People often visit Panama but only see Panama City which does not have nice beaches. But leave Panama City and there are very nice beaches tucked away in hard to access places. Many people make a tradeoff of quality for accessibility. Some do it without knowing the options. So here’s the lowdown.
In Panama City itself, two beaches are worth a mention — Veracruz beach and Playa Bonita. Both are on the banks of the Canal and neither are particularly good. About two hours away by fast ferry are the beautiful beaches of Contadora. Still most tourists drive to the beaches around Playa Blanca (about one and one-half hours west of Panama City) because of their all-inclusive hotels. The beaches are not ideal due to strong undercurrents and cold Pacific waters.
Of the beaches close to Panama City, Taboga Island with great beaches and a few bed and breakfast places is the best tradeoff between accessibility and quality. To get there catch the boat from the Balboa Yacht Club on Amador Causeway in Panama City. It’s about one-half hour away.
Still, Panama’s best beaches remain less accessible.
The closest nice beach to Panama City is on Isla Grande on the warm Atlantic Ocean coast, close to Colon. It takes a one and one-half hour car trip north of Panama City followed by a 20 minute motorized boat ride to get there. Once there you are rewarded with warm-water beaches good for swimming and surfing, all on a funky island without cars.
Although Isla Grande has good waves, Santa Catalina in Veraguas province, a four and one-half hour drive west from Panama City is the best beach for surfing. It’s not highly developed.
A popular beach, Bocas del Toro, also on the Atlantic Ocean close to Costa Rica, is known for its laid back hippie vibe. The area is famous more for its beach town than for the beach itself. Access is by a small airstrip and an extensive water taxi system connecting several small islands that make up this area.
For a secluded honeymooner’s delight, San Blas is the place. This area is autonomously administered by the Kuna Yala indigenous people. There are only two ways to get there, by air or by a harrowing four-wheel drive over treacherous mountain roads. San Blas consists of many secluded islands. From the air strip, a boat ride to your island is needed. Some accommodations are hammock only.
Most parts of San Blas do not have potable water (use bottled water). Flush toilets are not common. Electricity is by generator only. Ask your accommodations during what hours there will be electricity, if any. Cell phone service is patchy at best. The lack of services and seclusion is what makes this off-the-grid experience unique. Kick back and enjoy it. The beaches are beautiful; you may not see another tourist for days.
Boca Chica in the Gulf of Chiriquí National Marine Park (Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriquí) is the launch site for a group of beaches in a large protected Pacific Ocean archipelago near the City of David. One exceptional Boca Chica beach is Isla Bolaños, with fine brown sand and warm water. Getting there requires a $50 (per person) water taxi ride which discourages locals from going, but if you go you’ll find paradise — think Gilligan’s Island. There are no facilities on the island. Tour companies that go usually pack lunch and cook for you on the beach. From the popular tourist destination of Boquete north of David, it is one and one-half hours to the water taxi launch site. The taxi ride takes 40 minutes, so this is not for the seasick prone. Although it’s a little work to get to, Isla Bolaños is a beach you’re guaranteed to love.
It may be a long way from Panama City to the prettiest beaches in Panama, but it’s worth it when you arrive.