MANY CAPTAINS ONLY SEE PANAMA as a way to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and their focus is solely on getting through the canal and moving on to their next destination. However, in my opinion, this represents something of a missed opportunity – this is a fantastic cruising area that has much to offer vessel owners, guests and crew.
I’ve been cruising and visiting Panama as a destination for over 20 years and have seen significant changes throughout the country. Once, I was telling my crew about this amazing surf spot where cows roamed the beach and only a few surfers camped out. Planning to stop and surf there for a few days, as we rounded the point into the bay we heard thumping music and saw disco lights on the beach – there was a resort and more than 20 guys in the surf line-up!
Still, even with all the change that has occurred, Panama offers a wide array of scenery and activities both in the city and in remote areas.
Panama City is ever-evolving and each time we transit through there are new restaurants, boutique hotels and shops in Casco Viejo. The guests enjoy private tours in the city and for those that are not transiting the canal on board the vessel a visit to the Miraflores locks is a must.
For all your vessel needs from canal transits, local transportation, provisioning, and shipping/receiving parts a knowledgable agent is key to success in Panama. We have used Francis X. Zeimet with Panama Agencies Co. Inc. for many years and highly recommend his services.
There is interesting cruising both on the Atlantic side (San Blas, Bocos del Toro) and Pacific side, but for this article I will focus on the Pacific side.
There are several options for guests to join the vessel outside of the city. Depending on our itinerary, we have guests join in the city, in Boca Chica or Pinas Bay, but we’ve even flown guests into/out of Isla Coiba.
Charter services are readily available and there are numerous grass strips along the coast and on the various islands that allow flexibility for adventurous travelers.
If starting or ending a trip in Panama City, the Las Perlas are the perfect day’s run, offering white sand beaches, somewhere to stretch your legs and, depending on wind and swell direction, decent anchorages.
A few of my go-to Las Perlas anchorages are Contadora, Isla Espiritu Santo, Isla Canas and Punta Cocos.
On our way to or from Pinas Bay, we make a point to stop at Punta Garachine where we coordinate a trip up the Sambu river to the Embera village of La Chunga.
Many years ago we were fortunate to make contact with Solarte Barqueno who has since grown his tour business to his remote village. You can contact him on Facebook or via his website, traveldarienpanama.com.
This is an incredibly unique journey and guests will visit a remote indigenous village to see how they live. There is a charge for the tour, and we have always brought along a generous amount of school supplies to donate to the village.
Solarte will arrange a panga to pick up guests at the back of the boat in the anchorage and then the adventure begins.
Any fishing enthusiast has surely heard of Pinas Bay – it’s probably near the top of their bucket list, and for good reason. The fishing both inshore and offshore here is some of the best in the world. The possibilities are endless, and the surprises never disappoint. From massive GT’s inshore, black marlin on the reef, or blue marlin, sails, dorado and tuna offshore, a day of fishing here is sure to be one to remember.
The lodge has moorings in the bay and sometimes has a few to offer to visiting boats, but we typically anchor towards the outside of the bay and put out a stern anchor to combat the swell that wraps around that can make the anchorage uncomfortable at times. Tropic Star Lodge welcomes visiting boats (be sure to check with them ahead of time) and depending on the season they will offer additional services such as meals and tours as well.
Heading back up the coast and north from Las Perlas toward Costa Rica, my secret spot mentioned earlier is Ensenada Benao.
Although now developed, it is still a decent anchorage and a great place to catch a few waves, walk on the beach and now visit the resort.
The next section of coastline and islands are some of my favourite in Panama. Sportfishing vessels tend to make a stop at Cebaco Bay for a fuel top-off or to spend a few days fishing the offshore islands and reefs.
From there we would generally spend a night or two in Bahia Honda as it offers a tranquil anchorage and friendly locals.
Isla Coiba is a National Park and has strict rules about anchoring, fishing, and access. On our last couple of visits, the fees had become prohibitive for stopping without owners/guest aboard, but the area is definitely worth a visit. There are hiking trails, amazing snorkelling, and diving (if sharks and crocs don’t bother you), white sand beaches and crystal-clear waters. We would base out of here for a few days to access the fishing grounds outside the park boundaries as it’s a much shorter run than from the Secas or Isla Parida.
The Secas offer several anchorage options and now have a high-end resort that may offer services to guests depending on occupancy. Isla Parida anchorages can offer protection from most directions and there are many opportunities for spearfishing and exploring, but be aware – we have seen crocodiles in the anchorages.
When beginning or ending our trips in the north we utilise the small marina in Boca Chica and with the assistance of our contacts the process is seamless from clearance, provisions, airport transfers and anything else you might need. The airport in David has direct international flights and is about an hour drive.
The river is tricky to navigate, so I recommend exploring by tender on low tide to mark the hazards that will be hidden at high tide. I recommend anchoring behind Punta Bejuco and using the tender for exploring and moving about the area but, depending on your draft, you may be able to tuck into somewhere else.
There are a handful of resorts and fishing lodges in the area, and we were always able to make arrangements for lunches and activities for ourselves and the guests.
A hidden gem of an anchorage to the south is inside Rio Santa Lucia. There is a strong current that runs in the river but there is plenty of swing room for a vessel up to 150 feet and good holding.
It is possible to explore the river by tender for miles and there is a nice hike up to a lookout that is accessed on the beach just inside the point. Although it is a remote area, there is a military dock up the river and you will regularly see the patrol boats heading in and out, which provide an added sense of security.
When you dream of the perfect deserted island, it’s very possible you’re envisioning Isla Montuosa.
This small island is to the west of Isla Coiba and south of the Boca Chica/Isla Parida area.
I highly recommend a day stop to swim, walk on the beach, and enjoy the tranquillity if the wind and sea conditions allow. I have anchored here on multiple occasions with the intention of spending the night and more often than not we ended up getting blown out and having to move in the night as the anchorage is exposed and becomes a lee shore. Beware!
Panama has such a variety of cruising options and, with the right preparation and planning, is a wonderful destination to add to any itinerary. For more information and assistance regarding Panama or your destination of choice contact John at Rubicon Maritime.