Gateway to the Azuero Sunset Coast
To get to Panama‘s most beautiful beaches, head west out of Panama City on the Pan-American Highway. Continue until you reach Santiago and turn left.
Santiago, capital of the Veraguas province, is this country’s third-largest city and fastest-growing. It’s also the gateway to this country’s Sunset Coast, the west coast of the Azuero Peninsula, the only coast in the country (thanks to the east-west orientation of this isthmus) from which you can watch the sun set over the ocean.
This western Azuero coast is notable for two other reasons, as well. First, as I’ve mentioned, it hides this country’s most beautiful beaches. On this point, I admit a bias. I prefer crashing Pacific to lapping Caribbean. And nowhere in Panama does the Pacific crash more dramatically and more impressively than on the west coast of this Azuero Peninsula. The places where the land meets the sea in this part of the country are jaw-droppingly beautiful, punctuated here by high cliffs and rocky outcroppings…then there by quiet inlets and private bays.
Second, the terrain is mountainous and undulating, one reason the views are so “oooh” and “aaah” worthy. With each summit you clear and every curve you wind your way around, you come upon more and greater natural wonders. This until-now largely overlooked corner of the world hides some of Mother Nature’s finest work.
Until very recently, though, this western Azuero coast boasted little else. Barely populated, this long stretch of pristine shoreline is dotted with one small town after another, not one of note. The road is paved all the way to the bottom of the peninsula; otherwise, there’s little infrastructure of note either. Local restaurants seat six or eight diners at a time and serve one or two menu items a day, typically for US$2 or US$3 a plate. Local bars serve local beer (for US$1) and seco. There’s no local shopping to speak of. Domino’s doesn’t deliver, and your cell phone probably won’t work.
In the rainy season, the dirt roads can become impassable.
Hard to get around, nowhere to go, and nothing to spend your money on when you got there.
For these reasons, this forgotten stretch of paradise is not only my favorite edge-of-nowhere escape in this country, but also Panama’s most affordable life-at-the-beach option. You could live here on as little as, say, US$600 or US$700 per month.
Lief and I have been spending time on Azuero’s Sunset Coast for the past four years. We make the trek out as often as we can. We’ve noticed signs of “progress” on each visit, especially in recent months.
This is still a frontier, but now you come upon pockets where your cell phone finds a signal. The Cabañas Torio, where we stay for our weekend visits, now boasts hot water and air conditioning in nearly every room. And the small roadside shops are expanding their inventory to carry more expat-friendly wares.
In addition, the government has announced plans to continue the highway along this coast, which now ends at the bottom tip, so that it connects with the highway that runs along the other side of this peninsula. This means that, when the extension is complete, you’ll be able to travel from one side of this peninsula to the other without going all the way back to the top, as you must now do.
The other, eastern side of the Azuero Peninsula is far more developed and trafficked than this western coast. With the highway extension, tourists to Las Tablas and Pedasi (whose numbers are not insignificant) will be able to travel on down to the bottom of the point and then continue up the other side. This road will make a dramatic difference in the accessibility of this currently out-of-bounds region.
As will the new international airport, the country’s second. The government is committed to a second international access point into the country. It just hasn’t figured out where, exactly, to locate it. For sure, the new airport will be built somewhere along the coast west of Panama City, perhaps in Penonome, maybe in Divisa. No matter where the new airport goes, though, the Azuero Sunset Coast will benefit.
Right now, the drive from Tocumen Airport (in Panama City) to the western Azuero coast is about four-and-a-half hours. The new airport will cut at least two hours off that travel time.
As I’ve mentioned, Lief and I invested in a piece of this western Azuero coastline about three years ago. On these 300 hectares, Lief and two partners are developing a private residential and retirement community called Los Islotes.
Therefore, we can’t help but view these important infrastructure improvements as good things. Better, quicker access, by air and by road, will go a long way toward supporting Lief’s efforts to realize his vision for Los Islotes.
Secretly, though, I must admit that my position is more ambivalent. What Lief and his partners are creating at Los Islotes is special. We intend to build a home there ourselves, a place that will figure as part of our long-term retirement plan.
On the other hand, I’m the kind of romantic soul who finds things like washed-out roads, US$2-a-plate daily specials served in non-air-conditioned dining rooms, and finding yourself temporarily off-the-grid charming.