I had about 10 years without visiting Santa Catalina, a town literally at the end of the road. When I started to go, there was no cell phone signal or Internet. An Internet Cafe was the only way to have contact with the outside world. I remember paying for time spent and that in those days I could afford to disconnect. It took six to seven hours from Panama City to reach this destination in Veraguas. Today, the road is in perfect condition, mainly due to the fact that former President Ricardo Martinelli is from the nearby town of Soná.
Santa Catalina has changed a lot, but still has problems that slow down its development. There are many establishments that still do not accept a credit card. There is no bank or ATM in the town (2020), the closest is in Soná which is an hour away by car or an hour and a half by bus. Many tourists who arrive without cash and are forced to return in search of money to enjoy their stay. Most of the hotels in Santa Catalina accept payments by credit card. Luckily, there is already cell phone and Internet signal, but it is not completely consistent. If you are looking for a pretty virgin destination, then Santa Catalina may be an ideal option.
What to do in Santa Catalina?
Fredy Gaviria and his wife Maria Fernanda are from Colombia. Her family runs a diving school 30 years ago and since 2005 they are operating in Santa Catalina. Their company is called Expedicion Coiba, which has a PADI diving school. People can take courses to get certified starting in Panama City with open sea practices in Portobelo or Coiba. These courses take about four days. Those with little time can also do a trial dive to see if they want to be certified.
Certified divers can do diving tours for a day or more. Fredy tells me that he has clients who dive more than 10 days in a row, but what he recommends is two or three days, sleeping in Coiba. The national park has 39 islands with many sites suitable for diving. Dives on day tours are done on Isla Canales, which is the closest. Sleeping in the park allows you to explore the north and south. When I asked him what his favorite place was, he replied “Wao, everyone!” Bufet has a rock with a lot of marine life where schools of fish and eels are seen. Mali Mali received its name from a park ranger who was imprisoned on the island. This dive site has a lot of soft and lively coral. Another one he likes is Sombrero de Pelo which has a 40-meter wall with colorful soft corals.
In 2004, the prison in Coiba closed, which had operated since 1919. During the dictatorship it became the place where political prisoners were sent. It was famous for being a brutal prison where prisoners were tortured in extreme conditions. Nobody knowns exactly how many people died on the site, but it is still believed to be haunted. Those who visit can tour the prison, which is being eaten by the jungle.
In 1992 Panama created the Coiba National Park that includes the island of Coiba and 38 smaller ones. It is next to the Gulf of Chiriqui and has a unique biodiversity. You can find 760 species of fish, 33 types of sharks and 20 species of cetaceans. Many species are endemic to the island, including the Coiba howler monkey and agouti. Smithsonian has a tropical species research center where they continue to find new species.
Tourists who visit this park usually go to a small island called Granito de Oro. It is the favorite place to snorkel since it has a small white beach and many rocks. Most go to the island of Coiba to see the famous crocodiles, tour the prison, the trails, hot springs and beaches. The Ministry of Environment of Panama has cabins in lousy condition, but they have been closed for a couple of years.
Santa Catalina is known for being one of the main surfing destinations in Panama. There is a wave for every type of surfer. Playa El Estero is ideal for learning, since it has small waves, without many people. There are no dangerous reefs or rocks, since this beautiful beach has a sandy bottom. After this beach is Punta Brava, where another famous wave is located. You can even surf on the public beach of the town when there is a big swell. Punta Roca is on the other side. Those who wish to go a little further can visit Cebaco Island.
La Punta or The Point is the best wave in Panama, being a world class wave for its consistency. The wave breaks in different directions creating tubes. A channel allows surfers to reach the wave without being tired of rowing. Also, if they are in the middle of the impact zone, they go out with the foam, go to the canal and row back to the peak.
Santa Catalina has been visited by international surfing champions since the 70s. However, it never filled up like other destinations. Those who visit are surprised by this. Usually, most who surf are locals, including many children who are incredibly talented.
We went with Javier from Bird Coiba to see birds in Santa Catalina. This American arrived in the area 30 years ago when he was in the Peace Corps. In a dance he met “the most beautiful girl in town” and invited her to dance. He ended up marrying her and living in Santa Catalina. As he has lived in the town for so many years, he has seen the transformation of a town that bordered a prison to a tourist site.
He tours around the town and on his property located on a cliff with beautiful views of the Pacific Ocean. We walk about 40 minutes to reach his property, watching birds along the way. To get there we had to walk along the Public Beach, crossing the mangrove river. He also does tours to Coiba Island where 147 species of birds can be seen. Of these 96 are residents, 40 are migrants and 12 are accidental. You can go for a day or several if you want to appreciate the rest of the park.
Kayak and Stand Up Paddle
The Island of Santa Catalina can be seen from the Public Beach, which is like the backyard of the town. The island can be reached by boat from the beach. If you want to venture, another option is to go on a kayak or Stand Up Paddle. They can be rented in the village, but our Hotel Santa Catalina offers guests both options for free. It is better to go kayaking, as it is a bit far and it is easier to paddle sitting than standing. The island has a white sand beach, prettier than those in town. Also it is a nesting site for turtles. There is no development on the island, so it is advisable to take things to drink and eat. And of course, don’t leave trash.
Where to eat in Santa Catalina?
Vianka Bustos bought her property in 1997, but it was not until 2004 that she opened her restaurant. At that time there were only 3 restaurants: the pizzeria, Los Pipes and hers. Now she thinks there are more than 35 restaurants in Santa Catalina. It offers Panamanian food such as coconut rice, stuffed patacones, fried or grilled fish and tacos. Her ceviche is what comes out of the day: octopus, fish, shrimp or mixed. We ordered ceviche and fried calamari, which were delicious. In addition, she has vegetarian options that are increasingly being requested.
Francesco Transillo is the chef of Bamboo Eco Lodge, a hotel built in 2013 with a type of special bamboo called Guadua. They have an ecological concept combined with gastronomy. It is a curious thing that an Italian chef created a sushi bar in Santa Catalina. He told me that he worked in Rome for many years in catering and as a private chef at people’s houses. He took an oriental food course and decided that it was ideal for Santa Catalina, as the seafood was widely available. The concept is “yoga, bamboo and good vibes.” Dishes vary, highlighting products and local culture. One of the sushi we ordered had a passion fruit sauce, ginger, mango and cachaza. The other was covered with caramelized soy, pink ginger, tequila and pepper. He combines shrimp with coconut or tuna with mango, creating gourmet dishes with “poor products”.
Ceviches are the specialty of El Encuentro. This small restaurant is located on the main street. The first day we tried to go somewhat late, a little after 8 p.m. With great sorrow, the owner told us they had run out of food. Therefore, we had to go the next day. Ceviche is not made in the Panamanian style, but with tiger’s milk, in the Peruvian style. The dishes are huge, served on top of potatoes strips. They also make baked pizzas, which were pretty good.
Esencia in La Buena Vida
This small hotel is located on the main street of the town of Santa Catalina. It is artistically decorated with pieces of mosaics that create shapes. Its Esencia restaurant serves healthy food in a tropical environment, surrounded by many plants. We went to eat breakfast at Hotel La Buena Vida and we ordered fruits with granola and breakfast burritos with scrambled eggs and vegetables. They open from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for breakfast every day except Tuesdays. Dinner is from 6:30 – 9:30 p.m. not including Sundays and Mondays, when the restaurant is closed.
Other options are Pescao in the Hotel Santa Catalina, Chanos, Chilinguito, Pizzeria Jammin, Los Pibes, Mama Ines and Sugar Mamas.