Time to Unwind on a Panamanian Beach

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Advisor - Barbara Zerbe
Curated By

Barbara Zerbe

  • Panama

  • Boutique Travel

  • Adventure Travel

  • Wellness Travel

  • Beaches

  • Nature Escapes

  • Digital Nomad Travel

  • Couples Travel

  • Active Travel

  • Beach Town

  • Relaxation

  • Laidback

vibrant orange sunset over a calm beach
Curator’s statement

Panama provides the traveler a spectrum of empty relaxing beaches, nature, adventure and cosmopolitan city life. Copa Airlines offers a free 6-night, 7-day Panama layover for many flights in the Americas, so it's a great location to relax and recharge in between other travels. It’s an option for the digital nomad who wants to get a quick taste of another region before moving to their next home or for ex-pats and retirees who want to explore this popular spot as a potential home.

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Where to stay in Panama

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Things to do in Panama

view from the top of hill of a beach cove with blue skies

Getting There

After living in Buenos Aires for several months, we decided to take advantage of Copa Airlines free 6-night, 7-day layover on our return flight from Buenos Aires (EZE) to Los Angeles (LAX). I had been working quite intensely and was looking for a place to completely unplug. I chose Playa Venao because I wanted to surf in warm water and it was listed as a beginner surf beach. We went in early May which is the shoulder season before the rainy season really kicks in and for the most part, we had excellent weather with no crowds.

We flew overnight and landed early morning in Panama City. We decided to rent a car after researching our options prior to the trip. There are shuttles or private cars (Venao Tours and Beach Break Shuttle) for the 3-4 hour trip to Playa Venao, but transportation both ways cost more than a rental car, and none of them timed up with our flight. Getting out of the city is easy – the drive is beautiful countryside and the highway goes through many small non-touristy towns.

Relaxing Days

I was quite happy at Villa Marino. It is at the far end of the Playa Venao cove, quiet and secluded, away from the beach parties of the Selina hostel and cluster of other hotels. Yet, we could easily walk along the beach to get to all the restaurants, bars and surfing. The staff was incredibly friendly and helpful. The cocktails were fabulous, the hotel food was adequate – some meals better than others. The grounds were lovely with hammocks, pool and beach palapas. Our room was basic, comfortable and clean with its own private ocean view patio and a hammock perfect for an afternoon nap.

Most days we had slow mornings, breakfast at the hotel. We walked down the beach to grab surfboards and surf for an hour or two. Followed that up with a beer and food at one of the little bars or food venues near Wao Venao, then headed back to the hotel for more downtime and a nap in the hammock. We either ate dinner at the Villa Marino or walked back down the beach to try the nearby restaurants.

The Surf

As for surfing, the water was warm and there are multiple breaks. The far north end of the cove was quite big and there was even a surf competition. There are multiple places to rent boards easily. It was not a beginner surf spot. I think it is listed as such because the bottom is sandy so not as dangerous, but the wave was a strong and quick beach break – a little difficult unless you are content to ride whitewater. I’m much more accustomed to long, slow point breaks.

In the Hills

One day we walked towards the other end of the cove and took the Cascada Trail hike that starts in the Eco Venao hotel property. The hike is a nature preserve maintained by the resort that passes a waterfall and leads to a stunning lookout of the bay. There is a minimal fee to go on the trail and it takes about 25-30 minutes to the peak. If you are looking for a more upscale experience, the Eco Venao property looks like quite a special experience with spa, yoga, a highly rated restaurant and other activities available.

A Night in the City

We spent a total of five nights in Playa Venao and it was wonderful to unwind. We then drove back to Panama City where we opted to stay in the touristy, historic area of Casco Viejo. While the area of Casco Viejo felt safe, busy and full of tourists, it is important to stay within the area as it is surrounded by some sketchier neighborhoods. Getting into town was tricky due to rush hour traffic and construction and we drove through a few areas we probably shouldn’t have. Parking is a challenge in this area, so be sure to check with your hotel for advice if you have a car. We arrived in time to check in, see a few historic sites in the area and have a great night out with dinner and drinks. There are plenty of bars and a vibrant nightlife for locals and tourists. We planned on spending the next day touring the historic area because we had a late flight, but a torrential downpour began in the middle of lunch and wasn’t letting up. Unfortunately, we opted to make our way to the airport super early. In hindsight, I would probably stay somewhere more central in the city.

Places to eat & drink in Panama

a rooftop view of the city in the distance on a overcast day

Villa Marina Bistro: We ate here most often as it was our hotel restaurant. Breakfast is fresh and delicious with a lot of options. Cocktails were excellent as well. They have specials every night. The sea food was fresh and delicious but vegetables often seemed like they came from a frozen bag.

Swell Beach Bar: The place to chill post-surf. Friendly staff and a full bar. Grab some tacos from the food stalls behind the bar.

La Barca Eco Venao: Their exquisite crafted cocktails are top notch and pair perfectly with a sunset after hiking.

Blue Venao Restaurant and Beach Club: We were quite surprised that this place was always empty. The food and service were delicious so we ate here twice. A fun place to people-watch the party at Selina from a distance.

Fondo Lo Que Hay: The highlight of our Casco Viejo experience. It is listed as one of Latin America’s top 50 restaurants with a gastronomic twist on Panamanian cuisine.

Casa Casco & Tantulo: Rooftop bars are a must in Casco Viejo because its peninsula location offers stunning views of the city and the sea. Casco Viejo is upscale and located in a beautiful hotel while Tantula is fun and funky with a good happy hour for the sunset.

Need to Know

For more travel tips, check out this guide, Exploring the Diverse Corners of Panama City, Panama.

Advisor - Barbara Zerbe

Travel Advisor

Barbara Zerbe

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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Panama.