Considered the Galapagos of the Caribbean, Bocas del Toro, is one of the most biologically diverse places in the world; making it one of the most popular ecotourism destinations in Central America. A place where many visit, fall in love, and decide to call the archipelago home. There is something about Bocas that draws people here; whether it’s the natural beauty and captivating landscapes, or the local community, there are many reasons why Bocas del Toro is a great place to live. The population of Bocas del Toro is about 13,000 with Isla Colon being the most populated island in the archipelago. The official language in Panama is Spanish, but English is widely spoken here.
The province Bocas del Toro extends from the mainland Talamanca mountain range, home to some of the most extensive cloud forests in Central America, to the Caribbean islands of Bocas del Toro. This tropical destination consists of nine main islands, thousands of islets, and is home to Panama’s first national marine park. The ecosystem in Bocas del Toro is so unique that organizations such as The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and Mission Blue Hope Spot have turned Bocas del Toro into their natural laboratories. The coral reefs in Bocas del Toro alone contain 95% of all the species found in the Caribbean. All of this unique and natural beauty is only a 45-minute plane ride from Panama City, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in Latin America.
How to Get to Bocas del Toro
From Panama City, you can take a 45-minute flight from Marcos A. Gelbert Airport, more commonly known as Albrook Airport, to Bocas Town on Isla Colon. There are several flights a day making the trip to Bocas a breeze.
You can also take a bus or car ride from Panama City to Almirante in mainland Bocas del Toro which will take about 9 hours. Then hop on a 30 minute water taxi, or 90 minute ferry ride, to Isla Colon.
If you’ve been traveling around Panama and are in Chiriqui (Boquete/David area), you can take a 4-hour bus/car ride from David to Chiriqui Grande or Almirante, and then the boat ride to Bocas Town.
Bocas del Toro Islands: Which one suits you?
Finding the right place to call home can be tricky, and the best way to know which island best suits your lifestyle is to visit the archipelago. However, with a bit of information, you can have a pretty good idea of what areas you’re more drawn to.
The archipelago consists of 9 main islands, with many small islands scattered throughout. Isla Colon is the main island hub and on this island you will find almost everything you need: the airport, hospital, bank, grocery stores, hardware stores, hotels, restaurants, and many other businesses. Bocas Town, as the locals call it, is on Isla Colon and is the center of everything. Sitting around the local park, or having a cold drink in a local restaurant, you can chat with locals and expats about life in Bocas. Isla Colon has a lively community of expat organizations you can join and volunteer with. There are many events throughout the year, so you won’t ever get bored.
Properties in Bocas Town vary from newly built ocean view condos to traditional Caribbean style homes. Along the sea, most structures are almost entirely built on stilts over the water, such as 1st Street, North Avenue, South Avenue, and Saigon Bay. There is still a lot of work to be done in Bocas Town when it comes to city infrastructure, however, that might change in the near future as the Panamanian government just approved a $100 million investment project for the area.
If Bocas Town isn’t what you are looking for, but you still want to be close to amenities, then you’ll want to head out of town a little and check out other parts of Isla Colon. Big Creek is a short ten-minute car ride from Bocas Town and is very desirable amongst expats. This neighborhood is very tranquilo with a collection of beautifully built homes situated just steps from beaches. Here you can find people walking their dogs along the beach road early in the morning or paddle boarding out on the calm waters. A little further out of town, where the road turns unpaved, you’ll reach Paunch Beach and Bluff Beach (both on east side of the island). This area is known for beachfront homes with a pristine jungle backdrop full of toucans, oropendolas, and howler monkeys. Only 20-30 minutes from town, along Bluff Road, you can enjoy great surf combined with amazing wildlife. Beachfront restaurants and bars scattered along the road offer live music, BBQs, and good times.
If you want to live in a place without roads, but still be close to Bocas Town, then check out Isla Carenero. Isla Carenero is the smallest of the main islands, has a lovely expat community and is only a 2-minute boat ride from Bocas Town. With its beautiful beaches, colorful reefs, and some of the best surfing in Bocas; it’s no wonder this is one of the most popular islands to visit and live on. On Carenero you can find beachfront property for sale, as well as some beachfront hotels and bed and breakfasts for those interested in a tourism investment. The restaurants on Isla Carenero are some of the best and frequently host live music events. As previously mentioned, Carenero is an excellent choice for surfers, and you can walk along the Carenero island trail to reach some of the best surfing spots in Bocas del Toro. You can find places such as Black Rock, a perfect place for beginner surfers, and La Punta, home to some of the best waves in Bocas del Toro and long barrels for those who dare to paddle hard enough on those epic days. Carenero is also a wonderful place to paddle around on the flat days. Grab a kayak or paddle board to enjoy the beautiful scenery and colorful reef below!
One of the largest islands in Bocas del Toro is Isla Bastimentos, home to the Caribbean town of Old Bank and Panama’s first national marine park. Old Bank is a little more developed than Isla Carenero with its paved sidewalks, but just as on Carenero, there are no roads. This small town will show you an authentic Caribbean community with locals speaking Guari-Guari, a dialect similar to Patois spoken in Jamaica. The community here is vibrant and strong, someone is always around to offer a helping hand. In addition to Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos has many island homes scattered along the island’s coastline. More so on the leeward side of the island, as the windward side gets surf and swell making it hard to access by sea. However, that side of the island is home to some of the most picturesque beaches including Wizard Beach. This beach is an adventurous, 30-minute hike through the jungle from Old Bank. Have you heard of Red Frog Beach on Isla Bastimentos? It is an award-winning Caribbean residence community that has beautiful villas, condos, and lots for sale. This community has its own grocery store, one of the best marinas in Panama (safe from hurricanes), as well as beautiful beachfront restaurants and private clubs. Other places to explore further down Isla Bastimentos are the communities of Bahia Honda, Salt Creek and Punta Vieja. Bahia Honda is still fairly close to Isla Colon, but offers a raw jungle backdrop and calm protected bay. The Salt Creek community near the southern tip of Isla Bastimentos has beautiful white sand beaches with lovely homes lining the shoreline. It’s a bit further out, but you can enjoy the views of the world famous Cayos Zapatillas from your front porch. At the edge of Isla Bastimentos is Punta Vieja with tons of potential with its turquoise seas and incredible views. Isla Bastimentos truly has something for everyone.
The other outer islands worth mentioning are Isla Solarte, Isla Cristobal, Isla Popa and Loma Partida. These islands range from 10 to 45 minutes from Isla Colon and are very popular amongst expats. Isla Solarte offers beautiful jungle homes with stunning views of Bocas Town, Bahia Honda, or Isla Cristobal. Parts of Solarte offer hiking trails that connect several properties; this area is also home to some great snorkeling and diving. There are communities on this island that offer benefits such as community docks and neighbors, if you want the company. Isla Solarte is a great option if you want to be off-the-grid, in a small community, but not so far from the center of it all.
Isla Cristobal is a little further from Isla Colon, but still not too far. With a 25-minute boat ride you can find some properties with lovely views, great breezes, excellent snorkeling, and great fertile land. Neighbors are scattered around this island. as well as the local indigenous community of San Cristobal.
Isla Popa and Loma Partida are about 45 minutes from Isla Colon, but offer some great investment opportunities. With a new boat service running from Chiriqui Grande, tourists and residents can reach the Loma Partida boat dock with ease; making the potential for tourism growth in this area even more possible. This part of the archipelago is a beautiful destination with small, private, white sand beaches, and over-the-sea homes and lodges; this place is paradise. If you’re looking for affordable income generating properties, this might be the area to explore. Panama’s new travel brand focuses on ecotourism and regenerative tourism. The biodiversity is outstanding here, and the local indigenous communities make products your guests will love. The potential in this area for tourism projects is increasing thanks to new transportation routes.
The last area of the archipelago includes the mainland communities of Tierra Oscura, Almirante and Changuinola. Tierra Oscura, also known as the Darklands, is a great place if you want to be remote, but still part of an expat community. Although Tierra Oscura is part of the mainland, it is accessible only by boat which gives you that island lifestyle. You will find many expats here and a few restaurants perched over the water. Land here, just like the name suggests, is fertile and perfect for agricultural ventures such as cacao farms and reforestation projects.
Bocas del Toro Real Estate: Types of Properties for Sale
The two most common types of properties sold here in Bocas del Toro are Titled and Rights of Possession (ROP). The more familiar type of property is titled property. Just like in the United States, this type of property is registered in the Panamanian Central Registry and property taxes are payable. Titled properties are the most preferred type since they are easily verifiable in the Public Registry system. These properties also provide more security from an investment standpoint since private property is guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Panama.
The other type of property you will find in Bocas del Toro is Rights of Possession (ROP). These properties are available under long-term rights granted by the government of Panama for the use of the land and no property taxes are due. If the owner can prove that he/she has maintained or improved the property for 7 years or more, then ROP is granted to the owner. Titling an ROP property may be possible and we can refer you to one of our legal aides to assist you with this process.
Another property right that may be of importance to you is a concession property.
If you are buying property that exists over the water, then that part of the property is considered a concession property, which refers to the over-the-water structure – something very popular in Bocas del Toro, especially with our very minimal change in tides. You must own the land behind the water to be able to build over the sea. Prior to building over the water, one must apply for a concession from the Panamanian government. The concession is a land-lease agreement that is normally granted for a 20 year period and can be renewed for longer. If you’re planning to build a house over-the-water, you will have to go through this process.
Cost of Living in Bocas del Toro
Living in Bocas del Toro can appeal to individuals and families with all sorts of budgets. You can live a luxury lifestyle, or a simple self-sustaining style of life. Enjoy the flavors of local restaurants each night of the week, or cook dinner using ingredients harvested from your own finca – the choice is yours. Overall, the cost of living in Bocas is higher compared to other parts of Panama, but significantly lower than where you might be emigrating from. City electric is also a bit more expensive in Bocas del Toro compared to other parts of Panama since the power is generated by a diesel generator on Isla Colon; however the new $100 million dollar investment plan in Bocas del Toro includes bringing electric from mainland, making it cheaper to local residents.
If you’re purchasing land with the idea of building your dream home, the cost of building in Bocas depends on the location, construction materials you choose, as well as whether or not you need to set up a solar system for electricity. Building a home in Bocas del Toro can be a bit more expensive since most material is shipped to the islands, but you can find high-quality materials and local builders. If you are building off-the-grid on an outer island, the costs will likely be more expensive than building on Isla Colon. On the flip side, you may have more acreage to grow your own fruits and vegetables, and harness your own electricity and rain water, which will save you money in the long run.
Food can also be a little more expensive in Bocas del Toro than other places in Panama, especially if you want to have the same items you enjoyed from your home country, but you can find cheaper local produce. Fruit and vegetable stands in Bocas Town bring in produce from the Chiriqui province direct from farmers. In the mornings at the park, you can find locals selling organic produce grown in Bocas; including many varieties of fruits which are not sold in the local grocery stores. Also on the island is a specialty grocery store which sells artisanal items produced by expats on the islands, along with special products imported from other regions of the country. There are also a number of high-quality meat shops to find that special cut of steak you’re craving.
You can enjoy a rather high quality lifestyle for around $2,000 per month living in Bocas del Toro. With this budget, a retired couple can buy quality imported produce, enjoy eating out at the local restaurants a few times a month, and even partake in community events and short trips throughout the beautiful country of Panama.
If you’re looking to rent a place in Bocas del Toro, you can find quality constructed homes in places like Big Creek for around $1,000 to $1,500 per month. Cheaper options are also available closer to town. For example, local over the sea homes in Saigon Bay or Carenero can range from $500 to $1000 per month.
Let’s talk about healthcare. Basic medical treatment at the local hospital is quite affordable. For example, stitches and some pain medication can cost as little as $5. If you have underlying health conditions that require specialized treatment or medications, this will increase your cost of living in Bocas del Toro since finding specialized healthcare physicians is more tricky. Most expats living in Bocas del Toro go to David or Panama City for private medical care. We do have a newly constructed hospital, but it’s limited with very few specialists. There are also some smaller private clinics in town that offer basic assistance, and are expanding their specialty services offered.
Strong Expat Community
The expat community of Bocas del Toro is ever-changing and growing. Most of the expats who first arrived came a little after the earthquake of 1992. Around the mid-90s and early 2000s, a few arrived and purchased properties and started some expat businesses. Between 2005 and 2010, the archipelago really began to grow. As tourism to Panama increased, Bocas del Toro became one of the most popular hotspots to visit in the country.
Now you can find a large expat community from the U.S., Canada, South Africa, and Europe. In Bocas, you will also meet Latin American expats from Argentina, Venezuela, and Colombia. Bocas is also home to a large Chinese community, as well as other Asian cultures.
In Bocas del Toro you can find retired couples, families with small children, young entrepreneurs, as well as many Panamanians from other places such as Panama City, the old Canal Zone and Chiriqui. The great thing about our expat community is its diversity.
The local communities consist mainly of Afro-Antillean people and the indigenous Ngobe Bugle. One of the most beautiful aspects of the Bocas del Toro expat community is how it is immersed with the locals. Unlike other residential areas of Panama, there are few gated communities in Bocas del Toro; because of this you usually have locals as neighbors. The locals are great at sharing their culture with us expats and are always ready to offer a helping hand.