Panamainfo’s Blog

Panama Tourism at a Crossroads/ The Relentness Destruction of Panama’s Forests

These are comments I made as President of the Tourism Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce at the Amcham tourism forum Sept. 10th.

It is time for Panama to decide to become the eco- tourism destination it is meant to be and also to take serious measures to stop the relentless destruction of its forests.

Nancy Hanna

The title of this forum is“Panama Tourism at a Crossroads” Why? Because now that we have all the basics in place, it is time to decide on what kind of tourism destination Panama should become. When I first began to promote tourism to Panama 10 years ago, I thought Panama would naturally copy Costa Rica in becoming an ecotourism destination but even better because Panama has even more eco destinations than CR, plus more beaches and Indian cultures, history and an attractive capital city. So I thought -this is great- Panama will copy all the good CR has done and learn from the errors- but after 10 years not much has happened, especially in regard to Panama’s becoming a eco-destination. Right now, most of our tourists are coming for business or shopping …80% of our tourists stay in Panama City, about 10% get out to Decameron area, at most 10% go to attractions in the interior like Bocas or Boquete etc. In CR it is the opposite- 90% of their tourists do not stay in San Jose- but get out to the attractions outside the city.

In CR, the president made a decision that CR would be a ecotourism destination and they have been wildly successful. Panama has not made that decision.

In fact, Panama’s nature is being destroyed . It is losing 48,000 hectares of forest each year mostly through burning and indiscriminate logging. At the current rate of destruction, in 40 years we won’t have any more forests- a situation with serious ecological consequences not only for tourism but for the beauty of Panama, the climate and the Canal watershed among other things.

Why have we not done as CR? Ecotourism and tourism is the # 1 business for CR- it is just about the only game in town. Panama hasn’t done the same as CR because Panama is very blessed – it has so much else going on business-wise- the Canal, the free zone, the banking sector, its growing position as a logistical and regional business capital etc. Because Panama tourism is not Panama’s only income earner, while private enterprise did a lot to promote tourism, the government did not do serious work for make tourism happen until Minister Blades came along.

Today I would like to propose that Panama do what it takes become an ecotourism destination. There are strong arguments that this is the best and most desirable kind of tourism. Several presentations during this forum will speak to this issue.

For ecotourism, Panama’s greatest natural treasures are its national parks –Soberania, Bastimientos in Bocas, Coiba, Amistad y Volcan Baru and the Darien. 4 years ago I brought to this forum to speak the head of CR’s National Parks- after making a major investment in an attractive visitor infrastructure in their national parks, CR makes a profit of 20 million dollars a year from their national parks.

Costa Rica’s success shows us that when Panama develops a national park infrastructure the valued eco-tourists will come.

To conclude I would like to take this opportunity to announce that the American Chamber of Commerce- the tourism committee and the our strong environmental committee with the support of the Board is working on a professional proposal for the president of Panama for a National Park visitor infrastructure, an infrastructure which will generate thousands of jobs and businesses for the people in the interior of the country and generate the funds to preserve Panama’s extraordinary nature .

Tourism Minister Ruben Blades: Great Achievements for Tourism and a 21st Century Model of a Patriot

Below are the comments I made about Minister Ruben Blades in his presence at the Sept. 11th American Chamber of Commerce Tourism Forum at the Sheraton attended by 380 persons.

Panama is very, very fortunate to have had Minister Blades as tourism minister these crucial years. I don’t know anybody else who had the clout to get done what needed to be done. See below for details.


“I would like to take this opportunity to thank Minister Blades for all he has achieved for tourism.

If Panama was to become a major tourism destination, the government had to do certain basic things. First IPAT had to become an independent, professional authority- with all the powers a tourism authority needs. Minister Blades you accomplished that. Secondly, Panama needed a professional, comprehensive tourism master plan, one that would not be thrown out with each change of government. Minister Blades you accomplished that. Third, IPAT needed a system where substantial funds for a promotional budget are available every year without stopping. Minister Blades you accomplished that. Among your many other accomplishments, you solved the tour operators’ decades long transportation problem and you created a more lean and mean and professional IPAT office. Because of these institutionalized accomplishments, the government of Panama for the first time is in a true position develop and promote tourism.

We didn’t see you at too many social events…You used all your enormous energy, personal celebrity, moral authority, your sharp business skills and your artistic genius to create an IPAT that could do its job. I have heard so many really interesting stories of the things you have done behind the scenes to help tourism projects that would be good for Panama.

And perhaps most importantly you haven given Panama a modern day example of a true patriot. To be tourism minister these five years, you sacrificed your music career and millions of dollars in personal income. I am told this is unprecedented in Panama’s history. Thank you for your sacrifice, your example, your accomplishments Minister Blades.”

Getting Around Panama to Surf and Recommended Favorite Beaches

This guide will tell you basic information about surfing in panama: how to use the inter-provincial bus system here, minor tips which are good to know, and some detailed information about some good beaches in Panama.

This guide is more for the low budget surfer who can’t rent a car and stay at a five star hotel, but it has information useful to anyone looking to surf in Panama and get around.


If you are traveling to Panama you are probably going to come in through the Tocumen International Airport. Once there you should catch a taxi from the airport or arrange for someone to pick you up and take you to a hotel, the level of luxury of your choice, and think about spending at least one night in Panama City.

If you like, you can party hardy, and it’s not a bad idea because wherever you want to surf in panama you are going to spend at least an hour on the bus/boat/plane, if not 8. It will be a quick and painless trip if you spend your time on the bus passed out from not sleeping the night before.


It sounds bad—but being in a crowded Panamanian bus on the highway listening to traditional Panamanian music on the radio is part of the experience. You never know who you will meet.

Whether you spend the night in Panama or want to depart from the get go, head to the Albrook Terminal. Part of this huge monstrosity is a shopping center, so don’t get lost or confused. The bus terminal is in the back—you will notice where that is because there will be a ridiculous amount of crazy looking buses heading in that direction. There you can find a vehicle able to take you either to or closer to any nook and cranny in the country.

This terminal is your gateway to beaches in panama, if you don’t have access to a car. In the terminal there is a set of booths along the wall, categorized mostly by province or popular destinations that working Panamanians take every day. So you need to know the name of the province and place you are going to.


What to do:

The people at the booths either speak a bit of English or will surely understand the name of the place in Panama you are headed to and that the name is probably where you want to go (in case you don’t speak Spanish). Just let them know the name of your destination, pay and they will point to where you need to go. Next to the booths there will be a little toll to get out to the buses, a nickel. Pay that and go to the corresponding bus. There are usually people out there directing people to the right bus, but if there isn’t just ask anyone there, tell them your destination and show them your ticket and you will eventually find it. Save your ticket because they will ask for it on the bus.

If you are going to a far away province like Bocas del Toro or Chiriquí don’t necessarily expect one bus to take you there. Buses in Panama work using a network of bus stations, like any modern country. If are going to Chiriquí you might need to take a bus to Veraguas first and get on to another to make it to Chiriquí. But don’t stress out because the buses are still pretty cheap.

You will probably need to strap your surfing equipment to the bus, I recommend you do it yourself with some ropes or personal straps so that you feel at ease. Sometimes they will want to charge like 1$ or something extra for surfboards.

Once in your destined province bus station, depending on how far your final destination is from there, you will probably need to take a taxi. So here is the thing about taxis here: they usually do try to charge tourists more, that’s something I think is true. But the truth is that taxis here are soooooooo cheap compared to other places like Bermuda or NY that it’s hard to complain.

If you want to save some bucks ask for a lower price but get his number telling him that you might call him again the next time you need a cab (for example to get back to the bus station). Also be friendly—taxi drivers know a lot about the area they live in and your taxi ride to your hotel could turn out to be an expert tour of the area, if they speak English or you speak Spanish that is. But I highly recommend asking them any questions you have, they will either know, or know someone who does.

Shack up in your hotel/hostel/resort/camping site of your choice and enjoy the Panamanian weather and waves. Food here is cheap at local spots, but you will get a more aesthetic meal at your hotel or the tourist targeted businesses in your area.


When surfing in panama it’s always important to ask when you get to a beach how the surf is and if there is anything you should know. Are there jelly fish in the water? Is there a rip tide that day? Etc. If you can, surf with a buddy or make sure you are not the only one out surfing.

For any other questions check out the FAQ section.

Also check out the Getting Around page for more information on transportation in Panama.

Good spots:

Playa Venao

Playa Venao is in the province of Los Santos, in the Azueran Peninsula. I don’t know why it is called “deer beach” because I’ve never seen a deer there; I’ve seen monkeys ostriches, emu’s, huge food stealing parrots, huge spiders, crabs and iguanas, but not a single deer. Don’t expect to see those unless you stay at La Playita though, because that’s where they all are. Pedasi is a very small town known for surf, fishing and the snorkeling in Isla iguana. This town is about a 20 minute drive from playa Venao; there is a bus that travels back and forth twice a day, sometimes more. There are places to bunk there that are pretty cheap; a room for 2 people for $20 with air conditioning.

But if you are not being stingy I would recommend staying at La Playita or some other resort there on the beach, or camp out there. If you stay on the beach you are likely to catch the waves when they are good and it beats the hassle of getting to the beach everyday.

The reason why I like this beach is because it is a very long stretch of beach so it is hard for it to be crowded. The scenery is great and the beach has a sand bottom, no worries about the rocks.

Right in the front of the beach there is a small Panamanian restaurant/kiosk. There you can buy inexpensive snacks, food or soda. Gas prices are up but the last time I was there I could still eat a full meal for under 5$. So chill there all day surfing if you like, get out and each lunch or whatever.

There is also a pay phone there if you need to call anywhere. People often camp here next to the Kiosk and make it a livelier place. Camping at the beach in panama is always a great option. As far as I know it costs nothing—nothing to camp on the beach and maybe around $10 to put your tent under the roof of the kiosk. Nobody should bother you if you should decide to make a camp fire on the beach.

There are occasional back packers or vagabonds of the Latin American world passing through and it’s probably the best place to chill at night besides Pedasi itself. Besides the bars and local restaurants it can get a tad desolate at night, so bring a book or plan something to take up your time at night.

Whatever you do however, check the sky if it isn’t cloudy. The lack of city lights allows a breathtaking view of the Milky Way Galaxy we live in. Gaze long enough and you can probably see a shooting star, the skies are that clear.

The beach responds to swells variably, but its right on the tip of the Panamanian peninsula, so if there is any swell at all it will show here. If the wind is too onshore the waves will just close out with big swells but the waves there are usually fun and uncrowded.

I have not personally been stung or bitten by any sea life in this area but jelly fish stings do happen from time to time. The current usually takes you left down the beach but it varies.


El Palmar

El palmar is about an hour and a half outside of Panama City. Take a bus from the Albrook Terminal that goes to San Carlos, the beach is the last street to the left, right at the end of the town on the highway. The driver will know where it is, ask him and he will take you all the way to the beach.

Palmar hosts a small community of locals, a couple restaurants, bars and a surf camp. The surf camp is a good option for lodging; or rent out a straw hut for about $15 and set up hammocks for 5$ a pop or camp free on the beach. In addition to huts, hammocks and rooms, El Palmar Surf Camp at this beach rents out boards, leashes, sells food and they help sponsor a local youth surf team, so all contributions are very appreciated.

This beach has some rocks at the bottom but I’ve rarely had to worry about them unless the tide is really low or if you are surfing at the point.

This beach actually has three surf breaks:

The front break is all the way down the street that has Bay View Restaurant at the end. This break is very rocky at low tide and is less popular than the next two.

On the right of that, in front of the Surf Camp is the next break. This is where good waves usually are. You want to catch it on lower tides because when the tide get goes up completely the waves crash too close to shore.

If the tide goes all the way up, Palmar turns into a choppy basin of water and it is tough to surf. But if there is a good swell then on the right of that, next to some cliffs at the end of the beach, is a good spot.

This is the point. This part of the beach only breaks if the swell is about 3ft or higher on If you can catch it at 3ft or higher you will notice the beautiful waves there that peel nicely towards the left, while the middle break has become un-surfable at higher tides.

A little off shore wind and presto, you are going to get some killer waves. Just keep an eye out when the tide gets lower. Most of the locals know when to get out, when your group mysteriously goes from 10 surfers to: just you, it’s probably time to move out. It means the tide is getting too low or too high and the waves will stop soon.

It is usually more experienced surfers who surf this point because the rocks and cliff are intimidating and bigger waves break here. If the tide is all the way up and the point isn’t breaking then the front break is the only option, the last resort; but I would just switch beaches if possible.

Hit up the surf camp, the bar down the road, “El Cangrejo,” or Bay View Restaurant for food and drinks. Also this beach can get uber crowded on holidays and weekends. But if it’s crowded be careful because there is a decent number of beginners who surf here. Remember to be friendly to the locals; they are pretty friendly too, so it’s not hard.

When its time to leave you will probably need to walk up the street to the highway with your stuff or catch a lift; it’s about a 15-20 min walk. If you want to get back to the city go to the bus stop outside San Carlos and flag down any bus there and ask if it is going to Panama City. In the evening there can be a lot of people trying to catch these buses but be patient and you will eventually get one.

You could hire a little bus or taxi to take you where you need but it will cost more. The bus to panama should charge about $3. Taxis will charge much more.

San Carlos has a little supermarket, bar with pool tables and some other businesses in the area. If you are out of surf wax go to the pharmacy. The beach has jellyfish from time to time, ask the locals about recent activity. If you get seriously hurt I would go here to the town.


I would recommend this beach for the more experienced surfer. The currents at this beach can be a pain because there is a river that flows into it. But on a good swell with offshore winds there are some pretty good waves peeling to the right.

This place is also near Palmar and Rio Mar, so ask the booths at the Albrook Terminal that say San Carlos or Gorgona for Malibu and catch the appropriate bus. The bus might not take you all the way in to the beach- be ready to walk about 25 min.

The waves can break a little close to shore and the water is a bit dark from the river, with occasional debris. The entrance has a short fence, some houses on the beach, campers, and some little straw huts. On the weekend there is usually a row of SUV’s lined up on the beach. When the surf is good there can be a good audience there and photographers. This is about the best place near Panama City to get barreled in.

Jelly fish and such sometimes, ask the locals.

Rio Mar

This is a good beach for beginners when the swells are medium. Ask the guy at the San Carlos window in the Albrook Terminal for Rio Mar. Get on the appropriate bus and voila. The entrance has a sign on the highway; the road will take you to a small neighborhood of houses.

The bus might take you in but if not just follow the road and eventually you will hit beach—getting down to the beach is a little tricky they have mixed things up a bit there recently; building a large condominium building there where I used to park the car. Just head for lower land and for that glorious costal breeze and you will eventually find it.

This beach is called “River Sea” for a very good reason. There is a river that flows into the sea; it is a fresh water river with colder water if you want to cool down. The river can mess with the currents and bring debris so be mindful.

    Most of the surf you will get right in the front there. If there isn’t anything there then it’s either really really high tide or there just aren’t waves. If there is a good swell and you are an experienced surfer, head down right all the way down the beach past the cliffs and that is the point of Rio Mar. There are some great waves here with a decent swell but there are rocks that can stick out in some parts, make sure you know where.

There is a surf camp here too, but camp on the beach if you like.

It’s a bit rocky, especially at low tides, so your feet might have some cuts at the end of the day but it’s no biggy. Jelly fish sometimes appear and I think I was actually stung by a sea urchin once. My whole leg started burning and I couldn’t walk for an hour, but then I was fine and surfing again, nothing serious.

Bocas del Toro

The hurricanes in the Atlantic can really pay off in Bocas del Toro; all those storm formations can slam this area with some of the biggest waves that Panama has ever seen. But don’t get too scared yet. This place I would recommend for more experienced surfers.

The easiest way to get to Bocas del Toro is by plane in the National Airport in Albrook and take either Aeroperlas or Air Panama. It’s about $150 round trip and it’s worth it. Going by bus from Panama City is a pain as it could include multiple bus exchanges and a boat ride and then a taxi to wherever you are going. There are sometimes direct buses to Bocas mainland, so look if you like. Save your self the trouble, that is my recommendation. You will need your passport for the plane, even though it doesn’t leave the country.

The plane will probably take you to the main island, Colon. There you will find an active tourist driven Caribbean community. Hotels, restaurants, bars and souvenir stands riddle the main street, so take your pick.

In addition to world class hotels and restaurants in the area, a number of hostels have sprung up which harbor a great surf atmosphere and good people. The night life is active almost every day of the week.

At first this place might sound like a Cancun or something, but everything there still has a very local feel to it. Rastas and hippie-like travelers sell their artisanry on the street along with the more traditional souvenirs at other stands.

There are a plethora of beaches here to take your pick from so we can run through them kind of quick.

Carenero is close by, has sea urchins and a rough bottom, but good surf like anywhere in Bocas does, with a good swell and wind. Punch is a reef bottom break, but a lot of fun. Dumpers has a reef break but good waves too. Bluff is a good beach with great surf but the wave is powerful enough that the beach is notorious for breaking surfboards—at your own peril.

Red frog beach, also known as wizard, is a sand break and better for beginners but the currents can be rough, people not surfing have drowned there by being pulled out by the riptide. But it’s actually a very nice secluded beach spot and usually uncrowded—a good alternative.

Silverback probably has the biggest waves in panama with a good swell, reaching up to 25ft or bigger. Only for experienced surfers.

To get to all these areas you won’t be able to paddle out, except for maybe carenero. You need to hire what is called a “lancha” or a launch, which is what they call the boats there. I can’t really tell you who to hire, but it’s always better to hire a boat from one of the several official businesses that are on the main road of bastimentos. Freelance people are harder to trust and less reliable.

There are several surf shops there in case you need to fix your board, get a new fin or buy wax. Remember to be nice to the locals, they have taken it pretty well that tourists have taken over their island but don’t test their patience. Tourists and locals need to maintain a symbiotic relationship and there is a little tension there already. Check for swells as it can get flat during parts of the year.

Morro Negrito

Morro Negrito is an unreal private island off the coast of Chiriquí. There are always waves here; I mean it’s hard not when you are privy to about 10 individual breaks on the island. I truly envy whoever owns it. I have never been there but they are not hard to find on the net. The cost is about 600 per week per person. They limit how many people are on the island at once so the beaches can’t be crowded. Definitely worth it if you can do it.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at