Travel guide: surfing, diving and relaxing in Santa Catalina

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Isla de Coiba

A little hidden paradise for surfers, while it is also the best place to go to if you want to access the island of Coiba for its great dive spots and beautiful flora and fauna.


Waves for beginners and riptides for advanced surfers, you might dive into a school of big fish with a oxygen tank on your back and most likely you’ll encounter a shark or ten on the bottom of the ocean. Don’t worry, these majestic creatures are more afraid of you then you are of them! Santa Catalina has a lot to offer besides the amazing activities around the ocean. Even if you just need a few days away from it all this is the place to be. Nobody will bother you there and you have plenty of restaurants to choose from for a nice meal.

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Playa Estero (photo by Thom Mattsson)

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The very cosy busride between Santiago and Sona

Getting to Santa Catalina

From Panama City you can take the local bus towards Santiago (3:30 hours drive towards the city of David) followed by a bus to Sona (1 hour drive)  where you hop onto another bus that takes you straight to Santa Catalina (1 hour drive).

From Boquete it’s recommendable to take one of the private shuttles (4 hours) that should cost about $35 USD and take you straight to Santa Catalina. The same goes for Bocas del Toro, but the shuttle (7 hours drive) will then cost you about $60 USD. The advantage is that this saves you a hell of a lot of time as the public transport will lead you via, via, via.

A good website to check the public transport departure times is this one.

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Playa Estero seen from Mama Ines

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Playa Estero

What can you expect of Santa Catalina

It’s a mixture of a reggae vibe and the fisherman feeling while surfers and divers rule this town. Expect the electricity to die on you while you would most appreciate the air-conditioning to work. The toilet might not flush and the showers (with always cold water) don’t always have a strong stream as Santa Catalina has a problem with running water. Don’t worry, it always works out just fine. It just might take a few hours. Power cuts and water shortage are the main issues to deal with when traveling to Santa Catalina, but on the other hand you can expect safety, good food, friendly people and warm weather. Probably best of it all is that you won’t feel pressured to do anything, as many other tourist destinations tend to let their local salesmen sneak a flyer into your hand or want you to walk with them to their tour shop. Santa Catalina gives you the feeling of freedom because of its good and relaxed vibe and the town’s remoteness. However, this also causes that might you run out of cash dollars and you won’t be able to find a nearby cash machine.

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Isla de Coiba

At which accommodation should you stay

Santa Catalina has quite a lot of shelters to offer when you start walking around looking for a place to stay, while trying to book online might mislead you for the high prices. If you’re traveling on a budget and you’re relaxed enough to just go to some place new and walk into a nice hostel then you should do this here. Upon arrival you’ll see plenty of hotels on the main street where you can walk into, but if you’re looking for a beach get-a-way then simply head down to the beach of Estero and try one of the sea view lodges.

Here is a list of places definitely worthwhile to check out:

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Thom heading for the waves at Playa Estero

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Scuba diving with cownose rays at Coiba

What to bring to Santa Catalina

If you’re backpacking you probably already carry the things you would need on your back, but just to be sure here’s a little list with the essentials:

  • surf shirt
  • flip-flops
  • dive certification (if you’re planning on diving)
  • plenty of cash dollars (there are no cash machines in Santa Catalina and the most nearby one is an one hour drive away in Sona)
  • a torch (as there are plenty of power cuts)
  • underwater camera or GoPro for diving/surfing
  • sunscreen
  • mosquito repellent
  • sun glasses
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Playa Estero

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Scuba diving with whitetip reef sharks at Coiba

What does it cost to spend a few days in Santa Catalina?

Whether you’re coming from Panama City, El Valle, Bocas del Toro or elsewhere by public transport or private transfer, you should keep in mind the following costs for your stay at Santa Catalina.

This calculation is based on a 3-night stay with meals per person in Santa Catalina:

  • Double room at Hostel Villa Vento Surf with private bathroom and air conditioning $35 USD per room, so per person $17,50 USD
  • Surfboard rental per day at Oasis Surf Camp on Estero Beach $10 USD
  • Bike Rental per day at Cool Inside $5 USD
  • 3Tank scuba dive at Coiba Dive Center $155 USD

    *Breakfast suggestion:

  • breakfast (omelette, pancakes, juices and coffee) at the bakery La Vieja Panaderia for more or less $8 USD each day, so for 3 days $24 USD

    *Lunch suggestion:

  • lunch package from La Vieja Panaderia for $7,50 USD, so for 3 days $22,50 USD

    *Dinner suggestions:

  • a great brick oven pizza dinner at Pizzeria Jamming  $8 USD
  • a real Italian pasta dinner at Time Out $14,50 USD
  • dinner at the Oasis Surf Camp $15 USD

TOTAL: $271,50 USD

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Playa Estero

If you like to get the laid back feeling of a surfers town and wish to go diving with great marine life then this is the place to be!

Have you ever been to Santa Catalina? How was your experience?

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Ever since I left my home country I felt at home at any other place I went to. I enjoy getting to know more cultures by talking to strangers and hearing their philosophy about life. Speaking with gestures when you can not find a shared language, finding places only the locals go to and learn about their customs and values. Hanging out with local people makes me happy. The experience of every new place is a step out of your comfort zone where I like to wander around until it feels like a second home.

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