The bright, vibrant, primitive, and pristine chain of islands of Bocas del Toro is located 25 miles from my current home of Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.
After a quick shuttle ride and 3- step process through customs (including a unique border crossing over a rickety bridge), we jump on another shuttle to arrive in the town of Almirante, Panama.
Along with 10 other eager and excited travelers, I board the water taxi from Almirante to Bocas del Toro, put on the neon orange life-jacket I am handed, and let my body bounce up and down to the rhythm of the ocean and 90’s hip-hop music beats that the driver chose for the day.
For our first three nights, we are staying at Casa Acuario on Isla Carenero in a bungalow built on sticks right in the ocean.
As I step onto our private dock, I exhale a beautiful sigh of gratitude as I look around and take in my surroundings.
Under my feet and 360 degrees around, I am engulfed by the sweet lullaby of the ocean flow.
With it’s white picket fences, seaside cafes, ocean breeze, and overwhelming natural beauty, the islands of Bocas del Toro reminds me of a Caribbean Cape Cod.
I am eager to discover what the culinary scene here has to offer.
WHERE TO EAT
After five days to stay, play, and eat my way through Bocas del Toro, these are my recommendations on where to find the best food on these magical islands.
Maracuya is located on Main St. in Bocas Town of Isla Colon. As we walk in, I take a moment to soak in the sweet simplicity, atmosphere, and design of this candlelit, bohemian restaurant.
We are greeted by the owner, Sunanda, and based off the warmth of her welcome and grace in her stride, I can tell this is going to be a wonderful dining experience.
Our table is perched on a dock in the ocean looking out into the abyss of moon, stars, and vast ocean water.
There are lovers to our left, cuddled in each other’s arms and clinking their wine glasses with the glow of love in their eyes.
There is an ambiance of romance here as our tabletop candle flickers and we read the delicious menu options lit by the bright moonlight.
I am intrigued by many of the menu offerings: pad thai, coconut curry with seafood, mediterranean fish plate, steak béarnaise, and prawns cooked in white wine, garlic, and parsley reduction.
The meal begins with a sweet and fermented drink, Maracuya Maravilla, the famous house blend of rum, passion fruit, and cane sugar that’s been fermented for over a week. Very sweet and packs a punch!
Next up is La Picada (mixed appetizer): thai fish cakes, an onion/tomato/olive oil/almond tapenade, sliced fresh tomatoes with feta cheese, pita slices, and crispy shrimp served with garlic, honey, cream, and roasted cumin sauce.
The tapenade was absolutely delicious and by far my favorite part of the appetizer sampler.
As we dove into the main entrees, we were presented with shrimp pad thai.
There was more than enough for 2 people to share and I loved the thick rice noodles coated in a mild peanut sauce.
The meal could have ended here and I would have departed a satiated, satisfied, and impressed customer.
But there was more…
As a huge garlic lover, the drunken fish mahi-mahi blew me away.
Every inch of this fresh fish was coated in garlic and parsley, and it was served along with mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli.
I left the restaurant that evening, already wanting another dining experience at Maracuya. Thankfully, they serve breakfast too!
The food was fresh and flavorful, the owner was present, welcoming, and gracious, the service was fast, and the atmosphere was warm and romantic.
A big win for our first dining experience during our 5-day trip through Bocas del Toro.
Atmosphere: Candlelit, romantic (for dinner). I’m sure there is a very different vibe during breakfast but I can only speak to the meal I enjoyed there.
Price: $11 – $13 entrees
Cuisine: American, Seafood
Healthy meal recommendation: Start the meal with a glass of white wine to help cool you on a warm night. For an appetizer, sample the mixed appetizer platter to try a variety of dishes. Leave off the pita, and it’s gluten-free, leave off the shrimp, and it’s vegetarian.
For the main course, I recommend ordering their fresh fish of the day. Uplevel your meal by getting a double order of veggies and leaving off the mashed potatoes. Still have a craving for dessert? Ask for some fresh sliced tropical fruit.
We had 3 nights on Isla Carenero in Bocas Del Toro, and 2 out of the 3 we spent at this surf side restaurant – it was just that good.
Bibi’s is located on Carenero Island and is known for their fresh seafood; simply put, I cannot recommend going here enough.
The first night we went for happy hour which runs from 4pm – 7pm and we had lime & vodka cocktails for $2.00 each – win!
I absolutely love ceviche and eat it regularly since I have been living in Costa Rica, but this ceviche was out of this world.
The homemade plantain chips were fresh & crispy, and the snapper was meaty & refreshing. It’s a must try and one of their most popular dishes.
While I usually opt to keep mixed drinks to a minimum, there was no way to turn town their house-made margaritas.
Instead of using a packaged margarita mix, they make their own sweet and sour with orange juice and lime. It was blended to perfection and I had to resist having more than just one.
We shared two plates for dinner: grilled snapper in coconut sauce, and sesame prawns with passionfruit. Simple, flavorful, fresh, and nourishing.
My friend, fellow blogger, and dining partner, Camille, summed up our experience perfectly when she said, “if I could eat one meal for the rest of my life, this would be it!”
When I return to Bocas del Toro, Bibi’s on the Beach will again be my go-to spot for killer happy hour specials and the freshest seafood I have ever enjoyed.
Atmosphere: Light, relaxed, surfer spot, beachy
Price: $6 – $14 entrees
Healthy meal recommendation: It’s easy to choose a healthy meal here. Bring a friend along and enjoy the shared ceviche and fresh fish platter – the fish entree is big enough for two. Leave off the french fries and request a double order on your salad.
If you’re in the mood for a drink, choose your favorite clear liquor mixed with soda water and a squeeze of lime.
After living in San Diego for 3 years, I have a deep love for Baja California cuisine.
Owners, Justine & Jeff, knocked it out of the park with this laid-back and unique surfer’s paradise.
Their menu not only has some of the best tacos I’ve ever had, but offers daily specials such as 3 tacos and a beer for $10.
And as if killer lunch specials, badass friendly and kind owners, delicious, mouthwatering tacos, and crisp, cold, local beers wasn’t enough, Taco Surf even offers green smoothies as a sweet & healthy addition to your meal.
Banana, kale, mint, and green apple smoothie. Light, refreshing, and nutrient-dense.
Who is a happy health coach now?!
Atmosphere: Laid-back, fun, friendly, open
Price: $2 – $10 entrees
Cuisine: Baja California
Healthy meal recommendation: Green smoothie & a salad is the way to go.
If you’re still hungry, opt for a single chicken, fish, or veggie taco. Ask for the sauce on the side so you can add just a small amount for flavor.
I’ll have to be honest here, when walking past Raw Fusion there was nothing that really called out to me making me think, “I must go here!”
However, based off the research I had done before coming to Bocas, I knew I wanted to add this restaurant to my “must-try” list.
Thank goodness I did!
Previously known solely as a sushi & martini bar, Raw Fusion can be described as Japanese food with an island twist, and their menu offers far more than just sushi.
The back deck is situated directly over the water, they offer a happy hour from 4pm – 6pm with daily drink and food specials, their ingredients are fresh & local, and the food is perfect for when you are looking for something delicious and light, yet filling.
Between the two of us, we shared the fresh mahi-mahi ceviche made with coconut sauce, pickled onion, black sesame seeds, and micro greens served with homemade tortilla chips, the island salad with orange-ginger vinaigrette, and a spicy tuna roll with cucumber and sweet plantain.
Unlike some of our other dining experiences, we left Raw Fusion feeling energetic, relaxed, light, and ready to take on the night.
This is not a place you will be weighed down with heavy food – always a huge win in my book!
Atmosphere: Modern, contemporary, trendy, ocean-front
Price: $11 – $15 entrees
Healthy meal recommendation: Order the island salad and leave off the bread. The mahi-mahi ceviche and choice of one roll is the perfect amount for 2 people.
Dining solo? Stick with the island salad and sushi roll of your choice. Steer clear of the tempura rolls or rolls with spicy mayo.
The spicy tuna, cucumber + sweet plantain, red snapper, avocado, cucumber + spring onion, and cucumber + avocado rolls are my top picks.
The saying, “save the best for last,” is 100% applicable to our experience at Ultimo Refugio.
Set over the ocean, this popular Bocas restaurant offers a tropical dining experience with international cuisine. The owner, Katherine, originally from Washington, DC, immediately made us feel at home and treated us as if we were long-time good friends.
The wine flowed, the dishes got better plate by plate, and our tastebuds received the royal treatment.
There is no set menu, and the menu changes from night to night depending on what is fresh, local, and available.
We enjoyed our meal here by choosing the tasting menu option and there was no other way to go.
Each time the server showed up at our table with a new dish to try, it felt like Christmas morning. Our taste buds were lavished in ceviche, gnocchi, steak, beet and blue cheese carpaccio, and tuna tartar.
The meal began with mahi-mahi ceviche (of course!) adorned with homemade chips.
Just as I was savoring the last dip of ceviche and graciously accepting my second glass of wine, the beet carpaccio arrived.
Figs, arugula, spinach, red onion, and blue cheese danced across the plate, enticing me to dig in.
As I was still buzzing from the flavor explosion of the beet carpaccio, out came the gnocchi with blue cheese, spinach, pepper, tomato, pumpkin seeds.
Gnocchi can be very hit or miss – cooked just a second too long and it becomes mushy and sticks to the roof of your mouth, cooked a second too short it is just a bit hard in the middle, missing the texture of excellence.
Ultimo Refugio got it right on point. Not too soft, not too hard, just right. And complemented by the cheese and vegetables…can you tell I was in heaven?
But trust me, I meant it when I said the meal just kept getting better…
The finale of our meal was of course, the almighty steak cooked to tender perfection.
The filet mignon was served with a whisky-peppercorn-fig demi-glaze served on top of pumpkin & potato puree, topped with crispy fried onion along with mixed, sautéed vegetables.
Atmosphere: Tropical, artsy, unique, comfortable, ocean-front
Price: $10 – $17 entrees
Healthy meal recommendation: The best way to dine here is with the tasting menu so you can try a bit of everything without getting overly full.
Start with the beet carpaccio and kale & black quinoa salad, perfect mixture of veggies and small sampling of grains.
For your entree, opt for the mahi-mahi, tuna, or filet mignon, and upgrade the meal by doubling the veggies in place of the potatoes or rice.
WHERE (else) TO EAT
WHERE TO STAY
This is how I felt after this incredible, tasty, relaxing, culinary adventure, and sun-drenched trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama…
Photo Credit (for all photos): This American Girl