Even the most sophisticated traveler could be forgiven for thinking that there's little more to Panama than its iconic canal, seaside capital, and snorkeler-packed Bocas del Toro islands. But there's a more secret and equally spectacular side to the country about a five-hour drive west from Panama City: the Pacific coast region of Los Santos. Here, rolling farmlands and stands of mahogany and cocobolo trees hug an azure coastline, luring surfers, nature buffs, and, increasingly, travelers and second-home owners from all over.
Although roadside real-estate billboards suggest a far more developed future, Los Santos has managed to stay blessedly free of resorts. In their place are a handful of low-key—and far more affordable—boutique hotels. The most stylish is the seven-room Villa Camilla, just outside the fishing village of Pedasí. The red-tiled hideaway, located on an 800-acre parcel of the Azuero Peninsula, started out as a private escape for French interior designer Gilles St.-Gilles and his wife, Camilla. "The area reminded us of Tuscany," says St.-Gilles, who landscaped the estate with fragrant jasmine, plumeria, and hibiscus. In 2005, the couple opened their place as a hotel, and last fall they added 20 new seaside duplex lofts. As stylish as they are family-friendly, the setups come with full-size kitchens, extra guest beds, and mosaic-tile flooring. An in-house stable is ready for shoreline horseback rides, and you can sign up for snorkeling trips to nearby Isla Cañas, a palm-fringed refuge where thousands of leatherback turtles converge to build nests.
Farther inland, the center of Pedasí has a cow-town vibe: Picture low-slung cottages painted bright green and yellow, and ranchers wearing handmade Panama hats. Yellow is also the color of choice at the new Casita Margarita. This five-room B&B comes with locally crafted cocobolo furniture and a wraparound veranda overlooking Pedasí's main street. Perhaps best of all, it's within walking distance of local hangout Mano Surf Community, a pro shop that does double duty as a café and juice bar, and El Gringo Dusek, a no-frills, alfresco cantina run by retired U.S. Navy officer Joseph Dusek, which serves the best barbecue ribs in Los Santos.
Of course, beyond the culinary surf and turf, the region's big draw is its blissfully empty beaches: Some of Panama's most scenic—Los Destiladeros, Modroño, and the black-sand Playa Venao with its eight-foot breaks—are short drives from Pedasí. Closer to home, Pedasí's El Arenal is a good launchpad for day trips to Iguana Island. (Fishermen stationed by the pier rent their motorboats, captain included, for about $50 round trip.) The hotel-free and nearly visitor-free isle is named for its resident black and green iguanas. Sign up for an Iguana Island Foundation snorkeling and hiking tour; you might just get a good look at some hatchlings.
While it may be hard to top that sight, 77-year-old Dalila Vera de Quintero knows how to command equal wows. Her lemon-yellow bakery in a bungalow, Dulceria Yely, is famous across Panama for its home-style sweets, like almond queques (pound cakes) and creamy chicheme, a shake blended from sweetened milk, fresh corn, and crushed vanilla beans. She also stashes a cake or two in the kitchen for favorite customers, such as former Panamanian president and Pedasí native Mireya Moscoso. Swoon loudly enough and Quintero may just reward you with a thick presidential slice.
Los Destiladeros, 011-507/232-0171, azueros.com, from $250
Calle Central, 011-507/995-2898, pedasihotel.com, from $99
Mano Surf Community
Calle Estudiante and Calle Bolivar, manosurf.com
El Gringo Dusek
Av. Central, 011-507/995-2869, entrées from $5
Calle Ofelia Reluz, 011-507/995-2205, from 3¢
Iguana Island Foundation
011-507/236-8117, islaiguana.com, full-day tour $90