Try to find Panama on the map, and you’ll probably have to zoom in a few times. A tiny country that connects (and disconnects) North and South America, Panama is only 772 kilometres long, and on average about 100 kilometres wide. And with such a small territory, Panama manages to offer visitors 100s of beaches both on its northern Caribbean coastline and the southern Pacific. Whether you are looking for world-class surfing, crystal clear waters and white sands, or something in between – Panama’s got it all.
Surfing on the Pacific Coast
The Pacific coastline is home to some of the top surfing spots in Panama. I am nowhere near a surfer, I don’t even really like small waves, but I’ve heard great things from fellow yogis and wave catchers. The truth is, during high tide I’ve seen surfing lessons done in Panama City itself, on the waters near Casco Viejo or the old colonial town. This wouldn’t be my personal recommendation, as the waters are said to be quite contaminated, but if you are out of time and really set on surfing then this is one option.
It gets much better though as you go further up the Pacific Coast. Starting with Punta Chame, which is less than an hour drive away from the Capital, onwards to Playa Venao, Cambutal, and finally Santa Catalina. All of these locations have excellent hostels and hotels for surfers, offer lessons for beginners and have all the facilities that you might need. They are generally not the most picturesque beaches in the country, since the sand is brownish-black and the water isn’t quite crystal clear, but you also get access to excellent hiking and nature trails not far from these beaches. Plus, if you are not that into surfing, but don’t want to spend too much on travel time, there are some calmer waters near Pedasi, but you will normally need a car to get to these easily.
The Pearl Islands
As I’ve mentioned, I am not huge on surfing, so I may have a bias when I say this – but the Pearl Islands have some of the best beaches in Panama. I’ve spent a few weekends on Contadora Island in my 3 years in Panama, and every time it was magical. White sand, blue seas, and a small quaint island, with an interesting and rich history. You can reach Contadora on a 1.5 hour ferry ride from Panama City or a 30-minute flight out of the local airport. On the island, there is a number of hotels or villas for rent. Because it’s pretty small, you can easily walk around the island or rent a golf cart to get around, which is great fun. The only catch with the Pearl Islands is that they are very expensive. The ferry alone is almost $100US return and the accommodation starts in about that range. The food here will also run more than regular prices in the rest of the country, so keep that in mind if planning a trip.
Taboga and Chame – Closest Beaches to Panama City
If you only have a little bit of time in Panama but still want to hit the beach, there are basically two options for day trips on the Pacific side. Taboga Island is only a 30-minute boat ride away. It’s a tiny little island, with a small cute town and a cosy beach. Depending on the tide, you’ll get more or less beach, but the water is generally clean, the sand is soft, and the restaurants on the island are delicious. It may not be the most fantastic beach in Panama, but it’s definitely a great day trip option. Chame and nearby beaches are also a short drive away, but once again, these won’t offer you swimming waters – rather surfing and body-boarding.
Coiba and Boca Chica – Off the Beaten Path
For those who have the time and energy to explore something a little more secluded, Coiba and Boca Chica offer two great options. Coiba is an island off the coast of Veraguas Province, reachable from Santa Catalina, about 5-6 hours away from Panama City. A national park, the island was previously home to one of the most notorious prisons in the country, which has since been closed. The fact that there are no settlements has preserved rich biodiversity, but also means that the only way to enjoy Coiba is camping or during a day trip. Boca Chica is every further up the Pacific Coast and is the perfect spot for those looking for a more laid-back and less visited beach destination in Panama City.
Panama’s All-Inclusive Resorts
While I am not big on all-inclusive resorts, not mentioning them would make this guide somewhat incomplete. These big complexes dot the Farallon beach, about 3 hours outside of Panama City. While the beaches themselves here are just OK, they do offer really nice facilities – swimming pools, villas, restaurants, entertainment, and more.
Bocas del Toro
The Caribbean is my true love when it comes to beaches. The warm water, low tide changes, palm trees and picturesque islands are absolutely stunning. Bocas del Toro, or just Bocas, is one of the first destinations in Panama that drew in many tourists. What used to be a backpacker destination, however, it has been steadily rising in the ranks of luxurious getaways as well. That means you can get a little bit of everything – hostels, mid-range hotels, and high-end secluded getaways. Isla Colon is the main island, where most people sleep, eat and party, but with 100s of small islands, there are beaches in every direction and for every taste. Near the town, the beaches are quite average, but take a short boat ride to Carenero Island, Red Frog Beach or the Zapatilla islands and you’ll find Caribbean heaven. Surfers will also love Bocas, since the beaches on Isla Colon offer some great waves.
San Blas Islands
If you only choose one beach area to go to in Panama, then this should be it. San Blas or Kuna Yala is actually part of an autonomous indigenous province of the same name. Comprised of 100s of tiny little islands, the province offers some of the best world-class beaches in the Caribbean at a fraction of the cost and without the posh resorts. Instead, there may be only a few other people staying on the island with you, or might even camp out on an inhabited island. Keep in mind that the living conditions are rather basic, no A/C or usually even floors in your cabin, simple food and facilities, but a lot of hospitality and a complete disconnect from the rest of the world. From Panama City, it’s easy to organize transportation to the main ports from where boats will take you to one of the many San Blas islands, it’s only about a 3-hour drive plus your boat ride.
Portobelo, Palenque and Isla Grande
More of a favourite with the locals, the Caribbean islands near Colon – a port city directly opposite Panama City, is another great option, especially if you want something close and easy to get to, or just want to go for a day trip. Portobelo is home to the ruins of a fort that protected the land during colonial times, and from here, boats take visitors to a number of smaller islands like Isla Mamey or Playa Blanca. A little drive further and you’ll find La Guaira, from here you can embark on a short journey to Isla Grande. For something even more secluded, keep driving and you’ll find Palenque, a small village and beach area – the beaches won’t be as nice as the islands, but you will also get a lot of privacy here.
Panama offers a great variety of beaches for every traveller. The great thing is that being such a small country, it’s pretty easy to see both the Caribbean and the Pacific side in one trip, taking advantage of the laid-back white-sand islands and the more action-packed Pacific tides.