One of the most accessible (and pleasurable) day trips from Panama City is to the Santa Clara (also known as Rio Hato) area just an hour and a half from Panama City, near El Valle. Timing your trip will depend on what kind of an escape you’re looking for.
The weekend is the best time to enjoy a festive party atmosphere among friendly locals and visiting Panama City residents, sharing the beautiful beaches and dollar beers with expats, Panamanians, and other travelers.
For a more serene escape, you can visit this beach on a weekday for a bit of respite after the city-dwellers have ventured back to their homes and offices.
The sparkling blue water and clean white sand invite beachgoers to enjoy safe swimming and snorkeling — local families and small children playing in the surf are a testament to the calm waters along the Cocle province’s Pacific coastline. It’s also a great walking beach with plenty of people- and nature-watching opportunities, and its vibrant atmosphere reminds me of childhood trips to Florida’s gulf coast.
If you make it to the beach early, snag one of the many available thatched cabanas, a perfect home base for a group or family. Bring along your own beach towels, but plan on having drinks and lunch at one of the many affordable seafood joints along the water. Oftentimes you’ll see local fisherman bringing up the catch-of the day, giving you a preview of the hyper-fresh seafood you’ll taste while lunching on the local cuisine.
When to go:
Santa Clara makes for a great day trip from Panama City, but leave early to beat the city traffic. City-dwelling beachgoers often head out for a weekend of sun and sand, peaking the outbound traffic on Friday afternoon and inbound traffic on Sunday evening.
The journey to Santa Clara is well-marked and straightforward. Simply follow signs for Panama’s main highway (the Interamericana) and take a left at the Santa Clara overpass. Several beach-side bars and restaurants have parking lots near public beaches and charge a few dollars for a full day.
- Bring cash — it is the only currency accepted by many oceanfront stands and walk-up bars.
- Avoid peak traffic hours, and avoid weekends if you find crowded beaches a turn-off.
- Stop by Quesos Chela along the way for sustenance. Delicious empanadas and a cold drink are the perfect start to your day at the beach.