The waves roll in over white-sand beaches as palm trees sway overhead…The sun shines down on you as the hammock gently swings to and fro, an umbrella drink in your hand… This is what many people picture when they dream of life at the beach. It’s an irresistible, idyllic scene. If you’re dreaming in an office cubicle, as the snow piles up on the streets outside, beach life probably seems like paradise. The question is… Where is that beach? Where will one person find paradise, while another won’t? The world is full of beaches and all of them have their pros and cons. Your own personal preferences will also determine whether a place is right for you. Many people are interested in the climate, accessibility, even the national currency. Other factors include the stability of the country, both financially and politically. Panama checks all the boxes, which is why it’s such a popular haven for North Americans and Europeans.
Let’s Compare Two Of The Best Beachside Destinations In Panama
When it comes to finding your personal paradise in Panama there are many factors that come into play. Santa Catalina and Puerto Armuelles look similar on paper… Both are on the Pacific coast and are small fishing villages… Both are about a 90-minute drive from city conveniences… Both have small expat communities and homes for sale at modest prices. But which one would suit you best?
Santa Catalina is nestled among huge old-growth trees, shading the streets and a mix of sandy beaches and rocky cliffside. The roads run through fields toward the shore. The town has the feel of a small remote village. Santa Catalina is also a jumping-off point to Coiba Island. Its accessibility to the island and surrounding archipelago makes it a prime location for tourists. Each day dozens of boats take groups on snorkeling and diving trips to these remote islands.
Hotels dot the shoreline providing a range of accommodations from inexpensive to ritzy. Restaurants that cater to Europeans and North Americans are popular well received by visitors here.There are several beaches prime for swimming and surfing, making outdoor recreation a big draw to the area. The sunsets are, of course, gorgeous as they drift into the Pacific. The growing tourist market of Santa Catalina is also ripe for expats who aren’t quite ready to retire. If you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you could find or create opportunities here. Several expats have started businesses like hotels, restaurants, dive shops, even a bakery. The possibilities for creative types are near-endless… What Santa Catalina is not, is a commercial district. There are no banks, ATMs, or grocery stores—except for two tiendas (small corner stores). Santa Catalina is not a shopping destination… It’s remote and although Soná is only an hour and half away, it’s not a bustling metropolis like David or Panama City.
So, how does Puerto Armuelles compare…? The town found its place on the map in 1927 when Chiquita Banana came calling. The company built the town as it exists today, complete with housing for workers, roads, sewers, and a railroad.
Puerto’s infrastructure is unmatched by most small Central American towns. Although Chiquita is no longer headquartered in Puerto, its legacy lasts. As you approach Puerto on the new four-lane highway, the first thing you’ll see is a large baseball stadium before you hit the center of town. Here, the streets are lined with fresh vegetable vendors and discount shops. There are a handful of grocery stores, two banks, and several ATMs. Unless it’s a Sunday, the streets are packed with locals going about their business. Fishermen sell fresh fish, lobster, shrimp, and octopus at the local market, on the side of the street, on bicycles, or off the back of a truck. Commercialism is alive and well in Puerto, partly due to the many small outlying villages dependent on Puerto that cropped up during the Chiquita era. What Puerto is not, is a tourist destination. This isn’t to say that no tourist has ever visited, but rather Puerto has little to offer the general tourist. There’s one restaurant with an American-style menu and only a few places to find a cocktail. There are plenty of bars, but they’re local dives that cater to the beer-drinking worker… no umbrellas here. Even the hotel situation in Puerto is slim pickings. There are plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurial-minded people… The majority of the beaches are calm and inviting. Paddle boarding or windsurfing would be fun, but due to the lack of tourists, it’s difficult to sustain these markets individually.
The Future Of These Beach Towns
This is what Puerto Armuelles and Santa Catalina look like today. What the future holds for both towns is anyone’s guess. Panama Letter ContributorIt would seem logical that Santa Catalina will continue to grow and prosper. The location is unspoiled and sure to draw more businesses and expats. The housing market is small, but several planned communities are in the works. As the saying goes, “If you build it, they will come…” In Puerto there are talks, hopes, and dreams… maybe someday the tourism boom will come. There are plans for a new malecón, a large walkway along the shoreline. Someday, the old Chiquita pier will be refurbished or replaced. But for the time being, enjoying Puerto for what it is and not what it might someday be, seems like a safer bet. If you’re looking for a beach town to retire to, with long walks down the beach at sunrise, then Puerto has what you’re looking for. The town faces east, even though it’s on the west coast. If you’re looking for an active lifestyle and water recreation options, Santa Catalina is more up your alley. If you like to shop each day, Puerto… if you hate shopping and once a month is enough, Santa Catalina. As you can see, no two beach towns are the same and each has their pros and cons. Panama has much to offer, and finding your own personal paradise may take some time… but in the end, when you hang your hammock in your chosen haven it’ll be a dream come true. Sincerely, Rebecca Teeters