Santa Catalina: Panama’s Carefree Surfing Town

Welcome to Santa Catalina, Panama's small coastal town with joyful energy, wild jungle beaches, and the best waves in Central America.

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The famous surfing town of Santa Catalina still somehow manages to stay under the radar for most travelers visiting Panama. This coastal town is a surfer’s dream with the best wave in Central America and another beach ideal for beginners. But even if you just like to enjoy the beach, Santa Catalina will be a fantastic off-the-beaten-path destination. Only one hour and a half from Santiago.

A beach in Santa Catalina at sunset time
Sunset colors at Santa Catalina

The Best Time to Visit Santa Catalina and Panama

Panama has two seasons.
The locals refer to them as summer and winter. For us people who live farther from the equator, it will be more comfortable to call them the wet and dry seasons.

Dry season

Panama’s summer or “dry season” is between December and April. Summer means hot days, bright skies, and a night breeze. The dry season also means much more tourists escaping from their cold winter back home in Europe and North America. As a result, the prices of hostels and hotels rise, and it is much harder to find affordable accommodation. In addition, most places are full, so you will have to book way in advance.

Wet season (Green season)

You should consider traveling to Santa Catalina in Panama during the wet season, also called winter and known as the “green season,” starting from May to November. Because of short bursts of afternoon downpours, the vegetation stays green, creating one of the most beautiful times of the year. At the same time, you’ll enjoy warm temperatures from 32°C during the daytime to 21°C at night. At last and most important, mainly for the budget travelers among us, if you’re not bothered by the rain, you will also enjoy lower accommodation prices during Panama’s wintertime.

However, it’s not recommended to visit Panama during November because it’s filled with national holidays. The story tells there isn’t even one free inch on the beaches, and it’s hard to find accommodation.

Our experience

We visited Santa Catalina at the end of October and were mesmerized by the bright green shades. It was raining nearly every day, but just for a few hours, and it was still warm. We used the rest of the day that was usually sunny or cloudy, to go out and explore. So if your trip to Panama is a part of more extensive travels and it’s hard to make a plan and arrive in the dry season, don’t panic, don’t let it stop you, and enjoy lower prices.

What’s in the town of Santa Catalina

The town is well equipped, with two supermarkets and one veg&fruit store offering a mountain of pineapples and coconuts. Occasionally a truck passes by selling fresh shrimps and fish if cooking is your passion or something you wish to do in your slow travel experience. And if not, some restaurants are scattered in the town and on the road around it.

Rooms usually start from 35$ and a dish at a Restaurant costs from 8$ to 15$

Money stuff: There is no ATM in Santa Catalina, so don’t forget to bring cash. The closest ATM is at Sona, about an hour and a half drive from town. Only a few places accept credit cards, so you should prepare enough cash. 

Where to Stay in Santa Catalina

There are two main areas of accommodations in Santa Catalina. The first area is the pueblo (village). It’s a small funky village with a bit of action at night, so if you suffer from FOMO, it’s a good idea to stay in the pueblo. The second option is to stay on the outskirts of Santa Catalina, about a 20 min walk from the town. The area is quieter, but you are closer to nature and the best beaches in town.

Rancho Estero

Our pick for the best hostel in Santa Catalina

Rancho Estero is a small guest house with the best view in all of Santa Catalina. Located 15 minutes from the town center, on the top of Estero Beach, Rancho Estero provides bamboo cabins starting from 40$. There is also a shared kitchen, and the owner will be happy to give surfing lessons.

My suggestion is to pray for the power to go off or turn the lights off yourself. Without waiting too long, you could start chasing fireflies or watch them spread light.

Rancho Estero's communal area, a guest house in Santa Catalina
Rancho Estero

Rolo Hostel

It looks like all the bold & the beautiful stay in Rolo hostel. Sitting in the town’s center and a few steps away from the beach. It’s definitely a place to ask any question you have about Santa Catalina and the attractions around it. There we also found the cheapest room for 33$ with shared bathrooms.

Bodhi Hostel

located in the center of town, Bodhi Hostel is a relatively new addition to Santa Catalina. With 2 dorm rooms and 7 wooden cabins, this stylish hostel is a great choice for travelers wanting to meet new people. The hostel provides free breakfast and free wifi. Double rooms starting from 40$

Things to do in Santa Catalina

A flower held by a sandy hand from Santa Catalina

1. Visit Estero Beach in Santa Catalina

The beach is around 1.5 km from the pueblo, the town of Santa Catalina. The road to the beach is an attraction due to the colorful town’s surroundings with painted houses and the tropical landscapes of Panama’s Pacific coast. Use these opportunities to Travel Slow and get familiar with the town you’re staying at. Those short walks are sometimes more intriguing than the highlight attractions.

Estero Beach is the best beach in Panama to learn how to surf. With consistent waves and numerous surfing schools, offering surfing lessons at reasonable prices. Few people come to this beach to lay on the ground, but even if you don’t care for surfing, the beach offers some amazing natural attractions.

An Iguana stands on a surfing board  in Santa Catalina
Iguana surfing in Estero beach

The beach is vast and powerful, maybe because it sits where two water sources gather while the river meets the ocean. For that, you’ll have to cross the river to reach the beach. I won’t recommend taking a beach towel because the sand is soaked with water – yet steady, and you won’t feel you’re sinking. Actually, it feels like lying on the floor. Another phenomenon, in my eyes, is that the ground looks precisely like a mirror, and I mean that by looking at the earth, you can see the clouds.

Estero Beach in Santa Catalina
Estero Beach

The beach is alive.

There’s a constant movement in the clouds above and the jungle around.

Imagine a scenario: the Pacific ocean is in front of you and the river behind you. You are lying on the magnificent beach with sand grains organized as a tile floor. Suddenly a blast of wind comes out of nowhere, implying a shift in the day. Lightning appears, and the high tide takes over the dry land. You must cross the river to reach safe ground, but a flock of Buzzard (Vaulters) circles above, distracting you. When you finally gain concentration and enter the river, a glide of flying fish jumps happily, so it seems, on their way to the ocean from the river.

In Estero beach, at Santa Catalina, nothing but nature exists. Every nature scenario is magnified till you finally feel no different than an ant.

2. Visit Coiba Island

A day trip to Coiba Island.
Thanks to its history as a guarded high-security prison, Coiba is truly an untouched island. With white-sand beaches, crystal clear waters, and palm trees, Coiba is a perfect paradise. But the true magic of the island appears underwater. The reef of the island attracts marine animals, and just with your snorkel, you can spot whale sharks, humpback whales, stingrays, and thousands of other unique sea creatures. It cost 80$ for a day tour which you can schedule with your host, and it’s worth every penny.

What to Pack

Here are the essentials you need to pack to have a fantastic time in Santa Catalina:

Daypack | Sandals for Him & for Her | Swimsuit for Him & for Her | Sunscreen | Water bottle | Mosquito repellent | GoPro | Kindle | Rain poncho

How to get to Santa Catalina

Public transportation in Panama is relatively convenient and easy to use. Many buses arrive and leave on time, and the destination is written on the bus’ front window. So if you don’t have a car, you can easily travel the country using public transportation.

From Panama City

To visit Santa Catalina by bus, you will have to first arrive at Sona. There’s a direct bus leaving from Panama City Central Station (Albrook). The ride takes about five hours and costs 10$. If you miss the bus to Sona, you can take a bus to Santiago and take another bus from Santiago to Sona. Bus schedule from Panama city to Sona:  05:50, 08:20, 10:20, 12:45, 14:20, 15:15, 16:20, 17:45.

From Sona, take an additional bus to Santa Catalina. It’s a bit of a winding ride, takes one and a half hours, and costs 4.5$. Bus schedule from Sona to Santa Catalina:  05:00, 11:00, 13:00, 15:00, 17:00. Be aware that there are fewer buses on weekends (Saturday and Sunday) and the hours change, so try to get there before or after the weekend.

If you arrive on Sunday afternoon like us and see that the bus of 15:00 will not depart, you have two choices. The first one is to take a taxi, it’s around 40$. The second one is to spend the night at Sona in a lovely motel named Tia Vika, with a swimming pool and welcoming hosts. Tel: +507-998-8131.

Final Thoughts

We stayed almost a week in Santa Catalina, even though none of us was keen on surfing. It was addicting jumping on the waves, feeling the sand, seeing the world reflect on the ground, and hearing flora and fauna in the jungle around. So, if that’s your cup of tea, you can easily find joy in Santa Catalina surfing town. And of course, those who do surf, beginners or pros, will be hyped and energetic from feeling the pacific’s waves in Santa Catalina.


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