This post is also available in: Spanish
By Charles Conn
Panama’s Pacific beaches, with their close proximity to the City, are on the front line of the country’s tourism boom. From Gorgona to Juan Hombrón in Antón, large-scale real-estate projects have been springing up, changing the area’s landscape.
On one hand, critics point out that public beach access has become seriously curtailed in the last decade, a conflictive issue over the needs of private property owners and the right of free beach access. On the other hand, the increase in accommodation options now attracts more visitors, from backpackers looking for a surfing trip in a hostel to families who wish to relax in an all-inclusive hotel. The Visitor recently surveyed the conditions along the shore and has compiled a shortlist of highlights to help you better plan your next trip to the beach.
A calm, black sand beach awaits those who brave the harsh road conditions here. Near Gorgona, Malibu has no facilities. Locals suggest not leaving belongings in your vehicle, but parking is free and within sight of most of the shore. If visiting on a weekday you will likely have the entire beach to yourself, though this trend will soon end once construction on the new, high-rise condo is completed.
A rocky road leads the way to Cabañas Gorgona and the shore from the I-A highway. Parking outside of the Cabañas is free. The black sand beach leads to calm Pacific waters. A group of small “bohíos” (palm-thatched structures) are available for rent at $5 for the day.
The first beach community to build a gate, limiting beach access to residents only, requires that visitors announce their destination to be allowed through. In order to visit the upscale, trendy area, prior lodging arrangements must be made, such as renting a beach condo or visiting someone who owns a home there. Inside the gates are found many nice boutique hotels, the sprawling Coronado Golf and Beach Resort, and Picasso’s Restaurant. Outside the gates are the restaurants, malls and supermarkets of the growing township.
The location of some of the costliest real estate in the area is also home to some of the worst roads that lead down from the I-A highway to the shore. An all-terrain (4×4) vehicle is recommended for this adventure. The exclusive Punta Barco Country Club is located here, a gated, family residence community. Also here, is the famous Playa Teta, one of the best surfing beaches on the Pacific side.
A dirt road leads to one of the latest development projects in the area, a gated, manicured wonderland for the well-to-do. To the left side of the gated community, an access road leads down to the beach, but requires an all-terrain vehicle to tackle it. There are no facilities here. The public beach here is quite pebbly and though relatively clean, not a popular place for swimming.
A nicely paved road leads down from the I-A highway. The good-sized town contains many mini-supermarkets, mid-range hotels and restaurants. The road forks near the main clinic, providing two very different options for travelers. The right fork leads to a public access alley adjacent to Jeffrey’s Surf Camp, a hostel in front of which a few free parking spots are available. The alley is lined by cement walls painted with a Victoriano Lorenzo mural by the Kolectivo art group. All-terrain (4×4) vehicles can easily make it down to the shore. Here, a quiet lagoon separates the sand bank from the main beach, and is the perfect place for a dip. “Ranchitos” made with palm-thatched roofs are available for rent, currently going for $12 a day at the time of this writing.
The left-hand road leads over a bridge towards the San Carlos Tourist Center (240-8816) operated by the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP). Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Tuesday to Sunday, the “turiscentro” has ample parking with a security guard. It offers an all-inclusive deal starting at $27 per person ($33 p/p on weekends), which grants access to all of their facilities which include a pool, restaurants, restrooms, bars and more. For a comprehensive list of services offered, rates and other details visit www.atp.gob.pa/turiscentro-san-carlos.
Surfing schools and mid-budget hotels abound in this picturesque beach town which has an undeniable skater/surfer feel to it. A few, free areas to park are available, though hotels like the Bayview (240-9621) have ample room. Check with them for their day pass rates. The dazzling, black sand shoreline shrinks to a tiny beach at high tide. There are regular-occurring, medium-to-small waves ideal for surfing, and a bit of a riptide to be cautious of. There are no public facilities and both camping and campfires are prohibited. The Panama Surf School (6673-0820) is located here, as well as the recently-opened Locos Restaurant (6482-1037).
The beach is named for the Río Calabazo which slowly runs its course to the ocean here. The gated Río Mar luxury beach community takes up most of the shore. The only access point to the beach is located near the Río Mar Surf and Skate Camp (RMSC). To get there, take either the first or second right off the road that heads down from the I-A highway. The first right is marked by a surfboard that RMSC uses as a sign. It is a nice walk underneath a few cashew trees past a couple of hillside properties. When the tide is high, the beach becomes practically unusable, and the river must be waded through to get to the shore, a trek that can be a bit funky. When conditions are right, the beach features two decent breaks, ideal for surfing, though the rocky conditions may not be apt for the inexperienced. There are no facilities
An unmarked entrance from the freeway turns into a pebbly, but flat road which leads to the beach in five to ten minutes. Parking is free but tight. Leave no valuables in the car and make sure to lock it, as you have to walk about ten meters down a heavily-wooded path past the entrance gates of the few nice houses there which mark the end of the road. Trekking fans will love the path. Anyone with weak ankles will not. The beach itself is relatively secluded and unfrequented, making it a nice place to enjoy nature quietly. The ocean is calm here, and the vast shoreline is clean, with soft, powdery sand. A few fishermen keep their boats nearby, a sure sign you are off the beaten track. There are no facilities.
Located in front of a new Wyndham Corona (216-9083) and surrounded by private, upper-middle class residences, this tiny beach grants a feeling of seclusion and exclusivity. There are no public facilities, though the hotel offers a $45 day pass, which includes parking, access to the facilities, meals and drinks. The hotel also provides lounge chairs and umbrellas on the sand. The road from the freeway is descent-enough, and along the shore, it affords a small amount of free parking spaces. Corona is a small town, but during a weekday it should be relatively quiet. It is one of the few beaches still open to the public.
A faded sign marks the entrance from the freeway. The rocky, rough-hewn nature of the dirt road presents a challenging ride. At a T intersection you turn left, but unless you have an all-terrain vehicle (4×4) you must park here and walk. Aptly named, Sea Cliff is a small community of residences that line the shore at a slight elevation making the beach all but inaccessible, save for the sole path. The reward upon arrival is one of the most pristine beaches with some of the clearest waters in the area. A small lagoon lies off to one side. There are no public facilities.
For $3, several local, beachfront establishments offer use of their parking lots, restroom facilities and dressing rooms. These places are restaurants with bars such as Woody’s (6480-0226), the Canadian restaurant that serves poutine. On the beach there are bohíos for public use. The sands are OK, with rocky areas. The beach is popular but it is not as crowded as the more established places closer to the city.
The expanse of this black and white sand beach is surrounded by large hotel chains, including the RIU, Marriott, Wyndham Grand and the Playa Blanca Resort. The facilities are for hotel guests, though private adventure tour providers have kayaks, and other equipment for rent. Calling ahead to secure a hotel day-pass will ensure safe parking and a comfortable stay. The Playa Blanca resort offers their all-inclusive day pass deal at $69 on weekdays and $80.25 on weekends. All meals, snacks and beverages are included as well as use of bathrooms and changing facilities.
A sleepy fishing village sits on the outskirts of the Royal Decameron Hotel’s sprawling estates. Soft, powdery sand, a mix of both black and white, offers ample space. You can find parking in town off the side of the road near to access points to the beach. Otherwise, the folks at the “Cooperativa de Pesca” have a small, free lot for public use. There are no facilities, just a small group of bohíos available to the public. Members of the co-op will gladly accept a small tip, though this is not required. The co-op has a small kiosk, which serves beers. The Decameron (993-2255) offers the area’s better lodgings, and houses the only casino in the vicinity, which is open from 1 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. daily.
Word has it that this beach got its name from a gargantuan man who used to live in the area, the “big man” of the “hombrón” part of the name. The turn from the InterAmericana is marked by a small, faded sign posted a few minutes outside the town of Antón while heading west (towards Chiriquí). (Note: Do not confuse Antón with El Valle de Antón, a mountain resort above San Carlos.). A dirt road continues for 8 to 10 km with vast rice-crops planted on either side. Cars may be parked off the road near the sand. The shore in the immediate vicinity is lined with the modest houses of locals. A small kiosk lies to one side. There are no facilities, but if you are lucky (and nice about it) you can make arrangements for a meal with one of the neighbors. The beach is seldom visited, keeping its powder-soft, white sands and crystalline waters clean and clear of debris. The area also contains the mansions of the rich and powerful, most notably that of ex-President Ricardo Martinelli. His house is heavily guarded and is best avoided. The calm waters and pristine shore are beautiful and make the out-of-the-way trip worthwhile.