Can you think of a better way to immerse yourself into Panamanian life than by heading out to the county’s 1,500 miles of shoreline? The Isthmus of Panama is blessed with alluring, azure-hued beaches on the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. One of the benefits of being based in Panama City is that a gorgeous beach is often just a hop, skip and a jump away. Bocas del Toro is a 50-minute flight away; the surf breaks of Coronado are an hour from Panama City driving and the island of Contadora in the Pearl Archipelago can be explored after a 90-minute ferry ride from the city. While you would have spied the water in photos of Panama City’s skyline, there aren’t actually any beaches within the city limits. Here are seven of the best beach trips from Panama City.
Veracruz is one of the closest beaches to the capital and it’s a short Uber ride away (around 30 minutes depending on traffic) at a cost of around $7. It may not be the best beach for swimming, but it makes up for this by offering great opportunities to eat very well. There are several beach bars dotted all around Veracruz including Veri Veri, Praia, Panorama and Red Lion. Take your pick.
2. Isla Taboga
The most accessible island to Panama City, Taboga is the perfect day trip on a platter. Affectionately called “island of flowers” by Panamanians, Taboga is a mere 30-minute ferry ride from Panama City’s Amador Causeway. The journey there and back costs $20 with Taboga Express. There are 4 daily departures to Taboga at 8 AM, 9:30 AM, 11 AM and 3 PM (and one additional departure at 4:30 PM on weekends and Public Holidays). For the way back, it’s 8:45 AM, 10:15 AM, 2:30 PM, 4:30 PM (and an extra 5 PM ferry on weekends and holidays). Ensure to bring your ID or passport with you.
See the flowers and more with a hike through one of the islands many paths. Don’t be surprised if the beautiful surroundings fill you with inspiration: even Paul Gauguin came to live on Taboga, not once, but twice.
3. Isla Contadora
There are no cars on Contadora, only golf carts. There are also stunning secluded beaches, gourmet dining, and lush accommodations. “Contadora” means bookkeeper or counter in Spanish. Before returning to Spain, the conquistadors allegedly used Contadora as the grounds to take stock of all their inventory, granting the island it’s unique name. Till today, its reputation as a magnet for the financially blessed remains intact. There are grand mansions dotted all around the equally grand beaches. Previous visitors include John Wayne and Jimmy Carter.
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Contadora sits within the Pearl archipelago and is about a 90-minute ferry ride away. There are two companies with services to and from Contadora. Ferry las Perlas in Punta Pacifica departs at 06:30 AM and returns at 3 PM. The full price is $132 for adults and $105 for kids. A one-way journey is $66. Sea las Perlas‘ ferry terminal is on Amador (Club de Brisas de Amador to be precise). Boarding starts at 6:45 AM and departs every day at 7:30 AM and returns from Contadora (Galeon Beach) at 3:30 PM daily. A roundtrip costs $90 ($70 for children) and a one-way ticket is $49 for adults and $39 for kids. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (507) 391-1424 to reserve. Every now and then, travel deals to the Pearl islands can be found on Oferta Simple, Panama’s answer to Groupon.
The ferry trip is an experience in itself. One may also take a 20-minute flight there with Air Panama. Return flights hover at around $ 134. The pearl islands are a must-visit. Mainly because there are 90 of them, many unnamed, and many wonderfully unspoilt.
4. The San Blas Islands
No list about beach trips from Panama City is complete without mentioning San Blas (otherwise known as Guna Yala), where postcards come to life. One for every day of the year, San Blas is an archipelago of 365 breath-taking islands in the northwest of Panama, which are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna tribe who control all tourism to the region. There are countless local tour organisers that can whisk you to this slice of paradise: Cacique Cruiser, San Blas Adventures, Guna Yala Explorer, San Blas Dreams and Go2SanBlas to name but a few. You’ll usually pay just over $100 per day, regardless of which tour organiser you choose. The trip involves driving to Cartí by 4X4 and then continuing your journey by boat to your chosen island destination(s). San Blas brings a new meaning to island hopping. The archipelago has around 365 islands and islets; you can often genuinely swim from one to another, taking in the friendly marine life along the way. The waters here are so pristine that snorkel gear is essentially optional. San Blas’ beauty really does call for a reality check.
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5. Playa Venao
Five hours away from Panama City in the Azuero Penninsula, Playa Venao is a surfer’s beach through and through. Venao’s waves enthral surfers of all levels, from all around the world. It’s also home to several major surf competitions. Come here for a distinct mix of party and adventure. You can get to Venao by flying to Pedasí with Air Panama and continuing your journey by land (a 45-minute drive).
Taking the bus is the more affordable way to go. Head to Panama City’s Albrook bus station and take the bus to Las Tablas. The bus ride is 4 and a half hours and will most likely be air-conditioned so bringing a sweater is highly recommended. From Las Tablas, there is then one direct bus to Venao which you can take or catch a quick taxi from there to complete your journey.
Approximately 90km West of Panama City lies this expansive black and grey sand beach. Coronado accommodates city escapees hoping to surf and mingle with the growing number of expats and foreigners setting up shop (or home) here permanently in Coronado’s gated communities. Coronado is about an hour’s drive from the city or you can take a bus from the Albrook bus terminal. There are several buses every day and the ticket costs around $4. To return to Panama City, buses run up until midnight. On the way back, buses fill up very quickly (particularly on weekends) so give yourself ample time to get back to the city if you are day-tripping.
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7. El Palmar
A laidback beach where the surf’s good and the living is easy: that’s El Palmar in a nutshell. You can get there in an hour and a half if driving, or you can take the bus from Panama City towards Penonomé and hop off in San Carlos. Then you can take a taxi down to the beach for about $2 or walk for ten minutes. Palmar is 10km to the west of Coronado and has been known to see a gorgeous purple sunset or two. Palmar is one of the best places to surf and learn to surf, close to Panama City. Panama Surf School might be a good place to start.
This Colon port city is home to UNESCO World Heritage sites as well as some tranquil beaches for snorkelling and extreme relaxation. In Portobelo, you’ll find several scuba-diving schools as well as Panama’s first customs building. It may be relatively sleepy today, but its history is anything but. Portobelo was once a pirate city, attacked several times by pirates such as British Sir Francis Drake, lured there by all the looted Spanish treasures from the Inca Empire (Portobelo was a trans-shipment point during the Spanish Colonial era). An hour and a half drive from Panama City, in the province of Colon, Portobelo could make an eye-catching stopover on the way to visit Isla Grande or Isla Mamey. Getting there by bus entails going to Albrook station and taking a bus to Sabanitas. From there you change for the bus to Portobelo. The very last bus to Portobelo departs in the early evening around 6:30 PM.
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9. Isla Mamey
Also in Colon, Isla Mamey is 2 hours from Panama City and is another contender for the Panamanian island beauty Olympics. You’ll be tasked with bringing your own picnic gear and supplies here, as there are no restaurants; just endless powdery white sand and blue water; perfect for a barbecue, to camp, or stargaze come nightfall. Isla Mamey is a 5-minute boat ride from Puerto Lindo. You can reach Puerto Lindo by taking the bus to Colon from Albrook station. Once you arrive in Colon, stay within the terminal and take the bus with “La Guaira” written on it. Once there, a lancha (motorised boat) will get you to Mamey in no time. There are also tour operators like Keteka that organise day trips there and back.
10. Isla Grande
Another Colon gem, you’ll be struck by how colourful Isla Grande is, and we aren’t just talking about the water. Isla Grande (not to be confused with Playa Grande) is close to Portobelo and is about two and a half hours away from Panama City. You can also get there by catching a boat at the harbour in the town of La Guaira. The island is only 300 metres away from there. Tip: ask a local to show you the “Congo” dance.
11. Cajones de Chame
In less than two hours from Panama City, you could be relaxing at Cajones de Chame. While not technically a beach, you can swim, jump and play to your heart’s content at this natural canyon. Don’t forget your (waterproof) camera. The road there is rather turbulent so going with a 4X4 is recommended.
12. Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is an aesthetically blessed archipelago of nine islands in the west of Panama. Between these palm-lined streets, you will find whatever you’re looking for, whether that’s great surf or great beaches, wonderful seafood or wonderful vistas. In Bocas, there is an island to suit every craving. Isla Colon is where the bulk of the action happens: restaurants, bars, surf and diving schools, as well as tour operators. Isla Carenero conversely suits those in search of a little peace and quiet. The Zapatilla islands are the pristine untouched gems you will dream about once you return home. Isla Bastimentos, the largest of the nine islands, attracts those longing for postcard beach views with a bit of rough jungle in the background. In Bocas, water taxi is the main form of inter-island transportation to cart you from one noteworthy beach to the next. You can add the starfish-strewn beaches of Playa Estrella and Bocas del Drago to your bucket list right now.
Bocas del Toro is a 50-minute flight from Panama City with Air Panama. Flight prices start at $108 one-way and depart from Marcos A. Gelabert Albrook Airport. Ensure not to go to Tocumen International Airport. Once you land at the airport in Bocas, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover that it is only a five-minute walk to the town centre, and to the start of your adventure. As one of Panama’s most popular beach destinations, it’s a must-do beach trip from Panama City.
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Rosie Bell is an international travel writer, author of the book “Escape To Self”, and content editor for Club Elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram @TheBeachBell.