If you're looking for an unspoiled paradise â€“ keep looking. The word is and has been long out on Bocas del Toro. Although you won't find McDonalds and Pizza Hut here (as of July 2008), the islands have been well and truly gringofied. It's a surf town and a surfer mentality that dominates here, with nothing but shades of the original Guari-Guari culture remaining. That being said, it is still a long way from cruise ships and Club Med. In fact, given its popularity as a mainstream tourist destination, it's amazing how sparsely populated the islands can seem, particularly during low season. It's not at all uncommon to have a beach to yourself, gentle waves and soft sand pulling you a million miles from the thumping discos of Bocas town.
If you've been to a surf town before, you'll find Bocas del Toro's vibe to be somewhat familiar. A few laid-back hostels, some excellent (and often viciously overpriced) restaurants, and a raging, promiscuous nightlife. One interesting quirk that sets Bocas apart is that, despite the relaxed attitude, men are strictly prohibited from going shirtless on the street. While fines are uncommon, many travelers have been sternly sent home and ordered to cover up. It's also a good idea to keep a copy of your passport on you when you go out. Although this is something you should do everywhere, police in Bocas have been known to make occasional sweeps, arresting tourists who cannot produce identification. Just why they do this is anyone's guess, but Viva's writer met a few people that had to spend a night in jail after one such crackdown.
Provided you manage to avoid such legal problems, you'll find that Bocas del Toro is a beautiful island. It may not be paradise, and if you're looking to get off the beaten path and away from the tourists you won't like it here. But it's a very fun place to spend a few days (or a few weeks... months) and a fantastic place to party or relax.