Hotel Santa Catalina Panama was newly opened the first time I stayed. This hotel in Santa Catalina, is about five hours by car from Panama City. There is a small runway for airplanes in a residential complex and another on the island of Coiba, but they are practically not used. Driving is the best option, since you must change several times to arrive by bus, first in Santiago and then in Soná. Renting a car in Panama is quite economical, as is gasoline. You just have to watch out on Waze, since the speed limits are low in some places.
Hotel Santa Catalina Panama
Kenny Myers is one of the first Panamanian surfers. As a good adventurer, he was always looking for waves in remote places. He arrived in Santa Catalina and fell in love with the place. In 1981 he bought the property where Hotel Santa Catalina Panama is located, right in front of the best surf wave. It was originally called “Kenny’s Surf Camp” and had a rustic cabin without water or electricity.
Jon Hanna is another surfer who visited this town all his life. At the age of 10 he went for the first time to participate in a surfing competition. Jon and Kenny teamed up and opened the hotel in June 2010.
They had six rooms in a “U” shaped complex with a central courtyard. But, a lot happens in nine years and when I returned in December 2019 they already had 18 rooms. There are four room designs, all very spacious. Standard rooms have a king bed, which can be converted into two twin beds, and bunk beds with capacity for four people. The double suite has a king bed or two twin beds and the triple suite has a king bed and a twin bed. These rooms have kitchenettes with mini-fridges. With two floors, the family suite is the largest room, suitable for up to six people.
All rooms have private bathroom with hot water, hairdryer, air conditioning, television and safe. They are decorated with rustic materials, including stone and cement. The doors and windows are made of wood, as are the furniture. Outside they have a seating area with hammocks, which is where I laid reading. A small table served as a work desk, while we used the chairs to dry the bathing suits.
Pescao is the name of the restaurant at the Hotel Santa Catalina Panama. This colloquial Panamanian expression is used after a fish that has been caught. It seems very appropriate considering that this area of Panama is in the Pacific Ocean. Traditionally, Santa Catalina has always been a fishing village. Therefore, you get fresh seafood every day. The menu uses local and tropical ingredients such as citrus, cassava, pineapple, avocado, melon, among others.
This place has been serving meals since the 1980s when they exchanged seafood for products brought from Panama City, since at that time there was no store in the town. Fresh seafood was cooked in a rustic wooden brick fireplace. Today there are already two shops and many restaurants in Santa Catalina.
Opposite the Pescao restaurant is an infinity pool with picnic tables and lounge chairs. The view is beautiful, facing the famous wave. A small path takes you to the exit door leading to the Pacific Ocean. Just before you will find a shed with kayaks and stand up paddle boards (SUP). Guests can use them for free, as well as bicycles and skateboards. You can go kayaking to Catalina Island that is in front of the Public Beach. Surfers use bicycles to transport the boards, since Playa El Estero is a few minutes away walking or cycling.
Hotel Santa Catalina Panama has a surf shop. They sell and rent fiber and epoxi boards, as well as clothes, hats, towels and others. There is no cost to use foam boards which are suitable for beginner surfers. Those who want to surf with a guide or want to take a class, can request it to the hotel. They also organize island tours, diving in Coiba and sport fishing.
On the hotel grounds you will find a small playground ideal for those traveling with children. Considering the size of the rooms, I would say it is an ideal hotel to go with family or friends.
Surf in Santa Catalina
Santa Catalina was discovered as a surfing destination in the 1970s. There was no infrastructure, but this did not deter surfers including some international champions. Locals believe that the destination never developed because it was far from an airport, unlike Bocas del Toro that was discovered later. No matter what is the reason, those who visit are happy to find world class waves without many people. Many of those who surf are locals, including children, who then go on to compete or be surf instructors. It is difficult to get to have this level of talent, since all the life they practice the sport.
Hotel Santa Catalina Panama is facing the most famous wave, called La Punta or The Point. According to Jon Hanna it is the best wave in all of Panama and there is nothing that compares in terms of quality. It has a better shape and consistency than most, and the swell hits in different directions. You can paddle from the hotel to La Punta using a channel. This allows surfers to arrive without being tired. If you find yourself in the middle of the impact zone you can take the foam, return to the channel, paddle to the peak and try again. The peak is 700 meters from the mouth of the channel. This wave is for advanced surfers, with a right point break that reaches 15 feet, covering more than 400 meters. The wave is consistent all year, but it is smaller during the summer from January to March.
When there is a big swell you can surf even at the Santa Catalina Public Beach. Other options are Punta Brava and Punta Roca. Cebaco Island is another option, but it takes about 40 minutes by boat. Half an hour out on the coast there are also waves.
Santa Catalina Retreats
There was a surf and yoga retreat when we stayed at the Hotel Santa Catalina Panama. An Australian named Vicky asked us if we wanted to participate in yoga and surf classes. We found it fun, so we accepted. The class was quite basic, on the yoga deck facing the pool overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The idea was to take the class at sunset, but nature had other plans and it started to rain. We had to run for the roofed yoga studio. On their website they have a list of local and international instructors trained in different disciplines of yoga and reiki.
After class, I had a glass of wine and interviewed Vicky. Together with Sergio, her partner who is a surf instructor certified by the International Surfing Association (ISA), they carry out curated surfing and yoga experiences all year round. They have a calendar with different options that last between five and nine nights. Surprisingly they have very affordable prices for everything they offer. They have joined local suppliers, including the Hotel Santa Catalina Panama, as they want to give back to the community.
Every detail is taken into account, so that the people who participate have no worries. They invite guests to explore the beautiful destinations offered by Santa Catalina. A trip to Santa Catalina Island is included, guests can go by kayak or stand up paddle (SUP) to enjoy a picnic. Other options are horseback riding at sunset at Playa El Estero or massages. Many want to visit Coiba Island for snorkeling or diving.
People who participate in Santa Catalina Retreats range from 20 to 70 years old. My group had a German couple who was 70 years old and two Americans who could be almost 30 years old. These people would never have vacationed together had it not been for retreat. In general, groups have an average of 10 people, but can vary between 5-25. They are looking for people who live in cities, who need escapes to focus on themselves.
These retreats are not for advanced surfers, but for beginner or intermediate level. It is not necessary to have previous experience, since Playa El Estero is ideal for learning. Sergio has surfed throughout Latin America and says it is the best beach he has ever found. This is due to the fact that the waves are not that big, but they are good. The beach remains fairly empty most of the year. A sandy bottom is ideal for learning, without worrying about rocks or dangerous reefs.
Classes are customized, using local instructors such as Oli and Casey. Sergio taught me in an hour, first with theory and then with practice on the sand and water. Classes usually take place over a period of five days. The first day of class includes two hours of security, including how to carry the board, how to get to the place behind the wave and how to paddle to catch a wave. On the second day they teach you how to stand in the sand, if you are agile and fast you can make a jump looking forward, like a ninja. This is what we practiced, only that I changed my front foot every time I jumped. That may be because I was left-handed and then they made me change to the right.
We use a foam board with fiber, it is rigid inside. It had 98 liters (professionals have 25 liters) that made it quite bulky and stable. These tables are for easy standing, not for maneuvering. The idea is to be able to grab the wave before it breaks and go right or left. If you don’t know how to surf, you might go straight through the foam like I did. I got up at the third attempt and went to the end. Classes help you have a better reading of the situation to be in the right place at the right time to catch the wave.
Visiting the Hotel Santa Catalina Panama is good for the soul, either in a retreat or simply connecting with nature for a few days.