The slender Isthmus of Panama is caressed by the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. A place that is endlessly alluring for beach lovers, many visit to see the famous canal, but stay and fall in love with both coasts where white sand beaches mesh with wild jungle. Untouched islets and alluring archipelagos await.
Panama City is this nation’s skyscraper-laden capital and a convenient gateway to sandy adventures all around. The nearest “pinch me please” paradise island is just 30 minutes away by ferry. Here are nine of the best beach trips from Panama City, an often-overlooked gem in Central America.
French impressionist painter Paul Gaugin found Isla Taboga so delightful that he lived there twice. Nicknamed “Island of the Flowers,” Taboga is the most accessible island to Panama City. It can be reached by hopping on a 30-minute ferry from Panama City’s Amador Causeway, home to the polychromatic Frank Gehry design Biomuseo, which is the world’s first biodiversity museum. Book your ferry tickets ahead of time with Taboga Express and bring your passport along for the ride.
Panama’s most postcard-worthy beach this is not, but Veracruz is the closest beach to Panama City. From downtown Panama City, you could be feasting on delicious seafood at a beachside restaurant after a 30-minute cab ride (depending on traffic). Praia Fish and Drinks is a must-visit Veracruz beach bar serving scrumptious meals and good vibes. Don’t forget to take a photo on the swing.
The Archipelago of Bocas del Toro has it all. Over-the-water bungalows, happening hostels, honeymoon hotels, incredible water adventures, and Central America’s first island crawl: Filthy Friday.
These nine islands have much to offer every kind of traveler and each has its own distinct personality and appeal. Isla Colon is the principal island and the main draw for revelers and shoppers, and nearby Isla Carenero was made for lazy days. Rumor has it the name comes from ‘careening’: when a ship is turned on its side for maintenance or repair. Another tale involves Christopher Columbus docking there for a few days to fix his ship and recover from stomach pain. You’ll feel just fine and dandy sipping a piña colada at Bibi’s on the Beach, bronzing, or blissfully snorkeling on Carenero. The protected Zapatilla Cays mustn’t be missed either if you’ve ever wanted to visit a pristine, untouched island. Beautiful Bocas del Toro is a quick 45-minute flight from Panama City’s Albrook airport.
While Cajones de Chame isn’t a beach, it’s a memorable place to dip, swim, play, and pose to your heart’s content. You’ve probably already seen it on Instagram. Get an adrenaline rush as you jump off the cliffs into the waters of this natural canyon formed by the Chame River. You can swim through the entire canyon and catch your breath at little picturesque rock pools. All of this is yours after a 90-minute drive from Panama’s capital.
Surfing and parties are the main attractions in Venao. This beach town in the Azuero Peninsula became Panama’s electronic music haven of sorts. Many make the five-hour drive from the city to catch waves in the day and dance the night away at music festivals like Sonica Venao. Merrymakers then catch forty winks at Selina or Tipi Hostel, which as the name suggests, has quaint A-Frame cabins and tipis for lodging.
Car-free Isla Contadora has a storied and glamorous past. Elizabeth Taylor, John Wayne, and Jimmy Carter all resided there and it was reportedly an important stomping ground for Spanish conquistadors who used it as a location to take inventory of their booty. “Contador” means counter or bookkeeper in Spanish.
Isla Contadora sits within the Pearl Islands Archipelago, which has more than 90 islands. Many of “The Pearls” are unspoiled and even more are unnamed. Several seasons of Survivor were filmed on these islands and snorkeling here is a treat. From Panama City, you can get to this turquoise haven by plane (a 20-minute flight with Air Panama) or with an hour and a half ferry.
Competition is fierce for Panama’s best beach trip, but Isla Grande stands tall. Not to be confused with Playa Grande in the province of Chiriquí, Isla Grande is about two and a half hours away from Panama City in the province of Colón. You’ll be struck by just how colorful it is and somewhat surprisingly, a life-sized statue of a black Jesus Christ stands tall in the water.
There are no roads on Isla Grande and life here is pretty laid back, except when there’s a local celebration like Isla Grande Carnaval or Festival of the Black Christ in October. Despite its name, which translates to “big island,” Isla Grande is humble in size and home to around 1,000 inhabitants, many of which are of African descent. Come for freshly caught seafood and to let your worries melt away in a hammock under the palm trees.
Go back to basics with a visit to Isla Mamey where there are no restaurants or hotels. Day trip and bring a grill and picnic supplies, or pack camping gear to spend the night stargazing. Also in the province of Colón, Isla Mamey is about two hours from Panama City. If driving there from the capital, you can pay a visit to the Fort of San Lorenzo in the port city of Portobelo on the way. Now a sleepy town, Portobelo was a trans-shipment point during the Spanish colonial era and was repeatedly attacked by thieving pirates. Isla Mamey is a heart-stealing island best enjoyed on a weekday. The secret’s out and weekends get very busy.
What’s better than one paradisiacal butterscotch sand island in the sun? About 365 of them. Indeed, the Archipelago of San Blas has a postcard-worthy dreamboat for every day of the year. Also known as Guna Yala, San Blas is inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people. Reaching this archipelago involves a slithery 3-hour journey in a 4×4 from Panama City to Carti followed by a boat to your island(s) of choice.
Visiting San Blas is a pared back experience and an opportunity to truly disconnect. Electricity only runs in the evening on many tourist islands and your phone signal probably won’t work; a small price to pay to be in such scenic surroundings. San Blas’ beauty is almost unfathomable; the gin-clear sea is visible practically anywhere you look. Of all the dazzling destinations in Panama, this is the one not to miss.