By Gabriele Walkow
Once a well-kept secret, Playa Venao is quickly emerging as one of Panama’s top surf and beach destinations. This idyllic beach town with its welcoming bohemian buzz is attracting people of all ages, including couples, families, remote workers, retirees, and international travelers.
Rolling hills spill down to a sparkling crescent-shaped bay ringed with marbled black and golden sand. A colorful cluster of restaurants, cafes and beach bars; laidback resorts and charming hostels; and busy surf shops stretch along the gently curving beach.
Retire in Playa Venao
Primarily a vacation destination, Playa Venao is home to about 800 full-time residents, with numbers that swell on weekends and during national holidays. These residents are mostly younger, international, pre-retiree expats who are involved in the hotel, restaurant, and tourism services. Thus, creating a diverse, enterprising, beach and surf-loving global community that is certain to grow in the years to come.
Playa Venao lies in the driest part of Panama, known as the Dry Arc. The dry season runs from December to April and the wet or green season runs from May to November. With temperatures averaging between 75 F to 88 F, residents can enjoy their sun, sea, sand, and surf playground year-round.
Home to world-class waves, an active surf culture, and warm waters, Playa Venao beckons to local and visiting surfing enthusiasts of every skill level. While surfing is the biggest attraction in Playa Venao, there are many other things to do both in the water and on land. Take a boat deep-sea fishing, go snorkeling or scuba diving, enjoy kayak and stand-up paddle boarding, eco-adventures, and ziplining through the jungle canopy.
Best of all, during the week it’s not uncommon for residents to have the beach and surf all to themselves. Visitor numbers increase during national holidays as Panamanians flock to their beloved playas (beaches) to enjoy family time, but there is plenty of room for everyone and lots of sand and surf to spare!
Expats in Playa Venao
Playa Venao is a relatively young community and as such draws younger, working expats in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Reliable fiber optic internet and strong WiFi service is a big draw for digital nomads who need to video conference and use streaming services. And co-working office spaces are springing up throughout Venao to facilitate this growing need.
“Playa Venao is possibly the hottest property market in the entire country. The demand for homes is far greater than the supply,” explains Tedd Tennis from Panama Sovereign Realty, who is a long-time Pedasi/Playa Venao expat originally from Michigan. “Venao is primarily a vacation destination and the folks who call it home full-time tend to be younger than in other communities, where the expats are primarily retirees, and they either work in the area or remotely online.”
Retired expats tend to live in El Ciruelo, a quick five-minute drive from Venao, and Canas, a short 10-minute drive away. Both are picturesque bedroom communities with more affordable long-term home and apartment rentals. Many of the retirees own oceanfront homes or homes with breathtaking coastal vistas.
Lifestyle in Playa Venao
In Playa Venao, life centers around the vibrant village, the beautiful beach, and the sparkling warm water. Have coffee at one of the cafes or a cold local cerveza (beer) and watch life unfold in this spectacular, unspoiled setting.
Surfers and sunbathers, families with grandparents and children in tow, beach volleyball players, dogs catching frisbees, and horseback riders skirting the frothy waves all live in harmony here.
Best of all, this dynamic surfing community has a growing roster of amenities. Playa Venao’s first supermarket opened recently. Shop the well-stocked aisles, freezers, and produce sections in air-conditioned comfort at Super Venao. A colorful commercial center, bakery, full-service laundromat, clothing boutiques, dentist, and several popular restaurants line the main street.
Other restaurants offer toes-in-the-sand dining experiences right on the beach. Wao Venao, a collection of food kiosks, a lively bar, and comfortable seating areas beckon invitingly. Savor enticing cuisine options and ice-cold beverages.
Wao Venao is also home to a central activities desk for booking a variety of excursions including surfing lessons, zip lining, fishing charters, and whale-watching tours. A central reservation center is also in the works.
“We wanted to create a space where all guests can come to experience the special Venao vibe and learn about what’s happening here,” explains Scott Andrews, founding partner of AMF Capital, which spearheads many of Playa Venao’s developments and offers hospitality/property management services.
Originally from Hawaii, Andrews has lived in Playa Venao for 10 years and in that time has been instrumental in this beach community’s growth.
He has created a Business Center complete with Playa Venao’s first doctor’s clinic, a car rental business, and a school in nearby Canas. Currently offering pre-kinder, kindergarten, and Grades 1 to 5, Manglares Discovery School plays a vital role for expat and local families seeking schooling for their children.
AMF is involved in local transportation as well, flying visitors from Panama City to Pedasi and arranging transportation to Playa Venao. In addition, there are scheduled and private shuttle services from Playa Venao to Panama City and Tocumen International Airport through several operators.
Venao is home to a range of accommodations from upscale resorts such as Playa Venao Hotel Resort to eco-friendly hostels like Eco Venao to boutique hotels with co-working spaces such as Nao Venao Boutique Hotel, which offers long-term stay options.
Andrews will be adding to this roster with his next project Wao Hotel. Directly adjacent to Wao Venao, it will feature 32 rooms, a beach club, bar, and a swimming pool. He is also building an economical, extended-stay hotel with kitchenettes in Canas.
As the population of Venao grows, additional shops, restaurants, and amenities are springing up. Across the street from Venao village a gas station complex complete with hardware/home store, specialty convenience store, and ATM machine has been a valuable addition.
Venao has a festive ambience in the evenings as live music and DJ-inspired hits spill out from the beach bars and restaurants. Expats seeking a quieter haven head to secluded beach bars further along the beach and watch the perfect sunset with a drink in hand.
Pedasi, about 30 minutes away, has several well-stocked stores, three gas stations, and a hospital. For more extensive shopping, expats travel to Las Tablas, a little over an hour from Venao, and Chitre, an hour and 45 minutes away. Both are much larger centers and offer a host of amenities and professional services.
Things to Do in Playa Venao
Playa Venao is a popular surf destination offering a variety of surf breaks to accommodate all levels, from beginner to advanced; from young surfers, to young-at-heart surfers. The surf shops dotting the beach and village offer a variety of board rentals and surf lessons.
While surfing is the biggest attraction, you don’t have to be a surfer to enjoy the many activities offered in this outdoor paradise.
Head to the water for a stand-up paddleboard or kayak eco-tour surrounded by the breathtaking beauty of nearby Isla Canas Wildlife Refuge. Jump into the crystal-clear water with a snorkel or diving equipment or stay on the water and go humpback whale watching. Known as the Tuna Coast, the abundant deep-sea fishing found here draws anglers from around the globe.
The fun continues on land where you can hike to waterfalls, take island tours, or go horseback riding on the beach. Ziplining down the slopes of Canas through the jungle canopy alive with monkeys and birds is always a thrill. Or stretch your body and mind during beach yoga or a martial arts class.
You can also get involved as a volunteer with Tortugas Playa Venao, led by energetic expat Scott Crystal. Crystal and his team of volunteers are dedicated to the care, conservation, and public education of the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles.
Safety in Playa Venao
“My family and I have never felt safer,” says Andrews, who is married and has two young children. “Panamanians are super tranquilo (calm).”
This sentiment is echoed throughout Playa Venao where people often leave their homes and cars unlocked. However, as in most vacation destinations, common sense should prevail.
Cost of Living in Playa Venao
Traditionally the local rental market has catered towards short-term stays, but there is a growing supply of furnished apartments, condos, and single-family homes offering longer-term rentals. Ranging from coveted beachfront to more economical off-the-beach rentals span from luxurious to basic.
For example, longer-term two-bedroom, two-bathroom beachfront rentals offering toes-in-the-sand experiences run at $3,000 and up per month. More affordable options include off-the-beach simple hostels with long-term rentals starting at $600 per month. These accommodations are dormitory style with a shared kitchen. Private units with kitchenettes start at $900 per month.
A limited but growing number of residential developments are underway with a handful of developers building homes on the beach, in the rolling hills behind Playa Venao, and in neighboring Canas and El Ciruelo, which will bring additional high-end residential units and condominium options to the area.
Properties range from a luxurious two-bedroom, two-bathroom condominium in a beachfront residential community, with access to exclusive resort amenities, for $365,000 to homes perched above Playa Venao with breathtaking panoramic ocean views for $1 million and up.
View lots in this tropical paradise, found in the lush hills behind Venao, start at $250,000, with building costs running around $900 and up per square meter. Further out in Canas, view lots can still be found for $150,000 and up.
Monthly Budget Breakdown for a Couple Living in Playa Venao:
|Rent (two-bedroom apartment during low season)||$1,500|
|Electricity (with AC at night)||$150|
|Cell phones||$70 for two phones|
|Cleaning lady for twice a month||$60|
|Gardener for once a week||$100|
|Private healthcare||$20 for two people|
The growing expat population in Playa Venao enjoys an active, healthy lifestyle in a spectacular natural setting. Whether relaxing oceanside with sand, sea and surfboard close by, or in the verdant hills with stunning vistas, young expats and retirees alike savor a rich and picturesque rural lifestyle.