A Guide to Santa Catalina's Pacific Coast | Panama
Malls dot either side of the well constructed, constantly flowing highway. Quick glimpses of McDonalds and Subway are caught out of the corner of your eye. For the first four and a half hours driving west from Panama City along the Panamerica Highway everything feels strangely familiar. For a brief, fleeting pause, you forget that you left the US and are in fact, in Panama. Then you turn left once Santiago approaches, pass through Soná and everything suddenly changes. The malls and fast food outlets become roadside fruit vendors; concrete makes way for thatched huts; and a local riding on horseback isn’t uncommon, nor strange.
This is the road to Santa Catalina, a remote surfside community of around 300 people in the Veraguas province.
It’s where rainy season takes its last breath in November. The rain can be torrential and relentless lasting for days on end. Santa Catalina’s Pacific Coast is so rugged and stark in its beauty, that somehow the rain suits the look, and sunshine almost feels as if it doesn’t belong. Though I imagine it is beautiful on any given sunny day, experiencing Santa Catalina in the rain feels more sacred, more special and more humbling.
It also makes for less people. Come and and simply lose yourself in the slow pace of life-stroll the town beach in the morning at low tide and you’re likely to only pass fisherman bringing in their daily catch or a local or two out for a walk. Afternoon surf sessions at El Estero will be unhurried and you’ll feel as if you are the only person out there. Crossing paths with only a handful people a day isn’t something most of us are accustomed to, but here, the solitary of life in low season is so profound at times that all you are left with is your thoughts and the sound of the ocean.
You’ve been there, done that in San Juan del Sur, Nosara or Santa Teresa and you’re in search of the next off-the beaten path surf spot before it becomes the new ‘It’ place that’s suddenly teeming with tourists. Or for the less surf included, you just need to leave life behind for a week of true, quiet, all-encompassing seclusion. Word is slowly getting out about Santa Catalina, so get there while you can.
Unless you have a rental car and plan on driving yourself, that leaves you with just two other options in getting to Santa Catalina: taking the bus or hiring a private car with a driver.
A private car will typically run around $350 one-way from Panama City, and while affordable if splitting the cost, as with almost anywhere else I travel to, I recommend taking the bus for not only the most cost effective way of getting from Point A to Point B, but also for getting the real feel for traveling as a local would. Your experience will be that much richer and more memorable for it.
It just happens that Panama has its bus system figured out, dare I say, better than some US cities. The buses are frequent, comfortable and are the most inexpensive method of getting around.
Here’s how to do it:
From Panama City, take any bus heading to Albrook Terminal (cost: 25c). From Albrook Terminal, hop onto a direct bus to Soná. It will take approximately 4 ½ hrs and the first two buses leave at 8.20 and 10.20am, with the last one at 5.45pm. Once in Soná you can catch the connecting bus going to Santa Catalina whichtakes around 1 or 1 ½ hours. The total fare should run less than $15-a fraction of the cost of traveling via private car and roughly the exact same travel time.
Where to Stay
HOTEL SANTA CATALINA | With its picturesque infinity pool overlooking the break at La Punta, Hotel Santa Catalina is the place to stay for perfect sunsets, ocean front yoga and it’s front door access to La Punta. You’ll be able to walk straight through the gate at the end of the path to the left of the pool and paddle out for a sunset surf at high tide. Each of the 11 rooms have their own hammock outside the door for you to while away the pre/post surf hours in (rates start at $80/night). The only amenity that you really need to know about here is the free use of surfboards, kayaks and bikes-make use of them all to get the best out of your stay. The hotel also has a plentiful stock of large, oversized umbrellas, something that I was definitely thankful for with all the rain. Vickie and Sergio, the hosts, are beyond amazing and go out of their way to ensure that you’re having nothing other than the best experience possible in Santa Catalina.
Where to Eat
The cuisine in Panama far outshines the rest of Central America, and the few small dining options on offer in Santa Catalina are no exception. Not only will you find incredible locally caught seafood to be the staple of every meal, but in a surprising twist, you’ll be served fresh and delicious vegetable dishes them that are a far cry from the usual bland lettuce and tomatoes that are found across the rest of Central America.
Local farm vendors selling their homegrown produce out of the flatbed of their truck drive through town bellowing the day’s selection through a megaphone-buying some plantains, bananas or mangos makes for an easy midday snack.
I ate family style for each of my meals due to being with a group, so while that won’t be the case for most of you, the a la carte menus at the following restaurants serve up much of the same fare, just in individual portions:
CHANO'S POINT | Don’t expect to eat and leave Chano’s Point in a hurry. It’s just Chano and his wife here, cooking and serving up a small and unassuming menu of what ended up perhaps my favorite meal of the whole stay The baked clams will delight and have you wanting a second dose, and the eggplant parmigiana is as good as you’ll find in any Italian restaurant.
PESCAO | Hotel Santa Catalina’s on-premise restaurant doesn’t disappoint for a multitude of reasons. To start with, nothing really ever beats eating outside with an ocean-front view. The dishes created by the small staff also continue to outdo one another-just when you think that this is the best meal you’ve had here, the next somehow manages to be better than the last. The endless seafood dishes, grilled plantains with mozzarella and the chocolate pudding were particular highlights. And then there is the staff: everyone in Santa Catalina seems to have an infectious smile and joy about them, and that rubs on you. You’ll leave each meal feeling much fuller and that much happier to be there.
For those of you looking to drink and party, you should probably go elsewhere. There’s a couple of small bars scattered through town, but all you’re likely to find is a few people taking it easy sipping on a beer or some rum. Santa Catalina goes to bed early and the bar scene, or rather lack of, runs on the same early schedule-you won’t find anything open or anyone out past 10pm.
What to Do
SURF | Since being discovered by surfers in the late 70s, Santa Catalina continues to attract world class surfers year-round. The surrounding area offers a variety of options and surf conditions, but these are the two breaks closest to town:
El Estero | hang a left at the one and only turn off the main road in Santa Catalina and you’ll dead end at El Estero. You’ll find a smaller set of waves that are perfect for the first-timer and those still working on their skills. Just as getting to Santa Catalina isn’t easy, neither is getting to El Estero-be prepared to wade through an ankle deep rivermouth to get to the break at low tide, and to paddle through waist deep water during high tide.
La Punta | this is the break that had surfers coming here in the first place. The paddle out channel is directly in front of Hotel Santa Catalina and it’s no joke. Sharp rock sticks out everywhere at low tide, so it’s best to go out at high tide. Not for the beginner, La Punta gets big and it gets rough with big, powerful waves.
DIVE | Santa Catalina is the gateway to Isla de Coiba, a UNESCO World Heritage site, where you will find world class diving (and snorkeling for those a bit more weary) all just a 1.5hr boat ride away. Established in 1919 as an offshore penal colony that was housed some 3,000 political prisoners,or ‘Los Desaparecidos’, the last of which were released in 2005, Coiba is now home to the second largest coral reef along the eastern pacific and bristles with an abundance and diversity of marine life-760 species of fish of every size, color and variation; loggerhead and leatherback turtles; and countless varieties of sharks and rays.
Panama Dive Center offers both Snorkeling ($80) and Diving packages ($160 for two dives) as well as Discover Scuba ($170), the perfect introduction to what it’s like underwater.
YOGA | I was lucky enough to be able to come to Santa Catalina as part of a yoga retreat led by my two favorite yoga teachers from New York City-Kate Posch and Jenn Tardiff from Sky Ting Yoga. Being able to practice yoga twice-daily while overlooking the Pacific Ocean and jungle will certainly bring a new meaning to your practice, so lucky for you, yoga can be found surprisingly easy in a town home to only 300 or so people.
Should you wish to partake in some forward folds and double pigeon, La Beuna Vida offers three weekly scheduled classes at $10/class. If you’re looking to delve deeper into the yoga experience like me, Santa Catalina Retreats will help to reinvigorate both body and mind.
KAYAK | Perhaps not a usual activity you’d find on a usual ‘To Do’ list, but after all this is a guide to the Beyond Ordinary. Kayaking is much underrated and oft forgotten, but give it a try here- I made use of the free kayaks available at Hotel Santa Catalina and along with my friend Kevin, we paddled out at high tide in a torrential downpour one day and beelined for Isla Santa Catalina.
Isla Santa Catalina is so small that you won’t even find it on a map, and once there, you won’t find much to do. The view looking back at Santa Catalina and the surrounding coast is truly stunning and is what makes the 7 mile round trip worth it. Be prepared to paddle through some rough open waters if attempting in rainy season as we did, and be sure to paddle past the surf break before heading out toward Isla Santa Catalina.
NOTHING | Being in a town as small and remote as Santa Catalina means you should be content with taking time out and not doing anything, even if only for an hour. While most hotels have moderate speed wifi, the connection is spotty to say the least and It’s not unusual to be without wifi for hours at a time. Make the most of this and get into a hammock, unplug and just lay there and think about how fortunate you are to be in Santa Catalina.
Know Before You Go
There are no ATM’s in Santa Catalina, so be sure to make one last pit stop in Soná to fill your wallet. With the exceptions of a few hotels and businesses that have started to accept credit cards, most vendors are cash-only.
The one small convenience store only carries a few basic supplies, and there are no doctors or hospitals in Santa Catalina.
Bring lots, and I mean lots, of bug spray with you. The mosquitos are merciless and no one wants to be nursing bite wounds two weeks later.
Pack a few long sleeved layers-you’ll appreciate them when the rain brings a slight chill to the night and you need an extra barrier on top of the bug spray for the mosquitos.
Xenia is an Art Director and Producer living and working in NYC. She begun her career as a retoucher and photo assistant, and has since amassed experience working in all forms of creative production for the likes of Refinery29 and The New York Times. You can see more of her work on her website or follow along with her on Instagram at @xeniarollinson.