Toes in sand, drink in hand: a guide to Panama’s islands

Legions of love notes have been written to Panama. The isthmian country connecting Central and South America may be small, but it impresses in a big way. Blindingly beautiful and biodiverse, Panama promises pure paradise along two coastlines – the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. With more than 1,400 palm-fringed islands to choose from, beach lovers are wonderfully spoiled for choice. 

A small boat rests partly on the light brown sandy shore and partly in the vibrant blue ocean water on one of the San Blas Islands in Panama. In the background, next to palm trees, is a small grass-roof hut.
Enjoy solitude in paradise © Simon Dannhauer / Shutterstock

When to visit

If you like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain, visit the Panama islands during the wet season between May and December. The dry season (January to April) is hot, humid and ideal for outdoor adventures of any intensity, from hammock-swinging to high-octane hikes on lush island-top jungles. Both seasons remain blissfully warm.

San Blas Islands for postcard perfection

San Blas is the supermodel of Panama’s archipelagos. The sea is gin-clear and can be seen essentially wherever you turn. One for every day of the year, San Blas has 365 islands to rival your wildest fantasies. Officially called Guna Yala, it’s a self-governed archipelago inhabited by the Kuna community.

Mass tourism is kept at bay, so there are secluded beaches you can have to your sweet self with just swaying palms for friends. While the pared-back lodgings, partial electricity and saltwater showers might not be for everyone, the beaches are genuinely unbelievable. Prepare to thoroughly disconnect as there’s no internet either. Midas touched this place with beguiling good looks, and no self-respecting beach lover may leave Panama without laying eyes on it. 

A collection of small boats are moored off shore near the beach. Colorful buildings are clustered along the beach with small green mountains in the background; Panama islands
Just a 30-minute ferry ride from Panama City brings you to a beachy paradise on Isla Taboga © Rosie Bell / Lonely Planet

Isla Taboga for accessibility

Nicknamed ‘Island of Flowers,’ Taboga is just 30 minutes from Panama City by ferry, making it a popular short break from Panama’s capital. Historically, Taboga has been home to pirates, Spanish conquistadors, impressionist painters, French workers on the Panama Canal, US military and now, urban escapees. Playa Restinga is the most popular beach on the island and recognizable for the tiny sandbar connecting it to Isla El Morro. Hike to Taboga’s summit for striking views of Panama City’s silhouette.

 The Pearl Islands for glitz and glam

There’s a coconut-strewn beach with your name on it in the Pearl Archipelago, named for the bounty of pearls found there. Isla Contadora is the jewel in the archipelago’s crown and it enjoyed a glittering past as home to the rich and famous. The likes of Elizabeth Taylor and John Wayne visited during its heyday.

Contadora is Spanish for counter or bookkeeper. This is where the Spanish took inventory of their looted treasures en route to Spain. These days there are plenty of high-end places to eat, play and stay but distinctly no cars. The elegant island is not the worst place to ‘survive’ although the TV show Survivor filmed there extensively. Within the Pearl Archipelago, Viveros and Saboga islands are also popular for catching rays of gold. 

A statue of a black Jesus on the cross with a large pelican with its wings spread at the base sits off-shore on the Isla Grande; Panama islands
Get acquainted with Afro-Panamanian culture at Isla Grande © MyLoupe / Getty Images

Isla Grande for the laid-back Caribbean

If you need convincing to visit Isla Grande, you should know that a mysterious statue of a black Jesus Christ stands tall in the sea, although not quite walking on water. The figure has witnessed countless Caribbean gold sunsets; it’s been resident there for over 360 years after all. Other sights include the old lighthouse which must be ascended for the most serene of island panoramas. This is one of the best Panama islands to acquaint yourself with Afro-Panamanian culture and the folkloric Congo dance while feasting on fresh seafood.

The Gulf of Chiriquí for unspoiled emerald isles

Stargazing is the jolliest of pastimes. Do it at the hugely underrated Gulf of Chiriquí, a national park of 25 pristine islands. You’ll never have to wrestle for your sandy spot as the islands are largely uninhabited with only a handful of hotels where your postcards can come to life including Cala Mia, Isla Secas and Isla Palenque, an award-winning eco-lodge.

Twinkling stars are not the only draws, however. This is the place to be during Panama’s whale watching season between July and October. The gulf is one of the few spots in the world where both northern and southern hemisphere humpback whales migrate to give birth and raise their young. 

The sky is a rich pink hue. There is a row of grass huts on stilts in the ocean at Bocas del Toro; Panama islands
Bocas del Toro is just as beautiful at dusk © Rosie Bell / Lonely Planet

Bocas del Toro for a bit of everything

There’s one great reason to visit the nine islands of the Bocas del Toro Archipelago – variety. Bocas attracts backpackers, honeymooners, retirees and everyone in-between, ferried between the islands on lanchas (motorized wooden boats). Isla Colon is the primary island and beating heart of the region with the most hotels, stores, restaurants and revelry. Isla Colon is also home to paradisiacal Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach) where the sea is calm and conditions are perfect for snorkeling and letting life slow to a crawl.

Across from Colon is Isla Carenero, which got its name from ‘careening’; turning a ship on its side for repair or maintenance. Christopher Columbus reportedly docked here to fix his ship and recover from stomach pain. Today, a jaunt to Carenero is still just what the doctor ordered. Stop by Bibi’s on the Beach for a seafood-centric menu, the best piña colada this side of the Caribbean and to dine al fresco next to manta rays.

For jungle beaches, bat caves and wizardly surf breaks, decamp to Isla Bastimentos, the archipelago’s largest island. Since over-the-water bungalows are the Chanel of the travel world, seek out Azul Paradise for barefoot luxury on an opulent, private stretch of Bastimentos. Cayos Zapatillas (Zapatilla Cays) also deserve special mention. 

These two aesthetically blessed, uninhabited islets are the most remote in the Bocas cluster. Zapatillas means shoes in Spanish. From above, the cays are akin to a pair of shoes walking in the ocean towards neighboring Bastimentos. Rumors swirl that God left them as he descended from heaven. Each cay is tiny enough to circumnavigate in under an hour. 

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