When you fly into Bocas Del Toro, it’s not uncommon to have a few mixed emotions.
On the one hand, our twin-screw prop plane is flying in low over the water on a perfectly banked final approach, revealing a high-speed Hollywood movie trailer of pristine tropical islands, white crescent beaches, coral reefs, surf breaks, and clusters of over-the-water bungalows through the windows as we level out to land.
If I asked ChatGPT to make me a photo of what paradise looks like, I’m pretty sure the source data would look like this.
On the other hand, our pilot seems like he’s coming in a little hot.
The brightly painted, wooden houses of “Bocas town”—the province’s de facto capitol on the main island of Isla Colon—whir by over both wings in a smearing Monet of pinks, purples, oranges, and yellows. It’s hard to make out the rest of the view at the speed we’re still flying. But there are definitely kids playing baseball on the grass next to the runway and packs of stray dogs chasing each other around at either end.
Inside of the “terminal”, an old local named Joe is banging out an acoustic cover of Bob Marley’s, “Three Little Birds (Don’t Worry About A Thing)” while the drug dogs sniff our bags.
The passengers who’ve deplaned with me look mostly European or South American. Others are clearly Australian from their accents. Some are carrying surfboards or guitars. The ones sporting Moncler luggage and $500 trainers are either crypto millionaires or traveling on their parents’ dime. The more scraggly ones look like they’ve already been digitally “nomading” since the pandemic.
Passport: Explore the finest destinations and experiences around the world in the Forbes Passport newsletter.Sign Up
Once outside, the crowd sets off into Bocas town with their backpacks on foot, bypassing the cabs lined up outside even though it’s 89 degrees in the shade. It’s a dusty, five-block parade that happens twice daily—scuttling hundreds of surf hunters, free divers, kite boarders, trust-funders, digital drifters, adventure seekers, gastronomists, and honeymooners in and out of Bocas Del Toro’s hundreds of buzzing hotels, hostels, restaurants, pubs, and clubs spread across dozens of islands all year round.
If you drill into it on Google Earth, it’s not hard to see why “Bocas” has become one of the hottest new spots on the global hipster travel map.
Bocas Del Toro Province, as it’s technically called, is Panamá’s north-westernmost province, a 45-minute flight from Panamá City and adjacent to the Costa Rican border. Traveling from western Europe, you can be sitting on an over-the-water bar stool here in under eight hours from Heathrow or Madrid. From most of the continental U.S., the trip takes five hours (three from Miami).
Geographically, Bocas Province is made up of hundreds of uninhabited islands, several indigenous tribes, multiple marine parks, surf breaks that can reach 20’, ancient coral reefs, and some of the best beaches in the Western Hemisphere. It’s also home to a mind-boggling array of species biodiversity both above and underwater—including sting rays, sea horses, nurse sharks, three-toed pygmy sloths, and the strawberry poison dart frog.
A hundred years ago, Bocas was also the global banana trade’s Wall Street, from which Chiquita shipped millions of bushels of “yellow gold” through its ports to the U.S. and Europe, especially after the opening of the Panamá Canal in 1913.
During its heyday, Chiquita had more than 30,000 people living and working in Bocas. The town had its own private hospital and doctors, a boarding school, and dozens of company-run restaurants, markets, bars, and hotels—as well as head-high safes stashed with cash, one of which is still on display today.
A few hundred years before that, Bocas was an essential port for the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of Latin America. Its equidistance between Mexico and South America, sheltered waters, abundant natural resources, and southern latitude below of the hurricane belt meant that early explorers like Christopher Columbus could hole up here for months—repairing their ships, resting their crews, and sounding the surrounding bays (most of which in one way or another are named after Columbus).
Today, Bocas town’s colonial, shanty-chic architecture and slow molten, Venice-by-the-equator vibe are the legacy of what those early explorers and Chiquita built. There aren’t many deeply historic places left in the world where paradise has been left to its own devices to evolve, time stops for everyone, and the beaches are perfect. Bocas is one of the last of them.
Now that the town and its surrounding islands are buzzing again, however, everyone’s trying to figure out how to capitalize on this place for the third time around. That puts the entire Bocas del Toro province (technically, the “Mouths of the Bull”) squarely in the cross hairs of a major future-tripping moment that it hasn’t experienced in decades.
A few months ago, for example, Isla Colon finally was connected to the mainland electricity grid via a series of underwater cables, eliminating the need for its current costly and unreliable generators. A new hospital also was recently completed. And tens of millions of dollars were just committed for new roads and an upgrade to the airport so that it can accommodate commercial cargo and passenger jets.
For Bocas and its residents, these are obviously good investments. They’re also laying the foundation for a real estate and hospitality boom that now seems all but certain to come.
Before I traveled to Bocas for the first time, a friend told me to think about the place like Key West circa 1970s. I quickly came to understand what he meant by that: nothing here is manufactured or pre-grown in some tropical gentrification lab. Not even Disney could recreate the history, character, or potential of this place from scratch.
That’s because everything in Bocas has evolved here organically for hundreds of years. The award-winning, fish-to-fork gastronomy scene, for example, features some of Panamá’s best seafood restaurants—but only because several chefs from South America decided that they wanted to produce the most amazing ceviche they could conjure up on a laid-back island on the precipice of the Caribbean Sea instead of in Panama City, Miami, or Bogota, Colombia.
The late-night club scene in Bocas town is equally inimitable—far smaller-scale, but equally as pulsing as Bangkok’s or Ibiza’s. This all thanks to a few flip-flopped entrepreneurs from Europe who came here once and never left, determined to start a world-class, off-the-grid club scene of their own.
Bocas Del Toro’s hotel ecosystem, not surprisingly, has been not-so-quietly exploding in sync with the islands’ culinary and mixology scene. At last count, Bocas Del Toro had more than 3,000 beds scattered around a town and its surrounding islands. On big holiday weekends, every one of them is full.
Though it doesn’t sound like much in the grand scene of things, 107 of those beds also happen to belong to a home-grown Panamánian start-up called Selina, which was founded by two Israelis who moved to Panamá in 2007 and is now a global hospitality powerhouse which was valued last year post-IPO at more than $1 billion.
Selina’s business model overall is pretty straight-forward. One-part co-working space, two-parts hostel, three-parts experience, and ten-parts party, the brand styles itself as the next best place on earth for Millenials and Gen Z to stay, eat, live, work, play, and co-mingle all under one roof.
“Selinas are beautiful places to stay and work abroad indefinitely,” says Selina CEO and co-founder Rafael (Rafi) Museri of the start-up’s mission to offer a different kind of hospitality geared towards ‘conscious nomads’.
“We use in-depth local knowledge to create thousands of authentic activities and experiences in over 118 destinations worldwide. From the big cities to the Amazon jungle, we put our heart, soul, and wanderlust into every Selina so that our guests get immersed in a country and don’t feel like tourists; we want them to feel like locals.”
Selina’s business model is also crafty.
To scale quickly, the start-up converts poorly performing, existing hotels in trend-heavy neighborhoods in the world’s most popular cities into chic, upscale “hostels”, including in Australia, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Greece, Israel, Mexico, Portugal, and the UK in addition to Panamá.
On average, Selina gets their hotels up and running in four months, which for a normal hotel operator isn’t even enough time for lunch. The company primarily does this by using local craftsmen, artists, materials, and upcycled furniture and fixtures from the existing property. This fast, asset-light model not only allows Selina to pounce on opportunities more quickly than other hospitality brands, but also increases profits by up to 2.4x compared with the prior hotel operators.
On the demand side, Selina’s also taken a clever page from Las Vegas’s play book: namely, get guests in the door inexpensively, don’t give them a reason to leave, and then charge them for everything else—which in Selina’s case in Bocas averages $4/beer, $8/cocktail, $22/entree, and $35/per person for adventures like snorkeling, paddleboarding, or surfing. They also have an honor system “gift shop” selling Selina-branded water bottles, insulated mugs, dry bags, sarongs, diving fins, sunglasses, sunscreen, and flip flops. Cha-ching.
As for “Why Bocas?”, it all came down to the vibe that makes Bocas “Bocas”, says Museri.
“Bocas was a natural choice for us the first time we went there,” he recalls, “It’s an incredible place with nature, water sports, surf, and culture that all align with our target audience’s values, needs, and desires.”
Like many others in hospitality and real estate here, Museri’s also an apostle that Panamá’s “moment” is now, which is why the start-up has six hotels in the country already and counting.
“We believe more in Panamá’s potential today than we did a decade ago when my business partner Daniel (Rudasevski) and I first moved here to a small fishing village called Pedasi and started Selina in 2014. So, Panamá isn’t just another market for us. It’s our home, our heart, and our origin. In that way, we’re not just observing Panamá’s moment right now. We’re living it, contributing to it, and betting on it every day.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to Museri, then, that a little more than a mile up the beach road from Bocas town, Selina’s bet on Panamá’s moment and its increasingly world-renowned hospitality scene is about to get some competition.
“When we first started investing in Bocas fifteen years ago this place was still a sleepy surf town with a few dozen water taxis offering beach tours to the couple of tourists who found themselves here coming mostly from Costa Rica,” recalls Richard Kiibler, President of Six Diamond Resorts International, one of the first real estate development companies to begin buying significant tracks of beachfront property here.
“Today, Bocas Del Toro is the number one tourist destination in Panamá. It all started with MTV doing a reality show here. Then Discovery Channel filmed ‘Naked & Afraid’ here. Then HGTV’s ‘House Hunters International’ shot here. Now, there’s this amazing mix of digital nomads, surfers, tech CEOs, and celebrities all strolling down the streets of Isla Colon. And once they come here, they want a piece of it. It’s a vortex that just can’t slow down.”
At the time Kiibler and Six Diamonds first opened their checkbooks here back in 2006, their bet on Bocas might have looked imprudent.
Dozens of towns in Costa Rica, Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua over the past 20-30 years have found themselves suddenly “discovered” and hotel and real estate booms have followed. But, for the majority of Central American towns, even those with natural assets similar to Bocas, still not much has changed.
Kiibler, like Museri, however, always knew that Bocas wasn’t just any other beach town. Equally important, Panamá’s tourism industry, unlike Costa Rica’s, still had room to grow. It was just a matter of time and pressure. So, Kiibler found two properties nearby each other on the beach just outside of Bocas town with the idea of eventually developing two completely different types of resorts: the first, called Saxony, would cater to the same crowd as Selina, and the second, 4 Elements, would step it up a notch and offer a true luxury hotel experience.
All he had to do next was wait for the timing to be right for each of them.
“Our Saxony concept is similar to what Selina pioneered, namely developing a hospitality experience designed for Millennial travelers and their nomadic needs,” explains Kiibler. “From one small hostel on the Pacific Side of Panamá, Selina’s grown into a powerhouse and really helped to put Panamá on the map. They’ve also established proof of concept about what Millennials want from a hospitality experience and we don’t need to reinvent that wheel with Saxony.”
But there are some key differences between the two start-ups, notes Kiibler.
“Saxony Bocas del Toro will offer what any top tier hostel would offer in terms of simple, affordable rooms with some basic style and flair,” he says, “But in our case we’re taking everything else—our design, amenities, and activities—to another level.”
That includes everything you’d expect from any other high-end Caribbean beachfront resort, including three pools, a bar and restaurant, a coffee shop, watersports center, a nightclub, and pickleball courts. Saxony’s four-acre property also includes its own beach and stretches back to Bocas Bay, so guests have access not only to food and beverage service in lounge chairs in the sand, but also protected coral reefs and mangrove forests for snorkeling, diving, kayaking, and paddleboarding right off the resort’s dock in back.
Design-wise Kiibler also elected to hire one of Panamá’s top architecture firms, Forza Creativa, to bring Saxony to life.
“The vision we gave to Forza was to create an upscale hostel that would have a fully amenitized, resort-style feel,” says Kiibler of Saxony’s early design process. “We also knew that by catering to our guests’ needs, we also had the size and capacity to become an epicenter for the entire community and other visitors to Bocas and the surrounding islands. Most hotels and hostels in Bocas don’t have pools. They don’t have restaurants or bars or direct water access. That’s why we knew that Saxony could become ‘the place’ to be in Bocas where everyone could enjoy our beach, bars, restaurants, pools, nightlife, and all the retail components on property. We also knew that at this scale that we could really have a positive impact on the town.”
Six Diamond’s strategy with Saxony is also to own each hotel or, at minimum, the land it’s built on, compared with Selina’s asset light, flip-fast model. This slows the potential to scale. But ensures that Saxony is built on a long-term real estate portfolio rather than a profit center.
Six Diamond’s other bet on Bocas is a 145-room hotel called 4 Elements, slated to break ground later this year on the other lot that Six Diamonds bought back in 2006 a few hundred feet up the road from Saxony.
Loosely rooted in a Balinese-inspired, pre-fabricated design that Kiibler and three partners developed a few years ago for a small, four-villa resort on Contadora Island on Panamá’s Pacific side, 4 Elements Bocas Del Toro will be the largest hotel on Isla Colon when it opens in 2026 as well as its most upscale and amenitized. It will also establish 4 Elements as a legitimate Panamánian hospitality brand to be reckoned with.
“When we built the first 4 Elements on Contadora, expanding wasn’t part of the plan,” Kiibler says. “But as soon as it was finished other developers started approaching us asking if we would be interested in co-developing other 4 Elements properties. That’s when we knew we were onto something, and we already had the perfect property in Bocas del Toro to make our scaling vision possible.”
Working with Forza Creativa again, Kiibler’s other vision for 4 Elements Bocas was to stretch some of the hospitality rules that have been de rigueur here for a while.
“During the master planning process, we spent a lot of time refining our core concept to identify how we could stay true to 4 Elements’ Balinese essence while also bringing a new kind of experience to Bocas,” recalls Kiibler. “So we really took a step back and worked through how we could both best scale the brand while also moving the needle even further in terms of putting Bocas Del Toro on the world-class hospitality map.”
The first conclusion that process yielded was a real, not token commitment to sustainability.
“Protecting the natural environment and building with the smallest footprint has always been the primary goal of 4 Elements Bocas,” says Eduardo Quintero, founder of Forza Creativa, “Blending sustainability with luxury is not only the responsible thing to do, but it is also the only feasible way to build in a pristine island environment like Bocas Del Toro.”
The second thing that master planning process inspired was the idea of offering multiple different building typologies, including individual rooms and suites, one- and two-bedroom villas, and individual walled compounds with private plunge pools and outdoor seating areas. 4 Elements Bocas will also include a branded real estate component which has yet to be attempted in Bocas, or anywhere in Panamá for that matter.
The idea with this part of the development, says Kiibler, is to offer potential buyers a place to live or purchase a vacation home in Bocas that’s part of an exclusive, luxury resort. Among other things, owners will have access to all of the amenities as well as professionally managed security, maintenance, and short-term rental services.
Established brands like Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton have been bolting residential homes and vacation communities onto their hotels successfully for decades in places like Cabo San Lucas, the Yucatan, and in ski towns all over the American West. Yet, it took Kiibler a few years to be sure that the timing and environment were right to replicate the branded real estate concept in Bocas.
“Great brands and spectacular locations don’t always equate to success,” he notes. “If you asked me five years ago, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to build out a 4 Elements on Isla Colon to the size, scale, and sophistication that we’re doing now. It was still too early. The recent growth and infrastructure in town coupled with the expanding awareness of Bocas del Toro in general were all key to our decision that it was the time to roll out another 4 Elements not just as a luxury waterfront resort, but also with a real estate offering attached.”
Ultimately, like Selina’s Museri, Kiibler sees hospitality as transformative—not just in Bocas but anywhere it’s used for positive change. The design, culture, technology, and amenities that a brand offers can alter the entire hotel experience on a personal level and open up new markets, like Selina and Saxony are doing with Millennials and Gen Z.
On a larger scale, says Kiibler, hotels and resorts can also change the whole future of a town. They can create community, bring stability, and generate prosperity as well as protect the historical resources and natural assets that make great towns great in the first place.
“Being a good member of the community is the key to being a good developer,” Kiibler says. “Creating jobs in the short, middle, and long term is crucial. But in terms of Bocas Del Toro and Isla Colon specifically a huge part of what makes it so special here isn’t just the surf, beaches, or biodiversity. The people and local culture are the central ingredients of this place. I’ve been in Panamá and Bocas for nearly 17 years and now there’s a renewed sense that developers and the community are working and prospering together that wasn’t always there in the past.”
Given Selina’s success already and Six Diamond’s plans for Saxony and 4 Elements, it could be tempting to believe that there’s no market in Bocas Del Toro for a resort catering to the upper fringes of hospitality, like an Aman or Montage.
Yet, a half-hour boat ride on a private island named after the Frangipani flower, you’ll find Nayara Bocas Del Toro.
Nayara Bocas was founded by an American businessman from the Midwest named Dan Behm, who bet back in 2016 that people already happy to spend $2,000 a night staying at a high-end resort in Mexico wouldn’t blink at blissing out in an over-the-water villa with an entire island to themselves.
Behm made good money originally in medical device sales. He then invested in real estate, mostly in the Great Lakes. He eventually spun off a few companies and decided that he want to start a hotel. That’s when he first started scouring Latin America for the next greatest place on earth and someone tipped him off on Bocas Del Toro.
“We looked for two years everywhere for the perfect resort location,” Behm recalls of his early hotel recon, specifically in Central America because of its proximity to most of the continental U.S.
“We ultimately chose Panamá because of the stable government, U.S. dollar, overall safety, and zero hurricanes. Luxury travelers are also always looking for something new and exciting and Panamá is quickly becoming the next hot spot for luxury adventure travel. So, when we first saw photos of Bocas town with its old colonial buildings extending over the water, we hadn’t seen anything like that anywhere else in the world. And, after experiencing the Caribbean vibe, zipping around in a panga from island to island, and swimming at gorgeous white sand beaches with no one else in sight, I knew this was the perfect place for a luxury, sustainable resort that could co-exist 100% with the water.”
After purchasing Isla Frangipani in late 2017, Behm’s next challenge was figuring out how to build a hotel on it.
Behm needed to conjure 5-star villas with private plunge pools, two gourmet restaurants, a spa, and a floating “beach bar”—along with the original infrastructure to support it all—six miles from the nearest connection back to the grid in Bocas town on an island that was covered 98% by mangrove forests.
Ultimately, Behm elected to build Nayara Bocas around a Balinese-inspired style similar to 4 Elements, but it would be based on an over-the-water villa concept.
“Balinese artisans are the best in the world and are well-known for architecture, furniture, and craftsmanship,” says Behm. “Their style was a perfect fit for a private island resort, and we knew that it would provide a feeling of being both extravagant and laid-back at the same time. Each of our water villas each has over 1,100 hours of wood and stone carving put into them.”
Behm’s second challenge was getting the luxury, adventure travel crowd to put Bocas Del Toro on its radar.
“If you ask someone in the U.S. if they’ve heard of Bocas Del Toro, 99% of them will tell you that they haven’t yet,” says Behm. “But, if you’re looking for an exotic location close to your time zone, Bocas is the perfect spot especially for Americans. It’s a Caribbean paradise right in our own backyard.”
Three years after opening during Covid, Behm’s bet on Nayara Bocas has paid off. In addition to running an occupancy rate frequently above 90%, Nayara Bocas Del Toro recently has also won a string of coveted global hospitality awards, including Afar’s Best New Hotels In The World 2023 and Town & Country’s Best New Beach Hotels In The World 2023.
What all of this ultimately means more broadly and connectively is that Bocas Del Toro’s retro-Key West, big wave, beach chic, Maui adventure vibe could soon be big business for Panamá as well. The more tourists that fly through Panamá City’s newly renovated Tocumen International Airport on their way to Bocas to hear Ganger bang out “Dont’ Worry About A Thing”, the better it is for everyone.
The other good news is that Panamá’s government is finally making broader, more meaningful commitments to Panamá’s tourism industry, which for decades has been languishing because the Panamá Canal spins off more than $2 billion into the country’s coffers every year.
Panamá City’s luxury real estate and re-development scene which is picking up perpetual awards is also helping Panamá’s reputation on the global stage.
In addition to Bocas Del Toro, Panamá City’s Old Town “Casco Viejo” is now one of the hippest places to visit in the country and Central America. A decade ago, nobody came here; its buildings were literally crumbling. Today, Casco features a world-class culinary and bar scene, the country’s best nightlife, and some of Panamá’s most important historic buildings like the National Theatre and the Presidential Palace.
Hyatt’s newly opened La Compania hotel right in the heart of Casco also has received international acclaim for its historic design and architecture after a nine year renovation. Consisting of three separate but connected buildings dating back to a 1600s Jesuit monastary, Hyatt’s renovation brought every part of each building back to life with incomparable craftsmanship and odes to each building’s unique history. La Compania is now widely considered to be one of the best luxury hotels in all of Latin America.
Other Panamá City neighborhoods like up-and-coming Marbela and Santa Maria, Panamá City’s most prestigious address, are also helping to establish Panamá’s street cred as a world-class epicenter of architecture, design, and hospitality.
New luxury high-rises like La Maison, a 61-story tower in Santa Maria which is already 73% sold out, is designed in partnership with Casa Fendi and one of only three developments for the brand in the world (the other two are in Miami and Uruguay). The unmistakable F&F Tower—previously known as the Revolution Tower and locally nicknamed the Corkscrew—is one of the tallest buildings in Panamá City at 796’ and world-renowned for its engineering and design. The list goes on.
“Panamá City has always been an exception in Latin America when it comes architecture and design, both residentially and hospitality wise,” says Henri Mizrachi, former Director of the Panama Canal and now a development partner behind the new luxury high rise tower Wanders & Yoo, which is the first global design commission ever for the world-renowned Dutch style icon, Marcel Wanders.
“We know how to build tall here and we know how to design ultra-luxury condos and hotels. We’ve been doing it successfully for years for some of the highest net worth buyers from Central and South America and elsewhere abroad. The difference now is that everyone else in the world is finally taking notice.”
The big question now is what happens next. That depends mostly on how Panamá leverages the international hospitality and real estate recognition that’s now coming its way.
The well-heeled capital and brands still flowing into places like Bocas and Casco is a good sign that nothing is changing on the hospitality front any time soon.
Real estate wise, capital flight from countries like Colombia and Brazil where recent elections have led to the emigration of tens of thousands of citizens from both countries will continue to drive foreign investment into new and existing luxury real estate in nearby safe havens like Panama for the foreseeable future, including high rises, beach houses, and vacation homes.
For Panamá’s economy—and specifically for the purposes of diversifying it beyond financial services, banking, and the canal—this is all great news. It’s generally considered a financial truism that money follows money. Once a stock goes up or a company raises another Series A or B round, other investors usually follow.
The same principle also frequently applies to real estate and hospitality, says John Lowry, founder and CEO of Spartan Capital that’s helping to develop Six Diamond’s 4 Elements and Saxony projects.
“It always takes one or two pioneers to break open a new market, but once they’re successful everyone else wants in,” Lowry explains, “So, all of these billion-dollar hospitality brands like Selina, JW Marriott, and Hyatt investing in places like Bocas and Casco are giving Panamá the credibility it needs on the international stage. Other brands will follow. Thirty years ago, Miami had a fraction of the luxury hotels and high rises it does today. Same for LA and Manhattan. That same transformation is happening in Panamá right now right in front of everyone’s eyes. But people are only just starting to pay attention.”
After almost two decades of buying deserted beaches and overgrown lots in Bocas Del Toro when everyone else thought he was crazy, Kiibler jokes that he can’t wait for the day he can personally thank everyone who’s ever built a hotel, started a restaurant, opened a bar, or launched a tourism and vacation business in Panamá—because they all helped to start something global from nothing.
“It would be easy to blame Panamá for doing a C-grade job of promoting and investing in itself when it comes to tourism over the years,” says Raul Ferrer, Senior Vice President of Six Diamonds. “In the end, it’s been individual entrepreneurs, investors, and small businesses that have given Panamá’s hospitality scene a world-class reputation.”
Selina, Dan Behm, all of the chefs in Bocas, and the hundreds of bars and retailers who bet on Casco are just a few of the people deserve most of the credit. But don’t under-estimate the value of “paradise”.
“We gambled on Bocas a long time ago with a simple logic,” says Kiibler. “Prime beachfront is a pretty safe bet anywhere in the world because they’re not making any more of it. And Panama has more of it untouched and undeveloped than any other place in the Caribbean.”
Contact to Marcela Ortiz Rubio email@example.com