By Rosie Bell
Mother Nature was extremely generous in Panama. This small isthmus of a world was conjured from the sea about three million years ago and was blessed with untouched, secluded beaches that many have never heard of and over 1,000 incredible islands along two coasts.
Here are ten of the best sun-splashed islands to discover during a trip to Panama.
The Archipelago of San Blas has gained legendary status as one of the world’s most beautiful island experiences. With around 365 islands, one could realistically visit a new sandy heaven every day of the year — some isles are just large enough to house one dreamy solitary palm tree. The beaches have pearly white sand and almost impossibly blue water. Never has the term ‘picture perfect’ been more accurate.
Starfish-laden beaches, verdant rainforests, water sports, riveting nightlife, and blissfully buzzing water taxis crisscrossing the sea: Bocas del Toro has it all. Whether you wish to sunbathe, snorkel, surf, sunset cruise, or sit back and relax, the nine inhabited islands of this Caribbean archipelago have something for you.
Dine by the water at brightly colored buildings on stilts on Isla Colón, or enjoy the calm waters of paradisiacal Starfish Beach. which oscillates between serene and still on weekdays and then vibrant on weekends. Relish serenades of the rainforest and tropical birds chirping on Isla Bastimentos (the largest island of them all), or capture dramatic photographs at sunset from popular Isla Carenero hangout Bibi’s on the Beach, where manta rays often make appearances. Whichever island you choose, you’ll be glad you did.
Given its proximity to Panama City, Isla Taboga is a fantastic day escape for those staying at Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo. An enjoyable, scenic, and brief 30-minute ferry from the Amador Causeway takes you to the tranquil white-sand beaches of the “Island of Flowers,” as it’s lovingly called. Taboga has a claim to fame as the former home of French painter Paul Gaugin, who stopped on the island en route to Martinique. Today, its arresting hilltop views, hiking trails, sandbars, and beautiful beds of bougainvillea make an inspiring experience for any traveler.
Isla Grande is a laid-back Caribbean island just two hours from Panama City in the province of Colón. Here you can fortify yourself with fantastic seafood and drinks drenched in rum at beachside restaurants, take in striking panoramic views from the top of El Faro (one of the oldest lighthouses in Latin America), and marvel at the one-of-a-kind “Cristo Negro” statue standing tall in the middle of the water.
There are no facilities or infrastructure on Isla Mamey — but therein lies the allure of this Caribbean paradise. Step off the boat onto an island where you can feel miles away from civilization. Bring your own picnic gear for day trips or camping equipment if you’d like to make a night of it under the stars.
Isla Contadora is the gem of the Pearl Islands, an archipelago of over 200 islands on Panama’s Pacific coast about 90 minutes from the capital by ferry. It enjoyed an illustrious past when Hollywood’s greats like Elizabeth Taylor and John Wayne took residence there. The television show Survivor has also been filmed on the island several times. Contadora is car-free with over 13 beaches, leaning coconut trees, electric blue waters, an arresting shipwrecked ferry boat, and it’s the most developed of the Pearl Islands, named for the bounty of pearls once found there.
Pack your tropical headgear and make your way to Coiba National Park, Panama’s premier diving destination. You’ll want to gaze at the aquatic eye candy underwater, including hammerhead sharks, whales, and bright corals. Once a penal colony, Coiba is incredibly biodiverse and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005.
Isla Barro Colorado is the most intensively researched tropical rainforest in the world, according to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center. This island was formed during the construction of the Panama Canal when the Chagres River was dammed to create Gatun Lake in 1913. Nature-lovers flock here to witness three-toed sloths, howler monkeys, and around 500 butterfly species in their natural habitat. Travel to this 15-square-kilometer island is by boat from Gamboa (note that tours must be booked in advance).
Off the coast of Pedasí in the Azuero Peninsula, Isla Iguana is a protected wildlife refuge. One may expect to see iguanas and hermit crabs roaming as you stroll on the white sands, and divers will appreciate the surrounding coral reefs. There are no restaurants on Isla Iguana so day-trippers are advised to bring sustenance — and lots of sunscreen. Secluded and serene; it’s easy to see why people like it here.
Enjoy Panama’s endless summer on Isla Escudo de Veraguas, a dream destination accessible from the town of Chiriquí Grande. Reaching this remote, technology-free paradise takes a bit of effort but once there, caves, coral reefs, mangroves, dense jungle, and hzidden beaches are all yours for the taking.