Panama isn’t a big country. A 7 hour, $15 bus ride takes you from Panama City in the south to the border of Costa Rica in the north. Most people come to Panama for the beaches and to explore the jungles in the Western Highlands in the north. While there are also beaches on the Atlantic side, the beaches on the Pacific side are rated the best.
The beaches closest to the city are on the Pacific bay of Panama and are the most popular with the Panamanians as they only take a few hours to get to from the city. The best beaches and beach towns are Farallon and Santa Clara – attractive beaches with lots of resorts and condos. But if one is short on time and heading to the wilder and even more beautiful Western Highlands – one won’t miss too much by skipping them.
The Western Highlands in the north of Panama are green and lush with volcanoes, remote beaches and the residents are mostly indigenous in origin. The central and southern part of the country is drier, with few trees and the people are mostly of Spanish and African descent. This is the area that the Spaniards had cleared and colonized with slave labor.
The beaches on the tip of the Los Santos Peninsula on the northern side of the Gulf of Panama are considered the best though the sunsets fall behind mountains. To get there one must go through the towns of Chitre and Las Tablas. Pendasi is a little village a mile from the beach. From here all of the beaches area short taxi ride away.
Las Arenas is a 7 mile long, uninhabited beach just outside of town. From here small boats ferry people from the beach to Iguana Island where white sand beaches face the mainland with coral reefs great for snorkeling. Or one can stay and explore the vast seven mile stretch of the beach – Las Arenas. Pack a picnic lunch and a hammock to string up between the palm trees anywhere on the beach.
On the southern tip of the peninsula, 15 miles from Pedasi, is the party beach of Playa Venao. Its considered the best surfing beach in Panama. Its a 3 mile long beach situated in a cove where the 3-6 foot waves are always perfect breaking from right to left. The southern part of the beach has resorts and restaurants while the northern end is quieter with a few hostels and a tiki bar on the beach called La Barca. Here an old boat has been outfitted with a thatched palm hut and is run by an Italian expat barman whose knowledge of cocktails, Panamanian craft beers and South American wines is impressive.
Further north, on the Gulf of Chiriqui is the beach of Las Lajas which is my favorite. Its a desolate 7 mile stretch of sand where the jungle spills out onto the beach with sunsets to die for. Here the locals rent out make shift cabins right on the beach for $30 a night and there are a few beach side restaurants serving up fish and chicken for $6 an entree.
The Western Highlands
After the heat of the beach a trip up into the hills of the Western Highlands, where it is cooler, offers a nice reprieve. The small city of David is an inexpensive base from which to explore the highlands. A typical Panamanian city, it has plenty of hotels, restaurants and transport options. From here one can travel to Boquete. It’s a 40 minute bus ride up into the mountains from David.
Boquete is a small, relaxing village discovered in the 1990s by back packers and today a boutique, tourist town. There’s not much much in the town itself but from here one can go to the National Park of Volcano Baru and hike up the volcano which sits at an elevation of 11,400 feet above sea level. Or go bird watching in the park or white water rafting down the Rio Caldera.
Boquete is also coffee country. Here the best organic, shade grown coffee in Panama is produced. The coffee bushes grow in a chemical balance in the shade of large orange trees. The shade of the orange tree is a natural pesticide, keeps coffee bean production low while fertilizing the coffee bushes. Some of the best single estate coffees are grown here and sell for $11 – $130 a pound. The town boasts the best coffee in Panama – called ‘Esmeraldas Especial’. It is an Arabica variety from a special clone called `Gesha’. It produces a coffee with distinct floral, citrus aromas and flavors and sells for $170 a pound. Nearly all of it is exported to North American and Europe where it sells in the top gourmet coffee shops for $15 a cup.