It’s hard to leave Bocas del Toro. It’s a terribly relaxing place, and at the same time it exudes a funky, romantic charm that has something untamed about it. The place is filled with colorful characters nursing drinks in dilapidated wooden bars or running rustic hotels on remote beaches. It’s the kind of Caribbean hideaway one expects to find only in old Bogart films.
And it’s just gorgeous. It has emerald islands, pristine beaches, turquoise waters, dense forests, barely explored mountains and rivers, sprawling coral gardens, spooky mangrove channels, and exotic wildlife. Four species of endangered sea turtles still visit the waters of Bocas, coming ashore by the hundreds during nesting season to lay their eggs.
Little Swan’s Cay , really just a rock in the ocean, is the only Panamanian nesting site of the beautiful red-billed tropicbird. That’s just one of more than 350 species of birds attracted to the region. Sloths, caimans, dolphins, neon-colored frogs , and, of course, lots of small tropical fish are easy to spot in the archipelago. No wonder more than a dozen countries have shot their versions of the Survivor TV series here.
The people help make Bocas special. More ethnicities and nationalities are represented on the islands than anywhere in the country outside of Panama City . And you are more likely to hear English spoken here than anywhere in the country, period.
The islands have long been home to the Ngöbe-Buglé, as well as the descendants of Afro-Caribbean immigrants from the English-speaking islands of Jamaica, San Andrés, and Providencia, many of whom came down to work on the region’s enormous banana plantations. Most of the hotels and restaurants on the islands are owned by Europeans and North Americans. And the mostly young and boho tourists Bocas attracts are coming from all over the world.
For most visitors, Bocas del Toro means the archipelago that stretches about 100 kilometers from Boca del Drago  in the west to Isla Escudo de Veraguas in the east. For them the mainland is just a place to fly over or drive through on the way to the islands. But the rest of the province of Bocas del Toro has plenty of spectacular natural beauty, including the Caribbean side of the enormous Parque Internacional La Amistad  and the wetlands of San San Pondsack .
Lucky hikers, at least those who venture far up into the mainland forests, may encounter endangered mammals such as Baird’s tapirs. All five species of cats found on the isthmus, including jaguars, are hanging on in the most remote reaches of the forest, but the chance of coming across one is slim. The forests are also still home to indigenous peoples trying to hold on to their culture and ancestral lands. This includes the little-known Naso, who welcome visitors to their communities up the Río Teribe .
More than just about anyplace else in Panama , the Bocas archipelago has taken off as a tourist destination. Backpackers spill over from Costa Rica , and more affluent expatriates from the United States and Canada have bought up beachfront property to build their fantasy tropical getaways. Everyone is in the real-estate business these days, and condos and big resorts are in the works. But the funk factor is still strong and the islands are not yet a tourist trap.
Long-term expats are already grumbling that Bocas isn’t what it used to be, but so far the new arrivals have mainly just brought more international flavor and a broader range of lodging, dining, entertainment, and activity possibilities. For now, backpackers and surfers can still find a decent bed for less than US$10 and a full meal for US$3, and those with more money to spend can stay in relatively luxurious surroundings and dine on surprisingly good international cuisine.
Bocas’s biggest shortcoming is the rain. It’s one of the wettest regions in Panama. The rain never completely stops even in the “dry” season, but even in the rainy season storms usually blow through quickly. Rainfall tends to be heaviest in December and July.
The islands are evolving rapidly from a great backpackers’ secret into a more upscale destination. Two bits of advice for those contemplating a visit: 1) Hurry and visit while they still have that quirky, rustic Bocas charm and beauty, and 2) do your part  to make sure that charm and beauty survives.