Richard Brady goes by Ricardo these days…he’s been in Panama since 2001 and has no plans to return to Florida. That’s probably because he spends his days surfing at one of the best sites in the region. When he’s not surfing, he’s out on Elizabeth, a gleaming white 25-foot skiff, from which he’s spotted everything from manta rays to howler monkeys.
His playground, much of the time, is Coiba National Park, an island and marine reserve known as one of the most pristine and biodiverse places in Latin America. Above, he has the endless blue sky…around him, blue- and green-marbled waters that almost glow from within…and beneath Elizabeth’s hull, gently waving sea fans hide confetti-bright schools of fish.
But he’s quick to point out that he’s not living a life of leisure. “I’d call it an early semi-retirement,” he explains.
He owns Santa Catalina Boat Tours, and Elizabeth serves the dual purpose of providing a steady income and keeping him from getting bored.
Located in the province of Veraguas, Santa Catalina is one of Panama’s best known surfing destinations. Though virtually unheard of among non-surfers, water sports enthusiasts come here from all over the world.
“It’s really grown,” he says. “Fifteen years ago, the people here lived really simply, and the road wasn’t paved, so they were pretty isolated. You can’t even imagine.”
Today, Richard’s fellow expats hail from the U.S. and Canada, Venezuela…even as far as Portugal and France. Richard himself had been traveling from Florida to Santa Catalina to surf for five years…when it hit him.
“I was in my forties and thinking…in 10 years I might be unable to surf the more challenging waves,” he says. “I was only getting to surf a couple of times a year, when I was on vacation.”
Richard wanted to get out of the “nine-to-five grind” and have more time for the things that really mattered, so he packed up and left. He soon discovered, however, that a true retiree lifestyle wasn’t for him. “You’d get pretty bored doing nothing but sitting around, waiting for the surf to come in,” he says. “I’m walking the fine line between keeping occupied and not having all my time tied up by work.”
As for the business opportunities in Santa Catalina, there are many, but Richard has a caveat: “Anyone thinking of working in tourism here has to understand that September and October are generally slow,” he says. These months are characterized by heavy rains, which limit surfing and diving options.
Growth has been steady, though, and despite the slow season, he says work varies from very busy (during the “dry” summer months of December to April) to very consistent. “With the exception of 2010, which was a rough year all over the world, every summer has been busier than the last,” he says.
And though Santa Catalina is still tiny and hardly what you’d call developed, its growth has exceeded Richard’s expectations. He’s seen the arrival of dive shops and restaurants and beachside cabaña rentals. He’s seen the town finally get Internet—high-speed, not old fashioned dial-up—as well as cable television and better paved roads.
“At the end of the day, I’ve got it pretty good,” he says, in what must be the understatement of the year. “It’s a good job, showing visitors beautiful sights…and I get to work for myself and not be locked into a schedule.”
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