From the tried and true to the unexplored, here’s Magnolia’s list of our favorite Panamanian beaches.
Panama is an isthmus squeezed between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean and has 1,786 miles (2,857 kilometers) of coastline. Between the mangroves and the mud flats, there are some gems of beaches out there. This list gives a sampling of the beaches across Panama, from Bocas del Toro in the west to the Darien in the east; from the Caribbean coast in the north to the southern Pacific beaches in the Azuero; the beaches close to Panama City and out on the Pearl Islands.
Panama’s Northern Coast Beaches
To clear up any confusion from the start, Panama City is located on the southern coast of Panama on the Pacific Ocean. Sixty miles north of the city sits Colón, Panama’s second largest city and the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. There are three main destinations along the Caribbean coast to enjoy great beaches – in Colón province around the town of Portobelo; dotted all over the San Blas Islands in the semiautonomous indigenous province of Guna Yala; and in Bocas del Toro province located near Panama’s western boarder with Costa Rica.
The Caribbean coast is much different than Panama’s southern coast in landscape, vegetation and culture – from the Afro-Antillean roots of Colón and Bocas del Toro to the semi-autonomous indigenous province of Guna Yala, you’ll find the white sand and salty water of the Caribbean with most beaches on small islands located relatively close to the mainland.
Panama’s Southern Coast Beaches
Beaches located on Panama’s southern shores are as varied as they are beautiful. Close to the city the beaches are not spectacular, but they are great beaches, nonetheless, and their convenience can’t be beat. These beaches in the provinces of Panama and Coclé are easily accessible from the city and can be enjoyed even if you have only one day to spare.
If you have more than a couple days, the spectacular Pearl Islands are just a short flight or ferry ride away from Panama City. The most popular and easily accessible island is Contadora, which boasts 11 gorgeous beaches and is small enough to cover on foot (or scooters and golf carts). Farther afield in the west are the surf beaches of the Azuero peninsula. Towns like Pedasí, Playa Venao and Playa Cambutal are perfect spots for catching some waves or blissing out at a yoga retreat. The vibe is chill and the people are friendly.
If you really want to get off the beaten path and explore a wild and remote beach, head to Jaqué in the Darién province. Close to world renowned deep sea fishing outfits like Tropic Star Lodge, the town of Jaqué has been cut off from the rest of Panama’s tourists boom due to the FARC rebels, but as the Colombian crisis ends and the rebels put down their guns, expect more travel into the awesome rugged beauty of the Darien. For now, travel with a reputable tour guide and don’t forget to pack your sense of adventure.
Similar to beach towns everywhere, you can often expect a quick afternoon shower daily. The driest months run mid-December through May, and the rainy season lasts from June to mid-December. During the wettest months, expect daily afternoon showers that last an hour or two. Rarely does it rain all day.
Panama is renowned for its riptides. No matter how refreshing the water looks, analyze conditions, stay out of choppy water, or head to a beach known for calm water.
Without further adieu, here are our picks for the best beaches in Panama:
Beaches in Panama Province
Punta Chame Beach
Punta Chame is a long, stretched out, semi-deserted beach with soft sand and a beautiful mountain backdrop across the Bahía de Chame in central Panama. Because of the nearly constant wind, it is a first rate beach for kite surfing, though more relaxing activities can surely be had like bird watching and walking the expansive beach checking out the views of Panama City’s skyscrapers and the islands of Otoque and Taboga in the distance. If you do want to try your hand at kite surfing, there is a school on the beach that caters to both beginners and more advanced students. The windsurfing/kite surfing season runs from mid-November to the end of April.
To arrive at the punta (point) you exit the Inter-American Highway and drive 25 km down a long, thin peninsula passing shrimp farms and mangroves. It’s only an hour and a half drive from Panama City (70 km west). While it is a popular spot for adrenaline-junkies who visit the Nitro City adventure sports hotel, there are few amenities (only a few hotels and residences) so it’s not overcrowded or obnoxious. It’s simply a great spot to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Be advised, however, that the waves are great for kite surfing but can sometimes be rough for swimming, and there are times when there are stingrays in the water, so watch out for the signs and shuffle your feet!
There are only a few services in Punta Chame. Along the beach there are a couple hotels with restaurants. The nicest restaurant in town is the lovely Casa Amarilla. It’s a charming French restaurant that you definitely shouldn’t miss (it has great vegetarian options, too!). You can pick up ice and beer and other convenience store items at the chino in Punta Chame, but for a bank, ATM, and basic grocery stores you have to stop in the town of Chame, located along the Inter-American Highway.
Just west of the turnoff for Punta Chame along the Inter-American Highway are located a string of other lovely beaches: Playa Coronado and Playa Farallón, both beach resort destinations, Playa El Palmar, a surfing beach, and the laid back white-sand beach of Playa Santa Clara.
Santa Clara Beach
Santa Clara is located along the Pacific coast in Central Panama, just off the Inter-American Highway 108 km east of Panama City and only 13 km past Coronado. Santa Clara’s calm waters make it great for swimming, and it has soft sand that is nice for lounging. The beach is nice and long, perfect for running or walking. Though it’s not very crowded during the week, it’s a popular local spot on the weekends and holidays.
There are a few hotels and restaurants located right on the beach. For a more rustic experience you can rent out a hammock or rancho for a few bucks a night, or pitch your own tent along the shore. If you want to go the other way and really splurge, you’ll find popular all-inclusive resorts nearby, which boast water sports, beach activities, fine dining and nightly entertainment.
Las Veraneras Restaurant is on the beach at the western end where you’ll also find the crowds on the weekends. Keep in mind that this can turn into a party beach on some days, but because the shore is plenty, everyone can usually coexist peacefully. Also, be aware that there are rip currents all along Panama’s central coast, so you shouldn’t go deeper than your waist to be on the safe side.
If you’re taking a bus, take any of the buses heading west and they can drop you off at the turnoff (Río Hato, Anton, or Penonomé buses will all get you there). The nearest larger town is Penonomé located 36 km west. Santa Clara also makes for a great stop off when heading from El Valle back to Panama City.
Isla Contadora Beaches
Gulf and Canal Zone – Pearl Islands
The Pearl Islands are a group of some 200 islands about 30 miles off the Pacific coast of Panama in the Gulf of Panama. The islands have been made famous as a popular location for reality TV shows like Survivor and other programs like The Real Swiss Family Robinson, The Island with Bear Grylls and the Dutch show Adam Looking for Eve. Vasco Nunez de Balboa named the islands because of the many pearls that were found there and legend has it that Spanish conquistadors used the Contadora Island to take account of their inventory before returning to Spain (contadora means counter or bookkeeper in Spanish).
Today you’ll find impressive mansions, quaint accommodations, luscious vegetation, and some of the most spectacular beaches in Panama. The island is small, only half a mile square (1.2 square kilometers), but there are eleven stunning beaches to enjoy. Rent a golf-cart, scooter or bike for the day and visit all of these lovely beaches. For snorkeling, try Playa Galeón and Playa Larga. For peaceful isolation, try the marvelous Playa Cacique. And to forget about tan lines, try the tide pools at Playa de las Sueces, Panama’s only nude beach. If you wanted to hire a boat, you can check out the neighboring islands of Pacheca, Isla de los Párajos, Saboga, Casaya and Mogo Mogo.
There are a few restaurants on the island, as well as a dive shop and other convenience stores. There are no ATMs or banks so bring what you will need. You can arrive to the island by air or sea. Flights from Panama City are 25 minutes or you can take a fast ferry that will get you there in 2 hours. A wonderful time to visit is during the whale migration between July and October. Every year Humpback whales migrate north from the southern hemisphere to mate, give birth, nurse and prepare the young whales for the long journey back south.
Colon Province Beaches
Central Caribbean Coast
Isla Grande is a small island in the Caribbean just 15 km past the historic town of Portobelo. The island is a great spot with nice beaches and a very chill vibe. You won’t find any roads, but you will enjoy lots of coconuts, fresh fish and reggae music. There is good swimming and snorkeling, as well as a decent surf spot over a shallow reef. If you do plan on surfing, wear booties and don’t get in the water alone if you’ve never surfed here before.
For a breathtaking panoramic view of the Caribbean Sea, follow a forested trial to the El Faro Lighthouse. The lighthouse was designed and constructed by the French during their Canal building campaign in the late 1800s. The original light that sat on top of the lighthouse is now in the Panama Canal Museum in Panama City, and was designed by Gustav Eiffel. Today the lighthouse still serves as a landfall light for ship arriving at the Panama Canal from the northeast. The hike is about 30 minutes and is accessible from town and the nearby resorts.
Isla Grande is a two-hour drive by car from Panama City. To get there from Panama City drive towards Colón. Take a right turn at the El Rey grocery store and McDonalds in Colón, heading towards Portobelo. After passing Portobelo, La Guaira is the end of the road. You can park your car in the secured areas, which cost a few dollars a day. You can catch a boat taxi on the dock that will take you about 300 meters to the island and cost a couple bucks. Buses leave from the main street in Portobelo to La Guira
Central Caribbean Coast
Near Isla Grande is the small island of Isla Mamey. If you’ve been looking for a great camp spot in Panama, you’ve found it. Located along Panama’s Caribbean coast, Isla Mamey is small — only about one acre in total — but has a good beach, crystal clear water, nice trees and a beautiful landscape.
There are concrete camping pads where you can pitch your tent or you can choose to set up on the grass behind them. Bring all of your water and provisions for your stay, as there is nowhere to buy anything on the island. With your friends and a barbeque you’re all set for a glorious couple days enjoying the ocean breezes in the sand and surf. At night you’ll enjoy the peaceful lull of the ocean waves while gazing up at the stars.
Try not to visit on a weekend, it will be packed with local families, but if you can make it on a weekday you might have the whole island to yourself. Admission to the island costs a dollar and boat taxis from the town of Puerto Lindo run about six dollars round-trip. Pack smart. If you camp be sure to bring a tarp in (the likely) case of rain.
Comarca Guna Yala Beaches
San Blas Islands
There are a number of destinations in the Panama’s Guna Yala archipelago where you can enjoy great beaches. Accommodations range from rustic to above average (keep in mind that you’re there for the area’s idyllic island beauty, not any swanky accommodations). You can fly into Achutupo, Mulatupo or El Porvenir and travel to islands close to those nearby airports, or you can drive or fly into the small town of Cartí, a short distance from the beautiful little Aguja Island.
The island, which means Needle Island in the native Guna language, has a white-sand beach and swaying palm trees. The clear water is great for swimming, snorkeling, or just cooling off. The island is fairly accessible—it takes about ten minutes to get here by boat from the coast.
San Blas Islands
Isla Perros is one of the biggest and most popular islands in San Blas. A small island surrounded by crystal-clear, warm water, it’s a little paradise. There is a nearby shipwreck that is a great place to snorkel and see the colorful fish and corals. And there are plenty of palm trees to hang out in the shade.
It’s usually not crowded and the island is clean and beautiful. There are cabañas with great views or you can opt to camp out on the beach.
There is a bathroom and rustic restaurant on the island, but do bring water, snacks and towels with you when you go.
From Cartí, take a 45-minute boat ride to arrive at the island.
Los Santos Province Beaches
Want to chase down tuna, roosterfish, wahoo, marlin, and grouper? Playa Cambutal is located on the Azuero Peninsula’s “Tuna Coast” – so named because the seafloor dives steeply just beyond the coastline, creating an area that’s ideal for large fish. Deep-sea anglers will have a great time at this laid-back beach town on the southern Azuero Peninsula.
If fishing isn’t your thing, Playa Cambutal also boasts nice waves with no crowds. Just a couple years ago, only a few surf fanatics and the locals knew of lovely this off-the-beaten path destination. Today there is the impetus of development to welcome more travelers to this beautiful part of the country. There are nice hotels located along the beach that serve great food and drinks and offer activities and equipment, like surf boards and kayaks.
The black sand beaches, great surf waves, mountain backdrops, and magnificent sunsets make for an excellent getaway and well worth the effort to get there. You can enjoy a morning horseback ride, explore the Cerro Hoya National Park and look for the endangered scarlet macaw in the beautiful costal forests, take an afternoon surf lesson, and sit and sip cold drinks by the pool at sunset. Driving from Panama City will take you between five and six hours, but you won’t mind once you’re on the beach sipping a cool cocktail watching a spectacular sunset.
Darien Province Beaches
The vast and unexplored beaches of Jaqué in the Darién
Never hear of Jaqué? Most people haven’t. It’s located in Panama’s Darién province. The Darién is a vast undeveloped area that connects Central and South America and in the very recent past has been notorious for FARC rebel activity. Still, the Darién National Park contains an extremely rich biodiversity with varieties of habitats, like beaches, rocky coasts, mangroves, swamps, and lowland and upland tropical forests containing remarkable wildlife. On top of that, the province is home to a number of indigenous tribes.
Jaqué sits on a beautiful coast with powerful waves. There is no road access in this sleepy fishing village, so you must arrive by boat or by plane. There’s a diverse population of Afro-Darienitas, Emberá and Wounaan, which make the town a uniquely cultural experience. Adding to Jaqué’s wild and untamed beauty are the huge and majestic marine turtles who come to nest here seasonally. Not for the novice traveler, this is admittedly a difficult spot to travel to, but it just goes to show Panama’s wild and unexplored treasures in the Darien.
Although much of the Darién is impassable and dangerous, there are some parts that can be visited, although travelling by yourself limits your opportunities and can be dangerous. To visit Jaqué contact a reputable tour operator who could arrange accommodations and the flight from Panama City for you. Another way to get there (or close) is by booking an epic fishing trip at the exclusive Tropic Star Lodge in neighboring Bahia Piña. At this world-renowned fishing resort, you’ll get up close and personal with black marlin, blue marlin and sailfish.