Playa Santa Catalina
Santa Catalina is the best surfing spot in Panama, with one of the most consistent breaks in Central or South America. There’s something to ride here every month of the year.
While Santa Catalina is of great interest only to serious surfers, it’s a pretty place even for those who just want to watch the rollers from a distance, and it’s becoming the prime jumping-off spot for trips to Parque Nacional Coiba. However, much of the beach is strewn with rocks and boulders, and it’s a remote and isolated spot west of the Azuero Peninsula, at the tip of sparsely settled farmland.
It’s definitely a get-away-from-it-all kind of place. Most lodging and dining options are basic, though options are improving rapidly. Those who just want some beach time have many better, more accessible options elsewhere.
The best time for really big waves is February–August, when wave faces get as high as 6–9 meters. At other times the average is 2–3 meters. There are several other breaks, some within walking distance, some requiring a boat ride to reach, that can get even bigger.
National and international surf competitions are sometimes held in Santa Catalina, during which the place gets packed and advance reservations are a must. Those not participating may want to avoid the area during these times. Check www.santacatalinabeach.com or local hotels to see if a contest is scheduled during your proposed visit.
The nearest sizable settlement on the drive down to the beach is Soná, an unattractive crossroads town with little to offer travelers. You can get some provisions there, but you’re better off stocking up back in Santiago, on the Interamericana, a two-hour drive from the beach.
The road ends right at the beach. Along the road are several places to stay, two dive operators and a new kayak operation, a few houses, and a couple of bars. This is part fishing village, part surfers’ hangout. A left turn up a steep, rough road leads to most of the surf camps and restaurants. That’s about all there is to Santa Catalina other than the amazing surf.
Getting to Playa Santa Catalina
Rumor has it that Santa Catalina may get an airstrip someday, but for the foreseeable future getting here means a long road trip, except for those few who come by private boat.
By Bus: There are no direct bus connections to Playa Santa Catalina from major towns or cities. Travelers must first get to Soná, usually by way of Santiago, then take a bus or taxi to Santa Catalina, about 50 kilometers away.
Buses from Panama City to Soná (US$6, about 4.5 hours) leave from the Gran Terminal Nacional de Transportes. An alternative is to go first to Santiago and take a Soná-bound bus from there.
Buses from Santiago to Soná leave from Santiago’s Terminal de Transportes (every 20 minutes 5:30 a.m.–9:15 p.m. Mon.–Fri., 6 a.m.–8 p.m. Sat.–Sun., US$1.75, a little under an hour).
Buses from Soná to Santa Catalina (US$3.75) leave at 6 a.m., noon, and 4 p.m., returning at 7 a.m., 8 a.m., and 2 p.m.
By Taxi: Travelers who decide to take a taxi from Santiago to Santa Catalina should expect to pay up to US$50, but the price may be negotiable—this is not a common trip, so there aren’t really established prices. Taxis between Santa Catalina and Sonáare US$25. There are no resident taxis in Santa Catalina.
By Car: Those coming by car must pass through Santiago, the provincial capital of Veraguas. It’s on the Interamericana between Panama City (250 km, about 3.5 hours) and David (190 km, about 4 hours). As you drive west, the highway forks just before Santiago. Take the left fork and drive into Santiago. This road forks at the church. Drive past the right side of the church and make the first right. Continue past the Museo Regional de Veraguas. Make a left at the first four-way intersection. You should see a communications tower on the left. Continue straight to Soná, which is 50 kilometers southwest of Santiago on a scenic road that was recently repaved and has new bridges. (The fact that the current president is from Soná is surely just a coincidence.)
To continue to Santa Catalina, make a left at the gas station just before Soná; the turn is marked. Make a note of the mileage here. Continue on this okay, but pothole-riddled, road another 48 kilometers, then make another left. The turnoff may not be signposted, so keep an eye on the odometer. The road from here to Santa Catalina used to be brutal but was paved a few years ago and is in excellent shape.
The village of Hicaco is nine kilometers down this road. Make a right at the Hicaco police station. The road ends at Playa Santa Catalina, eight kilometers away. Driving straight through, the entire trip from either Panama City or David takes about five hours.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition