Santa Catalina is probably the premier surf destination in Panama, but is known for not being the most beginner-friendly surf spot on the Central American surf map. This, of course, is most likely why you haven’t heard of that many people who have been there or have any plans to go there in the near future.
Not only is it harder to get to than some quick surf trip to Tamarindo, but when you do, it is very possible you’ll be faced with surf that tests your limits. This is enough to keep most people from making the effort to get to Santa Catalina and just head to the friendly beaches of Costa Rica instead.
And that, of course, is where Santa Catalina gets, and keeps, most of its charm.
Surfing at Santa Catalina offers the opportunity to go a little back in time to a Central American surf town that is still a little rough around the edges and hard to get to. The traveler to Santa Catalina will still have to be the type that enjoys the journey, not just the ease of getting to a well-worn destination.
Sure, Santa Catalina isn’t going to work for some short surf strike. You can do it in a week, but most likely not just for a long weekend. Most likely, a surf trip to Santa Catalina is going to be part of a longer trip to Panama, one with some time to get around.
Santa Catalina Surf Spots
Playa Santa Catalina and Punta Brava are on tap for those experienced to expert surfers depending on swells that can max out. These places can hold the size and offer serious barrels.
Playa Estero is there for beginners and the rest of us mere surfing mortals depending on the swell.
Coiba National Park
One of the main attractions for Santa Catalina is being the launch point to visit Coiba National Park on Coiba Island
Hotels in Santa Catalina
Part of the charm of Santa Catalina is that is still holding onto its fishing village roots. As such lodging and meals are limited but definitely sufficient for a great surf trip. You won’t find the luxury digs of Nosara here, but that’s sort of the whole point.
Hotel Santa Catalina
What can you say about the Hotel Santa Catalina? It’s classic Central American design, the point is right out front, and it’s pretty much the only place around.
So aside from that…
I think you get the point. For a surf trip to Santa Catalina, the Santa Catalina Hotel is the place to be.
Getting to Santa Catalina Panama
Santa Catalina is located on the Pacific coast of Panama, conveniently (ha!) placed a mere 6 hour drive from Panama City or 4 hour drive from David, the nearest city.
You may be getting a picture of why Santa Catalina is off the map despite the great surf that it consistently receives. Now, there are some great surfing stops along the way to check out if you decide to just do the drive from Panama City to Santa Catalina.
While you have to swing out of the way a little, heading through the growing town of Pedasi to surf at Playa Venao is a worthwhile effort. Plus you get to check out other surf breaks along the coast of the Azuero Peninsula which include Playa Cambutal and Playa Morillo.
This area is still ripe for surf exploration and offers all sorts of adventure for a traveler with a bit of time.
When To Go To Santa Catalina For Surf
As with the rest of Central America, the surf seasons in Santa Catalina (and the Pacific side of Panama in general) are broken into the dry season and the rainy season. The rainy season in Central America generally peaks in September and October, with the dry season being December through April.
Additionally, Panama has two distinct surf seasons depending on whether you are on the Pacific or Caribbean sides of the country. Santa Catalina, being on the Pacific side.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both seasons and you can expect swell throughout the year. Of course, Panama gets tons of rain which can affect your ability to drive to certain areas or explore places that require river crossings.
In general, the dry season is known for cleaner more organized surf with long period swells marching their way up from the Southern hemisphere.
Surf in the rainy season can be a bit more disorganized with river mouths being frothy and perhaps a bit murky (read: crocodiles and trees).