I’ve been living in Panama City, Panama since 2005. I left my job at a major cruise line after traveling the world and seeing its most famous beaches. After four years on ships, I still thought the best beaches in the world were in Panama. Over the years I’ve had friends (mostly former crewmembers) visit from as far as Australia. I prepared for their visits, assuming they’d want to see the Panama Canal and the Canal museum. Boy was I wrong. The minute they stepped off the plane, my friends wanted me to show them the best beaches in Panama.
It’s a tough job. There are beaches in Panama that are better for diving, others are best for surfing, and others still are great for families and kids of all ages. But if I had to narrow it down, I’d defer to my visiting friends. I’m biased, as I’ve chosen to live in Panama. But these guys have traveled the world and seen some of its most amazing natural wonders. Here’s what they have to say about the best beaches in Panama:
Aussie Pick: “The Best Beach in Panama is on Contadora Island”
We left Contadora bronzed and relaxed. This tiny island, one of hundreds in the Pearl Archipelago, is Panama at its best. I still remember lunch at the Villa Romantica Hotel & Restaurant. We ordered the $25 platter…artfully grilled lobster, shrimp and fish, enough for two or three. After our meal, we flip-flopped our way down the steps to the sands below…Villa Romantica overlooks one of the prettiest sparkling white-sand beaches on the island. Our waiter made trips down the stairs to bring us $1 beers. We tipped him generously.
This is not a party-hardy location. Contadora boasts just a few paved roads and cars. Most of the friendly islanders get around on golf carts, boats, or by walking. The island is its own little enclave, where there’s virtually no crime and seemingly no seedy side of life. Come here to enjoy the unbelievable views, to enjoy days hopping from island to island, snorkeling, diving, fishing, or just toasting in the sun. Evenings are for sighs of satisfaction, fresh healthy meals, and perhaps a cold beer before turning in, only to do it all again tomorrow.
Venezuelan Pick: “Bet on Bocas del Toro for your Best-Beach Experience”
When we landed in Bocas Town, I was jazzed. I was about to see one of the best beaches in Panama. The views from our little plane had been amazing, and I couldn’t wait to throw myself into those bright blue waters. One look at the town, though, and I was beginning to wonder. Was this such a good idea? It looked a bit grubby, and I didn’t see any sand on the two-minute walk from the “airport” to our little hotel by the park. Turns out, I didn’t have a thing to worry about.
The part-mainland, part-island province of Bocas del Toro is on Panama’s Caribbean coast. The main town is on Colon Island, a jumping off point for the dazzling beaches of the archipelago’s nearby islets. The first order of the day when you arrive is to book a tour. Abandon Bocas Town as soon as you can for the outlying islands. There are hawkers every few feet offering all-day tours, from about 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Bypass them and head for one of the many tourist stalls on the docks, and book your $20 tour directly with the operator. This way you can make sure you like the look of the dock, the boats, and the “captain.”
Most tours include a stop at Zapatilla Island—hands down the best beach in Panama. From the sky, the tiny islet resembles a sneaker, or zapatilla in Spanish. Or so I’m told. We approached by boat after nearly an hour of bumping along. It was worth the wait. Zapatilla is a tuft of deep green jungle, surrounded by a ring of white sand. You can walk around it in 30 minutes. There are no restaurants here, no shops, no vendors or hawkers. Just an indigenous chief who will charge you each a few dollars…and a few people enjoying the most pristine environment I’ve ever seen. It was a day to remember, and I’ve got the photos—a few hundred or so—to prove it.
Gringa Pick: “I Voted Isla Grande the Best Beach in Panama”
When you think Caribbean, you think Bahamas or Jamaica…but this is exactly what I envisioned. We are on Isla Grande—the island is the biggest for miles around, but you can walk around it in an hour. You get here by driving two and a half hours from Panama City, past the famous ruins and Black Christ at Portobelo, to a small town called La Guaira. From here a wooden canoe with an outboard motor will take you to the island—the 10-minute trip costs $2.
Why do I rate this among the best beaches in Panama? Simple. You come to this island to experience real Caribbean life, unaltered for the few foreign tourists who sojourn here. On the Isla you can still buy a beer for $0.50 or fried fish for a dollar. At dinner we paid $12 for wine and cambombia, or conch—the most expensive meal on the island. Others were eating fried fish. They serve the whole fish on a fluffy cloud of coconut rice. It smells like the Caribbean should smell, I’m sure of it…tempting and sweet and rich at the same time.
The Isla Grande beach is not raked everyday for tourists…coconut fibers and leaves and even massive palm fronds pepper the light sands. The space is tiny, but thankfully there are never more than a couple dozen people here. A shack on one end makes piña coladas or deep-fried plantain rounds. Buy a drink, lay out your towel, and chit-chat with locals and visitors.
Editor’s Note: Panama is not only the most sophisticated offshore haven in the Americas, with some of the cheapest beachfront in both the Caribbean and on the Pacific Coast, but it also has the best retiree benefits in the world. Learn more about one of the world’s top retirement destination in our just updated Panama: The Owner’s Manual.