Panama’s Secret Surf Town

A few white cottages sit by an open-air restaurant with a great thatched roof. A lone swimmer splashes out of the water and onto the rocky shore. The only other noise is the sound of the waves—perfect waves, if the surfers are to be believed.

I’m at the Bannaba café in sunny Santa Catalina, on one of Panama’s most remote beaches.

The feel of this small town is laid-back—as one would expect of a surfing destination—but it’s also warm and inviting. Non-surfers are just as welcome as wave warriors, and everyone is happy to say hello and stop for a chat.

You see people of all ages, from young beginner surfers to the Baby Boomers here for an early retirement. The result is a bohemian vibe that has spawned a slew of little bars, restaurants, hostels, and inns to suit the no-rush, no-worries lifestyle.

If you like a good wave, Santa Catalina will more than wow you. But the volcanic outcroppings responsible for the incredible surf break also create some of Panama’s best dive and fishing spots. And if you’re a landlubber at heart, there are numerous trails for hiking out to find remote beaches or trek through the jungle to view wildlife, birds, and exotic plants.

Santa Catalina is also a perfect launch pad for the dozens of islands that dot the ocean in this region. The most famous is Coiba. A visit to this island and its surrounding marine park is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If you think you’d get a thrill from seeing your first-ever school of barracudas, or pointing your camera at a bulls-eye electric stingray with a clearly marked “target” design on its dorsal…this is the place for you.

The island is undeveloped—a place with unique or endemic species, meaning you won’t find some of these critters anywhere else in the world.

Days around Santa Catalina are for fun in the sun, but for a bit of shade, kick back at a waterfront café. There’s little to mar the vast expanse of smooth, tawny sand…just a few tiny, translucent pink crabs that scuttle from one hole to another.

Sitting and sipping a cold, $1 cerveza Panama (Panama’s best known brand of beer), you appreciate the calm and ease with which people live their lives here. There are no traffic jams, no flashing neon lights, no “noise pollution” to stress you out. And then there are the prices…

The most I spent was $9.50 for a big, hearty lunch of plantain tacos with a beer at La Buena Vida, a surfer-owned inn, shop, and restaurant decorated with sun- and swim-inspired mosaics. For about $3 you can get a cocktail, or head to one of the ubiquitous outdoor fondas or kiosks in and around town for BBQ chicken, rice, and salad (often a serving generous enough for two). Massive fruit platters are rarely more than $3.50 and hostels charge as little as $10 a night.

Two travelers I met told me the supermarkets were so cheap, they could buy enough food to feed two hungry divers for a full day (breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks) for $10.

In the current issue of International Living magazine, I tell you more about Santa Catalina, including where to find the best restaurant, when is the quietest time to visit the beach, where to get the best catch of fish, and more.

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