Panama is the southernmost Country in Central America and is connected to Colombia in South America. It is the only break in the Pan-American Highway, as you can’t to cross the Darien Gap on land (the jungle that connects Panama and Colombia). It actually might be possible if you have all the survival skills to walk through such a jungle, a good guide who is crazy enough to take you there and the luck to not get taken as a hostage by some guerrillas or drug dealers.
Panama is home to less than 3.5 million people of mixed heritage. You can see a strong Spanish influence as everywhere in Latin America, but also a huge Afro and Rasta influence. This stems from the African slaves and the people who emigrated from the Caribbean in order to work on the Canal or on a railroad project. Because of that, a lot of the people, especially in Panama City sound more like Jamaicans than Latinos. There are also some other ethnic groups like the Kuna people who live in the San Blas Islands, living with their own tradition, clothes and language.
It is more expensive than all the other Central American countries, except for Costa Rica, as it has become very Americanized in the Capital. Panama City actually looks more like Miami than any of the other cities you’ll find along the coastline of Central America.
With its two coastlines, the Caribbean and Pacific, there are different seasons. The best time to head to the Caribbean is from around December to February, give and take a bit more on both ends, and the month of July. The Pacific gets a lot of the south swells like all the other Central American Countries around April to September, but I’ve been told that the best time to go is before the actual season starts.
I haven’t spent much time here and don’t know many places, but I was blown away! I heard many bad things about Panama and a lot of different people told me that the locals here are anything but helpful and friendly, so I came with low expectations. I met one or two of those unfriendly Panamanians, but countless others who smiled, helped and were warm, friendly and everything I was told they’re not!
If you come from South America there are two ways to make it across the Darien Gap, by air or by sea. It is possible to cross in the Pacific from the Colombian state of Choco, but most people take a Ferry for around 100US$ from Cartagena, or on a few days Charter. The cheapest of those trips will cost you around the same as a flight from Cartagena to Panama City, but it is a great experience.
This is a Paradise of around 350 Islands in the Caribbean sea, close to mainland Panama. It’s the land of the Kuna, which makes it even more special. Here it’s not allowed for any foreign investors to buy land and everything here belongs to the Kuna, which means fishing or taking a coconut is actually stealing.
San Blas is one of the most amazing places imaginable. Countless tiny islands with nothing but high palm trees, white sand, reef and big beautiful shells. BUT it’s not really a surf destination. If you go there from Panama, its quiet a mission to get to the islands that are most north-east and get good swells, as long as you don’t have a yacht. I came from Colombia and timed it right to get there with a swell. I had no clue if I was going to find waves, what made it as exciting as opening your Kinder Surprise Chocolate Egg!
As soon as we anchored, I took the kayak and explored the reefs around. If possible, I took my surfboard and someone else in the kayak in order to take care of it while I surfed. As I have not heard of people who have gone on a surf trip to San Blas, I can’t give you a name of the three places I surfed and don’t even know the name of any of the islands. The surf was not amazing, but paddling out from a boat and having a look to see if you can surf it or if it’s too shallow and not even knowing if anyone has ever surfed this place before? This combination was what made it so special, and of course being there all alone surfing the most beautiful reef with crystal clear water while fish swimming all around. After all, this is what we travel for.
The first wave I surfed was a short left in front of one of the many wrecks here. A good, steep take off, and that was it. From there, I paddled to a right that was much longer, and had a perfect looking barrel if you paddle deep enough. It was shallow and many big rocks stuck out of the water. As the difference between high- and low tide is very little here, waiting wouldn’t make it any better. I had to take off right next to the last big coral head that stuck out of the water and it was difficult to hold the position as the current was so strong, but I had some good waves here.
On another day, and another island, I found two more waves, both of them perfect rights. One of them was a barrel as perfect as it can be, but really shallow and the end section closed out over dry reef! If you don’t kick out over the back of the wave just in time, you’re f..ked! And pretty far away from any help, which you probably would need!
The other one was much friendlier looking. Still shallow and sometimes barrels, but much slower. It was a great fun wave, and incredibly beautiful. I surfed it when it was around hip high and had so much fun. I would love to surf this place on a head high day, I bet it would become one of my favorite waves.
Going on land from San Blas is interesting as the Immigration office is in the backyard of someone’s house. It is still on one of the islands and from here you have to take a small boat that brings you to the mainland und upriver to a place where Cars are waiting to drive you back to civilisation. From there goes a tarred road strait to Panama City. This road lies like a Black Mamba in the jungle. It is sometimes so steep, you’ll be surprised the car makes it up the hill, and so curvy, that if you didn’t get seasick, you might get motion sickness here.
Close to the City
There are a lot of different surf spots fairly close to the city (a few hours by bus) and it’s easy to find out about them, but they get really crowded if there is some good swell coming. I skipped them all and went a bit further up the coast.
This is a half moon shaped bay, surrounded by jungle and a beachbreak good enough to hold the ISA World Junior Championships in 2012. It’s a beachbreak that changes a lot and fast with changing tides. Depending on the sandbars, it can be perfect one day and closing out the next. But on the right day, it’s as perfect as a beachbreak can be. Thanks to its half moon shape, the sizes of the waves are very different within only a minute or two of walking distance. Even when it’s on fire, you’ll find perfect conditions for beginners a bit further down but still on the same beach. There are also some places that rent boards and offer lessons. The nature here makes you believe that Panama has the biggest diversity of animals in Central America (which is a fact). I was there for only a few days and was woken up by howler monkeys every day, saw humming birds, a scorpion and countless different plants.
This place is so beautiful that a couple of different Hollywood stars, such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, bought houses close to here, but this is not the only way how big money investments come in here. There is a project being developed for a luxury Hotel complex with suites, swimming pools, tennis courts, restaurants and all those things. Most the land around here has already been bought by some foreign investment group. As so often, this place will change fast. I hope that with all those rich people arriving, the animals don’t disappear, and that it stays such a peaceful place.There are other places to surf here, but you need a car to get to those waves. If you have one, just talk to the locals, they are friendly and will tell you where to go, maybe you can take one of them surfing. There is a right point break around an hour and a half drive from here which is always uncrowded, as all the other spots around here.
It’s only a five hours drive from Panama City, BUT much longer if you go with public transport. You should leave as early as possible to have a chance to make it in one day, or you sleep a night somewhere. Best is in Pedasi where you have a couple of Hotels to choose from as well as a nice beach with some waves. You first have to take a bus from the Terminal in Albrook (this is where most of the good and cheap shopping malls are), to Las Tablas. There you have to find another bus to Pedasi and another one to Venao. There are only three buses a day that go to Venao. The first bus leaves around 7 am, another around midday and the last bus in the afternoon.
This is another place that is changing fast. From what I’ve heard, the president bought a lot of land around here, builds an airport and tar the road. On one hand this is good, as you can get here much faster. But on the other hand, coming here faster will make the waves more crowded, and the whole place probable changes a lot. Every surfer in this country, and big parts of Costa Rica knows about this place and it’s often called the best wave in Panama. And travelling surfers came here for a long time, no matter how bad the road was.
You’ll find many different places to stay. From reasonably priced hostels right on the beach, to a nice hotel with aircon and everything you want. It’s a quiet place most of the year, with not much else than surfing, diving and sport fishing. The main wave here is an A-frame with the right better and longer than the left. It is far out, better bring some paddle fitness. As so many other great waves, this one gets better with size, but is a fun wave as soon as it starts breaking, and starts to barrel with less than head high. It’s such a long ripable wave, but gets crowded when it is small or when there is a good swell on a weekend and people drive here from everywhere. If it gets a bit bigger, the crowd gets smaller, as most the people who shouldn’t be out there realize it. Once it gets really big, it gets really crowded, as all the locals come out to show you how it’s done.
Surf it with a higher tide, first because there are some rocks in the inside, and second, because coming back with low tide is a bitch.
There is a beach break just next to it that can be great fun and is good for beginners as well as a couple of other point breaks around with lefts and rights. PLUS, if you are willing to spend the money, you can charter a boat and go to some islands in front of Santa Catelina, such as Cebaco and Coiba. Here you’ll find uncrowded and powerful waves.
Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is a state, but also the name of an island on the Caribbean coast, just thirty minutes off shore and close to the Costa Rican border. It became a Backpackers/Party paradise and has some amazing waves. But again, as it’s the Caribbean, the season is short and inconsistent. It’s fairly more expensive as always on islands, and you’ll need some extra Dollars to take a boat to most of the breaks on some other islands. If there are no waves and you don’t spend your money on boats, it’s gonna be spent on booze. There are parties here every night and a lot of people from all over the world come here for nothing else but that and don’t even know about the surf.
Probably the most famous wave here is called the Bluff. A shore break that is powerful and big. There are many other great waves here like Cariñero, a beautiful left that breaks over a sharp and shallow reef. If you enter from the beach, wait to watch some of the locals to see where the keyhole is to get in and out, the reef here is sharp, believe me, i found out myself! If you get lucky and find some waves here, you know why you came that far. It’s surfing in paradise! To see pictures of places like here, are one of the reasons why we buy surf magazines, but actually surfing in such a place instead of just seeing it in a magazine is a whole other story.
There are many waves in Bocas, and a lot of people and shops who can tell you where you need to go. As always, go and talk to them. If there are waves and you get out of bed in time without too much of a hangover, you’ll be rewarded. Doesn’t matter if you go to the Bluff, Cariñeros, Playa Wizard or to one of the other surf spots here that not only have good waves, but a Caribbean paradise setup.
There is of course much more surf in this country than just that, and also more to the country than just the canal. But as the canal made this country what it is, bringing such a mix of people together, as well as its economical strength, the whole country and its people are diverse and unique at the same time. To me, Panama is a country where I came without knowing and expecting much, and left enriched in more than one way. I really want to go back some time and hope it hasn’t changed too much by then. There are a lot of islands on both sides, the Caribbean and the Pacific, and if you’d had a boat, you would score some amazing and uncrowded waves, especially in the pacific, where you have consistent good swells for around half of the year.
Some more pictures here: