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, based on more than 15 years of scouting in this country and almost eight years living here full-time...
Best City Beach: Coronado and Gorgona
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 oldest beach community along this stretch is Coronado, about an hour from Panama City. It, along with the adjacent beach town of Gorgona, 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 and Gorgona offer both older houses and newer condos. Some of the newer condo buildings along the beach are good choices for rental 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 four 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 $1,300 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 $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.
That said, a new mall and movie theater are under construction. I may soon have to increase the Entertainment figure for my Las Tablas budget.
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. This month, though, this town of only 10,000 full-time residents will grow to 10 times that size.
For this month is the month of Carnaval, and Las Tablas sees the biggest Carnaval celebration in all Panama. This week and next, tens of thousands of Carnaval-goers will converge on this beach town that could best be described as sleepy the rest of the year. The descending masses 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'd find the crowds, the noise, and the garbage overwhelming, but, from all accounts I've heard over the years, the hundred-thousand or so crowded into the Las Tablas town square seem to revel in the experience. Maybe you try it once?
Best Beach Speculation: Puerto Armuelles
Even farther off the beaten path is Puerto Armuelles, in Chiriqui Province, at the beginning of the Burica Peninsula, five 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 gradual 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 that long 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. Here you also 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.
Given the chance, I'd take 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 but growing expat community has taken hold, the way of life is simple and sweet, and the cost of living temptingly low.