Five Popular Beach Towns in Panama

Imagine living just a 20-minute flight from a world-class island destination…a 45-minute ferry from a tiny haven called the Island of Flowers…or an hour’s drive from an expansive, uncrowded beach that is home to an exuberant expat community.

In Panama, even those who choose to live in the bustling capital can enjoy the best of both worlds…city and beach. In fact, no matter where in the country you live, it’s difficult to be more than an hour away from a gorgeous tropical beach.

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Along Panama’s Caribbean coast, white-sand beaches and aquamarine waters rival the best of the Bahamas. For a memorable vacation, these picture-perfect destinations provide the ultimate tropical backdrop.

Pacific coast beaches, on the other hand, are the most popular for weekend homes and full-time living. With cobalt-blue waters and pine-grey sands…storm petrels and pelicans careening above…these beaches rival the beauty of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. And their waters are always warm.

Panama has so much to offer, from mountain havens boasting year-round mild temperatures to colonial towns where the traditions of grand old Spain have shaped and enriched the local culture. But it’s Panama’s sunny beaches that get the most attention…and with good reason.

Here are five of the best beach destinations in Panama:

1. Caribbean Cuisine & Culture: Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro beach

Best known for its islands, Bocas del Toro is one of Panama’s westernmost provinces. From the rough waters of Red Frog to starfish-strewn Boca del Drago, there are dozens of hidden coves and pristine beaches to explore.

Base yourself in the little hub known as Bocas Town, on Isla Colón, and spend your days hopping around the archipelago. You can relax on white-sand beaches, snorkel the crystalline waters, or trek through exuberant outcroppings of tropical foliage.

My favorite beach is on uninhabited  Zapatilla Island, about an hour by boat from town. Walk around the entire island (it only takes around 20 minutes), wade into the baby blue waters, or simply enjoy the spectacular vista laid out before you. Here, the best of the Caribbean is on display.

At night, Bocas Town comes alive with restaurants and bars offering live music and world-class dining. Evenings are leisurely, with everyone relaxing and enjoying the slow Caribbean pace.

Titled property can be difficult to find in Bocas del Toro, and the alternative—ROP, or Right of Possession property—is a gamble, so we recommend renting in this affordable Caribbean gem.

2. A Tribal Paradise: Guna Yala (formerly San Blas)

Guna Yala, Panama
©iStock.com/SimonDannhauer

There’s virtually nothing for sale in Guna Yala (formerly known as San Blas). No “land for sale” signs…no condos or housing developments…and definitely no shopping malls. You won’t find any resorts here, and the simple huts you’ll stay in are about as eco-friendly as can be.

So much more than a beach town, this indigenous reserve boasts an archipelago of more than three hundred islands, only 40 of which are inhabited. Many are mere dots of talcum white sands, topped with jungle growth and palm trees, and floating in a sea of turquoise.

Most visitors arrive in small planes and on boats. The views are stunning either way…it’s a world of green and blue, one of the most unspoilt places on earth. You can snorkel in crystal clear waters…drink cool coconut water, fresh from the beachside palms…and lay in hammocks, enjoying some of the world’s most captivating ocean views.

This is a place to live…for a few days…the way the Guna have for centuries. The islands are governed by the Guna tribespeople, who have worked hard to preserve their way of life and their pristine Caribbean habitat. The local cuisine is simple—don’t expect gourmet restaurants here. But if you love fresh seafood, you’ll be in heaven. If you’re lucky, there’ll be lobster and conch in addition to fresh fish.

The Guna make and sell many beautiful things, but their textile artform, the mola, is Panama’s best-known handicraft. The perfect souvenir, molas can be folded and packed away, then framed or stitched onto totebags, cushions, quilts, and more.

3. Panama’s Heartland: Pedasí

pedasi

Pedasí is one of the world’s most picturesque fishing towns. It’s located near the southern tip of the Azuero peninsula, a region known as Panama’s heartland.

The little village has a simple main drag lined with a handful of restaurants and inns. Behind that you’ll find a colonial plaza graced by a gazebo and a neatly whitewashed church. Drive a mile or so south of the town center and you’ll hit the first in a string of Pacific beaches, the sands varying from light tan to deep bronze to a glittering black.

This extraordinary and still largely untapped region, referred to by some as the “tuna coast,” has acquired a reputation as a prime off-the-radar destination for sport fishermen. Clean, uncrowded beaches and world-class surfing have attracted celebrities, athletes, and plenty of expats to these shores. And yet this area continues to be one of Panama’s least expensive, least explored regions.

Pedasí’s small expat cadre is active and friendly. The local community is well-known amongst Panamanians for valuing family life, polite manners, and cleanliness. Homes are nicely painted and stoops are swept daily.

My tips for Pedasí: 1- Head to Smiley’s in the village center to make some expat friends. 2- Plan a day trip to Isla Iguana, a spectacular white-sand beach and reserve filled with…you guessed it…iguanas. 3- Take a sunset walk in Venao, one of the prettiest dark sand beaches on the planet.

4. Number One For Expats: Coronado

Coronado-beach,-Panama

Just an hour’s drive from Panama’s capital, near the Bay of Panama, Coronado is Panama’s most popular beach town. Unlike the diamond-bright sands of the Caribbean, the beach here looks a light tan…until you get close and realize it’s white sand punctuated with slashes and swirls of black that shimmer like stars in the sunlight.

The “it” place for well-heeled locals with weekend homes, Coronado is a little hub for a bevy of surrounding beach towns. In recent years, it has grown to include comforts and amenities once found only in Panama City. An upscale medical facility, modern supermarkets, and new shopping plazas have sprung up around the entrance to the private community, with the beach area remaining quiet and uncluttered.

Coronado’s expat community is large and incredibly welcoming. People stay active with golf, tennis, pickleball, water aerobics, and more. Restaurants all along the coast offer live music and a variety of cuisines…French, Italian, Mexican, Peruvian, Thai, Chinese, Japanese…and the list goes on. In the greater Coronado region, known as the Dry Arc, there are big resorts, mom and pop eateries, and everything in-between.

Nearby towns offer plenty to explore, especially if you rent a car. Try a cool early morning dip at Los Cajones de Chame, a relaxing soak at the hot springs in El Valle, a hike to the Saltos de Filipinas waterfalls…or all three!

5. The Pearl of the Pacific: Contadora

©iStock.com/Danielho

A twenty-minute flight is all it takes to get from Panama City to the island of Contadora. The “airport” is little more than a landing strip, and you can walk from here to any destination on the island.

Contadora is part of the Pearl Archipelago, a string of islands visited by famous figures like Jimmy Carter, John Wayne, and the Shah of Iran. You’ll see a few small “mini-marts,” inns, and restaurants, and not much else. It’s a serene, elegant place, home to 11 picture-perfect beaches and some random deer.

Though Contadora is in the Pacific, the baby blue waters could easily fool you into thinking you’re in the Caribbean, powder white sand and all. The rocky cliffs and clear waters make for dramatic vistas, so bring your best camera.

There’s virtually no crime…or smog or cars, for that matter. Fishermen are happy to take tourists exploring. Visit outlying islands, go fishing, or simply enjoy a romantic ride. Homes here range from sweet cottages to great mansions owned by Panama’s wealthiest families. I highly recommend renting a cabin with a kitchen and a terrace from which you can sip wine and enjoy the peace and quiet.

Not a fan of tiny planes? There’s a ferry, too. Travel time is just under two hours. If you’re prone to seasickness, note that the ride back to Panama City can be a bit choppy.

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