This is a guest post from Sarah Fazendin of Rothschild Safaris, an award-winning, luxury travel company based in Denver, Colorado, with offices in Australia and South Africa. The company provides memorable guest experiences across the globe with an emphasis on wildlife, culture and conservation. Thanks, as always, for your great tips, Sarah!
Located along Panama’s northern Caribbean coast, Bocas del Toro (literally, “mouth of the bull”) is an archipelago made up of nine inhabited islands and more than 300 small islets. From the sleepy island of Isla Colon, home to Bocas Town and the region’s main gateway, to the small, deserted islands farther afield, Bocas del Toro is a beach destination with something to please every member of the family.
You’ll most likely arrive at Isla Colon first. While the city’s outwardly ramshackle appearance might be a bit jarring initially, don’t miss the opportunity to stroll the streets of Bocas Town — a unique opportunity for kids to view a traditional Panamanian way of life, far removed from the tourist scene and luxe accommodations found on the outer islands.
After waiting until the heat of the day had passed, my young family ventured on what turned out to be a two-hour walk around the city. As we wandered away from the main street of town, we saw locals setting their plastic chairs out on the street to watch the kids play, chat with neighbors and enjoy the cooler early evening air.
One of the most memorable cultural experiences for my kids during our extended travels in Central America came as we peered into the cinder-block homes, smiled at children playing, ran around on the local playground, and even caught a soccer game in Bocas Town that evening. Nothing was forced or planned, and my children came away with their own observations about the way families on Isla Colon live, and how their conditions and way of life differ from ours in the United States.
Because Bocas del Toro is an archipelago, it’s no surprise that water taxis are readily available. While they’re a practical form of transportation, given the geography, kids also love these quick adventures for their own sake!
For your first day or two, consider exploring the islands and getting your bearings via a series of water taxi rides. If you’re not staying at Red Frog Beach Resort & Spa on Bastimentos Island, be sure to grab a water taxi and spend the day here. We loved checking out the massive yachts parked at the island’s main dock, and the iconic Red Frog Beach is a lovely place to relax. Grab a fish taco and a cool drink at the Palmar Tent Lodge and lounge right on the beach, or on one of many hammocks spread in front of the restaurant.
Also consider taking a water taxi to Coral Key on Isla Zapatillas. Here, you can spend the day snorkeling in the clear Caribbean water, complete with clean, white sand, calm water and generally very few people. There are a few good dining options here; just look for the colorful buildings perched over the water on stilts.
Read why we love this laid-back Bocas del Toro retreat with kids >
While fun in the sun is always a great way to spend time together, Bocas del Toro is also home to one of the country’s premier Spanish-language immersion programs. The owners of Habla Ya Panama are more than willing to custom-craft language lessons suitable for the entire family. Located across the street from a nice park in Bocas Town, the programs range from 2 hours to nearly one year. If your children are learning Spanish in school, or if you’re keen to improve your own Spanish language skills, an immersion program is a great way to do so while experiencing a more local, authentic side of Panama at the same time.
A typical half-day course, ideal for families, may include an hour or so in the school followed by a walk around town (speaking in Spanish, of course), and end with a group lunch at one of the many local restaurants near the school. With more time, a teacher can escort everyone via water taxi to a beach or other place of interest, all the while practicing your Spanish and having fun learning.
Our zipline ride through the treetops on Bastimentos Island remains one of my family’s most memorable adventures in Central America. While there are a few outfitters in the Bocas del Toro region, we opted to do our zipline at Red Frog Beach Resort. From the time we suited up in our harnesses and helmets to the moment we returned to the well-organized activities base — hearts racing after an amazing experience — I felt completely safe and well cared for.
During the first few lines, my heart was racing, but by the end I felt like an old pro. Even my petite 5-year-old was able to participate. While he wasn’t heavy enough to make his way across the long lines solo, our guide simply strapped himself to my son and away they went!
Midway through the Red Frog Beach zipline course, there’s an option to explore a small ropes course, including walking a tightrope-style line and rappelling down the side of a tree. About half of our group did these optional activities; the rest of the group laughed along with them as they navigated the challenges.
While Bocas del Toro delivered one of the best classic Caribbean beach vacations my family has ever had, these off-the-beaten-path activities are what really made us fall in love with the area. And however you choose to spend your days, expect the pace to be slow. Don’t miss the opportunity to embrace this beautifully unique Caribbean vibe at its fullest.
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Editor’s Note: Photos by Sarah Fazendin.
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