The small coastal village of Cambutal is located on the Pacific coast, at the southernmost point of Panama in the Azuero Peninsula. Slightly off the beaten path (it’s a 5-6 hour drive from Panama City) Cambutal sits at the end of the road and is one of Panama’s best kept secrets. Popular with surfers and yoga devotees, this laid-back town is the place to come to unwind and to be at one with nature.
In contrast to the beaches on Panama’s Riviera, Cambutal attracts fewer visitors and has very little in the way of amenities. There are no banks or grocery stores and the village has just a handful of simple restaurants. This is definitely not the place to come if you’re looking for all-inclusive resorts, kids clubs and a buzzing nightlife. If, however, you want to escape the crowds and are prepared to spend an extra couple of hours in the car, Cambutal is one of the most enchanting spots on Panama’s Pacific coast.
Here are 12 reasons why the kids will love it!
1. Cambutal beach
The beach is obviously the main attraction and keeps the kids entertained for most of the day. The sand is a mix of yellow and black and stretches for miles. The light in the late afternoon is magical and the perfect time to take a long barefoot walk.
2. Hit the Surf!
The gentle waves and shallow waters make this an excellent spot for beginner surfers. Surf boards and boogie boards can be rented from the handful of hotels (see below) and lessons can also be arranged through hotels with sufficient notice. Our kids spent hours in the surf and would only come out once the sun had dropped completely!
3. Kayak Up a River
If your kids are anything like ours, they don’t tire of water activities easily. Another fun outing is to explore the coastline and nearby rivers by kayak. My husband took them out one afternoon with a friend and his children, and they headed to the rocky outcrop directly opposite Hotel Playa Cambutal (about 100m off shore)
4. Gallop Along the Beach
Saddle up and take a horse ride along the beach at sunset. Horses can be hired from the village and together with a guide, you can take a leisurely ride up the beach, or step it up a gear and race your parents!
5. Release Baby Turtles
One of the most memorable moments of our visit was releasing baby turtles into the ocean. The turtle hatching season runs from July to January. The non-profit conservation and education organisation, Tortguias led the tour shortly after sunrise. To protect the sea turtle eggs from poachers, the staff at Tortguias collect the eggs from the beaches during the night and secure them in their turtle hatchery adjacent to Hotel Playa Cambutal. After 45-50 days of incubation the eggs hatch and the babies are carefully released back into the ocean. Visitors are invited to help volunteers release them.
6. Whale Watching
From July to October migrating humpback whales travel from their Antarctic feeding grounds to breed and give birth in the warmer waters off Panama’s pacific coast. A second group of migrating humpbacks also travel from Alaska and can be seen in these waters from December to February. Whale-watching tours can be arranged during these periods. Our visit didn’t coincide with the whale season but you can read about our experience of whale-watching in and around Las Perlas (a group of islands directly south of Panama City) here.
7. Unwind With a Beachfront Massage
Cambutal is all about relaxing and unwinding. We recommend starting your holiday by booking a massage with Rondalynn (we booked ours through Hotel Playa Cambutal). The setting is simple and yet perfect; a little hut by the beach. There is no plinky-plonky music (thankfully) but just the sound of the breaking waves and the distant buzz of the overhead fan. Rondalynn is also very knowledgable on the subject of healing through massage. Definitely a ‘must-do’ for stressed-out city folk when visiting Cambutal!
8. Catch Dinner for Your Family
The Pacific coast off Panama is famed for its deep sea fishing and the advantage of fishing from Cambutal is that you don’t have to head very far out. Not far from the coastline the water depth plunges into the deep blue. Big game fish such as tuna, snapper and groupers are plentiful here and half day or full day fishing trips can be arranged. Naturally this is less suited to little kids, although boat trips also offer opportunities to spot dolphins, turtles, and whales (during the migratory season).
My husband went out with a friend for half a day and came back with a couple of tuna. The Italian chef in Boom Shiva Restaurant offered to cook them for us (see below). We took the remaining fillets back to the city with us. If you’re planning a fishing trip, don’t forget to stick a cool box in the back of the car.
9. Indulge in Pizza, Pasta and Fabulously Fresh Tuna
Given the lack of amenities in Cambutal, we didn’t have high expectations when it came to eating out. I expect you can count the number of eateries on one hand. So when we stumbled upon the Italian restaurant, Boom Shiva, we were happily surprised. Granted, it’s name does little to suggest its Italian roots, but the food here is excellent! The Italian owner, Daniel imports many of his ingredients from Italy (including Italian beer) and everything is homemade, from the pasta and pizza bases to the tomato sauces. The pizzas were definitely a crowd-pleaser, particularly with the kids and on our second night Daniel kindly agreed to cook the tuna my husband and his friend had caught that day. His tuna tartar was possibly the best I’d ever tasted.
10. Join a Yoga Class
Given it’s lack of crowds and spectacular surroundings, Cambutal is a popular spot for yoga retreats. Just up the beach from where we were staying is Sansara Surf Yoga Resort (more details below). The retreat allows non-guests to attend their daily yoga classes in their beach front yoga Shala (when not booked for retreats). Classes usually start at 8:30am.
11. Enjoy a Game of Buckaroo
Traditionally, Cambutal is a village of cattle farmers and cowboys. It is not uncommon to see rodeo shows being held in the village arena. The locals are very friendly and happy for visitors to watch. You may also get stuck along the back roads behind large herds of cattle beginning moved from hills to pastures. Cambutal is no place to be a rush.
12. Buy the T-shirt!
Well, who doesn’t *heart* Cambutal?!
Cambutal: Where to stay
There are only a handful of accommodation options in Cambutal. The following are our tops picks:
Hotel Playa Cambutal
Hotel Playa Cambutal is bang on the beach and where we stayed. It is one of the most kid-friendly options as it has a good-size pool, playground and air-conditioning in the rooms. It’s also where the majority of our friends stay when they visit Cambutal.
Positioned next door to Hotel Playa Cambutal are these small, 2-bedroom huts (with air-conditioning). Arranged over two levels, parents with little kids should be aware that the staircase is not toddler-proof. The huts are part of Boom Shiva (see restaurant above). The only drawback is that they don’t have a pool, but you have the Pacific on your doorstep instead.
Sansara Surf & Yoga Retreat
Another option is Sansara Surf Yoga Resort. Although this might not be the best option for families (especially those with younger kids) it’s definitely a great place for those looking to completely unwind. When we walked past it on the beach we saw a meditation session in process – I couldn’t imagine a more peaceful and beautiful place to Zen out!
What to Bring
Sun cream and mosquito repellent. During the rainy season the chitras are particularly bad in Cambutal. We found that baby oil helps (obviously not to put on yourself when in the sun!)
Cambutal: Getting there
Cambutal is located on the Pacific coast, at the southernmost point of Panama in the Azuero Peninsula, in the province of Los Santos.
By Car: From Panama City, the journey takes around 5-6 hours by car. Approx 2.5 hours to the turn off point on the Inter-american highway and another 2.5 hours from there, through Chitre and Las Tablas. From Las Tablas you want to cut across the peninsula, through the town of Valle Rico and Tonosi, to Cambutal and avoid the longer coastal route via Pedasi.
By Bus: Buses depart from Albrook Terminal in Panama City to Tonosi. From Tonosi you will have to take a taxi to Cambutal.
By Plane: Air Panama offers flights from Panama City to Chitre (1.5 hours from Cambutal).
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