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Playa Kobbe (Bonita)

The formal name for this area is Playa Kobbe, but with the opening of the Intercontinental the area is also commonly referred to as Playa Bonita. This is the closest beach to Panama City. Take the first exit after the Bridge of the Americas and follow the road 6.5km (4 miles) to get here. A taxi from downtown will cost you about $45 (£23) one-way, or $65 (£33) from the international airport. Apart from the resort and an upscale residential community with an 18-hole golf course, there is Playa Kobbe -- the public beach (with a lifeguard), which charges $7 (£3.50) (price includes a snack), and at which you can rent boats.

Playa Gorgona

This is the next stretch of sand on the coast, but it's quite a drive from Playa Bonita -- about 79km (49 miles) from the Bridge of the Americas. Gorgona is a small town with three salt-and-pepper sand beaches, including Playa Malibu, a popular surf spot (you'll need a 4WD to get to this beach); Arena Negra, a charcoal-sand beach commonly used by fishermen; and the Gorgona Beach itself. During the winter, strong currents create poor swimming conditions here. These are not the nicest beaches on the coast, and accommodations consist mostly of inexpensive, weathered cabañas.

Playa Coronado

Playa Coronado is the oldest community on the coast, and the most developed, with a sprawling residential area and full range of services such as a 24-hour El Rey supermarket, shops, and restaurants. It's located 83km (51 miles) from Panama City, and 3km (1 3/4 miles) from the highway. There are quite a lot of residential homes here that have been around long enough to give off that lived-in feel, unlike other beach areas that are mostly modern condo developments. Both Panamanians and expats like Coronado for its services and for its lengthy beach, though this is certainly not the best beach on the coast -- the sand here contains a lot of iron and is dark. There is a controlled security gate to keep the crowds at bay -- even if you're not registered at a hotel, tell the gate attendant that you are headed to the Coronado Beach Resort so that he'll let you pass.

Playa El Palmar

The turnoff for Playa El Palmar is 95km (59 miles) from Panama City, just past the town of San Carlos, which has services such as a supermarket. El Palmar is a gray-sand beach popular with surfers and weekenders from the interior. Along the coastal area are oceanfront properties, and there are two midrange places to stay: the Palmar and the Bay View Resort. The water, depending on the tide, can be blue or dark; also, be aware of riptides when the surf is pounding. Day visitors should look into the Bay View's day pass .

Santa Clara

Santa Clara and its neighbor down the road, Farallón, are home to the prettiest beaches in this Pacific coastal area, with clean, white sand and, for the most part, good swimming conditions. There are relatively few people in Santa Clara -- the area has a ban on weekend "Coaster" buses that transport rowdy beachgoers to the coastal region. Santa Clara doesn't have much of a town to speak of, and consists mostly of tourist lodgings and residential and weekend homes for urbanites. It's a little farther from Panama City than other beaches mentioned earlier in this chapter, but it's worth the extra effort to get here, especially if you plan on spending the night. The turnoff for Santa Clara is 113km (70 miles) from Panama City; keep your eyes open as it's easy to miss the turnoff. After turning, the road forks -- head left for Las Sirenas, right for Las Veraneras and the public beach. Taxi Santa Clara can get you around this area; they hang out at the turnoff junction (tel. 6606-9084).

Outdoor Activities -- Most visitors come to Santa Clara just to kick back on the beach and relax. Locals rent horses on the beach, but there isn't a corral or specific place to head to -- rather, horse owners wander the beach looking for potential riders. The lodging options mentioned below or the day area at the Balneario Santa Clara can put you in touch with a horse-renting local; the cost is $3 (£1.50) per hour. If you want to rent a bike, your hotel should be able to put you in touch with a local bike rental outfit.

Kayak Panama (tel. 993-3096; www.kayakpanama.com) operates out of XS Memories , offering kayaking trips and lessons on the Class I to II Chame River from about August to November, when the river is full. They can also put together trips on other rivers if you're looking for a multiple-day itinerary. It's not an action-packed white-water ride, but the river provides outstanding opportunities for catching sight of local fauna, including herons, kingfishers, turtles, and caimans. It's great for families traveling with kids (but not for young children). They also rent kayaks.

Farallón

Farallón is often referred to as Playa Blanca, for the lovely white-sand beach that stretches along the coastal area here. It's mostly known for the gigantic Decameron Resort and the Playa Blanca Resort ; there is also a poor village whose residents, to be honest, are resentful of their new resort neighbors. It's not common, but those with a rental vehicle might encounter a bit of rankling from locals on the roads here (usually kids throwing trash at passing vehicles). It's anyone's guess how this area will look in a decade, given the fact that it is a hot property for retirement and weekend homes.

Outdoor Adventures -- Extreme Tours (tel. 6671-8445, or 993-2823 at Playa Blanca; www.extremetourspanama.com) is the tour outfitter for the Playa Blanca Resort. They offer exciting outdoor adventures to travelers staying there, lodging elsewhere along the coast, or just visiting for the day. Sample excursions include scuba diving, horseback riding, surf lessons, hiking, rappelling, and water-skiing. They even offer full-day sailing trips with lunch included. You'll need to send them an e-mail for prices, as each tour is customized according to where you are staying and what you're looking for.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.