Panama Road Trip - Santa Catalina & Coiba Island

Details of our recent trip to Santa Catalina (great for surfing) and Coiba Island (amazing beaches and underwater wildlife).

After four great nights in the Azuero Peninsula, we travelled further West along Panama’s Pacific Coast to the surfing town of Santa Catalina. I’m no surfer, but apparently Santa Catalina has Panama’s best surfing waves. We arrived on the thursday before Semana Santa weekend, and struggled to find a place to stay. We ended up at Kenny’s Surf Camp, an overpriced dump of a hotel, whose rooms stank of urine. The following day we went to chill out and watch the surfers on nearby Playa Estero, and at mid day the ‘manager’ of Kenny’s Surf Camp came to tell us that a group was arriving at the hotel a day early and therefore we had to leave early. I told him I’d be writing about the shambolic set up at Kenny’s Surf Camp, but am glad that we were so abruptly kicked out as we found a great, cheap place instead called Cabanas Rolo. Rolo’s was a great place to meet other travellers, and very reasonably priced too.

Santa Catalina itself has just one real attraction - the surf. The grey sand beaches are decent but there are much better beaches elsewhere in Panama. The town itself is not particularly attractive, and I was struck by overall laziness of the locals (can’t be bothered to make and sell you a juice) and the lack of anywhere to get breakfast or lunch (everyone was either surfing or couldn’t be bothered to open during the day). We ended up eating every daytime meal in Santa Catalina at La Buena Vida as everywhere else appeared to be shut until the evening. La Buena Vida was good, and also doubled as a hotel with a few small cabins for guests.

I started to wonder why I was wasting my time in such a shambolic town full of lazy locals and posing surfers. Then we took a trip to Isla Coiba, and as such I saw an extremely good reason to visit Santa Catalina if you’re not into surfing.

I do claim, with (subjective) justification, to be a Latin America travel expert, but must confess that I’d never even heard of Isla Coiba until a few days ago. It’s a very well kept secret - a prison island that has only be opened up to tourists very recently. The boat tour from Santa Catalina to Coiba Island was genuinely one of the best day trips I’ve taken anywhere. I wish I had camped there, or booked one of the basic cabins on the island. The island is huge, and completely devoid of development. Beautiful empty beaches are backed by undisturbed rainforest. In just 15 minutes of snorkelling I saw 8 foot sharks, turtles and a shoal of what must have been over 5000 fish, each the size of a foot, swimming together in one huge mass of fish. I’ve snorkelled in a lot if places, but snorkelling around Isla Coiba beats everywhere else hands down, and the scuba diving there is said to be by far the best in Panama. In addition to the wonderful beaches and in your face marine wildlife, the prison itself is fascinating - it was closed in 2004 but bizarrely a few guards and a handful of inmates remain.

The guards will show you around the derelict sections of Coiba prison, and you can even meet the select few inmates who remain, who try to earn a dollar or two by selling necklaces they have made from beach-combed materials. Undoubtedly, Coiba Island is my number one travel destination in Panama.

(Panama Road Trip - Post 3 of 4) Continued - Pacific Coast near Panama City….

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