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 like a postcard image—an irresistible, idyllic scene.
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. Some places are too touristy, others are too remote. Some beaches are in nations that have strict immigration laws, such as France and Spain. Then there are other countries with nominal immigration laws, such as Panama and Costa Rica.
Immigration laws can make or break your dream of moving to a beach town and living your dream life in a hammock. There are also other factors that play a role in the decision to become an expat…
Many people are interested in the climate, accessibility, and 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.
Panama is basically two long beaches with a small isthmus of land in the middle, making beach living seem inevitable. The reality is, although there are many beach towns, population centers and lack of accessibility make a large part of these magnificent coastlines uninhabitable for the average person.
Popular beaches on the Pacific coast are found in a variety of areas, including:
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. Santa Catalina is an hour and a half from Soná, while Puerto is the same distance from David. Both towns have small expat communities and homes for sale at modest prices.
So how do you know the difference? As Live And Invest Overseas will advise you, visit first, rent second, move third. After a day in both of these towns you’ll see that the paper version and reality are completely different.
Santa Catalina is nestled among huge old-growth trees, shading the streets and a mix of sandy beaches and rocky cliffside. The roads wind to and fro and snake through fields toward the shore. The town has the feel of a small remote village.
There’s plenty of local fishing, but 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.
Plenty of hotels dot the shoreline providing a range of accommodations, from rather inexpensive to very ritzy. Restaurants that cater to Europeans and North Americans alike are popular and seem well received by the tourist population.
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 unready to retire. If you have an entrepreneurial vein ready to be unlocked, you could find or create opportunities here. Several expats have already started businesses like hotels, restaurants, dive shops, and even a bakery. The possibilities for the creative are 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. It’s still a small town and your shopping will be limited.
So, how does Puerto Armuelles compare to Santa Catalina? It helps to know a little history about Puerto…
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 is 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.
The local 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 problem is the market. The majority of the beaches in Puerto and the surrounding areas are calm and inviting. Paddle boarding or windsurfing would be fun, but due to the lack of mass-market tourism, it’s difficult to sustain these markets individually. There are several beaches that cater to surfing, but these are generally off the beaten track and again the pickings are slim.
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. It would seem logical that Santa Catalina will continue to grow and prosper. Tourism is looking up after more than two years of COVID restrictions. 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. It’s a lofty dream that seems a long way away. 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 up your hammock you’ll have a dream that came true.