The Traveling Islanders Guide to Isla Bastimentos

Isla Bastimentos is a tropical jewel surrounded by Caribbean waters, this island is for removing your shoes, letting go and forgetting about time.

A Latin American paradise for beach-combing adventure, Isla Bastimentos is one of Caribbean’s unknown gems.

A guide to Isla Bastimentos doesn’t need to be complicated. A tropical jewel surrounded by Caribbean waters, this island is for removing your shoes and forgetting about time. Nothing ever happens here. Which is why it is so appealing. The other big appeal is price. A week on Isla Bastimentos will cost similar to two days on the more famous Caribbean islands. And the coconut cocktails taste a lot better too!

Where is Isla Bastimentos?

Panama remains off the tourist trail, a country more famous for canal and corruption than vacation. In the north of Panama you’ll find Bocas del Toro, perhaps the most loved of the country’s backpacker beach destinations. Isla Bastimentos is a ten-minute boat ride from Bocas. At just $5 one way the taxi boat is a bargain, but don’t be tempted to only visit for a day: this is an island that’s best when the day-tripping visitors have left. Most people have never heard of this island that basks in the Caribbean Sea. And if fulfils all the Caribbean preconceptions.

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Why Isla Bastimentos?

Think of the Caribbean and much larger islands usually spring to mind. Isla Bastimentos is even smaller and less known than Panama’s other islands, the San Blas. Yet it is an island that’s easy to picture. Think palm trees providing slithers of shade over soft, white-sand beaches. Think sea turtles nesting on the beaches, lush mangrove islands, and superb marine life. Think tropical cocktails at wooden beach bars and an atmosphere that encourages you to do nothing but relax.

Getting Around Isla Bastimentos

Any guide to Isla Bastimentos can’t go further without mentioned the lack of traffic. There are no roads on the island. Which means no noisy cars or scooters that blight so many other Latin American destinations. To get around you’ll need two feet and a basic understanding of Spanish. The island’s northern coastline is easily walkable, although the southern coast is framed by mangroves and coral reef, which can be tough on bare feet. Travel to this side by taxi boat instead, using some simple Spanish to negotiate a better price from the captains. You can also walk across the island: remember to wear good shoes for this.

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Where to Stay

Old Bank is the only village on the island, although hamletwould be a more appropriate description. Hotels are neatly spaced around the island, ranging from cheap hostels on the beach to affordable beach villas in the south. Most of the accommodation is around the northern tip and Old Bank, close to the ferry terminal. However, take a walk away from the boat taxi dock as the real charm is found elsewhere. Red Frog Beach has a handful of great value hostels while Punta Vieja has a lovely ecolodge.

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What to do on Isla Bastimentos

Nothing. Of course, you have to slap on the sun screen and perhaps take a walk. But the attraction of Isla Bastimentos is to do absolutely nothing. And why should you do anything on such a quiet Caribbean gem?

If you came to party then you’re in the wrong place. Isla Bastimentos is the polar opposite of Bocas town and a great change of pace if you’ve been traveling along the Central American beer-pong trail. You’ll probably be in bed by 9pm, which is really nice when you stop being embarrassed about it. It means you can wake early and enjoy the beaches for longer, as well as take a siesta through the hottest part of the day.

Unlike Bocas del Toro, the island has retained more of its local culture. You get real Caribbean vibes from the locals, who are friendly and welcoming as long as you take some time to say hello. This is a good place to appreciate real Caribbean culture, rather than the Gringo-style culture that pervades through many islands nearby.

Diving and Snorkeling

Most of the island is situated within Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos, a protected reserve that creates intimate marine experiences. Sea turtles nest here, including leatherbacks, hawksbills and the abundant green turtles. They nest from March until September but can be found in the surrounding waters most months of the year. You might also glimpse a reef shark or a ray, and you’ll definitely get close to the tropical colors of strange small fish. The best sites are in the south of the island. If you’re staying in the north then it’s possible to take a boat tour or rent a boat taxi for the morning. There’s now a PADI dive center on the island as well, which is a much cheaper alternative to Bocas del Torro or Costa Rica to the north.

Final Isla Bastimentos Information

Getting to Wizard Beach is a challenging walk, where you prick your legs against spiky plants and wonder why you’re going to such effort. The reward is blissful, a long slither of sand with hardly any other footprints. If you remember nothing else from this guide to Isla Bastimentos then remember the name and make the mission.

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Stephen Bailey – Traveling Islanders Contributor