If you want to surf, dive, snorkel and relax on your Panama tour, make sure you don’t miss Santa Catalina! This small town on the southern coast of Panama is ideal for all of these activities. I visited Santa Catalina during my 2 week itinerary in Panama.
Santa Catalina is a village located on the Pacific coast in Panama. The center consists of one street where you will mainly find many dive and snorkel shops and a few supermarkets. The village is increasingly being discovered and appreciated by travelers, partly due to the great surf spot and the beautiful snorkeling in Coiba national park.
Santa Catalina has a nice atmosphere. There’s actually no theft and you may see that many residents do not have grilles on the windows, which the opposite is often the case in most places in Central America. I’ve even seen several times that people simply leave their wallets or mobile phones unattended on the table.
There are many dogs in the village who will sometimes follow you, in a sweet way. Most of them look good and some have a collar.
There’s no ATM in Santa Catalina. So don’t forget to bring enough cash! Credit Cards are accepted in some places.
Snorkeling and diving in Coiba
Santa Catalina is the perfect base for a (multi-day) trip to the Coiba National Park. This is perhaps one of the most beautiful snorkeling / diving spots in Panama. Visibility is very good and the reefs are almost untouched. Since I had never dived before, I did a snorkeling day trip. Really recommended!
Read more about my snorkeling experience in Coiba and watch the video in the post made with my action cam for a good impression of the beautiful underwater world.
Beaches in Santa Catalina
There are two main beaches, Playa Santa Catalina and Playa Estero.
Playa Santa Catalina is located at the end of the main street. Here the boats leave for isla Coiba (Coiba island). There are actually no high waves on this beach and there is quite a bit of washed up trash.
Playa Estero is a very wide beach across the river. It’s about a 25 minute walk from the main street. The road is hot and walking here is quite tiring. On the last stretch you have to cross a river. At low tide, the water reaches your ankles, so it is easy to do. At high tide, on the other hand, the water certainly reaches 1.5 meters!
After a great day of surfing, having a nice shower and changing clothes, I left for the hostel again. Unfortunately I didn’t realized that the river is so high at high tide! With my bag above my head I managed to cross the river. Walk straight to the other side, this is the shallowest part. And so do not make my mistake to deviate to the left, because there are many stones and it is even deeper … Oops.
It’s allowed to make a campfire on the beaches in the evening. There’s enough dry wood that you can use for this. Don’t forget to enjoy the enormous amount of stars. It was the first time in my life that I saw so many stars.
Surfing in Santa Catalina
You certainly cannot leave the village without having surfed. Santa Catalina is one of the best surf spots in Central America.
For the best waves, visit Playa Estero. The waves here are suitable for both beginners and experienced surfers. At high tide you can catch the best waves here, and perhaps the best ever. At least I caught my best waves ever here!
There are several shops where you can rent surfboards. For example, you can rent surfboard at Shaking Surf halfway through the route for $ 70 a week. On the beach itself, it’s best to rent surfboards from Oasis Surfcamp for $ 10 for 4 hours and $ 15 for 8 hours. The boards are in good condition here and they also offer surf lessons. You can also enjoy some food or drinks in between surfing.
The internet is still quite a thing in Santa Catalina. This is all arranged by one company that does not intend to offer for free. Many hostels will therefore offer no, or very slow, free internet (at least in 2018).
At my hostel they told me it’s possible to buy a SIM card at the supermarket, but these are often scarce. The hostel offered paid internet tickets. Anyone can buy these tickets here. So you pay $ 3 for 24 hours 500MB and $ 5 for 3 days and 1GB. Internet is then very fast.
Hostels in Santa Catalina
You’ve quite a choice of different hostels in Santa Catalina. So you can choose to stay in the ‘center’ or just on the other side of Santa Catalina at Playa Estero. I chose a hostel in the middle, which turned out to be quite a good choice. So it was a 10 minutes walk from the main street and supermarkets, and a 15 minutes walk from Playa Estero.
The super nice hostel I stayed in was Jammin Hostel & Pizzeria. It looks very cozy from the outside; cheerful blue walls and a garden where you can relax. The hostel has only a few rooms, which are well maintained.
And the name says it all, the hostel has a pizzeria! The pizzas are delicious, so even if you don’t stay here, I recommend eating here once. The staff is super friendly and happy to help you with anything.
Due to my delayed bus journey, I arrived very late on the first day. On arrival at the hostel there was a note saying that our room upstairs was already ready. The key was already in the door for me, how cute.
Restaurants in Santa Catalina
For example, I already wrote about the delicious pizzas at Jammin Hostel & Pizzeria that you should definitely taste once. Many people say these are the tastiest pizzas in all of Panama! I have to admit, they were very tasty.
Freshly baked bread is best served at La Vieja Panaderia, the local bakery in the center. For a large bread you pay $ 1.50 and with olives $ 1.90. They also sell different sandwiches, around $ 5-6 and even tour lunch packs for $ 8.
Craving for a hearty burger, then visit Los Pibes Grill. Here they serve different types of burgers and other grill dishes.
I definitely recommend a visit to Santa Catalina for at least 3 days during your trip in Panama! But I think you can also easily spend a whole week here if you habe enough time.
How to get to Santa Catalina?
From Panama City you travel in about 6 to 7 hours to Santa Catalina including a transfer in Soná. The trip costs approximately € 12 pp. From Panama City, buses leave from the Albrook bus station. Departures are 8:20, 10:20, 12:45, 14:20, 16:20 and 17:45. However, it remains to be seen whether the buses actually leave at the specified time. Prepare for the hard core accordion music all the way …
From Soná there’s only one way to Santa Catalina. Buses will therefore always run via Soná.
An overview of all departure times in Soná and Santa Catalina (2018) always comes in handy.
If you want to travel to Boquete after Santa Catalina, you have the option to take a shuttle for $ 35. This information was at the hostel.