Panama has many good locations for surfing, but for all around versatility of waves plus the wonderful vibe of a surf-loving community of locals and expats, it’s hard to beat Playa Venao, located about 20 miles southwest of Pedasi, in the Los Santos province.
Map and satellite image by Google
Nearly two miles long, Playa Venao typically gets offshore breezes most of the day and boasts a series of great beach breaks which rarely disappoint. It forms its own crescent-shaped bay between two jutting land points and is positioned such that it catches swells almost all the time; so even when other areas in Panama aren’t surfable, at least one side or another of Playa Venao has some action. The western half of the beach usually has the best-formed high waves, while the smallest waves will typically be found on the eastern end of the beach, with a variety of sizes in between. Waves usually range from thigh- to waist-height on the east side, and are great for beginners. On the west half, waves frequently get overhead, and are very nicely suited for advanced surfers to enjoy sharp cutbacks, off-the-lips, and the occasional tube ride.
As we have described before, the Pacific side of Panama has some of the most extreme tides in the world, and Playa Venao is no exception, with a daily variation of 10- to 15-feet in the ocean level, depending on the phase of the moon. This means that there is a constantly changing relationship between the ocean swells and the sand bottom below, which adds considerably to Playa Venao’s versatility for finding good waves.
While on the one hand tidal changes of ten or more feet every six hours means that the quality of waves changes fairly quickly, it also means that regardless of the size of the swell, there are always a few hours every day where the distance between the waves and ocean bottom make for ideally formed waves on at least some section of the beach. It’s truly a world-class beach break.
photo by Jean-Marc Astesana
Playa Venao is also fairly remote: getting there requires either a five- to six-hour drive from Panama City, or a one-hour flight to Pedasi (which occur just once a day) and then a 30-minute drive. Perhaps because of this, and despite having world-class surf, Playa Venao currently remains only moderately developed. Lineups are seldom crowded, and you can often find yourself out in the water with no one around for 100 yards or more.
Even with the light development, though, there are places to stay, rent boards, buy gear, or get some lessons. In between several stretches of vacant land (which occasionally host campers), the beach is lined with a small handful of hostels, surf camps, and mid-range resort hotels, as well as a couple of bars and restaurants.
El Sitio and Playa Venao Hotel Resort are the closest things to luxury resorts, though both are resolutely mid-range in quality and price. El Sitio has 14 rooms, a decent sized pool, the area’s only surf shop, as well as the best restaurant within a hundred miles. For the more budget-oriented — or those looking for quality surf instruction — ultra-casual Beach Break Surf Camp has some of the best instructors around, a nice selection of rental boards, and offers surf camp packages that include room, breakfast, board rental and daily surf instruction. Eco-Venao, which offers everything from hostel accommodations to multi-bedroom cabins, is not located on Playa Venao itself (unlike the above three hotels), but is in a 350-acre nature preserve about a five-minute walk from the beach.
Regardless of where you stay, know that the character of Playa Venao changes quite a bit between weekends and weekdays, partly because of the aforementioned community of locals and expats in the area, as well as the fact that many Panamanians come to the area on weekends.
On weekdays during the off-season, you may find yourself the only person out in the water, especially early in the morning. On the other hand, lineups will be more crowded on Saturdays and Sundays, which can make for some great surf viewing from the beach or a bar — and even on weekends it isn’t hard to find a stretch of breaking waves to yourself somewhere along the beach if you are so inclined.
Likewise, for those not exhausted from surfing all day, Eco-Venao and El Sitio often host parties on Fridays and Saturdays which, in true Panamanian style, don’t really finish until those darkest hours before the dawn. So if your travel schedule is flexible, choose the days that best suit your vacation style.
Nonetheless, regardless of when you go or where you stay, if you surf (or have always wanted to learn) then spending a few days at Playa Venao is one of the best things you can do on your Panama vacation.