Our trip to Panama City was more or less an extended layover. We had enough frequent flier miles to get to Central America, but rates were a bit astronomical to go all the way to Rio during the World Cup. After some number-crunching and researching, we discovered the cheapest way to make it to Brazil would be to use our miles to fly to Panama City for free, and then purchase our ongoing tickets to Brazil from there. Since we had previously been traveling non-stop through Europe, we also still had to deal with the teeny, tiny issue of getting our Brazilian visas. Luckily, we could conveniently get this done in three days in Panama City.
So Panama quickly became a very appealing destination. Last year we visited Bocas del Toro and Boquete, but we didn’t have the chance to make it down south. This time we decided to bookend our visit in Panama City, with a getaway to Pedasi and Altos de Campana National Park scheduled in the middle. Throwing Pedasi into the mix was a bit of a last minute decision, but it was one that would ultimately highlight our Panamanian adventure.
Charming Pedasi, Panama
Located on Panama’s Azuero Peninsula, Pedasi is a small but charming village. It takes only moments to walk the town center in its entirety. A slow stroll through the area will take you down clean, well-preserved streets and past locals who still say a warm hello to passersby. But though central Pedasi boasts a sleepy air, the greater Pedasi area is full of things to do, including beautiful beaches, world-renowned fishing, surfing, snorkeling, and an uncanny number of Italian restaurants. It was this perfect combination of adventure and relaxation that first attracted us to the off-the-beaten-track destination.
Some Panamanians had graciously but incorrectly informed us that Pedasi was an easy four-hour bus ride from Panama City. When we finally arrived at Pedasi a grueling six and a half hours later, we couldn’t have been more grateful to collapse inside our lovely—and air-conditioned—room at Casita Margarita. The beautiful wood furnishings, spacious bathroom, and comfortable bedding were exactly the details we wanted after a long day of travel.
Though it would have been all too easy to stay contentedly tucked away for the remainder of the evening, the staff at Casita Margarita had shared their inside knowledge about a birthday celebration with live music going on just down the road at a small restaurant and bar aptly named Smiley’s. Well, we couldn’t turn down that—or the fact that rum and cokes were only $1.50. After still suffering from Scandinavian sticker-shock, this was one of the first reminders that it felt really good to be back in Central America.
The second reminder would quickly follow with the generosity and friendliness of both the locals and expats in Pedasi. After just ten minutes of arriving at Smiley’s, we had been introduced to nearly everyone in the restaurant, largely thanks to the welcoming owner of Casita Margarita, Ted. It didn’t matter that we were only visitors to the town for three nights; the community felt genuinely interested in us, and they were happy to share their advice on exploring the numerous local area attractions.
The next morning over breakfast, Ted laughed at us when we recounted our longer-than-anticipated journey. “Oh yea,” he responded, unsurprised. “You’re at least five hours from anything in Pedasi. This isn’t a place you just stumble upon. You have to want to come here.”
Luckily, there are plenty of reasons (besides the charm) to want to come to Pedasi. Here are a few of our favorites:
Under the guidance of Casita Margarita, we spent our first full day in Pedasi exploring the protected island refuge Isla Iguana, aptly named for the black iguanas that can usually be spotted sunbathing on the sand. Isla Iguana isn’t the cheapest day trip—a boat ride will cost around $70 (for up to 8 people) and admission to the island is $10 per person (for tourists). But at a mere 8 kilometers off the coast, the island is really a must-see for its aquamarine water, white sand beaches, mangrove forests, abundant snorkeling and isolated vibe.
There are two beaches on the island, both easily accessible via a short hiking path that connects the two. Most boats will drop you off at ‘Playa El Cirial’; be sure to visit the other beach, Playita El Faro, for more seclusion and better snorkeling.
There’s no development on the island, so be sure to bring your own equipment and food. We arrived fully decked out with beach chairs, an umbrella, snorkel gear, and a cooler of ice-cold beer and lunch courtesy of Casita Margarita, much to the jealousy of neighboring beach goers who had arrived unprepared.
Also be on the lookout for dolphins and occasionally whales that frequent the water between the mainland and the island!
While the beaches at Isla Iguana are likely the most beautiful, there are plenty of other sandy spots that are more accessible.
Playa del Toro is a long, golden-sand beach. It’s one of the closet beaches to the town of Pedasi, easily accessible on bicycle. The road down to Playa del Toro is beautiful itself, winding through green countryside. Once you’re at the beach you won’t find that much there. It’s a great place to go for a long walk and escape the heat with a gentle swim.
Playa El Lagarto is famous locally for its great body boarding breaks. Some of the locals who practice here have even made it to international body boarding competitions. El Lagarto is located on the road just before El Toro, ten minutes down a dirt road. There’s one sign leading to the beach, but all the locals will happily direct you there.
Playa Arenal isn’t the most beautiful of the surrounding beaches, but it does have a lot of local flavor. This is where the fishermen start and end each day. Boats to Isla Iguana also depart from this beach; it’s possible to arrange a driver on the spot, but most hotels have a local contact to direct you to for the same price.
Surfing at Playa Venao
Admittedly, Playa Venao was one of the major reasons we (aka Dan) wanted to make the trek out to Pedasi. It reputedly has the best beach break in all of Panama, with consistent medium to high waves. Dan borrowed a board from Casita Margarita and we set off to wait, and wait, and wait for a bus that would never appear. So we splurged on a $25 taxi to take us on the 30-minute journey. Dan had no regrets, and was able to enjoy a great day of surfing while I watched from the beach bar with a smoothie in hand. Of course, we never found a bus back from the beach either, but we were able to hitchhike with a truck full of Panamian surfers watching the World Cup—success!
Cycling Through Town
One of the best ways to soak up the charm of Pedasi is via bicycle. The town is easily cycled in minutes, but there are plenty of roads that sprout off from the town center and take you to even smaller villages and great vistas. All of the beaches noted above (with the exception of Playa Venao) are also accessed by bike.
It’s no wonder that Pedasi captivates expats looking for a comfortable, simple place to retire. The town’s popularity is only likely to grow as news of the gem spreads, but for now, the town remains a charming getaway outside Panama City. Let’s hope it stays that way for a bit longer.
To Arrive: Buses depart from Panama City to Las Tablas regularly throughout the day. From Las Tablas you can catch a bus to Pedasi. We were too tired at this point, so we just hopped in a taxi to take us directly to Casa Margarita for $20.
To Sleep: After only three nights at Casita Margarita, we felt like we were part of the family. Owner Ted is full of great stories and advice. The manager, Guadalupe, exudes warmth and hospitality. Add to the mix great rooms, great breakfast (just ask for the #5), and a convenient location, and it’s no wonder that Casita Margarita is regularly considered the best place to stay in Pedasi.
To Eat: There are surprisingly numerous places to eat despite the small size of the town. Smiley’s is an expat favorite, with great drink prices and a tasty meal of the day. Pasta e Vino is an Italian-run favorite with authentic Italian cuisine and wine. Isla Iguana is supposedly the place to go for fresh seafood, though honestly we didn’t have the best experience during our visit. Finally, Casita Margarita is open to the public for breakfast and Monday Chicken Nights, both favorites among the expat community.
We were guests of Casita Margarita to photograph the bed and breakfast and write an article about Pedasi attractions. We were not asked to write a favorable review of the hotel—all thoughts and opinions are our own.
wow. this is the most detailed and enticing post I’ve read on Panama. It looks beautiful! And a little wild…
Andrew recently posted…Foto Friday – Petra, Jordan
Thanks Andrew! You said it, wild and beautiful :-) This was our first time on the Pacific side of Panama and we were very impressed.
The protected island refuge Isla Iguana looks incredibly nice, I’m generally not a huge fan of iguanas but spending a bit of time there would perhaps help me to familiarize more with them.
Franca recently posted…Metropol Parasol – An Architectural Icon of Seville
The iguanas were actually quite docile and don’t bother you at all. There are also loads of birds and hermit crabs on the island. It’s pretty wild :-)
Your posts get more interesting all the time. Love your descriptions and the photos are spectacular! Another great adventure.
Thanks! We were very excited to stumble upon this adventure by chance :-)
What a great escape Pedasi looks like! I’m planning to visit Panama while I’m living in Central America but wasn’t sold on any particular area… definitely going to add this to the list!
Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted…Roatan Review: The Landing
We’ve been to a few places in Panama now and Pedasi is one of our favorites! There are also a couple of dive spots in the area as well as some amazing fishing.
Panama is on my list for a while. And this post makes me want to go even more! Love the photo with an umbrella. Looks so relaxing!
memographer recently posted…FIFA World Cup Brazil. Dreams Do Come True!
I’d love to be back in that chair :-D
Pedasi looks like a great place to visit and chill for a while. I only got the chance to go to Panama City and the San Blas Islands when I was in Panama but definitely want to go back to see more.
Katie @ The World on my Necklace recently posted…An unexpected trip back to New Zealand
We were very surprised at how modern and busy Panama City is! Pedasi is the perfect place to relax away from bustle of the city.
Casey, looks awesome! We learned a bit about Panama when cruising through Costa Rica. Plenty of expats broke it down for us. Thanks!
Ryan Biddulph recently posted…Good Evening from Savusavu Fiji!
We had heard a lot about Panama while traveling through Costa Rica as well. It seems the two expat communities have a bit of a rivalry about which is better :-p
Casey, What a wonderful place to spend a few days. I would love to see the black iguanas and talk to the people who live there. The people are always the best part!
Corinne recently posted…Weekend Travel Inspiration – Develop a Sympathy
You’ll have no problem making friends in Pedasi! Everyone is super friendly :-D
Thank you for excellent report! I have been planning to explore Panama after my short 3-day stay last year, but never heard of Pedasi. I have to say, though, that it was quite possible to fly to Brazil during WC for 60K miles, although not skymiles (I did). The Delta FF program is simply atrocious. No matter how much you might love them, if you travel a lot, ditch them for AA or/and United and their partners.
Andy Shuman @ Lazy Travelers recently posted…Saturday Night Late: World Cup, “Suarezing” Edition
Thanks Andy! Pedasi isn’t known by many, but those who do know it always have good things to say :-) We’ve been accumulating Delta Skymiles for a while but have started to move toward AA. Another great thing about American is that you can fly one way on miles, which is great for full-time travelers like ourselves!
Yeah, thanks for putting it on the map for me! And you’re right, AA miles are the best, at least for now.
Andy Shuman @ Lazy Travelers recently posted…Saturday Night Late: World Cup, “Suarezing” Edition
It was a pleasure meeting you two in Pedasi. We are back in LA now, but we find Pedasi to be the perfect get-away for us. We finally bought a house there, so Pedasi is now our home away from home! Thanks for including a photo of my hubby playing guitar at Smiley’s. I look forward to your future blogs.
Hi Lisa! We had such a great time in Pedasi :-D That’s so exciting you’ve bought property there!! Happy travels and tell everyone hello for us!
Great info on Isla Iguana and getting there and getting around in general. I was in Pedasi in 2013 but didn’t have time to get out to some of these beaches – nor could we find some of them – signage is not ‘optimal’. I wish we’d had this info back then! I’m also glad to know we weren’t the only people who were told it was only 4 hours away :)
You are probably right about it not staying secluded for too long. There’s already plans for a luxury condo development in the near future.
Jenni @ The Travelarian recently posted…Hotels in High Season – Getting the Room You Want
Glad you enjoyed the post Jenni! Signage in the area is still ‘less than optimal’ for sure :-p
My wife and I are taking a vaction trip to Panama in March. We plan on taking a look at Panama city, Boquette, and Pedasi. We are a bit nervous about some of our choices for accommodation and travel and it would be nice to communicate with someone for reassurance. Your blog was very interesting and gave some great advice. What would you advise?
Going to be in Pedasi for 2 weeks in January, can you expand on you comment about great fishing? Thanks
Unfortunately we didn’t fish ourselves so we don’t know a ton more about that aspect, other than the area attracts a ton of avid fishers and it’s said to be one of the best places in Panama (from what we were told.) Again since we don’t fish, don’t know too much more. But if you reach out to any of the hotels in the area they should be able to help you :)
I like your articles and adding some of your article links to our site. Good Job!
Thanks so much for sharing John :-D