You know those great places you want to share but you also don't want anyone else to know about? Santa Catalina is one of those places. Oh the internal battle of a blogger... But I just can't resist. It is our new favourite place and truely feels like home so I can't help but share it with my friends. Just don't go and buy up all the land and ruin it, ok?
We found Santa Catalina through our Google searches for surf towns and good diving in Panama. SC has both. It sounded like a small fishing town, off the beaten path, with a few restaurants and hotels that had been slowly gaining popularity with surfers and divers over the past few years. And that, is pretty much accurate. SC is a small fishing town, off the beaten path... What you hear is what you get. One store. One Main Street. No banks or ATMs. Not many lights. Even less night life. Not much to do if you are from the city. Some people may feel out of place, bored or antsy in these small, one road, Central American towns. Others, likely surfers and divers like ourselves, will feel right at home.
Reviews and blogs don't often give you a sense of the 'feeling' of a place. Let me see if I can try...
Wake up slowly to the sound of the waves n shore and the clip clip of the fan overhead. Stretch out after an awesome deep sleep and open the curtains to reveal another beautiful blue sky day. The sun is rising and a new beach day awaits. Scuba or surf today? Or both? Let's start with a cafe con leche and see where the day takes us. Stroll barefoot down the path, under the palm trees, to the restaurant by the beach. A high, wood beamed ceiling and open air walls let the sea breeze flow through and the sunrise light up the restaurant. Enjoy a relaxing breakfast or grab a quick coffee before heading out to the sea. Today we are heading to Coiba Island for some of the best snorkelling in the world.
We hop on our cruiser bikes (provided free of charge from Hotel Santa Catalina) and head to Mama Yolos restaurant just down the road for a big breakfast. Our lovely host from Columbia creates a beautiful breakfast for us with fresh papaya, piña, oranges and passion fruit alongside fresh baked bread and eggs. We have a long day ahead and fill our bellies for the adventure. Back on the bikes, we roll down the hill to the main intersection and past the only store in town. We meet up with our guide at Watching Dolphin snorkel tours, one of many on the Main Street promising Dolphins, schools of brightly coloured fish and sea turtles. 10 tourists from around the globe hop into a typical launcha boat and prepare to head out to sea for the 1.25 hour ocean crossing. I've taken two Ginger gravol already and have the whole bottle with me, just in case. For a dive master and surfer I sure don't have a strong stomach! Hurray for Ginger gravol! I really need to write that company and thank them for providing me with freedom to explore rough seas and winding roads without crawling on my knees or worse. Off we go to Coiba!
Or not. Within 30 seconds the engine groans and the captain pulls a u turn back to the shallows. This boat, apparently, won't be going anywhere today. We pull up to another boat (identical) and make a sea transfer, passing over our lunches and snorkel gear before jumping over ourselves. Only in Central America. Where are the life jackets? We are short a few and the guide, Will from Venezuela, says no worries, we will get them later. Como?? Not liking this...
And then, 10 minutes after heading down the coast and spotting a pod of Dolphins, we pull into a small bay and Will jumps out of the boat into waist deep water. He wades to shore, hollers at a small house, runs back to the beach, wades out to another boat and retrieves the life jackets. Yup. Only in Central America. We are in stitches but happy to have the jackets and ready to finally make the crossing to Coiba. Better late than never.
Coiba Island and the surrounding marine park is a protected UNESCO site. The Alcatraz of Panama, Coiba Island was a prison from the early 1900's until just a few decades ago and has only recently become accessible to tourists looking to explore its untouched shores and marine life. 90% undeveloped for the past 500 years, Coiba is now the Galapagos of Panama. The protected status means the waters are also off limits to fishermen. This, combined with the off shore remoteness have seen the marine life thrive. Turtles, massive schools of fish, Rays, Dolphins, whales and the elusive giant whale shark, all call Coiba home. This was why we came to SC in the first place. And one of the reasons we will return again!
Our first snorkel took us to the white sandy beaches of Isla de Oro where we swam around the entire mini Island in clear, turquoise water. Where are we? The Carribean? I could not believe my eyes! White sand. Thriving coral. Turtles...so many turtles! A spotted eagle Ray! Moray eels! Big schools of fish in every colour of the rainbow! I haven't seen that much marine life in one dive let alone a snorkel in many many years...if ever? So much life! It was so beautiful and I felt grateful to be there.
Between dives we visited the ANAM station at one of the old prison sites and enjoyed lunch together. We walked to a look out over the sea and were greeted by the haunting screams of howler monkeys in the distance. Wild country to be sure.
More snorkeling, more life under the sea...more deserted white sandy beaches...searching for crocodiles, floating in the aqua sea...palms above...sea creatures below...paradiso... But no whale sharks. We will have to return in February for a chance encounter with these gentle giants. I have been looking for them since my first trip to CA in 1999...one day...I can just imagine it...
Ok...back to SC for cocktails by the pool and a sunset cruiser ride to the lookout above the sea. Where to go for dinner tonight? The Argentine place or the pizarria? Fresh fish or concha at that place by the beach? It's all good... Warm night air like those dreamy summer nights at home...except there are fireflies in your hair and new friends spinning tales into the night. A sweet swing in the hammock or a dip in the pool before bed...under the stars...in the warm breeze...another beautiful day...another sweet night...pura vida...the good life for sure.
Tomorrow we go surfing...esta bien?
Too bad- or maybe all good- that it takes 6 hours on a chicken bus from Panama City to reach this little piece of paradise. I hope that never changes...
Hotel Santa Catalina, $75USD/night including bike and surfboard use and an infinity pool overlooking the sea. http://www.hotelsantacatalinapanama.com/about-us/
Watching Dolphin snorkel tour to Coiba $60USD including two snorkels, all gear, lunch and even life jackets lol, plus the standard $20 park entrance fee per person. Main Street in Santa Catalina in the little teal building beside the "gas station" lol...you'll have to see it for yourself.
Next up...the mountain town of Boquete!