By: Mikael and Thrillism
13 minute read
Last updated June 5th, 2020
Central American countries like Nicaragua and Costa Rica get tons of recognition as surf capitals of the Western World. But what about Panama? When it comes to the best surf destinations in the Americas, Panama is often overshadowed by other Central American powerhouses, but the surf conditions here are still well worth checking out.
Panama has an incredible blend of beach breaks, point breaks, and reef breaks, making it a heaven-on-Earth for all surfers. There are waves here all year-round, and the fact that more traveling surfers head to Costa Rica is actually a good thing. It means that even the best Panamanian waves aren’t overcrowded with long lineups.
Let this guide to surfing in Panama serve as your primer, giving you the chance to get your feet wet and test the waters. Here you can learn about everything from the basics of Panamanian travel to the best surf camps along the country’s coast.
Getting to Panama is pretty straightforward. There are direct flights into Panama City from countries all over the world. Just use Skyscanner to start browsing flights from your current location to see what’s easiest and cheapest. If you’re starting from Costa Rica, you can also take a bus across the border, but this isn’t the case from Colombia.
Once you arrive in Panama City, you’ve got a few options. You can either hang out here for a few days before heading to the coast or hop on a flight right away to an airport near the surfing area of your choice. Busing is also an option, but domestic flights are relatively cheap, and taking a bus is not the most convenient method of travel.
Having a basic understanding of your travel destination can make any trip so much easier and more enjoyable. Here are a few things you should know about Panamian culture and travel info:
The best time to visit the country depends on which coast you plan on spending the majority of your Panama surfing trip. For Panama surfing on the Pacific Coast, the best time to visit is between April and June. This is when the offshore winds are strongest and swells are most consistent. You’ll probably get some decent waves all the way through November.
If you’re planning on visiting Panama surfing spots along the Caribbean Coast, try to aim for visiting between December and March. The swells on this side are consistent, and you can ride waves throughout most of the year except for September and November.
Internet is widely available throughout the country, and it’s especially strong in touristy destinations. Depending on the remoteness of the location, you should be able to sit down at any cafe or restaurant and ask for the WiFi password (and the same goes for hostels and hotels).
Like the rest of Central America, the entire country runs on 110V outlets (which is the same as the US). If you’re not from the Americas, be sure to bring along a travel adaptor that’s compatible with Type A or Type B plugs.
Generally speaking, tap water is drinkable in Panama, but it’s still better to be safe than sorry. If you’re not used to drinking the water in Central America, it’s best to drink filtered or bottled water. Most Panama surfing resorts and camps have filtered water on-site for water bottle refills.
The immigration policy in Panama allows visitors from tons of countries to stay for 90 days (and in some cases 180 days) without the need for a visa. Just be sure that your passport is valid for another 6 months from the date of entry.
The official currency of Panama is the Balboa (PAB), which is always equivalent to the USD. For those traveling with USD, there’s no need to change out your money for the local currency. If you need to withdraw or exchange currency, there are ATMs and currency exchanges all over the place.
Every Panama surf trip requires travelers to invest in international health insurance. For a quick trip, World Nomads is a good choice. If you’re an ex-pat or digital nomads, Safety Wing will keep you covered. The best healthcare providers are in Panama City, including four major private hospitals and lots of smaller facilities.
Panama is perfectly safe to visit, but you still need to have common sense. The crime rates are high in certain areas (especially in Panama City), and in some places, violent crime is even normal. Try to avoid these areas, but if that’s not possible, practice safe street smarts.
If you’re looking for the cheapest way of getting around Panama, bus travel is the way to go. The largest terminal is in Panama City, and you travel to anywhere in the country from here. The charter buses are comfy and efficient, but of course, they’re not the fastest method for getting from point A to point B.
If you’ve got the money to spend, air travel is much more convenient, not to mention faster. The entire country is well connected when it comes to domestic flights, especially if you’re looking for something to or from the capital. Once you’ve arrived at your surf camp in Panama, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to walk everywhere, but taxis are pretty much always available.
It’s easy to get by on a backpacker’s budget while traveling around here, especially if you focus on the cheaper Panama surfing towns. If you’re sticking to a strict daily limit, you can easily get by on about $40 USD per day. That’s with staying in a basic dorm bed, eating at local spots, and not factoring tons of adventure activities.
You’ll have to plan on spending more if you book a stay with an all-inclusive surf camp, but it’s entirely worth it. A lot of surf camps, schools, and resorts offer packages that include everything from food and accommodation to lessons and surf outings.
Before deciding on your specific accommodation, the first step is to focus on an area. For surfing, you’ll obviously need to be on the coast, but that doesn’t narrow it down much. You still need to decide between the Pacific and the Caribbean.
For surfing in the Caribbean, the Bocas del Toro island chain is a great choice. There are a few solid breaks on the main island of Bocas as well as Bastimentos and Carenero. Since there are no strong tides, beginner surfers gravitate towards this area. In this area, consider staying at the Bocas Surf School and Guesthouse (main island) or the Selina Red Frog (Bastimentos).
It’s no surprise that the Pacific side of Panama has tons of breaks to choose from as well. Santa Catalina is the most reliable surf spot on the Pacific, and it has quickly transformed from a small fishing town to a surfing hotspot. There’s a lot of expert-only breaks here, but a few spots are suitable for beginners. For staying in this area, check out Hotel Santa Catalina Panama.
Some surfers choose to stay in the capital for Panama City beach surfing, and not just because it’s easy to get to. Surfing Panama City offers a few different breaks and challenges, but it’s not the ideal spot since the area is more polluted than other Pacific Coast destinations. You’re better off making your way out of the city to nearby surf spots within the Panama Bay.
Bocas offers the perfect combination of surfing, beach lazing, diving, and island vibes. The main island – Isla Colon – is easy to get to from Panama City (just take a direct flight). The Bocas Surf School and Guesthouse is located in the heart of Isla Colon’s Bocas Town with oceanfront views of the Caribbean.
“Offering private rooms, Bocas first surf school, a restaurant with delicious food and cool breezes and an excellent dive shop, Bocas Surf School & Guesthouse is the perfect base to explore Bocas del Toro.”
– Bocas Surf School & Guesthouse
The BSSG only has a few rooms to choose from, so guests get an intimate experience with fellow surfers. There’s an onsite restaurant/bar, and you’ll be able to take surf lessons or sign up for an all-inclusive surf retreat. The 7-day/6-night retreat includes accommodation in a private room, daily breakfast, 5 surf lessons, 2 surf theory classes, and 2 yoga sessions.
The Selina Surf Club at Red Frog Beach isn’t far from the Bocas Surf School, but it’s located on the island of Bastimentos instead of Isla Colon. These islands are directly next to each other, so they offer the same surf conditions. The main difference at Selina Red Frog surf camp Panama is the more remote jungle atmosphere.
“Through the mangrove-lined jungles of Isla Bastimentos lies Selina Bocas del Toro Red Frog, just a 10-minute water taxi ride from Bocas’ town.”
– Selina Surf Club Red Frog
Selina is a name that’s recognized all over the world among all types of travelers. In addition to surf lessons, they have everything you could ever need for a comfy, fun stay in Bastimentos. You can stay in a private room or dorm and you’ll have complete access to amenities like a swimming pool, yoga deck, common kitchen, bar and restaurant, and social gatherings.
Santa Catalina Panama surfing is some of the best in the country, and a lot of travelers head straight to the famous Santa Catalina Point as soon as they arrive in Panama. Whether you’re new to surfing or making your way to the pro level, the Hotel Santa Catalina Panama is the cream of the crop in the area.
“Quality, service, nature and local culture are the essence of our hotel, in an incomparable wild setting. More than a holiday, it is a lifestyle, where our guests are engulfed in adventures, rest, health and well-being.”
– Hotel Santa Catalina Panama
Staying here is a great choice if you’ve graduated from the backpacker scene and you’re looking for something more luxurious. HSCP offers everything from surf lessons and yoga classes to massages and fishing excursions. There’s no dedicated surf camp here, but you’ll be able to pay for the group or private lessons as you go.
Beach Break Panama Surf Camp is located in Playa Venao and offers a surf camp for all levels. Its beachfront location on the Pacific is the perfect setting for unwinding, relaxing, and catching some waves. Venao is much more secluded than anything you’d find surfing Panama City Beach or Bocas del Toro – you’ll be completely surrounded by nature if you stay at BBSC.
“Beach Break Surf Camp is the perfect place for families, couples, and solo travelers that want to enjoy a laid back beach vibe and world-class surf just steps from their room.”
– Beach Break Surf Camp
Guanico is a place of constant sunshine and consistent Pacific waves. There are essentially no riptides or currents along this beach, making Surfcamp Guanico one of the best spots for beginners and family surfers. The best break in the area (Guanico Beach Break) can be found directly in front of the camp with plenty more surf spots within walking distance.
“Welcome and Aloha to our camp. We are a surf hostel located directly at the beach in front of the pacific surf spots of Playa Guanico. Our surf is consistent and offers waves for all level surfers.”
– Surfcamp Guanico
The weather in Panama is tropical all year-round, so pack your fair share of boardies or bikinis. It’s also a good idea to bring a rashguard to stay protected while on the water, and don’t forget your sunscreen/zinc. The water is warm, so no need to bring a wetsuit or your own gear – you can rent a board on any of the popular surfing beaches or directly from a surf school.
If you do choose to bring a surfboard, always check the airline fees for oversized items first. Pay the fees ahead of time so that you don’t get any nasty surprises at the airport during check-in. Aside from that, just bring all the travel basics – a camera, chargers, an adapter if you need one, any medications you take (you get the picture).
Panamanian food is strongly influenced by Africa, Spain, and indigenous populations that are native to the country. If you’re traveling to parts of South America, you’ll probably notice a lot of similarities between Colombian, Ecuadorian, and Venezuelan foods (which makes sense since they all used to be part of the Gran Colombia).
After your surfing lessons in Panama City Beach, Santa Catalina, or Bocas del Toro, you’ll need a hearty meal. Here are a few of the traditional dishes of the country that no traveler should miss out on:
Sancocho de Gallina Panameño: This is the national dish of the country, so it’s obviously the first thing you need to try. Sancocho is light chicken soup with lots of root veggies like yuca, plantains, and potatoes. It’s not just filling and delicious, but also nutritious.
Panamanian Tortillas: This is like no tortilla you’ve ever eaten. It’s still made from corn, but it’s much thicker than the tortillas you’d find in Mexico. They’re very similar to Colombian arepas and they make for a yummy breakfast before heading out to the nearest break.
Carimañolas: These stuffed yuca fritters are deep fried and delicious, perfect for breakfast or snacktime. They’re typically stuffed with cheese and beef and then fried in vegetable oil. The combination of sweet cassava and savory beef is hard to beat.
When you go out for your evening meals, try not to focus solely on the tourist hotspots with raving reviews. Sure, they’re probably delicious, but the best way to experience the true flavors of Panama is to eat like a local. We’re not going to cover restaurants all over the country, but here are a few great choices for eating out in the capital:
El Trapiche: This Panama City restaurant has been serving locals and tourists since 1983, so you know it’s gotta be good. Trapiche specializes in local cuisine and uses only locally-sourced produce. This is a great place for group gatherings – order the Panamanian Fiesta if you’re dining with a large group.
Tantalo Kitchen: OK, so we warned you against eating at touristy spots, but Tantalo Kitchen is a must-visit rooftop bar in Panama City. This place has been described as a culinary gem too many times to count, serving creative dishes with a local twist. And it doesn’t hurt that they serve yummy cocktails, either.
Las Clementinas: This cafe-bar is located in the heart of Casco Viejo, the historic district of the city. You’ll be ordering from a menu of Panamanian cuisine, but each dish has a contemporary twist to it. Visitors usually suggest the seafood risotto, but you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu.
Surfing Panama breaks isn’t the only way to stay busy. This country has everything from bustling cities to beautiful beaches. If you explore the interior of Panama, you’ll get the chance to experience local villages, waterfalls, and wildlife. Here are a few activities you should add to your list of things to do (other than surfing, of course):
Check Out the Panama Canal: First thing’s first, you MUST see the Panama Canal. This is the most famous attraction in the country (heck, maybe even in the continent). A good place to view the canal and learn about its history is at the Miraflores Locks visitor center.
Chill Out on the Beaches of Bocas: The Bocas del Toro islands are by far the best place in Panana to soak up the sun and get some much-needed beach time. You can dive, snorkel, surf, or just hang out in this tropical paradise.
Go for a Nature Hike in Boquete: If you start to get sick of the overpowering heat that Panama is known for, take a trip to the mountain town of Boquete. The climate is a bit cooler here, plus it’s a great place to explore the country’s nature and wildlife.
Wander through Panama City’s Casco Viejo: Also referred to as Old Town, Casco Viejo is the historic center of the capital. The streets are narrow, the buildings are colorful, and the architecture is spectacular. It’s an interesting contrast to the modern skyscrapers throughout the rest of the city.
Beginners looking for the best surfing in Panama should head straight to Playa Venao. It’s located on the southeast coast of the peninsula, catering to both beginner and intermediate level surfers. This means you can learn to surf on a beginner-friendly break, then head to another nearby beach when you’re comfortable to improve your skills.
Santa Catalina is another good spot for beginners, and there are several good surf camps in the area. Just be sure to listen to local advice about where to go in the area for gentle waves; there are also some expert-level waves here that aren’t suitable for newbies.
If you look at a Panama surfing map, you’ll see that the best surf spots are located all over the place. The surf season for each one depends on the specific location. The Pacific Coast breaks are pumping the hardest between April and November, but the Caribbean is pumping from December to March.