Panama may not exactly be known as a top international beach destination, but it does have more than 1,500 miles of coastline on both the Pacific and the Caribbean. While much of the coastline is made up of dense mangroves rather than picturesque white sand beaches, I lived in Panama for over a year and can attest to the fact that there are plenty of lovely–if somewhat underrated–beach destinations.
Bocas del Toro: With a couple of ramshackle, English Caribbean-style towns that seem to suffer from a severe dichotomy between the relatively wealthy expat community and a struggling, impoverished Afro-Caribbean and indigenous population, your initial reaction when visiting Bocas might be to ask yourself why this is one of Panama’s most popular beach destinations. However, despite this rather sad economic reality, Bocas is actually home to some of Panama’s most breathtaking beaches, including the dazzling “Cayos Zapatillos” two white-sand islands with crystal clear waters and excellent snorkeling and opportunities. At Starfish Beach, hundreds of orange starfish dot the ocean floor. I recommend hiring a local boatman when visiting different beaches as a way to support the local community.
Kuna Yala: Also known as San Blas, these 365-plus (mostly uninhabited) islands offer crystal clear blue-green waters, tiny, palm tree-lined white sand islands and a traditional, strong willed people, the Kuna, who fiercely cling to their traditions and customs. In fact, foreigners are not even allowed to buy property anywhere on the Kuna Yala Island. The vast majority of lodging options here consist of thatched roof cabins with sand floors, no electricity or running water and few amenities. Because of the region’s isolation, most islands have no restaurants, bars or shops, so you’ll have to buy an all-inclusive package including mostly fish and rice meals. So while there may not be a thriving restaurant and bar scene, the Kuna Yala islands are the perfect spot to lay on a hammock, work on your tan and snorkel along the many coral reefs close to the shoreline.
Isla Coiba: Isla Coiba is often compared to the Galapagos Island because of its endemic species and unique ecosystem. In my opinion, Isla Coiba is Panama’s most pristine and gorgeous beach destination, but the Island receives relatively few visitors, not surprising considering there’s only a couple rustic cabins for lodging on the island and visiting can be expensive. But if money isn’t an issue, Isla Coiba is worth the hassle. Most likely, your tour company will arrange lodging at nearby Isla Coiba or right on the tour boat. Isla Coiba is considered one of the best diving and snorkeling spots in Central America.
Boca Chica: These aren’t the most beautiful beaches in the country – think beige sand, deep blue waters – but there’s something special about this rural region of Panama. On the Pacific side of the country, Boca Chica feels a bit like cowboy country. Men on horseback, verdant, rolling hills and miles upon miles of banana plantations dot the landscape and the climate here is hot and muggy — perfectly tropical, in other words! Boca Chica is home to some of the most beautiful eco lodges in the country and makes an ideal romantic getaway for couples because of its isolation.
The Pacific Beaches: These are definitely not Panama’s most impressive beaches, but the central Pacific coast is home to Panama’s most ambitious and upscale beach-side communities and all-inclusive resorts. The beaches here resemble those on the U.S mid Atlantic and have mostly brownish, medium grain sand and brown/green murky water with strong riptides that can make swimming dangerous for children and inexperienced swimmers. All that said, Pacific beaches such as Gorgona, Playa Blanca and Santa Clara make a perfectly pleasant day trip from Panama City, and if your idea of going to the beach includes staying at a full service (think multiple pools, restaurants, cocktails, nightly entertainment) all-inclusive resorts, you’ll be perfectly happy on Pacific beaches.