If you've already checked off the famous canals and locks, hiked through the misty rainforests and rafted through the quetzal-peppered bayous and riverways of the wild backcountry, then perhaps it's time to seek out Panama's more coastal gems. Of course, with such a wealth of pearly white sands and palm-fringed beaches waiting on both sides of the country – the Pacific and Carib – finding the most beautiful Panama island to travel can be a tad tricky. Allow us to help…
Bocas del Toro
Okay, okay, we know, the legendary Bocas del Toro isn’t actually just an island at all – it's a whole province; a great cut-out of the Panamanian north-east. Still, no list of the top island destinations in Central America (let alone just Panama) could possibly be complete without it! That's because this sun-kissed, palm-spattered gem that spills down from the jungle-dressed sierras to the Caribbean Sea is one of the top seaside destinations here for sure. It's got salt-washed towns painted in vibrant reds and greens and blue (watch out Jamaica). It's got kaleidoscopic coral reefs that teem with parrotfish and colossus sponges. It's got the rolling swells of Wizard Beach and Carenero for the surfers. And it's got some seriously awesome nightlife to boot – think backpacker shindigs on the edge of a moonlit sea!
Coiba is like Panama's answer to Ecuador's legendary Galapagos. In fact, this huge landmass (Coiba is the largest island in all of Central America) is connected by huge underwater mountains – the Coco Ridge – to the Galapagos themselves. And it's got the same line-up of otherworldly wildlife to see, from swinging mantled howler monkeys to speckled jewel moray eels, brown-backed doves to scarlet macaws that flit through the misty jungles in the company of bee-like hummingbirds. Today, the whole place is encompassed by the boundaries of a national park, and draws huge crowds of travellers to its empty coves and vine-dressed jungles on safari each year.
Isla del Rey
The pearl of the Pearl Islands (see what we did there?) can be found surrounded by the rolling swells of the Panama Gulf on the country's Pacific side. It's blanketed from coast to coast in thick, virgin jungles, which hoot with the sounds of simians and echo with the crawl of scaly reptiles making their way through the undergrowth. The real draw of Isla del Rey is surely the undeveloped and untouched character of the place – this one's long and sandy beaches are nowhere near as popular as those on Contadora (the other major Peal Island), while the main town, San Miguel, oozes rustic fishing character and local vibes.
Thanks to speedy ferry connections that hop out of Panama City to the docks and jetties of Puerto Taboga each day, this rugged mass of volcanic cliffs and verdant coconut palm groves is now one of the top weekend holidaying spots for the people of the capital. They've chosen wisely. Complete with more soft-sanded beaches and hidden coves than you can shake a sugarcane cocktail at, the place is also imbued with a series of marked hiking trails that reveal panoramic lookouts atop the soaring summit of Cerro de la Cruz. And then there are enchanting Spanish-style villages, where whitewashed churches loom over cobbled plazas. Nice.
Contadora is the undisputed gateway to the fabled Pearl Islands. Although only the 11th-largest in the archipelago overall, it's to here that the daily ferries bob across the Pacific swells to drop groups of travellers in search of the legendary pearl-hunting grounds of the conquistadors. Very few will leave disappointed. Dolphin pods and whales can often be spotted splashing in the waters off beaches like Galleon and Playa Caracol, while eco resorts tumble down from the dunes to the turtle-dotted sands on the south coast. Meanwhile, the ghosts of a fascinating history (think exiled Iranian Shahs) lurk in the abandoned resorts just off Playa Larga.
Ranging from verdant mangrove swamps in the south-east to shimmering sands of pearly white in the north-west, the fragmented set of little islets and inlets that is Bastimentos is a regular chart-topper on Panama's line-up of out-at-sea destinations. It's rustic, wild and relaxed all at the same time. Little clutches of palm-topped cabanas fringe the protected beaches (protected mainly because of the regular appearance of uber-cute turtles to their nesting grounds), while everything form poison dart frogs to Titi monkeys to those gorgeous – if lethargic – sloths can be spotted clambering through the canopies of the backcountry. Yep, this one's not to be missed!
Isla Escudo de Veraguas
Far-flung, off in the swells of the southern Caribbean from the Mosquito Coast of central Panama, the Isla Escudo de Veraguas is one of the wilder and more remote island destinations in the country. It's inhabited by just a clutch of rustic fishing communities; mainly descendants from the Ngöbe–Buglé peoples that are native to these out-at-sea climes. The place is a seriously beautiful one to behold though, with chiseled bluffs of rock and stone soaring straight from the turquoise sea, blooms of mangrove crashing down into the aquamarine waters, and hidden tunnels and arches of rock protruding from the coastline all around.
Isla San Jose
One for the jet setters and the luxury seekers, Isla San Jose might just be the most beautiful Panama island to travel to if it's opulent villas and private beach dining by the glow of the Pacific moon that you're after. Largely untrodden by most who come this way, the speck on the map hides little dashes of ivory-white sand between its rock-ribbed cliffs and pockets of jungles. But more than that, San Jose also hides a fascinating - if a little disturbing – past, which includes a stint in the 1940s when it was used as a chemical weapons testing ground by the US military.
Are you a veteran of the Panamanian travel circuit? Can you think of any more of the gorgeous sun-kissed islands that pepper the Caribbean and Pacific in this heart of Central America? We'd love to hear about them in the comments below. Or, are you interested in joining one of LBW's acclaimed Panama tours? Be sure to check out our itineraries page…
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