Santa Catalina Panama is a laid-back fishing village come surfer heaven, a secret destination where only those in the know find themselves thanks to the area’s remoteness, tucked away on Panamas wild Pacific coast. This remoteness however, are also it’s best quality as it protects this hidden gem from the massive tourist hoards and mega-resorts which might otherwise have plagued this paradise.
Easily one of my favourite places to relax and spend a week, there is actually a surprising amount of things to do in Santa Catalina Panama which you might not otherwise know! To remedy this I have put together a guide of ten things you absolutely cannot miss in Santa Catalina Panama, to inspire your travels here. Enjoy it now before the secret is out!
No surprises that surfing is #1 on this list right! Santa Catalina has the best surf break in Panama and one of the best in the entire world. Surf aficionados flock here from all corners of the globe, but not to worry – it’s not just for the big time pro’s! There is also a smaller surf break perfect for beginners – I had a go with some stellar ex-pro instructors from Santa Catalina Retreats and they had me standing up in no time! Not an easy achievement let me tell you….
Would any holiday in a tropical paradise be complete without delicious, refreshing cocktails? Of course not! And some of the best on offer are available at Pescoa whose Cocoloco blew my mind! With a killer view of the ocean and an extensive menu of classic and modern cocktails I’m sure your leisurely afternoon will quickly blend into evening…
Calm your mind, body and soul with some early morning yoga complimented by the crashing of waves completing their long journey across the Pacific. It will limber you up for the rest of the days activities and in such a serene environment you can’t help feeling ‘tranquilo’! Get in touch with Santa Catalina Retreats for a one off yoga lessons or indulge yourself with On of their unique surf / yoga retreats – you will thank yourself later!
While Santa Catalina’s main beach does have it’s charm, for me there is nothing more appealing than the black sand of Estero Beach. A long, beautiful stretch of fine sand and small waves, perfect for beginner surfers and those looking for a quick dip – Its has yet to be built up with the now ubiquitous bars and restaurants like so many other beaches in Central America, so thankfully you can still enjoy its raw, natural charm in peace.
Not far from Santa Catalina is the mythical Coiba National Park, part of the same island chain as Galapagos. Teeming with an insane variety of marine life – it’s a magical place where anything can happen. I organized an incredible multi-day trip here through Panama Dive Center, Santa Catalina’s only 5-star dive operator, and saw dolphins, sting rays, sharks, schools of pufferfish, frogfish, turtles, eagle rays, giant groupers, schooling jacks and more…. But be quick, the secret of some of the world’s best diving will get out soon!
One of the least expected highlights of Santa Catalina Panama that absolutely no-one seems to be talking about is the food. I’m not even kidding – this small surf town has over 25 eateries and almost everyone of them is a must try! I don’t want to ruin the fun of exploration and standards can slip so ask around, but I can guarantee you, this is not the place to skimp out. Try a new place every night and you will not be disappointed – sushi, pizza, Argentinian, Panamanian, Mexican – It’s all on offer, and to die for!
West facing means the sunsets here are spectacular and should be on your nightly list of things to do, if you know where to look for them. The main beach of Santa Catalina has uninterrupted views across the ocean to the fiery red sunset, with a few nice bars to grab a beer at, but for my money again it’s Estero Beach. Take your own beer, wander along the beach till you get the optimal view and enjoy a surreal, never to be forgotten sunset in Santa Catalina.
More than just diving, Coiba National Park by land offers travellers the opportunity to hike through primary, untouched forest, discover endemic species not seen anywhere else in the world and come face-to-face with Tito, a 4 meter long crocodile that hangs out around the ranger’s station. With very little in the way of tourist infrastructure, due to its status as a notorious prison island until 2004, Coiba National Park is difficult but rewarding to access – An overnight diving trip with Panama Dive Center is the best way to see it above and below water, or you can hire a boat to take you out here but the rangers are not exactly fans of unaccompanied guests! Failing that a snorkelling trip should allow you some time on this UNESCO World Heritage Listed island but sadly not to even scratch the surface of this jewel in the Pacific.
If this seems like your kind of thing you can also read my article about the Top Ten Non Touristy UNESCO Sites (that you have never heard of!) for more inspiration!
While most of the activities in Santa Catalina inevitably involve water, horseback riding offers a respite for land-lubbers to explore the rolling farm land and nature in the surrounding area. A sunset beach trot would still be high on my list, but the Sergio and Vicky at Santa Catalina Retreats who organize horse-back riding will more than likely have some amazing suggestions to match exactly what you are looking for.
With all the other absolutely not to be missed things to do in Santa Catalina Panama it’s important to remember to take some time out and relax. To enjoy the beauty and serenity of this laid-back town and reset yourself. For my money, there is no better place to do this than at the stunning infinity pool of Hotel Santa Catalina (you can read my review here). With views out over one of the world’s best surf breaks and cocktails on stand by, this is a dangerous place where you can spend hours upon hours and just never get enough!