Over the summer we had a great time exploring and surfing in Santa Catalina, Panama. Everyone in town was super friendly and the different beaches were fun for all levels. Most days were filled with multiple sessions from short boards and soft tops to longboards and goofing off finless. Here are some photos and travel tips from my experience.
Getting There & Transportation
After landing at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, some options are:
- Book a direct shuttle from the airport via a service like Wango Tango for about $35 one way per person. You can use Whatsapp to make your arrangements with them. [Note: We were about to use this service to return from Santa Catalina to Panama City, but they had to cancel the day of due to an issue with the shuttle, so there could be sudden changes that may affect your travel plan]
- Negotiate a taxi fare direct to Santa Catalina (the most expensive option)
- Rent a car and drive on your own
- OUR CHOICE: For our budget friendly choice we opted for the public bus ride route. Stay a night in Panama City near the Albrook Bus Terminal and take the 1st bus in the morning at 8:20am from Albrook to Sona for $10 USD per person. In fact, there is a hotel attached to the Albrook Mall (a bit more expensive). Otherwise, it is about a $5 taxi fare ride to the bus station if you are staying near the Albrook Bus Terminal. When you take the 8:20am trip to Sona, boarding starts at 8am. Look for the ticket counter with a blue sign that says Sona. The charter bus will stop twice for bathroom breaks and snacks. Try the churros and empanadas along the way! Once in Sona, the public transfer shuttle from the Sona Bus Terminal to Santa Catalina is $4.65 USD per person (no bathroom stops). The shuttle to Santa Catalina drops you off at the center of town. If it’s pouring rain and/or you have a large board bag, you can ask the driver if he or she can drop you directly at your hotel/hostel for about $2 more per person. Otherwise it is at most a 15-20 min walk up the main road to your stay. All in all (assuming you make all your transfers on time) the route from Panama City to Santa Catalina will take 5-6 hours.
- Rapi Pass Card – Purchase this metro card when you’re at the Albrook Bus Terminal. It’s a prepaid card that you must use on the Metro System. It’s $2 for the initial card. You can share it with as many people as you want, so just buy one for your group. You can add value at any subway station. Public transit in Panama City (Metro + Subway) only accepts Rapi Pass cards to pay fares.
- Metro Bus – (Panama City) Tap your card for each passenger. It is 25 cents per ride. When you exit in the back, you can tap your card once fora single transfer value of 25 cents, but it must be used within 2 hours. The great thing I noticed about Panamanians is that everyone lines up for the bus versus rushing in chaotically.
- Subway – (Panama City) costs 35 cents per ride. There is currently one line running. Disembark at 5 de Mayo Station to explore Casco Antigua. The end of the line is Albrook Bus Terminal which is very convenient if you plan to utilize the bus station for destinations outside of Panama City.
- Bus Terminal Fee at Albrook Station – If you are taking the charter buses, you must pay a 10 cent toll per person. Use your Rapi Pass here as well.
- Don’t have a Rapi Pass Card Yet? Simply ask a fellow rider to tap for you and pay them back the fare for the trip.
- Taxis – In Panama, fares are negotiated before riding. Don’t be afraid to negotiate a lower price if it sounds too much for you. The airport to Panama City runs about $30. Local rides run about $3-$5. Taxis at the shopping malls charge slightly more (about $2-$4 more than the expected amount). There are no taxi companies based out of Santa Catalina. However, wherever you’re staying, they can arrange for a taxi from out of town to come take you to your destination.
Food & Accommodations
There are many hotels and hostels in Santa Catalina for you to choose from. Check to see if your accommodation includes free use of surfboards, boogie boards, bikes, kayaks, etc. if you don’t plan to bring your own gear. From what we heard the most popular and driest time to go is November, so you can save money going during the off season.
- We had a great experience at Hotel Santa Catalina (HSC). If you’re an intermediate and experienced surfer it’s situated right in front of La Punta or The Point (see Things to Do for more information about surfing in town). HSC had a fun selection of free rentals, wifi in the restaurant area, hammocks for each cabana and a delicious seafood restaurant. Also there is free coffee for guests staying here at the restaurant from 7am-10am.
- Mama Ines – Food and accommodations right in front of Estero Beach. If you’re a cat lover, they also have a resident kitty named Esmeralda and her son hanging around the restaurant. Great prices and a wide selection on their menu. We enjoyed their fried fish, octopus and fruit milkshakes.
- Sugar Mama’s Cafe – Cafe and bakery near the town center with A/C. High speed internet is available for a small fee of $2.50 for 3 hours. The owner is a great baker, super friendly and informative. Look out for her oreo cheesecakes and carrot cakes.
- Empenadas – You may catch vendors selling empenadas in the morning by where the shuttle stops. $1 for two.
- Fruit – If you’re craving fruit on your trip, the fruit truck comes around town. You can check out what they have.
- La Vieja Panaderia – Great sandwiches, coffee, pastries, and shakes.
- Mini Marts – Your source for snacks, water, sodas, hygene related products, etc.
Things to Do
- SURF, SURF and SURF. There are three main surf areas in town. Farthest down the second main road (in fact, it’s the end of the road at the river mouth) is Estero Beach. Estero has sand bottom with a running current that takes you south. Basically walk across the river to the beach break. The Estero is great for all skill levels. Another break is La Punta (The Point) which is easily accessible from the staircases down from Hotel Santa Catalina. La Punta works on a bigger swell and only at mid-high tides. NOT a low tide spot as there are sharp and dangerous rocks below. The Point is for experienced surfers only. For beginners the main beach in town, straight down the main road, is also a sand bottom beach break and has small waves when the swell is bigger. It’s a fun spot for long boarding with the right swell.
- Ride a bike around town
- During low tide, walk along the tide pools. You’ll discover different seashells and lots of hermit crabs. Wear a watch and please be aware of incoming tide times so you don’t get stuck/hurt out there.
- Skateboard! There happens to be a cement mini ramp towards the main beach a little bit past the intersecting roads. You’ll find a lot of kids pushing their skateboards around town.
- Try out all the delicious seafood
- Go on a dive trip. Santa Catalina has a lot of businesses that arrange diving trips to Coiba Island.
- Go horseback riding. You’ll find that there are a lot of pastures and farm animals along the main roads.
What to Pack
- Mosquito repellent
- Anti-itch remedy of your choice (for bug bites, such as hydrocortisone). I brought White Flower Oil , which can be purchased at Asian grocery stores / herbal stores.
- Hat and sunglasses to stay cool in the afternoon sun
- Water proof watch (to keep track of low and high tide times)
- Board shorts / surf bikini. I personally wear leggings and a t-shirt as well to prevent sunburns.
- Flip flops, sandals or footwear that can dry fast during sudden thunderstorms.
- Linen pants for the evening to deter mosquitos.
- Long sleeve shirt for the long bus ride to Santa Catalina. The AC can be very cold.
- $1 and $5 US Dollar bills to use instead of breaking large bills.
- Whatsapp App. Most drivers and services communicate via Whatsapp. This is handy to have when you have WiFi access to make your arrangements.
- Google maps to plan your public tranist rides and to estimate fares.
- Finding the “@” symbol on the Panamanian keyboard can be a puzzle. Press “ALT +64” to insert the @ symbol.
- Panama uses US Dollars as well as their local and equal currency the Balboa.
|Note: We are not endorsed for any of the companies recommended in this article. Each tip is basically recommended from personal experience. |