We can thank broke backpackers and smart surfers for discovering Bocas del Toro, a group of nine mostly roadless islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama, where there are boats instead of cars and chickens instead of alarm clocks. As with most beach towns that are hard to get to, it's the type of place where the main commercial center, Bocas Town, on the island of Colón, hasn't quite caught up to its own tourist boom: It's a laid-back hub of Latin-Caribbean culture, where dreadlocked locals dance the samba and expat surfers drink beer at bars built on stilts over the water.

A lot of folks don't even hang out in Bocas Town long enough to drop their board bag because they know that just a short, $3 boat-taxi ride away is a crowd-free reef break, a perfect crescent of white sand, and a pristine bay teeming with tropical fish. They know that Zapatilla, covered in palms that hang over clear water, holds some of the best snorkeling in the world. They know that when the swell comes up, Carenero will be going off. They know that just through the mangroves is Red Frog beach, often the center of activity in Bocas del Toro, where Dutch girls tan topless and stoned locals sip cold beer while listening to reggae music on an '80s-vintage boombox.

Getting There: Fly to Panama City, then catch a connection to Bocas Town on the island of Colón.