Every Friday afternoon sees an exodus from Panama City as residents drive across the Bridge of the Americas and then west on the Pan-American Highway… headed for the beach.
Most people leaving Panama City for these regular weekend escapes are destined for the City Beaches, as they’re known… a string of resorts and developments lining the Pacific Ocean starting about an hour outside the capital.
This region of Panama has been developed aggressively over the past decade and now is home to dozens of high-rise towers on the sand, strip malls, restaurants, hotels, resorts, and even big-box stores. The beach experience here is comfortable and convenient but increasingly cramped.
If you enjoy resort life and don’t mind crowds, this stretch of Panama’s Pacific coast could make a great choice for your beach life overseas. Living here, you’d be settled among thousands of fellow North Americans, meaning a built-in support system and no need to become fluent in Spanish.
However, Panama’s Pacific coast is long, and much of it is much less developed than the City Beaches stretch. If you’d prefer some elbow room and a more authentic Panamanian experience, you have other—I’d say better—options.
To find the best beaches in any country with a Pacific coast, follow the surfers. You don’t need to be a surfer or care about ever setting foot on a board. If you’re a lover of sand and sea, ask a local surfer where to go. They’ll lead you to a country’s most spectacular undiscovered shores.
You won’t find Panama’s Morrillo Beach listed among the top beaches in the world or even in Panama, but this is where Panama’s surfers are heading today. On this remote coast, you find no high-rises, all-inclusive resorts, or convenience store shopping and very few tourists.
This region lies beyond this country’s path of progress. To get here, you travel the Pan-American Highway well past the City Beaches area to the town of Santiago (the second fastest growing in the country), and then turn left.
The Azuero Peninsula’s eastern coast is far better known. Towns on the other side of this peninsula, such as Chitré, Las Tablas, and Pedasí, are well established among foreign retirees looking for affordable beach living.
The peninsula’s western coast is just beginning to attract attention.
The beaches on the eastern Azuero coast are beautiful, but those on the western coast are more so. The western coast is more mountainous, and the undulating terrain provides ocean views in all directions.
Here the Pacific Ocean pounds the rocky, craggy shoreline in some spots and meets the sand more gently in others, creating opportunities for both surfers and swimmers.
In addition, the western coast is one of the few places in Panama where you can watch the sunset over the ocean.
On Azuero’s western coast, you’re surrounded by nature, pure and raw. Capuchin and howler monkeys call from the trees, sea turtles lay their eggs along the beaches, and, in season, dolphins and whales swim and play offshore. Nearby is Cerro Hoya National Park.
Until recently, this western Azuero coast boasted extraordinary natural beauty but little else. Barely populated, this long expanse of undeveloped shoreline is dotted with a string of small towns, including Mariato, Malena, Morrillo Beach, Torio, and Quebro. The road traveling from one to the other is pitted and rutted, and cell and internet service are patchy.
However, an expat community is emerging; some 300 foreign retirees currently call this part of Panama home year-round. The community’s de facto social center is the town of Torio, now home to a few small expat-run bars, restaurants, and guesthouses.
Development is accelerating. Electricity is more reliable, cell service and the internet are more available, a bank and more grocery shopping options have opened in Mariato, and the government has allocated funds to repave the road.
Expats and retirees moving to this region today aren’t the pioneers who moved here five or six years ago, but this part of Panama remains a frontier and a top option for ultimate escape.
The main attraction remains the Pacific Ocean. Expats on this coast spend their days surfing, swimming, diving, beach combing, fishing, and, increasingly, looking for ways to get involved with the local community.
This western Azuero Peninsula is where Lief and I decided years ago to focus our efforts in Panama long term. When we purchased land on this coast for the Los Islotes community we wanted to create, we were true frontiersmen, arguably laughably ahead of our time.
This is much less true today and less true with each passing month. Panama’s path of progress is inching its way in our direction.
Meantime, we carry on carrying out our vision for Los Islotes. Pioneer life isn’t always easy, but it’s getting easier all the time.
We’ve built houses and a beach bar… are breaking ground as I write on stables and community gardens… and will begin construction before year-end of our church and Town Centre.
As well, we, like many other expats drawn to this virgin region, are looking to do everything we can to support our neighbors.
Our coast is a primary turtle nesting site… and the little guys and gals need protection. We’re helping to improve the facilities for the volunteers who meet here each season to keep the turtle eggs safe.
And we’re finalizing plans for the Los Islotes Quebro Student And Community Center, where we’ll offer English lessons, computer literacy lessons, and after-school tutoring.
If you’re up for helping with either effort, you can get in touch here.
And if you’d like to know more about what’s going on with Los Islotes, ask your questions here.