Nestled amidst green rolling hills, bordered by the dramatic coastline of the Pacific, and surrounded by tranquil beaches, the fetching fishing village of Pedasí offers water sports, wildlife viewing, the best weather in Panama, and a whole lot of opportunities just to chill out, relax and take in all the sights and scenes. Located on the south-eastern tip of the Azuero Peninsula, Pedasí has transformed in recent years into a hip destination and investment hotspot for locals and foreigners alike, making it one of the main attractions of Los Santos province. Real estate developers compare Pedasí to Tuscany and like to call it the “Riviera of the Tropics”. Hype aside, there is something to this characterization: Pedasí somehow manages to combine traditional, small-town ways of life (locals will greet you with a friendly “Buenas!” and it is not unusual to see horse-drawn wagons cruising down the street) with a vibrant and welcoming expat community, not to mention modern amenities like hotels, restaurants, shops, banks, and hospitals. Pedasí might be an out-of-the-way place, but don’t be surprised when your neighbors turn out to be from all over the world. The local and the global, traditional folkways and cosmopolitan lifestyles, all come together in this very special place.

Part of Pedasí’s enormous attraction lies in its tranquil culture, reflected in its easygoing day-to-day rhythms and the balmy, breezy coastal scenery. Soak up local flavor by strolling on the beach while watching whales jump and play in the ocean, or mix with locals on a Friday night at the charming central plaza and its surrounding restaurants, cafes, bars and shops before heading home with a walk through quiet residential neighborhoods. There is also plenty to explore beyond town, including pristine beaches, sport fishing, diving, surfing, and horseback riding. Because towns and homes in the region often cluster around the highway and roads, much of the waterfront is undeveloped; there is something for everyone, from trendy surf breaks to private and secluded beaches you can enjoy all to yourself.

Surfing is one of the most popular activities, and whether you surf or just like to watch and enjoy the scene, Playa Venao is definitely worth checking out. This crescent-shaped bay 20 miles from town is quickly gaining recognition as the surfing spot in Panama. In fact, Playa Venao has hosted two ISA World Surfing Championships so far (in 2011 and 2012). There are also other smaller breaks suitable for novices. Whether you hit the surf or visit some of the secluded adjacent beaches, great for swimming and snorkeling, you can finish your day the right way noshing on fresh grilled tuna at one of the rustic beach bars. Other top surfing spots are Playa Raya, Playa Destiladeros and Playa Madrono.

Farther from the coast, sport fishing is another popular activity, and Pedasí is rightfully a top deep fishing destination. The Azuero Peninsula is often called the Tuna Coast for its abundant yellowfin tuna, and year-round catch also include wahoo, bigeye tuna, dorado, roosterfish, snapper, sailfish, amberjack, and grouper. Pedasí has a small marina, and there are a number of trips and options you can arrange from here.

Back on the mainland there are a number of parks and wildlife refuges nearby, where visitors can enjoy the area’s natural beauty. Sarigua National Park, on the coast of the Gulf of Parita, consists of 20,000 acres of coast, desert, mangrove, and swamp. The park includes the remains of the oldest pre-Columbian village in Panama, dating to about 9,000 B.C., and there is a visitor center where local guides can give you tours. Cerro Hoya National park has reefs and mangrove swamps, as well as forested mountains home to the white tailed deer, jaguar, ocelot, scarlet macaw, painted parakeet, king vulture, osprey, and black hawk, among others. There are many rivers, waterfalls, and pools to explore. The Cenegón del Mangle Wildlife Refuge is located in Parita, in Herrera province. This refuge includes lagoons, wetlands, and everglades, where royal herons, white ibexes and egrets nest. Try spotting otters, crab-eating raccoons, or even a boa constrictor or crocodile. There is also an archaeological site here called La Cueva del Tigre, a prehistoric cave with mineral-rich thermal pools used for their medicinal benefits. 30 minutes from Chitre lies the Cienaga de Las Macanas. This wetlands ecosystem is recognized for its biodiversity and aquatic birds, which you can watch from an observation dock. There are public restrooms and a hiking trail.

Perhaps the most well-known wildlife refuge is Isla Iguana, 20 minutes by boat from Playa Arenal. This stunning, white sand island (you’ll think your’e somewhere in the Caribbean!) is surrounded by one of the best preserved coral reefs in Panama, offering excellent snorkeling and diving opportunities. The 35 acres of reefs host 13 coral species, 347 species of fish, 200 species of marine invertebrates, 3 species of marine tortoises, and 7 species of marine mammals, while on the island scientists have identified 62 species of birds and 6 species of land reptiles, including the giant iguanas that gave the island its name. The refuge also contains a channel for humpback whales that migrate from South America to warmer waters between June and October, while from January to April visitors can also spot orcas and dolphins.

Finally, no account of Pedasí would be complete without reference to its vibrant culture. The Azuero Peninsula is known as Panama’s heartland for its cultural traditions and folklore, which can be noted in Pedasí’s colonial architecture, including 16th century churches, and local dress forms– the men often wear cutarras, rustic sandals, and typical Panama hats, while the women (especially during Carnaval) don their lovely and intricate polleras, a traditional dress with Spanish colonial origins. Carnaval itself is a spectacle that can’t be missed, and the festival celebrated here is the most famous Carnaval in the country. Another popular festival is the patron saint’s celebration, the Fiesta de Santa Catalina, held each year on November 25th.

Perhaps surprising because of its small size, Pedasí is incredibly livable– the roads are impeccable, there are good telephone and electric lines, cellular telephone service, high-speed internet, drinkable tap water, modern health centers and hospitals, and commercial activity. And just because you’re at the beach doesn’t mean you have to miss out on some of the benefits of living in more urban areas– in the nearby larger towns of Las Tablas and Chitre, you can find shopping malls, a golf course, movie theater, hospital and casino. Between the spectacular wildlife, pristine beaches, water sports, and laid back vibe, Pedasí truly deserves its reputation as an up-and-coming destination.