What the Lonely Planet won’t say about Bocas del Toro


… I will, without hiding bits and pieces of information that travellers of our age – that is, not in their 20s anymore – may find useful and may indeed change his plans during his vacation and travels.

As I left home in November, I eagerly carried with me two heavy volumes, convinced they would make a difference in my overall journey throughout Central and South America: Lonely Planet’s latest editions of “Central America” and “South America” on a shoestring. Heavy as they are, they are also packed with useful information, and I am somewhat attached to them to the point that during my travels in the past I jokingly called the Lonely Planet “the Bible”. Whatever I can’t find in the guide, for any reason, I look for online or ask the locals.

Yet, none of what I have read throughly prepared me for what I really got to see and experience. I will just use one example to – hopefully – make my point.

On 16th January 2014, I set foot in Bocas del Toro archipelago, whose marvels I had read about in the Lonely Planet which lists it as one of the top 16 destinations in Central America, somewhat of a lost paradise. The reality of things, however, is very different. What the Lonely Planet fails to say is that Bocas del Toro can get extremely crowded with tourists, mostly young travellers in search of good waves, who are in to surf and get cheap booze. And booze is just about the only cheap thing in Bocas del Toro, which is unreasonably priced. Mind you, I am one who eagerly pays for a service. But the problem in Bocas del Toro is that no matter how much you can pay, there hardly is any service.

Another thing the Lonely Planet omits is that half of the islands of Bocas del Toro are owned by Americans – restaurants, hotels, bars, diving companies. The other half is equally shared between Italians (who have loads of restaurants and hotels, although apparently lots of restaurants who have an Italian name or label are actually owned by Spanish, Panamanians and what not) and Chinese (who have their hands on the only reasonably priced and consequently the most crowded hostels and on all of the supermarkets).

Most of all, what the Lonely prefers not saying is that really, the islands are nothing special, the sea is seriously polluted and you won’t be able to get to any beach unless you either take a taxi, a bus, a boat or walk under the sun or in the mud for a good 90 minutes. It also forgets to say that there is a serious problem with the sewage system: sinks and showers empty directly on the ground or in the lagoon. And, worst of all, there is no garbage disposal system in the archipelago. So, as you go for a quiet walk to get to the beach or around town, you come across dumpsters with piles of garbage, nicely left in the sun where they can rot faster and spread all sorts of illnesses and become a health hazard (and – remember what I said before – the islands are crowded, something which makes it easier to spread disease).

It also won’t tell you that drug dealing is pretty much anywhere in the island. The same guy who sits across you at the bar at night, you will meet in the morning and he will offer you a hand to find a hostel room or, should you care, to get whatever drug you may want to try (which, needless to say, is none in my case). Same with sales assistant, who happily offer you “the white one” together with flip flops; or hostel receptionists, who hand you the key and with a wink of their eye will point out that “you let them know whatever you may want” (and start give you a full description of prices and substances).

Finally, throught Central America, I have realised (also by meeting other travellers who had the same problems) that the Lonely Planet on a shoestring books are geared toward a much younger, possibly American audience (what they call gringo, here), who all go on the same loop, making prices rise considerably, and that really, the vast majority of hostels listed are “not for us”, meaning that they are “party hostels” – the kind of places where dorms are cramped, bathrooms filty, guests do little else but drink, play loud louzy music, get noisy and possibly leave the dorm a complete mess, just to reiterate the concept that they are young, cool and careless. It is geared towards an audience of people who eagerly eat junk food (not that there is much of a choice here in Latin America), and towards travellers who mostly want to meet other travellers, but do not really have much of an interest in mingling with the locals or learning about their culture and way of life.

I don’t know about you, but this is not the kind of environment I am looking for in any place I visit, and had the Lonely Planet warned me that garbage would be one of the attractions of Bocas del Toro, I would have never gone. The irony of it is that I got really sick there (btw, the Lonely Planet at least does say that water is not drinkable in Bocas), and ended up spending 10 hellish days there.

The good news is that I am past that now, in a less touristy and way more peaceful location, and forever (but never say never!) out of Bocas del Toro!


 

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16 Comments

  • joe
    30 April 2016 at 3:50

    Live there and experience the people, and the culture and you MAY understand this is not the tourist town you expected. This is an ever changing culture. My experience of many trips has been incredible and the diverse culture that is Bocas, has always has been a pleasure. I think you may want to stay in the US or stick to the tourist destinations if you want perfection. If you have concerns about the trash, stay and help change the island..Don’t bitch.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      30 April 2016 at 10:26

      I would agree with almost all you say. But if you cared to read the rest of my blog, you’d learn that I am not from the US 🙂

  • Madi
    7 January 2017 at 3:28

    I can’t believe that Bocas del Toro has the reputation it does- the town is filthy, the locals only intend to rip you off, the food is disgusting and expensive, and there isn’t much to do. 100% agree.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      7 January 2017 at 8:57

      I think it has quickly turned into one of those backpackers destinations, that for some reason backpackers can’t really afford. There is nothing mid range: it’s either filthy hostels of the worst kind, or luxury resorts.

  • T
    7 January 2017 at 3:34

    We spent a hellish two months in Bocas. If anything, Claudia has understated how bad it really is. Dirtier than any other Central American town I’ve been too, constantly being ripped off by anyone who had the chance, and worst of all… there’s nothing to do. Beaches are far and not that great, trips are over priced and tedious, and the infrastructure is non-existent. The people are NOT friendly and have no concern about anything except how they can scam you. We stayed on Bastimentos at several different locations, and even the most ‘developed’ resort in the entire region had absolutely nothing to do except sit at one overpriced bar with cafeteria quality food.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      7 January 2017 at 9:10

      Of the 10 days I stayed, I spent 5 or so in Bastimentos, at a hostel that didn’t even have hot water (which would not be an issue in Central America, were it not for the fact that I was mostly sick). I was bored as hell as there was nowhere to go: it would take me 2 hours of a muddy hike to reach the closest beach, or I’d have to go by boat. In Bocas del Toro, I had hot water in my hostel, and the staff was kind enough to offer any sort of drugs I may possibly want (pity I wanted none). The streets were piled with garbage. There was nowhere to walk to. I would never go back.

  • Eleonora
    27 January 2017 at 17:14

    I guess you are Italian from the way you love complaining. I am going to Panama next week, and after reading this article (not that much useful by the way, you are basically saying NOTHING), I think I will close this window and never come back again here.
    Good luck with your blog!

    • Madison
      27 January 2017 at 17:25

      Personally Claudia, I wish I had seen your post before traveling to Bocas! You would have saved me from the worst trip of my life. And I think you say plenty; you say exactly how I feel about the archipelago of nightmares (what I call Bocas del Toro in my head).

      • Claudia Tavani
        Claudia Tavani
        27 January 2017 at 19:43

        Oh! I wish you had come across this before… anyways, it is over now 🙂 there are way better places in Panama!!

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      27 January 2017 at 19:43

      Hi Eleonora, I guess you are Italian by the way you don’t like to waste any time to do some basic research 🙂 anyways, I am sorry you did not find my post useful – it was never intended to be. If you are looking for more information about Panama, perhaps these two posts will come in more handy: https://www.myadventuresacrosstheworld.com/panama-dos-and-donts/ and https://www.myadventuresacrosstheworld.com/things-to-do-in-panama-tourism/

  • RobertOttawa
    25 June 2017 at 16:09

    This article is 100% true! I’ve visited Bocas del Toro twice and came back frustrated. This part of the world has no concern for their tourists, perhaps, for themselves too. I found the tourism service bad and expensive, and the environment polluted. This place certainly missed their opportunity, because it did have potential.

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      26 June 2017 at 9:48

      Hi Robert, when did you go? I visited in January 2014, and wrote the post soon after that. I was hoping Bocas del Toro would have improved by now, but it looks like it hasn’t!!

      • RobertOttawa
        26 June 2017 at 12:58

        2009 and 2013. I’m sure it has improved some, however, not enough for a good tropical tourist destination.

        • Claudia Tavani
          Claudia Tavani
          26 June 2017 at 12:59

          Oh, definitely not then. It was horrible in 2014…

  • Kyle
    25 August 2017 at 21:28

    I am sorry that you had a bad experience, but I believe you are portraying a beautiful and amazing place in the wrong light. Bocas does have its problems as you described above, but in my opinion they are definitely outweighed by the positives. Keeping in mind, Bocas Del Toro is not a place for everyone, but if you like being outdoors at the beach, hiking, surfing, sailing, or anything along those lines the entire region is a playground! I stayed for about a month on Isla Colon in an Air BnB very inexpensively and had the time of my life! I would either ride a bicycle I rented or take a water taxi (usually around $3) to escape town and experience all that Bocas had to offer. In short it sounds like you are not the type of person that would enjoy Bocas, but for everyone like me that can look past and enjoy themselves without spotless streets, or needing to pay someone to “provide a service”, you will have the best trip ever!

    • Claudia Tavani
      Claudia Tavani
      26 August 2017 at 14:20

      Hi Kyle, my post definitely reflects my experience. Different people may have a different experience. But it is true that there is a lot of garbage around in Bocas, and that does ruin the place and I surely wish that the authorities did something to clean what would otherwise be an incredible place. I will follow your advice to stay in Isla Colon if I go again (which I hope to do!). Thank you for your comment 🙂

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