Traveling to the Bocas del Toro Biological Station

1 Map of B.d.Toro copy 1

Map of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago

There are several ways to reach Bocas del Toro. You may either fly directly to Bocas del Toro from Panama City, or take a direct bus from Panama City.  From Costa Rica it is possible to travel by bus from San Jose to Bocas.  For seasoned Latin American travelers, traveling by bus from San Jose may be the cheapest, but see cautions below. For newcomers, ITEC recommends that you fly directly to Panama City, and then fly to Bocas del Toro.

Passports. You are required to have a valid passport to travel to Panama.  A visa is not required for U.S. and Canadian citizens to enter Panama, and you can stay up to 180 days.  If you are not traveling on a U.S. or Canadian passport, please check with the Panamanian Embassy in your country for further information.  If you do not have a passport or need to renew yours, contact your local passport office or post office for an application. Apply for your passport early as it may require up to several weeks to process.

Arrange all national (US, Canadian) and international flights through your travel agency.  We can’t stess enough how important it is to make your travel reservations early.  Panama and Bocas del Toro are popular travel destinations but flights are limited and often fill up. Shop around for the best price. You can often find the most inexpensive flights online at one of several online travel web sites.  Also, check with Council Travel (1-888-COUNCIL) or Student Travel Association (STA, 1-800-777-0112). Both are student-based travel agencies, which have offices at major universities and can often find you the cheapest fare.

For travel and reservations within Panama, ITEC recommends Sendero Panama Sendero Panama logoin Panama City.  For a modest fee, this company will meet you at Tocumen International, book your flight to Bocas, make hotel reservations, etc. Contact Mica Gernez Schmidt, who is a former ITEC student, at Sendero Panama by phone, (011) 507-6429-8163, or by email at: micaelag@senderopanama.comDo not wait until the last minute to make reservations for flights, hotels and transportation in Panama.  Flights and hotels can be sold out and filled as much as 4 weeks in advance or earlier, especially during the busy winter holiday/tourist season, and alternatives to the usual hotels and flights that Mica would arrange for you can be much more expensive.  Sendero Panama requires 30-days in advance of your travel to make transportation and hotel reservations along with full payment.

You can make your own travel reservations but some hotels require payment in advance to hold  your reservation and will only accept credit cards in person.

Panama City.web

Panama City Skyline

Flight from Panama City. This is the easiest and quickest way to get to Bocas, and ITEC recommends this route. There is one national airline providing regular service to Bocas del Toro, Air Panama. (about $260 RT) They will accept reservations and credit card payment online.  Arrange your international flight to Panama City and then a local flight to Bocas del Toro. You will arrive in Panama at the Tocumen International Airport and then, to fly to Bocas, you will need to go to Albrook National Airport (formally called Marcos Gelabert National airport) which is about 30 minutes to an hour from Tocumen. You will probably need to stay over night in Panama City.  There are many moderately priced hotels ($40-$70) near the Albrook National Airport. Most ITEC participants stay at the Hotel Marbella. Amenities at this hotel include AC, TV, pool, restaurant, and the receptionist speaks English.

Bus from Panama City. A direct bus from Panama City to Bocas del Toro, via Almirante represents an alternative route. The bus ride takes approximately 10 hours and the cost is about $60 RT.  The scheduled bus can fill up and in this case you will have to wait until the next scheduled bus.  When you arrive in Almirante, you will need to take the water taxi to the town of Bocas del Toro on Isla Colón ($4). Contact ITEC for more information concerning this route or see the website: http://bocasvacations.com/directions-to-bocas/

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Ariel View of Bocas del Toro

From Costa Rica.  There are two ways of reaching Bocas del Toro from Costa Rica, by air and bus.  Two airlines provide service from San Jose (Alejuela), Air Panama and Nature Air. The round trip flight costs about $175.  Please contact these airlines for specifics.

If you plan to travel to Bocas by bus from San Jose the entire trip takes from 6-8 hours and there are several steps. Cost will be about $20. You catch the 6:00 am bus to Sixaola at the Caribbean bus terminal in San Jose.  Warning: be very careful here, do not leave your things unattended even for a moment!.  After passing Costa Rican immigration in Sixaola, you cross the bridge over the Sixaola River to Guabito, Panama.  Go through immigration again here and catch a taxi to Almirante ($10-$15) passing the town of Changuinola along the route.  In Almirante, take a water taxi ($4) to Bocas del Toro.  Important note: Panamanian banks will not exchange Costa Rican money (colones).  On the first day of class, meet ITEC personnel at the Bocas del Toro airport.

Important! Schedule your travel so that you arrive in the town of Bocas del Toro in the morning or afternoon on the first day of class. Plan to leave the day after the last day of class.  ITEC will not accept students before the first day of the session.  If you must arrive in Bocas del Toro earlier, you can choose from a variety of hotels and hostels in town.

Session Session Period Arrive Bocas Depart Bocas
Summer A May 15-June 9 May 15 June 10
Summer B June 15-July 10 June 15 July 11
Summer C July 15-Aug. 9 July 15 Aug. 10
Winter December 20-January 9 December 20 January 10

 On the first day of each session, ITEC personnel will meet incoming students at the Bocas del Toro airport. If you plan to arrive early, there are several very inexpensive hotels and pensions in Bocas (typically, $15-$30 per night). If you plan to arrive via water taxi on the first day of your session, go to the airport to meet ITEC personnel. Please do not plan to arrive at the station earlier than the first day of class.  Plan to leave the day after the last day of class (check schedule above for session dates).  If you need to contact ITEC when in Panama, call the field station at 507-6624-9246.

Customs. When entering Costa Rica or Panama and returning, you will pass through “Migración” (immigration) and “Aduana” (customs). You can expect to have your luggage searched. The possession of illegal drugs or other contraband will result in your arrest by the local authorities and immediate expulsion from the course. Remember, you are not in the United States or Canada, and your country cannot help you if you break foreign laws.  Penalties for drug possession in Latin American countries are severe. Costa Rica, for example, has a 10 yr. mandatory minimum sentence for the mere possession of marijuana.

Emergencies. All participants are required to immediately report to faculty or staff any sickness or injury. Delays in doing so may prolong or complicate your recuperation period, impair your ability to actively participate in the course, and limit you and other participants’ opportunity to complete research projects.  The field station maintains an emergency first aid kit.  This kit contains typical items for dealing with minor cuts, stings, contact dermatitis, and contains a variety of band-aids, analgesics, antibiotics, antifungals, etc.  We also have direct communication with the well-equipped hospital in Bocas and an emergency evacuation vehicle is available at the field station at all times. Travel time from the station to the hospital is 30 min. by car and 25 min. by boat.  If necessary, emergency flights to Panama City are possible from the airport in Bocas.  There are poisonous snakes in the islands of the archipelago though they are seldom seen.  Generally, snakes pose no significant threat to our work or safety because they tend to avoid areas often traveled by people such as our trail system. However, in case of a venomous snakebite, the Bocas hospital maintains supplies of polyvalent antivenin.

Is Panama Safe? As is always true when going abroad, certain precautions are necessary when traveling in Panama. The standard of living in Bocas del Toro is quite high (for a developing nation) with very little poverty.  Unlike Panama City, you will not see beggars in the streets.  However, you will need to be vigilant in Panama City when you arrive.  Like any large international city, pickpockets and thieves present a threat. Never leave your bags unattended for even a moment.

Although Panama has had a tumultuous political history brought about by the removal of General Manuel Noriega in 1989 by U.S. intervention, this small country now boasts a stable democracy that has continued through several successive elections. Many U.S. companies have operated in Panama since the turn of the century.  Moreover, the Smithsonian Institution (STRI) has maintained several field stations in Panama for decades without interruption, including those on Barro Colorado Island in the Canal Zone and in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago. Panama boasts of being one of the most progressive and modern counties in Latin America and welcomes over 2 million foreign visitors each year.

Vaccinations. Please consult your doctor or public health service regarding vaccinations and medicines for travel in Panama. You and your doctor can make the most informed decisions based on your medical history.  Malaria and dengue are rare in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago and there has been no report of any incidences of the zika virus.

Station from forest trail

Station from the forest trail.

General Health.  Because fieldwork in the tropics can be physically demanding, it is essential that we are aware of your current physical condition and previous medical history.  You will need to provide information regarding your current state of physical health and a list of all prescription medication being taken.  Please answer all health related questions on the application. A certified medical examination from a physician is not requiredIf you have any special allergies or conditions which that result in sudden illness (asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, potential for severe allergic reaction, etc.) you must inform the faculty during the first day of orientation. This will enable all necessary personnel to be familiar with your medical needs.  In addition, if you require any special medication (e.g., epipen, insulin, etc), you must bring an adequate supply.  All prescription medication should be kept in their original bottles with the proper labels indicating dosage.  Do not pack medication in your suitcase because checked luggage might be lost by the airlines. Keep all medication in your carry-on baggage while traveling.

Medical Insurance. ITEC provides no health or accident insurance. All participants are therefore required to have active medical insurance while enrolled in a program at the field station. Consult your insurance carrier regarding specific coverage.  Many health insurance policies have very limited coverage outside the United States or Canada and student health insurance may not extend through the summer months. Most universities will allow students to continue their coverage over the summer at low cost.
It is possible to purchase low-cost medical insurance (typically less than $50 per month) for students traveling overseas.  One such company is called HTH Worldwide Insurance Services.  Their policy provides protection for students and scholars in international educational activities and includes hospital, medication and medical evacuation benefits. For more information on this provider, call 1-800-394-2500 or write to: International Group Services, 12900 Federal Systems Park Drive, Suite 2-A, Fairfax, VA 22033. Also check with Council Travel (STA), a nonprofit, student-based travel agency that provides health and accident insurance to members. Call 1-888-COUNCIL for more information. (Note: We provide this information for your benefit and ITEC is not affiliated with these organizations). You can also buy travel insurance from some airlines. Please bring your Medical Insurance Registration Card and claim forms with you to Panama.  Please note that your tuition payment cannot be used to pay for any medical care you may require while in Panama. All participants are responsible for paying medical costs whether or not you are covered by your insurance. You should carry about $50-$100, separate from your other funds, in case you require the services of a local clinic or doctor for minor illness or medication.  Currently, Panama provides a free 30-day $20,000 emergency healthcare policy for all visitors that arrive to Panama through Tocumen International Airport (and only this airport).  However, only private hospitals currently take part in this program and this service could change without notice.

Finally, make your reservations early and inform ITEC of your travel plans!

Click here for a list of What to Bring.

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