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 pristine beach.
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 the five most popular beach towns in Panama:
1. Best of the Caribbean: Bocas del Toro
Best known for its islands, Bocas del Toro is Panama’s westernmost province, bordering Costa Rica. From the rough waters of Red Frog to starfish-strewn Boca del Drago, there are dozens of hidden coves and pristine beaches to explore.
Spend your days sprawled on powder white beaches, snorkeling the crystalline waters, or trekking through exuberant outcroppings of tropical foliage. One of my favorite Bocas beaches is on Zapatilla Island. To get here, most fly to the main island of Isla Colon (and check into an inn or hostel), then take one of the many water taxis or tours on offer by the water’s edge.
There are no shops, restaurants, or facilities of any kind on Zapatilla. It’s just raw, natural beauty at its best. You can walk around the island (in about 20 minutes), wade into the baby blue waters, or simply enjoy the spectacular view.
At night, Isla Colon—also known as Bocas Town—comes alive, with restaurants and bars offering live music and a wide variety of cuisines. Evenings are leisurely, with everyone relaxing and enjoying the slow Caribbean pace.
Titled property can be difficult to find in Bocas del Toro, so we recommend it as a place to visit or rent, but not to buy.
2. Experience of a Lifetime: Guna Yala
There’s virtually nothing for sale in Guna Yala (formerly known as San Blas). No land, no condos, no malls, or shops. You won’t find any resorts here, and all the simple huts and lodges are as eco-friendly as can be.
An indigenous reserve ruled by Panama’s Guna people, this Caribbean region boasts an archipelago of more than three hundred islands, some 40 of which are inhabited. Many are mere dots of talcum white sands, sprouting jungle growth and palm trees, and floating in a sea of turquoise.
Visitors to Guna Yala snorkel in crystal clear waters…buy lobster and hand-made crafts from tribespeople…and drink the cool refreshing agua de pipa (coconut water), fresh from the beachside palms. This is a place to live (for a few days at least) the way the Guna have for centuries, as well as lay in hammocks and enjoy some of the world’s most captivating ocean views.
3. Tiny Colonial Gem: Pedasí
One of the most picturesque fishing towns in Panama is tiny Pedasí. Located near the southern tip of the Los Santos province, Pedasí is known as the “tuna coast,” and it has acquired a reputation as a prime off-the-radar destination for sport fishermen.
The little village boasts a 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 of a string of Pacific beaches, the sands varying from light tan to deep bronze to a glittering black.
Friendly locals and clean, uncrowded beaches (not to mention world-class surfing) make the Pedasí region well worth a visit. It has become a popular retirement destination, with a small but active expat community. And more and more expats are discovering other parts of the region too, from the little colonial hub of Las Tablas to the surf destination of Venao.
4. Close and Convenient: Coronado
Just an hour’s drive from Panama City, the Pacific beach town of Coronado is perhaps Panama’s most popular retirement destination. Unlike the bright white sands of the Caribbean, the beach here looks the color of weathered pine…until you get close and realize it’s white sand punctuated with swirls of black that shine like glitter in the bright sun.
A popular place for well-heeled locals in search of weekend homes, Coronado is a little hub for surrounding towns. In recent years, it has grown to include comforts and amenities once found only in Panama City. An upscale hospital, modern supermarkets, and new shopping plazas have sprung up around the entrance to the exclusive community, with the beach area remaining quiet and uncrowded.
5. The Pearl of the Pacific: Contadora
A 20-minute flight is all it takes to get from Panama City to the island of Contadora, perhaps my favorite weekend destination on this list. The “airport” is little more than a landing strip, from which you can walk to any destination on the island. Here, you’ll find a few small “mini-marts,” inns and restaurants…and 11 postcard-worthy beaches.
Part of the storied Pearl Archipelago, Contadora is quiet and elegant. There’s virtually no crime…or smog or cars, or much else, for that matter. The locals are welcoming and the fishermen are happy to take tourists exploring. Visit outlying islands, try your hand at catching tuna or snapper, or simply enjoy a romantic ride. Homes here range from sweet cottages (a few owned by expats) to great mansions owned by Panama’s wealthiest families.
Not a fan of tiny planes? There are ferries, too. Travel time is just under two hours. The ride back to Panama City can be a bit choppy, but the views are spectacular.