Los Santos, Panama: The Best of Beach Living in Los Santos

What if you were sitting in the shade of a palm tree looking out at coral white sands on a tropical island? Yesterday, you were learning to paddleboard from a hidden cove, and tomorrow you'll explore surfing spots farther up the mainland coast.

Tonight you'll choose from French cuisine, Italian pasta, or feast on fresh-caught tuna while watching the game at Smileys bar. Life is laid back, your days are spent in flip flops and shorts, and all in, your costs are less than $1,500 a month. (And that's for a couple, including rent.)

It's a lifestyle that's waiting for you in Panama's Los Santos province. Beaches here come in all shapes and sizes, but each is unspoiled and often deserted. These perfect stretches of sand and the warm waters that lap them are what draw most foreign folks to the region.

In-the-know surfers have long traveled to beaches like Venao to catch the waves, and sport fishing enthusiasts can hire a boat and captain for $60 a day to hunt tuna, sailfish, dorado, and wahoo.

The diving and snorkeling here is best-in-class. And as the continental shelf dips steeply into the sea in this part of Panama, it's one of the best places anywhere to observe whales, dolphins, turtles, and other marine wildlife.

An idyllic beach life isn't the only attraction. The climate here is the driest in Panama averaging 88 F year round with less rain than anywhere else in the country.

Los Santos makes up the southeastern chunk of a huge peninsula in the central Pacific part of Panama. Its eastern coastline is fairly sheltered most of the year, facing into the Gulf of Panama, while its southern shores face the Pacific winds—hence the surfing.

But there's more to the region than pristine beaches, a warm climate, and low costs. I found a verdant hill country, too, where incredible ocean-view lots can be yours for just $30,000...if you know where to look. And Los Santos is the heartland of Panama's Spanish heritage. It's home to folkloric dresses and dancing, devils masks, hand-woven hats, and the country's most famous festivals.

The principal town is Las Tablas, or "the boards," named, so the story goes, for the salvaged planks shipwrecked Spaniards used to build it after escaping the pirate Henry Morgan. Today, it's a pleasant farm town within easy reach of several beaches.

Panamanians are friendly people, but those of Los Santos are especially warm. An example? Cycling the new asphalt road from the town of Pedasí to the closest beach I stopped to admire a horse tied to a tree outside a cantina. Within minutes I was drinking a beer and practicing my Spanish with his owner.

Perhaps that's why this is my favorite place in the country. Folks here make you feel at home. They wave from the back of pickups, honk a greeting, or smile a buenos dias from hammocks and porch-front rocking chairs.

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