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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Border Run Option: Bocas Del Toro

Back in November I wrote about Lisa and my first border run to San Juan del Sur. That destination has become increasingly popular for tourist from Costa Rica, with good reason. If you want to read about that trip and crossing the border from Costa Rica to Nicaragua, click Here, Here, and Here.

Now, however, I'd like to write a little bit about what is probably the most popular "Border Run Destination": Bocas del Toro, Panama. Lisa and I just returned from a three night trip to this archipelago just over the Caribbean border between Costa Rica and Panama, and it is absolutely a trip worth taking, border run or just for fun.

So lets start with getting there. There are two options: 1. Take the San Jose -> Sixaola bus from the Caribbean Bus Station in San Jose, get off the bus at the border, walk across the bridge into Panama, take a land taxi to Changuinola (or Almirante if you prefer a longer land taxi and shorter boat taxi), then finally, take a water taxi from Changuinola to Bocas. Or, 2. there exist buses that will take you directly from San Jose to Changuinola (where you take the water taxi) and the bus company is called Buses Bocatorenos. Lisa and I took option number one, and while the trip is broken up into 3 or 4 parts, it really wasn't very difficult, the border is SO much easier to get through than the CR/Nicaragua border, and the boat ride to the islands was quite nice. As for option 2, it's really no easier or harder, more or less expensive than the first option, and I don't have any info on where the buses leave from in San Jose or when they leave.

Once you're on the main island (Isla Colon), you'll probably start looking for places to say. One really nice thing about bocas is that there is a very wide range of lodging options, from budget hostels to remote luxury eco-resorts. Lisa and I opted for Hotel Olas in the main town (but somewhat removed from the nightlife) and were EXTREMELY happy with it. For $42 dollars per night we got a nice, private, clean double with hot water, air conditioner, cable tv, internet, and free breakfast (a very good breakfast too - I recommend the french toast or the pancakes). From what I could tell, this was the best value we found. There are certainly more expensive options, but for example one place, Bocas del Toro hotel, was $110 per night and DIDN'T include breakfast (which isn't cheap). Again though, if you're looking for more budget options, there are a few decent looking hostels in the $10-12 per night range. One complaint about Hotel Olas: despite being a full service, mid-range hotel, they don't except credit card, so bring cash. Oh, and NOONE will exchange colones to dollars, so bring dollars or look forward to paying ATM fees.

And that's right, Panama's official currency is the U.S. dollar, which is nice.

Now, what to do? Unfortunately there really isn't a beach that can be walked to, but as I mentioned earlier, you get to just about everywhere by boat. Our first full day, Lisa and I did an all day SCUBA/Snorkel trip through the outfit Bocas Water Sports. For divers, there are pretty much 2 options, Bocas Water Sports and Starfleet Scuba. I was very happy with Bocas Water Sports, but from what I could tell, there's little difference between the two companies (similar prices, tours, boats, equipment, etc.). The tour itself was really nice, especially the 1 and a half hours that we spent on Red Frog Beach. This beach is gorgeous. One of the most picturesque beaches I've ever seen in my life (see picture). The sand is white and incredibly soft, and the water is a crystal clear green and great for swimming. As for the diving, what you'll be seeing above all is extensive colorful coral. Unlike diving in the Pacific, you won't see many large schools of fish or other large marine life, but the coral and the small tropical fish are wonderful to see. Oh and you don't have to scuba dive to see it all, the snorkeling can be great as well. Overall, the tour was well worth the money ($60 to scuba dive and $17 to snorkel), but BEWARE, the lunch is not included and the remote island restaurant they take you to is VERY expensive (cheapest meal other than the $3 vegetarian option - which wasn't all that great - is $9, and most options are $11-13). Bring your lunch, or wait until Red Frog Beach where you can get chicken meals for $7.50 - still expensive, but better.

Our second, and last, full day we decided to spend the morning walking around town, and in the afternoon we took a boat taxi to Wizard beach (about $8 dollars per person round trip) which was another nice beach, but not as stunning as Red Frog Beach.

Anyway, that's about what we did, please look at my pictures from the trip (Click Here), and of course, if you have specific questions, please feel free to email me.

Finally, here is some advice (and if you've taken this trip and have your own advice, please leave some comments):
1. Bring cash (in dollars) and don't expect to exchange colones to dollars
2. Bring bugspray
3. Make sure to bring proof that you are leaving Costa Rica sometime in the future (like a copy of your flight itinerary) otherwise in order to get back into Costa Rica you have to go to the nearby pharmacy and buy a $6 bus ticket back to Panama (and just never use it).
4. If you take a tour that stops for lunch, bring your own lunch or be prepared to pay way more than you should to eat.