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How to Camp on a Deserted Island in Panama for $5

Cayo Zapatilla ​in the Bocas del Toro​ archipelago is an uninhabited paradise and is the perfect camping get-away​

By: Alyssa + Hannah ODYSEA + Save to a List

Every morning I would wake to the sunrise over the nearby rocks, stumble from my tent with my mask and snorkel in hand, and fall into the crystal clear waters.

What a way to start the day!

Cayo Zapatilla is an island so densely covered by palm trees that you must walk around it on the beach, instead of through it.

To top off the picture perfect island view, the surrounding ocean waters are teeming with life and have been classified as a Marine Protected Area since 1988.

All you have to do is bring your own tent or hammock and you too could enjoy this little slice of Panamanian paradise for next to nothing.

How to get there

Cayo Zapatillo is a 45 minute boat ride from Isla Colon.

Ask a local boat captain to let you piggyback on a pre-organised tour and ask for a discounted rate. You should be able to get a lift for $20 and with more people maybe even cheaper.

We hired a private boat as we had a group of 9. We also organised for the day to be a tour to see the dolphins and to do 2 snorkels before we arrived at Cayo Zapatilla just before sunset.

That cost us $30 each.

What to take

By deserted island, I mean deserted. There is nothing but an island, reefs and a shack where the Park Rangers live.

You need to be 100% self sufficient.

Bring many gallons of water (enough for drinking and cooking) and all your food for the duration of your stay. We stocked up on rice, lentils, canned beans and lots of fresh veggies! Check out our to bring list for tropical island camping

If you don’t have a tent, you can buy a local handy-craft hammock that writes ‘Bocas del Toro’ for $18 on Isla Colon. Remember to take rope.

We also went to the hardware store and bought a cooking pot and a flat hot-plate for cooking on the fire, and machetes for endless coconuts!  

How to get back to civilization

We camped for 2 nights at only $5 a night, and we definitely could have stayed another.

When the boat tours arrive at around 12pm you can organize with a local captain (they mostly speak english) to take you back to Isla Colon when their tour ends at 2pm.

It should cost maximum of $20, that is if you are alone. More people, more bargaining power. We organized with a captain to take our group of 7 to Isla Bastimentos (Basti town) for $9 each. You can then catch a water taxi for $5 back to Isla Colon.  

Extra things to note

-Leave your extra belongings, valuables and backpack at the Hostel you were staying at or plan to return to post camping. Our friends paid $5 to store their bags and valuables at Serena Hostel.

-I don’t recommend to do this as a solo female, but I felt very safe in a group. The only scary part was when the animals woke me up fighting amongst themselves in the jungle!

-Take enough water! I can’t stress this enough. If you run out of freshwater there is nowhere to get more. When we started to run low, we started cooking with mostly seawater which meant for salty meals!

-If it is expected to rain or the clouds above look a little grisly, you can move your hammock to a nearby picnic shelter making for a less-wet nights sleep.

-Don’t leave your food lying around on the sand or a hungry jungle animal might call it dinner. We made a sheet hammock for our food and tied it up in the trees.

-There are toilets, but bring toilet paper

-Tell someone on Isla Colon when you are leaving and when you plan to return so they can be keeping tabs on you

-Take all of your rubbish back to the mainland. It is never ok to leave a plastic footprint in nature.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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