Santa Catalina, Surf Haven
Santa Catalina, probably my favorite place we have visited so far.
A beautifully rustic tiny surf town on the southern Pacific shore of Panama. It is the home of multiple international-class surf beaches and not much more – which is precicely why it’s such a gem.
No internet (basically), no supermarkets, no chain businesses of any sort (including gas stations and ATMs), only a few scattered restaurants of questionably quality and sanitation practices, and a point break that makes beautiful waves – that crushed me.
We arrived in Santa Catalina last Friday, the 27th and moved into the Hotel Sol y Mar (translation: Hotel Sun and Ocean – brilliant) where we would stay for 5 nights. Our hotels aren’t usually worth writing about because we like to spend less than $30/night on them, but this one was an exception. Hotel Sol y Mar is set atop a hill of a hill, about a 30 min walk uphill from the surf beach. What our legs paid dearly for in lactic acid, our eyes were rewarded for in the form of panoramic ocean views while swinging from our hammocks. The jefe (boss) of this place is a tremendously interesting and cool dude named Luis. He went above and beyond the call of host to make us feel comfortable – lending his surfboard (which I proceeded to damage) and driving us around to see some available land for sale (investment opportunity anyone?). Luis is a sneakily intelligent surfer from Portugal with amazing vision and knowledge of 7 languages. He backpacked his way to Santa Catalina from Portugal 20 years ago when there was absolutely nothing there. His form of backpacking was the real deal – carrying pots, pans, bunsen burner, and tent. No hostels, no gringos to lend a hand, just him and his quest to find the perfect wave and settle there. He found Santa Catalina and decided to buy some land – over the next 20 years he would go to Portugal for 6 months each year to make money and come back to SC to spend it on building his hotel – even the road he drives to the top of every day took 17 years to cut and pour, admirable vision and determination from this guy. Now he enjoys being known by everyone in the town, and surfing only when the waves are prime so he doesn’t have to “mess with the mushy waves” and waste his time. He has a beautiful wife and kid and a shitty little dog (very cute puppy Rotweiler) that terrorized Seema any time she would exit our cabana.
Seema: Tyler save me save me!
Seema: Why are you laughing?! This dog is attacking me!!!
Dog: clearly not attacking, trying to play
Tyler: Just kick it, it will learn faster that way. Goes over to dog and slaps its nose for biting Seema.
Dog: stops for 3 seconds and then starts biting Seema again.
Needless to say, Seema didn’t want to kick the dog, so she let it terrorize her the entire 5 days and actually planned her meals around when the dog was visible or not. This was funny to me only because the dog was clearly no danger to anyone, just like the giant beetles in our room, but they still wield power over Seema that I can only one day hope to emulate.
Our time in Santa Catalina was pretty formulaic and awesome, something similar to my ideal life design – or heaven: wake up whenever, have breakfast, go surfing, have lunch, sit around shooting the breeze, have dinner, have a drink, watch some SportsCenter or Bulls sad display of playoff basketball, go to bed.
One of the best parts of our trip has been the awesome people we’ve met along the way. Santa Catalina was no different in that regard, but took it to a new level. We were fortunate to meet a really nice couple from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – Paulo and Renata. Paulo and Renata were nice enough to give us a ride every day to and from the beach. The morning commute to “work” was treacherous, 2 or 3 cars, a few beaches, and a dog or two were between Paulo and I and our waves each morning. Paulo has been surfing for a much longer time than me and even picked up a really nice looking new longboard for the trip; I’m glad he didn’t suggest I borrow it because I certainly would have aged it in a hurry. Not only were they great company during meal and beach time, they even offered to drive us to Panama City on Thursday so we could avoid the 3-bus/8-hour journey. We can’t wait to see them again in Rio (and to meet their family)! As if they needed to be any more awesome, Paulo is full of stories from the entertainment industry since he’s an attorney-turned-music industry bigshot and has met the likes of some of our favorite artists including Cobain, Grohl, Bono etc. He witnessed Kurt Cobain getting slapped by a Chili Peppers security guard. Amazing.
The noteworthy events in SC were the following:
- Tyler learning to cut left and right on the waves. One of the best feelings in the world is riding a wave while placing your wave-side hand on the glassy front face of the very wave you are riding. I’ve seen documentaries of this but have never been able to actually do it until now – awesome.
- Snorkeling in Coiba Island – on our way to this magical tropical paradise we saw a pack of 15-20 dolphins that were all intent on one-upping each other to give us a show. I know these mammals can communicate because I’ve seen Discovery Channel, but it is truly amazing to see a coordinated act of 8 dolphins leaping into the air at the same time with the Panamanian landscape in the background.
- Eating “compost tuna” for dinner every night for dinner. The hotel was a bit over our budget so we compensated by consuming meals fit for homeless people nightly. Luis caught wind of our nightly feasts and coined the term “compost tuna” for the tuna/water/jalapeño-in-a can mix that we slopped on white bread and called dinner. A far cry from our engagement dinner at Alinea, but still romantic in its own way.
Anyway, I hope to go back to Santa Catalina soon – and am even considering buying a plot of very cheap land out there for a speculative investment (I hate the stock market). The days there fit my description of days well spent.