Panama Travel Guide
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A Beach Bum’s Guide to Panama

Beaches for everyone!

It may be small, but with two coastlines fronting sparkling seas, Panama packs a lot of punch in its beaches. Whether you’re seeking remote, hipster, natural, surfer, near, far, or something else, you’ll find it here.

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PHOTO: Courtesy Red Frog Beach Resort
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Red Frog Beach, Bocas del Toro

Yes, there are red dart frogs in the jungle near this mile-long sugary-sand beach, but you’ll have to look really hard because they’re teeny tiny (and, be warned, poisonous). Located on Isla Bastimentos, Red Frog is accessible via 10-minute boat ride from Bocas Town, then a short tropical-flower-bedecked stroll swarming with sloths and capuchin monkeys. Red Frog also has one of the country’s best surf breaks, plus crystal-clear waters for swimming and snorkeling—making its popularity quite understandable.

INSIDER TIPThe Red Frog Beach Island Resort, at the beach’s eastern end, is the region’s only deluxe resort, complete with a spa.

 

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PHOTO: ian woolcock/Shutterstock
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Playa Santa Catalina, Veraguas

You have to travel to the end of the road to find the laidback fishing village of Santa Catalina on the Chiriquí Gulf. Most who venture this way are surfers, after its world-class, consistent-year-round surf breaks; La Punta is legendary (as are its surf camps), though beginners have just as much fun with the lesser waves of Playa El Estero. Playa Santa Catalina itself buzzes with beachy activity, including sun-drenched cafés and plenty of scuba, kayak, and snorkel outfitters.

INSIDER TIPHotel Santa Catalina has direct access to La Punta, though you’ll find plenty of surf camps and other hotels as well.

 

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PHOTO: hanohiki/iStockphoto
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Playa Venao, Azuero Peninsula

Surfs’ up at this laidback Pacific beach deep in the Azuero Peninsula near Pedasì and surfers have long been well aware. Some say it’s the best surf in all of Central America, with waves for both beginners and experts. You’ll find a few lodging options, but not much else, other than the beach, jungle, and gorgeous sunsets. But really, what more do you need?

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PHOTO: Marc Elicagaray/Dreamstime
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Isla Contadora, Pearl Islands

An easy hop from Panama City, Isla Contadora—part of the Islas de la Perlas archipelago—is the perfect urban escape. Of course, you already know that if you are one of the rich and famous who have built lavish estates here, Elizabeth Taylor, the Shah of Persia, and John Wayne included. If not, you’ll enjoy fine accommodations anyway, along with snorkeling among rich coral reefs, sailing translucent blue waters, and frolicking on eleven glorious beaches. Humpback whales cavort in the waters June through October.

INSIDER TIPThe island’s rarely visited Playa Cacique is exquisite, and Playa de las Sueces is Panama’s only nude beach.

 

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PHOTO: Damsea/Shutterstock
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Cayos Zapatillas, Bocas del Toro

Zapatillas in Spanish means “shoes,” reflecting local lore that this little bit of natural paradise was formed by God’s footprints as he descended from heaven. Believe what you will, but that’s a fine enough explanation for these two petite, wild, uninhabited mangrove isles accessible by boat from Bocas City and void of restaurants, hotels, shops, or any other facilities. Your challenge: Entertaining yourself with translucent waters, thriving coral reefs, tucked-away beaches, and clacking palm trees.

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PHOTO: rahan1991/iStockphoto
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San Blas Islands

Ruled by native Kuna, this island chain on Panama’s Caribbean coast remains pristine from mass tourism—the majority of its 378 isles are uninhabited. The main reasons to pay a visit is for island-specific experiences like paddling in dugout canoes, sleeping in eco-friendly accommodations, and enjoying a meal of fresh fish.

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PHOTO: Joel Trick/Shutterstock
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Playa Estrella, Bocas del Toro

Peer into the translucent waters along this gorgeous beach to spy big orange sea stars (estrella in Spanish) snuggled in the crystal-clear shallows. Sadly, interference by inconsiderate humans have dwindled the population, but some are still around. Shady palms and piña coladas within easy reach at thatch-roofed beach bars and restaurants make this a supreme beachy paradise. It’s a music-blaring kind of place on weekends and quieter on weekdays.

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PHOTO: Alfredo Maiquez/Shutterstock
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Isla Grande, Colón

On weekends, Panamanians in a party mood flock to this little Caribbean, car-free gem near Portobelo, about a two-hours’ drive from Panama City. So, your choice: Join them in their revelry, along with primo snorkeling, scuba diving, surfing on wild beaches or evade them and enjoy the same natural wonders by coming during the week. La Punta is the easiest beach to access or hire a boat to the isle’s less trammeled north shore.

INSIDER TIPYou can come for the day—or spend the night in one of the island’s adequate hotels.

 

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PHOTO: Urs Hauenstein/Shutterstock
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Playa Farallón/Playa Blanca, Panamá Oeste

White sands and cerulean waters as far as you can see. No wonder Panamanians converge on the village of Farallón and the appropriately named Playa Blanca (White Beach; also called Playa Farallón), about two and a half hours from Panama City. Flashy resorts, golf courses (and an airport) have popped up in recent years, and that’s great if that’s what you want. If not, venture beyond the development for simpler accommodations and toe-in-the-sand seafood restaurants.

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PHOTO: Faustino Sanchez/iStockphoto
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Isla Iguana, Azuero Peninsula

You’ll have to hop a panga (small motorboat) from Pedasí’s Playa Arenal to reach this little isle, a wildlife refuge beloved by birders. They’re mostly after the country’s largest colony of frigate birds (recognized by the males’ inflatable throat sacks). Birds not your thing? Perhaps the crystal waters, empty white-sand beach, and lively coral reef just offshore will tempt you just the same. Divers find octopus, moray eels, rays, turtles, and schools of rainbow-colored fish off its north shore.