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- 18 Jan 2020, 3 nights
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Santa Catalina is a village on Panama's untamed Pacific coast. Since it was made popular by surfers in the 1970s, it's maintained a low-key vibe that lends itself to the area's long stretches of beaches shaded by palm trees. However, the travellers who venture to this off-the-beaten-track destination will get a taste of world-class surfing, exotic wildlife and a laid-back local vibe. The infrastructure is simple, but you won't be short of eating options or diving instructors here.
Dorms and private rooms are available in Santa Catalina hostels. You can stay in cabins at an ecolodge in the jungle or a tiki hut close to the beach. A handful of hostels have outdoor terraces overlooking the sea, while others have a sushi bar and a yoga studio. Some also host live evening entertainment and happy hour, so there are plenty of chances to meet other travellers. Choose a Santa Catalina hostel with free breakfast or a guest kitchen to save some money.
Santa Catalina remains a small fishing village with one street, the main road from Soná. It's here you'll find most of the restaurants and surf stores and a stroll along will take you to Santa Catalina Beach. A 15-minute walk south is the black sand of Estero Beach, a peaceful spot from which to watch the sunset. For a cluster of places to eat, bars and shops, catch the bus to Soná – an hour north of Santa Catalina.
Visitors come to Santa Catalina for one major thing: surfing. The breaks are considered some of the best in Panama, but there's gentle surf suitable for beginners on Estero Beach too. Diving is also a favourite activity, especially in the reefs around Coiba National Park, although this is an equally exciting zone for hiking, thanks to the untouched forests. A few yoga retreats in town run classes every day and you can also go horse riding through the rural landscape.
To reach Santa Catalina, fly to Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport in Panama City then take a direct bus from Panama City to Soná (4.5 hours) where you can connect to Santa Catalina (1.5 hours). There are several buses daily between Soná and Santa Catalina, but if you're heading on to David or Boquete there are minivans with air con, which provide a shuttle service departing from the main street. The central district is easy to wander around on foot once you've arrived.