As the country that connects South America to Central America, Panama is an incredible destination with plenty of historic and geographic significance. Many people know Panama for its famous canal that connects the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean, but that is just a small part of what makes the country so fascinating. On both the Caribbean and Pacific side, several beautiful tropical islands in Panama can be found that boast stunning beaches and amazing wildlife. On your next trip to Panama, be sure to include a few of these incredible islands on your travel itinerary.
Just a few miles off the coast of the Azuero Peninsula in Southern Panama is Isla Iguana, a part of the Isla Iguana Wildlife Refuge. Most visitors to Isla Iguana arrive by boat for a day trip, and there is lots to see, do and explore on the island. A large and mature coral reef makes for fantastic snorkeling, and there are over 200 species of fish to be found. Scuba divers that head away from the coast might be able to spot humpback whales, moray eels or octopus. On Isla Iguana, birdwatching is popular, thanks in particular to a large frigate colony.
Isla Barro Colorado is located in the middle of the Panama Canal, formed when the waters of a local river were dammed during construction. The island is now a nature reserve, and it is a stunning destination with unparalleled biodiversity. In order to visit, you will need to book a formal tour, and access is typically by boat from nearby Gamboa. While on Isla Barro Colorado, you’ll be treated to magnificent colors as you hike. Be prepared to spot the the gorgeous hues of toucans, bold green tree frogs, carpets of flowers on forest floors and even three-toed sloths in their natural environment.
Accessible by boat from Panama City is Isla Taboga, or the Island of Flowers. Originally inhabited by Indians, the island came under Spanish rule in the 16th century, was set upon frequently by pirates and then came under British, French and American influence in the 19th and 20th centuries. There are three major reasons to visit Isla Taboga today: beaches, historic hikes and the island’s church. Playa Restinga is the island’s most popular beach, offering a sandy shoreline and blue water. You can also visit the second oldest church in the western hemisphere, which is still open to the public, or hike to the island’s summit to view Panama City in the distance.
On the Caribbean coastline is Isla Carenero, one of the islands in the archipelago known as Bocas del Toro. This small, thin island is just next to the much larger Isla Colón. If you’re so inclined, you could hike the entire perimeter of Isla Carenero in about an hour! The island is one of the top surfing spots in Panama, and stand-up paddleboarding is also a popular pastime. While there are several accommodation options on the island, you can also opt to visit by boat for a day, enjoying the laid-back atmosphere and the relaxed way of life that Isla Carenero has to offer.
Within the gulf south of Chiriquí are many islands, and collectively they are known as the Gulf of Chiriqui Islands. Most of these islands are uninhabited, though recently a few resorts are popping up here and there. These Panamanian islands are surrounded by coral reefs and fantastic opportunities for water-based activities like snorkeling and surfing. Boca Chica Island is covered in rainforest, making it ideal for hiking. The sister islands of Boca Brava and Isla Palenque are the place to be if you want to see groups of howler monkeys in the wild. Many boat tours take you island hopping through the Gulf of Chiriqui, making it a memorable day at sea.
Another island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago is Isla Bastimentos, a quiet and scenic destination without cars or even roads. The only real town is the small settlement of Old Bank, where a handful of rustic structures line the coast. One of the biggest draws to Isla Bastimentos is access to the beautiful beaches on the island. Wizard Beach is a fairly remote spot that creates seclusion, and it also boasts impressive surfing conditions. Red Frog Beach is the busiest beach on the island, and it is where you’ll want to stop for a beachside snack and a cold drink.
In the Gulf of Mexico in an archipelago known as the Pearl Islands. Many people might recognize these islands because they served as the filming location for multiple seasons of the tv show Survivor. The most developed of these islands is known as Contadora, which is home to the beach of Playa Larga. This beach is a typical, beautiful beach in Panama, but it is also home to a shipwrecked ferry boat resting on the sand, a very unusual sight. Whale watching is a great option while on Contadora, and many visitors also come to fish for mahi mahi, sailfish and marlin.
The largest island in Central America is Coiba Island, located south of Panama and the Veraguas Province. The entire island, as well as several surrounding islands and islets, form to combine what is now the Coiba National Marine Park. The island once served as a penal colony, giving it the nickname of Devil’s Island. Today, Coiba Island is known for its coral reef and abundance of underwater life. Most visitors come for the day, opting for guided tours that include snorkeling, scuba-diving or sightseeing. Surfing is a developing pastime on Coiba, and surf trips can also be arranged from the mainland.
Within the Bocas del Toro Archipelago is Isla Colon. The main destination on Isla Colon is its one town, called Bocas Town, which is easily accessible by foot and home to a few waterfront restaurants and souvenir shops. If you would rather enjoy the natural beauty of the island, admire some of the local flora at the Finca Los Monos Botanical Garden, or take a stroll along the beautiful Playa Estrella. At the dolphin preserve, you can also spot dolphins right from the coast. If you have time, set off on a boat tour, and pick one suited to your interests. You can find tours for dolphin spotting, scuba diving or fishing.
East of the Panama Canal, and north of the Isthmus of Panama, you’ll find the San Blas Islands. This archipelago is made up of more than 300 islands and cayes, although only 50 are inhabited. The primary residents of the San Blas Islands are the Kuna People, and they self-govern their archipelago. This makes the islands feel very different from the rest of Panama, right down to the language spoken in San Blas, which is called Tulekaya. On your visit, you can admire the colorful local dress and relax on scenic beaches. Island hopping tours are a great way to see some of the uninhabited and undeveloped islands within the archipelago.