Panama surfing guide. Image from Canva

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Whenever I mention my love for surfing in Central America, most people raise an eyebrow. “I didn’t know that the tourist-packed line-ups of Costa Rica were your thing?” I’ve heard it once or twice, and they’re not wrong. Costa Rica, though beautiful, and fairly easy to reach both from the States and Europe, isn’t really for me. Too crowded, too humid, too touristy. 

So where do I go, for that mid-winter surf-fix then? The answer to that lies just south of Costa Rica, in the beautiful and gritty country of Panama.

Why Go Surfing in Panama?

Welcome to Panama sign
Welcome to Panama. Image from Canva

The southernmost country of Central America, bordering Costa Rica up north and Colombia in the south, is still a fairly out-there choice for your surf vacay. This is due to its still developing infrastructure for tourism and pretty off-the-grid surf breaks and villages.

However, with a little bit of patience and a lot of love for some gritty, raw traveling, this place is heaven for the surfer looking for good waves, better people and fantastic nature. 

Here, through the lush rainforest and the bamboo plantations, you’ll find some of the best surfing in the world. There’s no wonder that Panama is frequented by the pros, who flock here to catch some thrilling waves before re-joining the circus of the World Surf League.

The country, famous to many because of the Panama Canal that runs through the capital of Panama City, hosts phenomenal breaks all along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts and offers top-class waves all year round.

However, since the country is still a fairly well-kept secret, cross-land travel can be a bit unreliable. To make sure you’re spending most of your precious vacation days on the board and not on the bus, I’d advise you to pick one or two places and really get to know the area.

So, where are the best breaks in Panama?

Bocas del Toro

The magnificent Playa Bluff seen from above, Bocas del Toro, Panama
The magnificent Playa Bluff seen from above, Bocas del Toro, Panama. Photo by Chemo

Located in the northeastern state of the same name, the islands of Bocas del Toro have, since the early 2010s, developed to become a hotspot for international and local surfer talent alike. A two-hour drive south of the Costa Rican border, you’ll find this party-loving, backpacker-friendly, tropical archipelago of stunning reefs, beaches and world-class surfing. 

“Bocas” differentiates from other surf destinations in the country just by the sheer number and variation of the breaks. There is everything from beginner-friendly beach breaks to point-break tubes and barrels for the advanced surfer or the daredevil intermediate. 

For the absolute beginner, Paunch Reef on Cólon Island is a great place to start. Some surf schools offer classes for all levels and consistently clean sets of left—and right-handers.

Not only that, but Paunch is a good stepping stone to other adventures around the island. The beach has some really good food and options for accommodation, such as the nature-near (and Instagram-worthy) tree houses of Nomad Tree Lodge. Or, the budget-friendly Skully´s House Hostel further up the beach.

Looking for more of a challenge? A thirty-minute drive up the coast from Paunch, you’ll find one of the beaches that has made the area so famous. Legends like Kelly Slater have stopped by to catch a wave.

Bluff Beach (it’s cooler than it sounds, I promise) isn’t for the faint of heart, but for the surfers with some experience, it’s one crazy thrill. 

Since Bluff breaks very close to the sandy beach, you can enjoy the waves without burning all your energy trying to paddle out. Both left- and right-handers are strong and often hollow, rolling out along the shore in powerful tunnels.

It can be a bit of a scary one, where board breaking isn’t all that uncommon. But since the sandy ocean floor is soft and wipe-out friendly, this could be a great place for the intermediate looking to take that next step.

If you’re anything like me, you’re probably reading this thinking, “Okay, but where do all the locals go surfing in Panama?” Good question.

Bocas del Toro

Wizard Beach Panama
Wizard Beach. Image from Canva

Bocas del Toro is one of the more famous surf destinations on the continent, and with a quickly growing media coverage comes a quickly growing amount of tourism. If you’re looking to escape that and find some local waves, you’ll want to head south to Isla Bastimentos and Wizard Beach. Here, the line-ups aren’t nearly as crowded, and the level of surf is absolutely world-class.

At Wizard Beach, surfers of every level will find waves that suit them. However, beginners might do well hitting the waves at low tides when the water is calmer and easier to navigate.

Best Tips & Tools to Plan Your Trip

The surfer with more experience should enjoy rising or high tide the most. But one of the beauties of Wizard Beach is that it’s the most surf-safe beach in the area. Also, it is surfable even on the smallest of days, when most other brakes are non-existent.

In general, Bocas del Toro offers fantastic waves from December all through August, with September through November being quite wave-scarce. However, at Wizard Beach, you’ll likely find waves whenever you go, no matter the conditions. 

How to Get to Bocas del Toro

One of the benefits of Bocas becoming a bit more tourist-friendly over the past couple of years is that it’s getting easier and easier to get there, both by plane and bus. If you’re looking for a smooth-sailing vacation, there is now a local airport in the area to which you can fly from Panama City with AirPanama.

However, note that AirPanama operates out of Albrook Gelabert Airport and not the International Tucomen Airport (PTY), where you’ll most likely land when flying into the country from the US or Europe.

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From PTY, it’s about a forty-minute taxi ride to Albrook. Pro tip: Uber is more reliable and way cheaper than regular taxi companies, so do yourselves a favor and skip the taxis waiting directly outside the airport. They will scam you into paying double or even triple the regular fare.

If you’re looking for a bit more of an adventure, or if you’re like many of us, trying to fly as little as possible, the bus is a good alternative. Just take an Uber to Albrook Bus Terminal and hop on the overnight bus to Almirante. Head for the docks in Almirante, where you’ll catch a water taxi to Bocas del Toro.

All in all, the journey should take you about 13 hours from start to finish, and is in my opinion, not only the cheaper and more sustainable option but will also offer you some world-class views along the road. 

Santa Catalina

The local fishermen and their boats, Playa Santa Catalina, Panama
The local fishermen and their boats, Playa Santa Catalina, Panama. Photo by Klara Larsson

Okay, so you’ve done the Caribbean coast, and you’re looking for something more local, something grittier. Gotcha. Santa Catalina is located on the Pacific coast and is a tiny village of around 300 inhabitants (as well as some 50 surf-searching expats) and is reachable through dirt roads and bus changes.

Once there, you will find some serious waves and an unbeatable, laidback, mañana-mañana atmosphere. You’ll love it.

As a well-kept local secret, Santa Catalina is still a pretty secluded village, even for the well-traveled surfers crisscrossing the country searching for great waves. It’s only been during the last couple of years that the village has become a more frequent destination.

But its location—far from the capital, through the rainforest and multiple bus exchanges—is one reason why the village still retains its local feel.

Where Bocas del Toro is all beach breaks and backpacker bashes, Santa Catalina is the polar opposite, but with similar, if not even better, surfing.

Arguably the most famous beach in the area is Playa El Estero, located about a twenty-minute walk from the “main square” (maybe more of a crossroads than a square, but still).

It is the natural starting point for the beginner or the intermediate looking to shed some rust from a surf-less season or two.

Long left- and right-handers roll out along the lengthy beach pretty much all day but hit the waves during low tide for the biggest swell. For beginners, the middle part of the beach will offer some clean sets, far from the rocks and with a sandy bottom, making it a great spot for learning the first steps on the board. 

Surfing La Punta

A brave surfer at La Punta Santa Catalina Panama
A brave surfer at La Punta Santa Catalina Panama. Photo by Klara Larsson

Those with some experience, or those looking for as much of a challenge as a thrill, should head to the famous La Punta, located just right of Estero. After a tiresome time paddling out, a very rewarding point-break awaits you, with hollow right-handers and sharp left-handers, perfect for drop-ins.

La Punta, known locally just as “Point Break” (yes, like the movie), breaks on top of some knife-sharp volcanic rocks that’ll be exposed during low tide. For this reason, aim to catch your first wave of the day during rising tide to avoid having your fancy rental boards split in two. 

Big, even on calmer days, La Punta tends to grow massive yet fairly consistent and clean on days with south or southwest swell. But really, it is more than surfable all year long, making it a good alternative to Bocas del Toro, which has a shorter season for bigger swells.

As always when surfing bigger waves, be mindful of the line-up and your skill level. You’ll want to make sure not to get in anyone’s way, as this spot can get a bit crowded, especially during January, when the biggest waves bring about some real talent. 

How to Get to Santa Catalina

As mentioned, Santa Catalina is a bit more off-the-grid but by no means unreachable. There’s no airport nearby, so you’ll want to head to Albrook Bus Terminal as early in the morning as possible to catch the bus. You’ll have quite the travel day ahead of you, so remember to pack snacks and a sweater since the AC on the buses can be freezing cold.

At the terminal, you’ll want to locate a bus leaving for Soná or Santiago. If there’s one heading directly to Soná, that’s great, you’ll save some time. If not, head to Santiago and switch buses at the terminal to one heading to Soná. 

After a six-hour bus ride, you’ll step off in Soná. Make sure you start your day early enough so that you’ll reach Soná no later than 3 pm. The buses between Soná and Santa Catalina don’t run after 6 pm so if you arrive in Soná 15 minutes late you’ll have no choice but to either cash out for a hotel, or a $40 taxi ride to your destination. I learned that the hard way.

If you do make it in time, simply hop on the bus towards Santa Catalina, and you’ll be there in no time. 

Playa Venao

Surfer leaving the waves, Playa Venao, Panama
Surfer leaving the waves, Playa Venao, Panama. Photo by Austin Neill

As a previous host of junior surfing world championships, this long, crescent-shaped, almost too-good-to-be-true beach break has something to offer to every level of surfer, from the beginner to world champions. 

Nestled between the rainforest and the Pacific Ocean, far from any bigger cities, Playa Venao opens up as an oasis, like something straight out of an Instagram filter. Located in the Los Santos Province, a couple of hours south of Santa Catalina, and in one of the Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs), the beach is surrounded by nature and wildlife, unmatched anywhere else on earth.

You’ll most likely wake up to one of the over 900 types of birds singing their morning songs and if you’re lucky, you’ll even get to share the waves with some sea turtles, whose natural habitat falls into the area.

The waves themselves are spread out along the beach, with some powerful, often tubing right-handers and shorter left-handers shaping up from the middle part. Beginner-friendly waves are further left along the shore.

The right-handers tend to build up quite the wall, at times reaching over seven feet (two meters) high and hollow out into top-class barrels. Although Venao is pretty surf-safe year-round, if you’re looking for those perfect barrels, hit the beach between May and August, with consistent southern swells. 

Due to its beautiful location and great waves, the line-up at Playa Venao can get quite crowded, especially during weekends and local festivities, when the locals drive up to join the fun. Come during the week, especially during the months of the year when the waves aren’t at their biggest, and you’ll enjoy a pretty empty beach and still fantastic waves.

How to Get to Playa Venao

A surfer trying out some tricks, Playa Venao, Panama
A surfer trying out some tricks, Playa Venao, Panama. Photo by Austin Neill

In order to protect this biodiverse and serene place, it can take a while to get there. Take that as a good sign – the more huffing and puffing on the way, the less tourism and more tranquility.

Starting in Panama City, you have two choices; either book a shuttle from the airport to Playa Venao, which will cost you somewhere around $65-75 one way and take about six hours.

Alternatively,  take the slightly less smooth, but cheaper, and dare I say more charming, local transportation. Head on over to Albrook Terminal and look for buses headed to Las Tablas. The four-hour journey there will cost you about $10.

In Las Tablas, take the hourly buses stopping in Pedasí (confirm with the bus driver, so they know where you’ll be getting off), where you’ll have to take a taxi for the last half an hour or so. Then you’re there. 

If You Go Surfing in Panama

These beaches, the biodiversity, the rainforests, the coral reefs and the amazing waves belong to the people who live there. Entire communities are built around protecting this nature and the local surf talent, born and raised surfing these waves, long before any surf school or rental agency found the place.

As we travel to these lesser-known places, let’s keep that in mind. Let’s be mindful and remember that we are visitors. Leave the beaches and the villages as we found them: beautiful, peaceful, and oh, so special. 

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Author Bio: Klara Larsson is a solo traveler, surfer, and writer from Gothenburg, Sweden. Her search for new experiences has taken her all around the world: from her native Scandinavia to both South and Central America, on trains all throughout Europe, and to the colorful Middle East. With a passion for volunteering and budget travel, Klara aims to inspire young people to take the step and go traveling.

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