On one of the hottest days yet in Panama, I’m standing on a stretch of beach in Coronado, gazing out at the maze of youngsters floating on their surfboards, proud parents wading in with video cameras and zoom lenses hoping to capture that glorious moment when little Johnny (or Manuelito) catches the perfect wave.
It’s the “Discovering Surf Talents” surf competition, a monthly contest held at different locations around Panama for under-18 kids both Panamanian and expat to show their stuff while balancing on Panama’s bioceanic swells. There are many more entrants to this year’s competition than last year’s – clear evidence of the growing attraction that Panama holds for budding surfers.
As youths from around our new home in Panama take over the beach just beyond our doorstep, the lovely Playa Serena, I look on, amazed, as boys as young as four years old ride the waves with apparent ease.
“See Angus?” I say to my 11-year-old son. “You could do that too with enough practice.”
His silent contemplation tells me he’s giving it a serious thought.
Not to give the impression that all Panama’s surfers are juvenile – the country certainly sees its share of world-class professionals. For two years in a row, Panama was chosen to host the Billabong ISA World Surfing Games, an event that unites more than 35 countries and over 200 surfers. And in the wake of these world-class boarders, amateurs of all ages are cottoning on to a growing trend in Panama: surfing tourism.
In many aspects of tourism, including surfing, Costa Rica has long overshadowed neighboring Panama, leaving a treasure trove of spectacular surfing spots on this bicoastal isthmus completely untapped — but that is changing.
Panama is fast becoming a hotspot for recreational wave-riders from around the world. And why not? A few hours’ drive is all that separates the Pacific from the Caribbean Atlantic when you’re traveling in Panama, and surfers can easily brave the waves on both shores in a single day.
Nearly all of Panama’s best surfing beaches are located on the Pacific side, from Punta Barica near the Costa Rican border south to Punta Jaque near Colombia; depending on the location and the season, swells can range from a foot to 25 feet in height.
Hard-core surfers have long known about Santa Catalina, a Panamanian surfing paradise on the Gulf of Chiriqui that boasts some of the best year-round surfing conditions in all of Latin America. Over the years, their little secret leaked out to the global surfing community, transforming the village nearby from sleepy fishing town to world-renowned surfing destination. Santa Catalina is only the most famous of many excellent surfing spots in Panama, whose coastlines are now dotted with tour companies offering surf lessons as part of their menu of excursions.
In the Pacific Gulf of Chiriqui lies one of the best surfing spots in Panama, Morro Negrito, home to a surf camp that caters to all levels from the timid beginner to the gnarly hot-dogger. Surfers enjoy private access to two small islands and ten different breaks, and while any Panama traveler is welcome to test their surfing skills at Morro Negrito, the owners take care to preserve the “undiscovered” feeling in this pristine corner of Panama by limiting the number of surfers at any one time to 15 per island.
It’s a bit more crowded at the nearby El Palmar beach, but that didn’t deter us from investigating our local surfing options. We discovered not one but two excellent surf schools to choose from, and with the memory of the youth surf competition fresh in our minds, we decided to check them out.
My husband, Chris, signed up for a one-on-one lesson with Ricardo at Panama Surf School. He figured that after 10-15 minutes of instruction, he’d be riding the waves like the kids we saw effortlessly doing so the weekend prior on Playa Serena.
A man can dream, right?
After 90 minutes, he was done. He couldn’t even finish the two-hour lesson. His eyes stinging from the salt water, he stumbled ashore sputtering — he’d swallowed enough of the sea to sink the Titanic. Blisters covered his hands. His entire body ached. And after all that, he hadn’t stood on the board even once. Not one second of actual surfing had occurred. I give him credit for trying, but it’s safe to say that the next great surf prodigy he is not.
At press time, Chris was still debating whether or not to go back for another lesson.
Don’t let my husband’s experience sour you on surfing in Panama, though – there are plenty of reasons to give it a go:
- Space to ride the waves – Since Panama is fairly new on the international tourism radar, surfers here are pleasantly surprised to find uncrowded beaches where they don’t have to fight for waves. Many beaches and national parks remain completely untouched by the hand of human development, making for beautiful backdrops to your surfing adventures.
- Currency – Panama’s currency based on the US dollar makes paying for surfing lessons an easy counterbalance to the challenge of the sport.
- Free medical coverage for a month – In an attempt to attract more tourists, the Panamanian government offers free health coverage for 30 days upon arrival in the country. This means recreational surfers can take comfort in the fact that they’ll be well-cared for in the event of a surfing mishap. And let us not forget — Panama has first-world medical care.
- Excellent transportation system – With multi-lane highways and a bus system that connect the entire country, it’s easy for the roving surfer to get to wherever he or she needs to go to find the waves.
- Reasonable prices – Recreational surfers seeking low-cost accommodations that get them close to the waves have no trouble finding places to stay in Panama, a highly affordable travel destination on more than just the surfing front.
- Panama is safe – Many surfers choose isolated beaches to hone their craft, and if they didn’t feel safe doing so, they wouldn’t come back to Panama. Word has spread amongst the surfing community that Panama is one of the safest countries in the world to surf.
Photos by Jacki Gillcash.