Santa Catalina is a fishing village come surf town on the Pacific Coast of Panama. The chill, laid-back vibes of Santa Catalina along with world class waves, attract surfers and beachgoers from around the world. Classed as one of the best waves in Central America, La Punta in Santa Catalina is the most popular surf break for the gurus. Playa El Estero is the perfect spot for beginner surfers with its small to medium sized rolling waves. However, there are plenty more awesome things to do in Santa Catalina aside from the epic surf. These were my favorite things to do in Santa Catalina, Panama.
THINGS TO DO IN SANTA CATALINA, PANAMA
SURF AT LA PUNTA
La Punta has built a reputation as being one of the best waves in Central America because of its year-round offshores and consistency seen almost nowhere else in the region. It breaks right every day between April and October. With a tide sweeping in and out by quite some distance, surfers wait for high tide to paddle directly out from Hotel Santa Catalina or nearby entrance points.
The most popular section at La Punta surf break is the outside section. It gets dispersed down the long point, especially during high tide. The offshore winds get strong in the afternoon.
Hotel Santa Catalina has direct surf access to La Punta or ‘The Point’ break but there are also a lot of surf camps and smaller properties with ladders and stairs down to access La Punta. Surfing and chilling after surfing are probably the most popular things to do in Santa Catalina!
La Punta is also a great spot to launch your kayak or stand-up paddleboard for a kayak trip to Isla Catalina.
Just next to La Punta is a beautiful little rocky outcrop called Casa Maya that is worth checking out.
LEARN TO SURF AT PLAYA ESTERO
If La Punta break looks a bit too crazy or advanced for you, that is no problem in Santa Catalina. Just down the hill at the other end of the village is Playa Estero. This huge stretch of beach is home to some kinder, rolling waves. These are perfect for beginners of all ages. Kids and first-timers can be seen catching their first ever waves here all-day long.
You can rent a board for $5 right on the beach from local surf vendors who also offer lessons. If you have never surfed before I suggest taking at least a half hour lesson so you have your feet right and your technique under your belt. Learning to surf is one of the best things to do in Santa Catalina.
At high tide, there are only a few meters of sand at Playa Estero. However, at low tide, there is well over a hundred meters of black sand, which offers some beautiful reflections. At low tide, you will see local soccer games getting into full swing on the smooth sand. It is one of two beaches in Santa Catalina to have black sand.
You can also book a horse riding tour, which will take you along Playa Estero and down to La Coquita. Because of the reflections and long stretches of sand, it is a really beautiful place to go for a horse-back ride or even to rent a bicycle and cruise down the coast on the sand.
Read the full blog post: 7 BEST BEACHES IN SANTA CATALINA
HANG OUT AT PLAYA SANTA CATALINA
Playa Santa Catalina is the second black sand beach of Santa Catalina. It is the hub of activity as it is situated right in the heart of the town. Cafe’s are situated nearby as well as scuba, kayak and snorkel rental stores.
During the day the beach is a great place to hang out and it never gets too busy. Groups of locals take to the volleyball court in the evening with fun social games that even tourists are welcome to join. Down near the water, the soccer games get into full swing on the slick black sand. I had an epic sunset soccer game and it was one of my favorite things to do in Santa Catalina.
It is also the jump-off point and return-point for most tours to Coiba. The river that cuts through the middle of Playa Santa Catalina is where all of the tour boats head in and out for their day-trips to Coiba National Park.
The other purpose the beach is used for is to launch kayaks for paddles out to Isla Catalina. You can rent a kayak in the town and they will help you take it down to Playa Santa Catalina for your paddle out to Isla Catalina. You can read about my kayak out to Isla Catalina and see the drone photos HERE.
The final activity for Playa Santa Catalina is that this is where the trail for Punta Roca begins. Down the far-left end of the beach are some palm trees and a short path. The path leads to Punta Roca Viewpoint, which I detail below.
TREK TO PUNTA ROCA
Punta Roca is a little trail that starts at the far-left part of Playa Santa Catalina. It takes you through some farm fields and along the coast for about thirty minutes until you end up at Punta Roca. It is an area along the coastline with lots of tight coves, inlets, and secret beaches. I walked out to Punta Roca once and it was kind of a strange. You had to pass through what seemed like private farms but the fences had a little gap made for you to pass through. The trail wasn’t clear the whole way but I ended up getting there in the end. When I arrived it was a huge storm. I decided to fly back with the drone the next day from Playa Santa Catalina to explore the region from the air. It’s one of the less popular things to do in Santa Catalina but it is an adventure for sure!
SEE THE REFLECTIONS AT LA COQUITA
La Coquita is one of my favorite beaches in Santa Catalina because of the reflections. It reminds me of Bali beaches, which give epic black sand reflections every night. When the sunset gives you some color you want to be at La Coquita.
It is one beach further on from Playa Estero and you just walk down Estero and then go across the rocks at the end of the beach. This is easiest at low tide and when the reflections are the best.
Because of the huge stretch of sand, it is a popular spot for horse-back riding and we even took the cruiser bikes all the way down here. On our visit to La Coquita, we watched an insane storm come straight past us as the horses were riding through. It was a pretty surreal ten minutes and the storm never even touched us. Visiting La Coquita for sunset would have to be one of my favorite things to do in Santa Catalina because of the reflections.
EXPLORE PUNTA BRAVA
If you walk down Playa Estero and then all the way down La Coquita you will then cross over the rocks to Punta Brava. It will take you about thirty or so minutes to complete the walk. It is a very rocky beach and this is evident at low tide. It isn’t at all like Playa Estero or La Coquita when considering how much sandy beach they have. Visiting Punta Brava isn’t one of the popular things to do in Santa Catalina but it’s a great spot to finish a walk from Playa Estero.
At high tide, it is a great surf spot where the waves can grow well beyond 6 feet. There are a right and a left wave. The right can be hollow and the fast left begins to work when there are more than 6 feet of well.
KAYAK TO ISLA CATALINA
Santa Catalina Island or Isla Catalina is it is known locally, is a beautiful island sitting just off the coast from Santa Catalina in Veraguas. Snorkeling and a virgin white sand beach are the highlights of the island. You can expect a peaceful afternoon with tourists rarely venturing out to the island. You can either rent a boat to drop you there in a few minutes or head out on a kayak adventure to Santa Catalina Islands as we did. For me, this is one of the best beaches in Santa Catalina if not the best beach. However, it takes some effort to get out there.
The back side of the island is all rocks and the front side is a long sandy beach. It was a great place to grab a tan and hang out in the sun for a while. We explored along the shore keeping our eyes out for a trail we had heard about. Apparently, the local fisherman had cleared a nature path to the top, which offers a viewpoint of Santa Catalina and even to Coiba. We didn’t search too hard but didn’t find anything that resembled a trail. Keep your eyes open you might just stumble upon a great viewpoint! Let me know if you find it!
This day was epic and kayaking to Isla Catalina was easily one of the best things to do in Santa Catalina!
Read the full blog post: KAYAKING TO SANTA CATALINA ISLAND IN PANAMA
TAKE A DAY TRIP TO COIBA NATIONAL PARK
MAKE A DAY TRIP OR STAY OVERNIGHT ON CEBACO ISLAND
Less than an hour away from Santa Catalina by boat is another amazing destination for whale spotting, snorkeling and island hopping. Cebaco Island is a beautiful palm tree-laden paradise and the best part about it, you will be the only one there!
There is only one hotel on Cebaco Island called Cebaco Sunrise and there are less than 300 locals living on the island. I spent 48 hours on Cebaco Island and didn’t see another tourist or even another local. From Cebaco Sunrise we were completely isolated in our own little paradise. I walked up and down the coast in solitude, exploring lagoons, waterfalls, and caves. It’s not often you feel like you have an entire island to yourself!
Cebaco Island is located in the province of Veraguas, the Gulf of Montijo, and is part of the buffer zone of Coiba Island National Park. The island is over 8000 hectares (19768.2 acres) and it is the third largest island in Panama (after Coiba Island and Isla del Rey, respectively).
Cebaco Island has a population of about 500 people, mainly distributed in communities along the north coast. The communities, The Bonguito, El Ranchito, El Roble, Tiradero, La Chonta, El Centro, El Jobo (the largest and most developed), Los Almácigos, Platanares and Playa Grande, are mostly engaged in agriculture, livestock, fishing and craft and trade activities.
The day I cruised the coast it was overcast and a bit stormy but still very beautiful. On a sunny day, this coastline would be absolutely epic by boat. Beaches are crowded by palm trees and there is never a person in sight. There are several waterfalls that run out of the jungle straight onto the beach. Cebaco Island is just wild in all forms.
Read the full blog post: CEBACO ISLAND IN VERAGUAS
SCUBA DIVING IN SANTA CATALINA/ COIBA NATIONAL PARK
It’s the number one thing I regret not doing in Santa Catalina. Every diver I spoke to had an awesome time and saw manta rays, sharks, turtles and huge fish. The buzz about the diving was insane. I enjoyed my island hopping trip to Coiba but I think if you are into diving you definitely need to spend a day getting submerged out in Coiba National Park.
WHERE I STAYED IN SANTA CATALINA
For the entire week I was in Santa Catalina, I made my home base at Hotel Santa Catalina. It was seriously the best place for exploring Santa Catalina and here is why.
- Free surfboard, paddleboard, and Kayak Rental
- Free bicycle rental, which makes it easy to see all of the things to do in Santa Catalina.
- The restaurant was the best healthy, modern menu in Santa Catalina but not overpriced
- You walk down the stairs and paddle out to the best surf break, La Punta. So there is no need for carrying boards or traveling to find the good waves. You have the best wave in Central America literally on the doorstep.
- There is a beautiful infinity pool that gets some sweet sunsets
- Unlimited free coffee in the morning.
- Hotel Santa Catalina has the best WiFi in the town, which is pretty rare.
I had the Granita de Oro room, which was a spacious room with private bathroom and kitchenette, which came in handy. With a hammock out the front and my bike next to my door, I was set to enter island mode!
Click Here to check prices and availability of Hotel Santa Catalina
HOW TO GET TO SANTA CATALINA
Panama city to Santa Catalina:
- By car: From Panama City, the 240-kilometer drive on the Inter-American Highway will first take you to Santiago. Here you head towards Sona and then finally on to Santa Catalina. The journey will take about 4-5 hours.
- By Bus: From Panama City, you take a bus to Santiago, a bus to Sona and then finally a bus to Santa Catalina. The journey will take between 6-7 hours.
SANTA CATALINA WIFI
It’s not great. There are a few places around town with free WiFi such as Buena Vida cafe and it works okay. However for any uploading of photos and videos the only WiFi I could rely on was at Hotel Santa Catalina. The Wifi at Hotel Santa Catalina was good when it worked but cut out frequently. There are many power outages in Santa Catalina but the hotel had a generator. It was spotty to do work but I got some blogs published in the moments of strong connection.