El Barco Hundido (Calle 1 between Avenida Central and Avenida E, near Cable and Wireless, 8 p.m.–12:30 a.m. Sun.–Thurs., 8 p.m.–3 a.m. Fri.–Sat.) is a lively and funky bar whose name, Spanish for “shipwreck,” comes from the sunken boat just offshore. Some people call it the Wreck Deck. The bar is an open-sided wooden patio with a view of the barco hundido, which is illuminated at night. Semi-competent DJs spin on busy nights, and there’s actually dancing. It’s no longer the epicenter of Bocas life as it was when it had no competition, but it still gets packed and has become popular with locals.
A popular feature of the place is the Barco Loco (“crazy boat”), a party boat onto which the bar scene sometimes spills over for cruises around the islands when the bar’s owner is so moved. It now actually resembles a boat—an earlier incarnation of the thing consisted of a deck bolted onto dugout canoes. It looked like part of the bar, and it was not unusual to stand there drinking and suddenly find yourself motoring away from the shore. I’ve heard tales that this rickety platform was taken absurdly long distances, including as far away as Costa Rica  and Isla Escudo de Veraguas, with the party in full swing. It’s an insanely dangerous thing to do, but quite believable given the reputation of Benson, the character who owns this bar. Everyone who lives in Bocas seems to have a Benson story.
El Barco Hundido recently added a second bar, La Gruta , to its complex. As the name (Spanish for “cave”) suggests, it’s dark and cozy, with a clubbier atmosphere and DJs who tend to spin electronic music. But on my last visit to Bocas it was always virtually empty no matter how crowded the main bar got.
El Toro Loco (Avenida Central just east of the park, open daily) manages to please both the old gringos and the more urbane European expats, who concede it’s a fun place to hang out. Basically a large funky shack with TVs tuned to big games (the Olympic hockey finals seemed to draw every Canadian in western Panama the last time I was there), it’s popular with just about everyone. Part of the reason for that is a friendly bar staff that serves some of the cheapest (in both senses) booze in Bocas. It has a dartboard, free Wi-Fi, and serves bar food.
The bamboo-walled bar at Mondo Taitu (tel. 757-9425, evenings–12:30 A.M. Sun.–Thurs., later on Fri. and Sat.) is still a popular place for a drink, but the party scene appears to have calmed down from its heyday as the place for the young and half-clad to get wasted. It’s still a fun place to have a drink, but be warned that if you’re older than about 25 you’ll feel like a fossil.
La Iguana Bar and Surf Club (Calle 1 next to Tropical Suites, evenings–late daily) has a much lower profile than the “scene” bars, but it’s my favorite. It goes for the usual surfer-shack ambience and has a good mix of people—young and older, local and foreign, travelers and residents—and has a fun, boho vibe without feeling frenetic. Chat and dance by the bar or retreat to one of the quieter tables over the water. Sadly, as of 2010 its future seemed uncertain.
The Buena Vista Bar and Grill (Calle 1 between Avenida C and Avenida D, tel. 757-9035, noon–9:30 p.m. Wed.–Mon.) remains a popular hangout, especially for gringos who like to talk real estate and watch U.S. ball games. Older visitors will feel comfortable here.