Discover more from Nomada Newsletter
Surfing in Panama 🇵🇦 Gringo's Guide
Breaking down the ultimate surf trip...
Guest post by: Dane Holmgren
Panama 🇵🇦 is a diverse geographical country with a variety of surfing options.
The location of this country alone offers diverse, bi-coastal breaks that span from the more northern part of the country near Costa Rica 🇨🇷 — all the way down south to the unknown waters that border the Darien Gap near Colombia 🇨🇴
Surfers traveling through Panama can choose to find waves on the more rough and rugged pacific coast or they can choose to cross over the continental divide — and surf the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean.
The Best Part About Planning a Surf Trip in Panama?
It can be catered to the exact amount of adventure you are willing to endure.
Panama offers the traditional hardcore experience of backpacking and trekking to the more remote areas of the country, but it also offers the more luxurious and pampered surf experience.
The easiest, most affordable way to travel to these breaks is through the amazing Panamanian bus system.
The logistical prowess of the transportation industry in this country makes it easy to know where you are going and exactly when you will get there.
I have never been let down by the bus system in Panama, but I cannot say the same thing about this transportation system in other Central America surf destinations.
To start this surf adventure, you will head to the Terminal National Albrook in Panama City.
Here you will board a bus and be able to get to any town in the country.
Big or small. Remote or well known. There will be an efficient route to get there.
It is also noted that the national Panamanian airlines are also a great way to get into the smaller, regional airports throughout the country.
These are key when you are ready to explore the harder to get to and lesser known locations that will require a bit more research than what we share in this guide.
Panamanian taxis are also available to people who need a quick ride from bus stop to hotel or even on select strike missions from hotel to surf spot. If you have boards, there are many pick-up truck or van taxis throughout the bigger cities.
We recommend that all surfers traveling through Central or South America always take some high quality surf straps to be ready for the various transportation situations you may encounter.
The last option is renting a car.
This will be a bit more expensive and can be a little tough to know where you are going without a local guide. Just getting out of Panama City alone can be tough for a first time visitor to this country. The main benefit here is being on your own schedule and having the freedom to explore the more remote spots.
One special thing to note about rental cars is if you are planning to visit the Islands of Bocas Del Toro…
You must park and leave your car in Almirante.
A sketchy town by itself, I’ve had a good friend robbed on the docks waiting for Bocas water taxi here, it's also known to be built by the business of Chiquita Banana and United Fruit.
The main purpose of this port town was for loading and unloading crates of bananas from across Panama and Costa Rica to various destinations throughout the world.
It was built in the 1900s primarily due to the rare species of Panamanian banana “Big Mike” — which was known all over the world for its size and sweet flavor. Sadly that banana species went extinct many years ago, but the port town of Almirante lives on.
Now back to surfing…
Nomada Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Panama Surf Spots and More
Let’s take a look at some of the amazing spots found in the beautiful country of Panama 🇵🇦
Along with a few other spots…
For the quick trip if you are stuck in Panama City and pressed for time? Here for a business trip and only have a few days?
You can make a trip to Isla Grande near the City of Portobello located on the Caribbean Sea.
From Portobello, you take a water taxi across to where you'll find 4 hotels located on a small island. There are super fun waves forming in this channel between the island and the mainland.
A strange wind fetch has waves breaking on this huge coral field that has shifting peaks on that side of the island. These “windsell waves can break head high and even barrel on the right conditions.
There is also fascinating history in this small pirate town.
Isla Grande is also known as the home of the Black Christ of Porobello. The history of this statue dates back to 1658 when it first washed up on shore.
Thousands of people from all over the world come to Portobello and pay their respects each year.
First stop leaving Panama City?
The coast of Coronado. About an hour and a half once you cross the canal heading northwest towards Costa Rica.
You will find yourself driving along the coastline that runs parallel to the highway for several miles and you’ll see several different breaks for the surfer who is jonesing to get in the water.
If it's small, Playa Malibu would be your best bet. To get here, you must turn left at Gordona and follow the signs to Playa Malibu.
It’s a classic beach break that has a river mouth at one end of the beach.
This spot will break at all times throughout the year and can be insanely fun with different combinations of swell and wind direction.
Near the town of Coronado, you'll find several hotels and a road linking the beach to these hotels. There would be several roads to many different breaks that would challenge every level of surfer.
It is very important for this part of Panama to have a strong swell.
Our number one option here would be Playa Teta which is just south of the main river mouth near Coronado.
After spending a few days here, it's time to shoot up the coast to Venao. Roughly a four hour drive, Venao used to be one of the most remote surf destinations in Central America.
Playa Venao is a beautiful and 2 mile crescent shaped beach. Surrounded in a beautiful environment of jungles, rolling hills, and thick mangroves, Venao is a true surfers paradise.
Venao is a sand bottom, consistent beach break that can hold big south swells during the rainy season. During these big south swells, we recommend the main break as an advanced to expert only wave.
It also is considered by many as Panama’s “National Wave” and has several surf contests, bars, hostels, and apartments right along the beach.
Due to the nature of this set up, it has a fun party scene with many events throughout the year.
Venao is a tribute to the old days of surf travel in Central America and must be visited by any surfer who is making their way through Panama.
Leaving Veano, our next stop is just over an hour north to the small and rural town of Tonosi and eventually turning down the road to Playa Cambutal.
Here at Playa Cambutal you will find the famous right handed reef point break known as 4-1-1’s
This wave is a heavy and steep take off and can get extremely moody with different ocean conditions.
It will vary slightly from morning to afternoon with changes to the wind, swell, and tide.
There will be bigger waves in the rainy season, but consistent surf all year due to the different breaks around Playa Cambutal.
Due to the reef, you can really only surf here at a medium to high tide. 4-1-1’s is for confident to advanced surfers only and can be deceptively powerful from what you see on the beach.
Next up, the famed Santa Catalina Point.
Also known as “La Punta” this is one of the most consistent waves in Central America.
"La Punta” is known for its long and powerful right handed point waves that break on top of an underwater lava reef formation.
It is known for having some amazing barrels and powerful sections at low to medium tide. It also can hold XL surf with the correct wind and swell direction.
Because of these reasons, “La Punta” is best for confident and advanced surfers only. This is a dangerous and powerful wave that will challenge the most skilled surfers.
It is also where many of the national Panamanian surf contests are held each year.
Once you leave Catalina and at this point of the trip, you’ll need some relief from the tropical heat at the beach.
A small side trip on the way to our next destination is to the small, but world famous coffee town of Boquete.
Sitting in a beautiful valley at an elevation at 4,000 feet, it's located on the slopes of Volcan Buru which sits at 12,000 feet and is one of the highest peaks in central America.
A quick side trip where you can enjoy the cool mountain air, sip some of the best coffee in the world, and take time to reset or adventure in the rainforest for a few days.
Don’t forget to buy some coffee while you are here!
Bocas Del Toro
On the drive from Boquete over the mountains to Almirante is an incredible drive with dozens of viewpoints and waterfalls.
It is a very dangerous road, but well worth the risk if you take your time.
It’s the only way to get from Boquete to Bocas — and then you’ll have to store your car in a parking lot that should cost $6 per day to leave your car in Almirante near the water taxis.
DO NOT LEAVE YOUR CAR ON THE STREET.
After you lock your car up, you’ll walk to the water taxi depot and eventually pay your fee to get a ticket.
With surfboards, this ticket should cost around $12. Then you are free to board the water taxi and high speed it out to the Islands of Bocas Del Toro.
Once you arrive in Bocas, it is a quick walk up the dock and you are in the main downtown area. It will be easy to find your hotel and there are many taxis available if you are staying outside of town.
Bocas Del Toro Island has many quality spots which are easy to find. Traveling by water taxi is the most popular option which will drop you off right in the lineup and you’ll eliminate having to walk over the coral and paddle into the line up at the different waves across the island.
The two most well known and easy to get to spots on the main island would be Punch and Dumpers.
Pretty self explanatory, but both of these waves can get “punchy” and serve up 4-6 foot quick and fast barrel rides that will have you and your crew laughing, hooting, and fighting for waves all day long.
One of the best waves that is off the main island is Isla Careneros.
Careneros Point is a steep and shallow left handed point with several barrel sections.
It is no shock that people are always here on a good swell.
The good news?
It can hold a crowd. Many times it can be like a wave pool with dozens of surfers constantly trading off ride after ride.
The most consistent swell arrives during the dry season and will likely only last three months each year. There are occasional spring and fall swells that pop up, but the real prime time here is from November through January.
Lastly, we come to the magic white sands of Wizards Beach.
This break is located on Isla Bastimentos which is just a short 10 minute boat ride from Isla Colon.
Once you clear the channel and arrive at Basti Town, you will need to find the trail and take the 40 minute hike over a small mountain to reach Wizards Beach.
You will come to a jungle style beach with a cliff overlooking crystal clear water. This is a sand bottom beach break that can get really good when it's too small at other spots around Bocas.
The waves will break cleanly in either direction and surfers will have their pick from multiple peaks up and down this white sand beach.
Surfing in Panama 🇵🇦 Overall
Panama is the land of uncrowded surf and the best coffee in the world.
It has a wave for every type of surfer looking to score on your next trip through Central America.
Often overlooked, this guide highlights just a small handful of the many amazing spots Panama has to offer.
Lastly, it's always more fun to do a little more research and find a lesser known spot in Central and South America.
There will be plenty of good waves and there will always be less gringos around!