitate to reach out to me with any questions, so I can help them the way my friends did for me!

How did you get there?

Arriving to Bocas del Toro involved busses, shuttles, traveling on foot, and water taxis! From San José, we took a 5-hour bus ride from the Caribe Station to the border town of Sixaola, where we able be able to cross the border on foot. On the Panama side of the border, there were vans lined up, ready to shuttle us to the water taxi station for $10.

This part was a bit unnerving, because while I wasn't a seasoned traveler yet, I knew that it wasn't a great idea to get into a stranger's unmarked vehicle.. especially in a foreign country.

However the facts of the situation were this:

1. We were in Panama, and we weren't confident in our ability to maneuver the bus system

2. The vans were parked at a government facility (the border), so it seemed legitimate

3. We witnessed other travelers using the vans

4. We were in this together, and there is power in numbers. So ultimately, we decided to trust the van drivers. Of course, the ride ended up being no problem (other than a few military check-points along the route!) but it's always best to weigh your options and trust your gut.

We made it to the station, put on our life jackets, and packed into a water taxi with some other travelers.

NOTE: Be careful getting into the water taxis! They can be shaky! I know from experience... I dropped all of my luggage into the water while trying to step into the taxi.

Luckily the driver was able to retrieve it with a paddle LOL... and none of my stuff got destroyed.

Shout out to my sturdy plastic carry-on suitcase. The ride over was stunning! We passed giant ships out on the open sea, and then entered the calm area of Bocas, where all of the homes were placed on docks by the sea. It was like the Venice of Central America.

Where did you stay?

For more info on Selina Hostels, check out their website or find them on Instagram @Selina.

Where and what did you eat?

Oh my goodness, I had some of the best meals of my life while on this trip. We didn't eat at any fancy restaurants, in fact I don't think I even saw any crazy fancy restaurants. We ate at beach shacks, little tiki-huts out on docks on the water, restaurants along the downtown area, and at our hostel.

This isn't to say that we ate at places that weren't nice or of good quality– they were just the Bocas way: laid back and beachy! We ate fresh fish (with the head and eyes still in-tact), fried platano, rice and beans, and fresh fruit. We drank local Balboa beer, and hydrated ourselves with coconut water directly out of the coconut. I still think about these meals to this day! I've tried to recreate them many times since I've been back, but no one cooks these dishes better than the locals. None of our meals were very expensive at all. And the portions were large and filling. Truly...we ate like queens.

How much did it cost?

I can only speak as someone who traveled to Bocas from Costa Rica, which wasn't very expensive at all. The total cost of the trip, including transportation, places to stay, and eating, was probably equivalent to $200 USD.

Clearly, it is not very expensive to travel in Bocas del Toro once you're there, but traveling via airplane from a farther place could be a totally different story. Also, pricing depends on one's traveling desires and needs. If you'd prefer a quiet beach bungalow and a private boat tour of the islands, you will be spending much more money than I did.

However, relatively speaking to other vacation destinations, Bocas is not an expensive destination.

Would you go back and do it again?

I would definitely go back! However, now that I'm a bit older and I have different traveling goals, I think I would pay the extra fee to stay at a more private place.

At the time of this trip, I wanted to party and save money and I wasn't too concerned where I crashed. I cared more about the experiences I would have outside of where I slept at night.

Now, I'd prefer a more remote place to stay...preferably without 11 strangers in the room with me. As I've traveled more and more throughout the years, I've learned that where you stay when you travel is more than just a place to crash after a day of exploring– it's part of the whole experience! This trip was absolutely worth the time, effort, and money, but it is important to note that I only traveled to Bocas from Costa Rica.

It wasn't expensive at all to get there and the travel time wasn't too bad. For someone popping over from Costa Rica, I would say Bocas del Toro is absolutely a place you cannot miss. But I cannot speak for someone who has traveled to Bocas del Toro from a much farther distance. I imagine getting to Bocas from a place such as the US is much more difficult and requires much more effort and money, but this was not my experience, so I cannot speak to it.

Advice for people planning to do something similar?

I have traveled to cities before that I did not feel safe in, and I can honestly say that Bocas is not one of those cities. Of course, it is important to keep your wits about you-- but this rule applies to anywhere.

Just in case, I used a purse that had a latch on the zipper to prevent pick-pocketing. Also, many areas in Bocas do not have potable water, so be sure to carry bottled water wherever you go. Don't be afraid to politely ask the wait staff in restaurants if the water and/or ice cubes came from the tap or not.

Make sure you bring a copy of your return flight with you when crossing the border. The flight doesn't need to be from Panama (mine was from San Jose, Costa Rica). You just need to show proof that you're planning on going back to your native country eventually. One of my friends didn't know this when she traveled into Panama, and she didn't have a return flight purchased yet. She wasn't allowed entry into Panama until she bought a flight on the spot.

Another thing to keep in mind while planning a trip to Panama, is that Panama only has two seasons: rainy and dry. We went during the rainy season, which played a big part in determining the activities we were able to do for nearly half of the trip. The rainy season in Panama is typically May- November, and we were there in May.

Last but not least... hold on tight to your luggage when stepping into the water taxis!!

Where can we go to connect with you?


Have a travel story you want to share?

Anybody else have the Van Halen song Panama stuck in their head now? Just me? Ok. Amazing story with some great tips! Thanks Marisa! Hope to make it down there someday myself!

Hey readers, thanks for reading about this great trip. We interview travelers from all over the world creating a community to collect travel tips and inspiration.

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Catch you next time. Happy travels!

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