The changing face of Santa Catalina

The diving in Coiba is world-class

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More than a surf mecca

The heat can be intense along the southern coast of Veraguas, but the temperature is just right for the sleepy surf village of Santa Catalina, the tucked away gem of a destination whose remote location both curtails rampant growth and safeguards its charms.

The town is decidedly “surfer” by nature. One of the hemisphere’s most consistent and thus popular breaks occurs here, discovered by local legend, Ricardo Icaza “Ponky,” who still lives in the area. Over 10 years ago, you could rent a room at Ponky’s old house, a red two-story affair that commanded an impressive view from a promontory. Not much has changed over the years. The town now has a second public pay phone, and a new type of tourist is starting to make their way down.

Hotel Santa Catalina

Hotel Santa Catalina.

Much to do

Santa Catalina is known as an active destination, popular with snorkelers and divers for being the jump-off point to Coiba Island, the World Heritage Site whose unspoiled beauty rivals Galapagos. Herbie Sunk of Scuba Coiba (ScubaCoiba.com) and Camilo Consuegra of Panama Dive Center (PanamaDiveCenter.com) both offer great packages for those wishing to visit.

The town is now attracting a new type of traveler. Santa Catalina Retreats (SantaCatalinaRetreats.com), purveyors of surf and yoga packages, has been promoting their unique blend of sports and relaxation, making use of the impressive studio at La Buena Vida (LaBuenaVidaHotel.com), a health conscious center serving breakfast and lunch daily and offering accommodations along with regular yoga classes throughout the week. Co-owned by Michelle Miller and Mike Shogren, a couple originally from the States, La Buena Vida features a yoga studio located high in the jungle canopy with panoramic vistas. Their restaurant is the go-to spot for vegetarians and fans of smoothies and natural juices. Their sandwiches, made with fresh baked bread, are popular with locals and tourists alike. The bacon, lettuce and tomato is especially good.

For Santa Catalina Retreats, special yoga and surf instructors are brought in to lead classes. One of the yoga classes takes place on the shore of Isla Santa Catalina while breakfast is prepared. Vicky Mogensen organizes the yoga classes while partner Sergio Bryska arranges the surf lessons. The reception to their unique travel package has been positive with more groups arriving to take part week to week.

Yoga practitioners are discovering the area’s many charms

Yoga practitioners are discovering the area’s many charms.

A great place to eat

Be prepared: most of the town’s restaurants are open for either the first or last half of the day, serving a combination of breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner. Also bring cash. There are no ATMs in town, and while some restaurants now take credit cards, most proprietors will appreciate dealing in small currency.

Restaurante El Pacífico at the end of the main drag, is one of the few eateries that stays open all day. The beachside venue serves delicious seafood-based “criollo” dishes.

A great dinner option is Los Pibes (FB: Restaurante Los Pibes), owned and operated by a pair of Argentinian brothers who take monthly shifts manning the fort. They are famous for their burgers, though savvy diners know to order the grilled fish or juicy cuts of beef, tastily done with a touch of chimichurri sauce.

At Restaurant Pizza Jamming (Paola3373@yahoo.com), the nightlife is pretty active. Diners and those just gathered for cocktails fill the tables where they cavort al fresco under the night sky. The pizza emerges from a wood fired oven and the beer is served ice cold. Bruschetta comes in three versions -the anchovy topped choice is garlicky and satisfying.

Nearby, gourmet eats can be found at Chano’s Point (FB: Chano’s Point Restaurant) and El Encuentro (FB: Restaurante El Encuentro). With their personalized attention and limited seating, both venues surpass expectations. El Encuentro’s co-proprietor, Deivis, is a town hero, having starred in the recently released Panamanian surf documentary, “Rompiendo la Ola” (Breaking the Wave). His Peruvian-style ceviche, served atop a bed of thin-cut French fries, is a “must try” for anyone visiting town.

The diving in Coiba is world-class

The diving in Coiba is world-class.

Where to stay

Catalina Retreats surf instructor, Sergio Bryska, also works the front desk at Hotel Santa Catalina (HotelSantaCatalinaPanama.com), offering the best amenities in town. Along with manager, Shenida Este, Sergio will be happy to point out the area’s beaches on a map and assist with the hotel equipment available for use, from bikes and kayaks to stand up paddle boards. Ask for an in-room reflexology massage with Rolando, perfect for relaxing after a long day on the beach.

The town offers much by the way of accommodations, with most catering to budget travelers, and great variation with distance to the beach. Rancho Estero (RanchoEstero.com) has both private and shared rooms and is located near one of the surf breaks. Cabañas Sherlley (SherlleyCabins.com) and Hostal Oasis (HostalOasisPMA.com) are other popular spots.

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