A Little Surf Town in Panama That Was Once a Well-Guarded Secret

“It’s my favorite wave on earth,” says Jon Hanna, a championship surfer who’s seen more than a few waves in his travels around the world. He’s talking about Santa Catalina, a little surf town in Panama that was once a well-guarded secret.

The point break wave Jon is describing to me was discovered by chance, by some Panamanian surfers who were actually there to hunt deer with their father. “They returned to surf what they soon discovered was a world class wave,” he says. The lucky surfers managed to keep their secret for a few years, but word began to trickle out.

Though still remote, the sleepy town of Santa Catalina is well known in the surfing world today. It’s arguably Panama’s number one surf destination, and it was the site of the 2010 ISA World Masters Surfing Championship.

Jon and longtime friend Kenny Myers own Hotel Santa Catalina. It’s a small, welcoming inn right on the water. They finished building just last year, but it’s already getting rave reviews on hospitality industry sites like Trip Advisor.

“The hotel is ideal,” says Jon, who splits his time between Panama City and Santa Catalina, when he’s not traveling. “It pays for itself…and I don’t have to work when I stay there.”

He says he’s found excellent staff and is able to leave the business of managing the place in their capable hands.

For Jon, the whole process was relatively easy. “It was very quick, getting set up to do business in Santa Catalina. The municipality is very helpful, as they want the business.”

The cost of setting up a corporation, he adds, is low—about $1,000 plus $500 for the business license. He also paid $200 for the municipal permit. “So, for about $2,000, you’re in business,” he says.

Land prices were also good. “You can buy beachfront land here for $100 to $150 per square meter, depending on the beach and location.” That’s about $9 to $14 per square foot. Properties that are not beachfront sell for much less…as little as ten times less.

“In some cases you can find deals on distressed properties,” says Jon, who’s always on the lookout. “And since Panama is an ‘emerging market,’ there are so many opportunities here to bring in new ideas, services, products, and more. Anyone can set up a business here fairly easily. And with tourism-related businesses like hotels, under ‘Law 8’, you can get tax exemptions by registering the business with the tourism authority,” says Jon.

For him, the decision to do business here, instead of the U.S., was a no brainer. “The U.S. market is saturated and extremely competitive…plus, labor’s expensive.” In Panama, he says, doing business is cheaper and easier. An entrepreneur might need to spend extra time on things like training, he says, but it’s a trade-off he’s happy to make.

And there are plenty of other opportunities for entrepreneurs nearby: “Just off the coast of Santa Catalina is Coiba Island and national park,” he says. “It’s drawing nature lovers, bird watchers, scuba divers, and more.”

Anyone wanting to get in on the tourism action would find many niches to fill. For example, Jon thinks stand-up paddle board tours would be a good fit…and easy to run with a minimal investment.

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