Best Beaches Of Panama Compared
One of Panama’s greatest assets is its beachfront. This is a little country with two long coasts and several clusters of outlying islands…meaning lots of different beaches, Pacific and Caribbean, touristy and undiscovered, developed and emerging, accessible and remote.
Here are my top picks, depending on your agenda.
Best City Beach: Coronado
The strip of Pacific beach communities from Chame to Playa Blanca is referred to as the “City Beaches,” because of their accessibility from Panama City. These are the beaches you can most easily escape to on a regular basis, and many Panama City residents do, driving out on Friday afternoons and returning Sunday evenings (making for mega-traffic headaches on the Pan American Highway and crossing the Bridge of the Americas during those times).
The best beach community along this stretch is Coronado, about two hours from Panama City. It offers a high quality beach lifestyle with all amenities and services you could want. Coronado town has developed into a busy commercial center that makes for a turn-key retirement choice, and, indeed, this is the direction this former weekend retreat is evolving…into a full-fledged retirement community with an established population of full-time foreign residents supported by a developed infrastructure, including good medical facilities.
Coronado is not cheap and not a place to buy for investment.
Most Affordable Developed Beach: Las Tablas
For a developed beach lifestyle choice that is still cheap, you’ve got to travel farther, to the east coast of the Azuero Peninsula, which is, depending who’s behind the wheel, three to five hours’ drive from Panama City.
Your reward for going the distance is a quaint colonial town that is home to some of Panama’s friendliest and most welcoming population and where you can control your cost of living to as little as US$1,200 a month, give or take.
The cost of living in Las Tablas is remarkably low for two reasons. First, rents are cheap. You can rent a small house near the beach for as little as US$400 per month. Second, there’s not much here. Resident in Las Tablas, you won’t spend much money, because there’s not much to buy.
Unlike in Coronado, in Las Tablas, the population is predominately local, not expat, meaning that, living here, you’d have to embrace the local Panamanian way of life.
Most of the year, that way of life is slow and easy. Come February, though, for the two weeks surrounding Carnaval, this town of only 10,000 full-time residents grows to 10 times that size.
Las Tablas sees the biggest Carnaval celebration in all Panama. During this, the biggest party season of the year in this country, tens of thousands of Carnaval-goers converge on this typically sleepy beach town. They bring with them tents, coolers, and the resolve to go as long as possible without sleep so as not to miss a minute of the action.
I’ve never experienced it personally, but I think I’d find the crowds, the noise, and the garbage of Carnaval in Las Tablas overwhelming. But that’s me. From all accounts I’ve heard over the years, the hundred-thousand or so crowded into the Las Tablas town square for this annual party seem to revel in the experience.
Best Beach Speculation: Puerto Armuelles
Even farther off the beaten path is Puerto Armuelles, in Chiriqui Province, at the beginning of the Burica Peninsula, 5 miles from the Costa Rican border. From 1927 until 2003, this town was the headquarters of the United Fruit Company (Chiquita Banana).
In its heyday, this was a Gold Coast. That ended when United Fruit sold out to a local cooperative, and the employment opportunities evaporated. Over the years since, the city has suffered steady decline. The most important feature and the biggest asset for the region is a gift from nature. Puerto Armuelles has two deep-water ports, one standing in decay, the other being used for trans-shipment of oil.
Puerto Armuelles offers very different opportunities, both for lifestyle and for investment, than you find elsewhere in this country. It has been about 10 years since this town’s boom economy crumbled. There is a fading charm about this place with its lovely sea wall, walkway, and beautiful beaches. Some of the houses of former Chiquita executives have been bought and restored, especially in the area known as Las Palmas where you’ll find private schools, a private swimming pool, and an established expat community.
For the most part, though, this is a city in purgatory. Which way will it develop from here? The answer to that question hinges on a long-discussed free trade zone idea, which has merit, given the fundamentals—the ports, the existing infrastructure, and the growing interest from foreign investors and, critically, the Martinelli administration. It’s a gamble, but an investor with a stomach for risk might do well taking a Puerto Armuelles bet.
Best Emerging Beach Community: Azuero Sunset Coast
Best beach in Panama today for my money is along the western coast of the Azuero Peninsula. The Pacific coastline here is dramatic and rugged, punctuated by cliffs and coves and backed by lush and rolling hillsides offering long-stretching views of the crashing surf. This is the beach to seek out if you want elbow room and privacy. The beach road is paved and well-maintained nearly to the bottom of the peninsula. Otherwise, infrastructure is thin…but evolving.
Over the past three-plus decades, beach-lovers from Panama City have pushed their way ever-farther westward along the Pacific coast, from the City Beaches to the east coast of Azuero. The next step in this migration is taking them to Azuero’s westward-facing coast, where a small expat community has taken hold and a handful of low-key, what I call “mom-and-pop” developments are under way.
One much more ambitious development is also in the works, with a plan for top-tier amenities and services and even a small town in the Spanish-colonial style. That project is Los Islotes, which, by way of full disclosure, is a family project. This is the stretch of coast where Lief and I have decided to invest in this country personally and where we’re building a community of like-minded folks who share our vision. You can read a little more about what we’re doing here.
P.S. Why is Bocas, this country’s most recognized Caribbean beach destination, not on this list? Because I’m not a fan, neither as a beach-goer nor as an investor.
Bocas town is little better than a slum, with big infrastructure problems (sewage, garbage, etc.). And most of the beachfront property in the area is rights of possession, not freehold title, making ownership risky in my view.