Stop #2 on a Yearlong Journey, a Spot in Panama That Takes It Slow

Sebastian Modak
Sebastian Modak

Instead, what I found in Santa Catalina was something that feels like a secret. It’s a place that I can imagine being whispered about in hostels all over the world, a kind of El Dorado for budget-conscious surfers and bucket-list divers.

The pace of Santa Catalina was, refreshingly, dictated not by the backpackers passing through, but by those who are from here. During my stay, the Panamanians I met were just as excited as the visitors about the incoming swells at La Punta, a world-famous surf break a quick paddle away from a rocky beach. Most days, during sunset on the town beach, there was a heated coed game of beach volleyball, everyone fresh off their shifts at the hostels, surf shops and restaurants around the village. My favorite restaurant in town, Fonda Mango Green, a two-table affair, keeps irregular hours based on the laid-back schedule of the couple who run it. But if you catch them in the morning and tell them you’re planning on stopping by in the evening, you can have a perfectly fried whole fish with rice and beans for just $5.

“If you’re going to get here, you have to really want to come here,” Mr. Ciotto, 36, said, referring to the six-hour drive from Panama City. “The people of Santa Catalina really maintain its identity as a small village, isolated from the mass tourism you’ll find closer to the capital.”

  • It’s not easy getting to Santa Catalina. You can take a bus, but you’ll have to make a transfer in Soná, the closest hub. I rented a car and the drive took between six and seven hours, lunch stop included. Watch out on the Panamerican Highway for speed traps though: There were more highway police than I’ve ever seen, all with their speed guns out. Also, prepare for some extra travel time if you’re returning to Panama City on a Friday evening. My drive back ended up hitting the 10-hour mark.

  • There are no A.T.M.s, gas stations, or big supermarkets in Santa Catalina. Bring ample cash and arrive with a full tank unless you want to waste a chunk of your day making the three-hour round-trip to the unremarkable town of Soná. Also avoid driving at night — cows, horses and dogs tend to use the roads, too, and can be hard to spot on unlit streets.

  • Though there are luxury resorts nearby, Santa Catalina is not the place for piña coladas and a spa. I stayed in the nicest hotel in town, Hotel Santa Catalina, a beautifully located collection of rooms, each with a hammock out front. It’s pretty and the staff is wonderful, but it is by no means a luxury beach resort. Other options are mostly hostels, tent sites, and surf camps.

Ms. Caicedo, 26, said she came here for love, but that it was love for the place that kept her coming back. “There’s a peace you can find here. There’s so much time to really find yourself.”

Ms. Barberena, 29, who was passing out slices of citrus cake while simultaneously listening in on our conversation and helping a German couple figure out the schedule for the buses that go to Panama City, chimed in. “I used to come here to visit from Panama City, then I started looking for work and finally set up this shop,” she said. “I’ve been living here for five years now and I’m never moving back.”

Another thing: I’ve never felt less alone as a solo traveler. In fact, on my last day, I had a group dinner with eight people, all of them solo travelers and now fast friends.

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