Surf: 4/5 = Well Above Average
Price: 4/5 = Quite Cheap!
Party: 4/5 = Great bars and good people.
Localism: 2/5 = It’s not your wave, and don’t forget it.
Thieves: 1/5 = Pick pockets and car break-ins are common, very common.
Time Frame: January 2009
Two of my amigos and I decided that we would take off New Year’s Day to escape the remainder of the cold Halifax winter. We wanted waves, cheap beer and a good time. Panama over delivered. I’ve been to Costa Rica and Nicaragua before, back in 2006, but Panama would be new to me.
We flew into San Jose, Costa Rica because it was cheaper. Then we took the $15 over night bus to ‘David’, the first major town after the Panamanian border. We had 21 days in total and all we wanted was surf. The next day, we headed northeast to Bocas del Toro where we first discovered that Bocas wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
The town is dirty, dangerous and filled with more “surfer dudes” than we could cope with at first. However, it is only about $3 per person for a water taxi to any of the numerous breaks around Bocas. So by the time your finished surfing all day, a cold beer and a bed or hammock is all we were looking for.
There’s tons of nightlife in Bocas but from what we found it was about 80/20 guys to girls’ ratio, so that scene got old pretty quick. We found the hostels (Mondo Tai Tu, Loka, etc.) the best places to party as there was a good mix of people from around the world and there was some sort of security – not just anyone could walk in off the streets.
If you’re a beginner I would strongly recommend not starting out in Bocas del Toro as the majority of the breaks are sharp coral reef and, as one of my friends found out the hard way, a simple mess up on the drop in can be really, really hard on your body. It’s basically like falling on a giant human cheese grater so consider yourself warned.
There is a fair amount of localism in Panama, so just show them the same respect you would want if they showed up at your local break and you should fair out fine. We found that we could out-wait most of the surfers there anyway just from our sheer desire to score a good hollow wave in 20C+ water.
After about a week we took off in hopes to score some surf on the Pacific coast. We we’re let down. The surf is best on the Atlantic during our winter and the Pacific pumps during our summer. It is basically the opposite of our surf season here in Canada.
After sitting on a bus for roughly 15 hours to get from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast only to be skunked, we decided to head into Panama City to get some serious partying done.
After reading our lonely Planet from front to back in order to try and find the best place to stay, we met another girl on the bus who was headed to a restored castle that was turned into a hostel.
We got out of the cab and stepped into the doors of Luna’s Castle. For $10 a night at a renovated castle, anywhere else in Panama City would be hard to beat. It is located adjacent to the President of Panama’s house, so security is top notch, which is reassuring since the castle and President’s house are both located in one of the more dangerous parts of Panama City.
We saw the city, the Panama Canal and met more interesting people than I had time to comprehend.
With free Internet, we were able to keep on top of the surf reports. After about five days and a hangover that never seemed to quit, we got word of an approaching system so we packed up and headed back up the northwest Pacific Coast to get some decent five-foot beach break. It was nothing to write home about, but at least it was warm and I didn’t have to work my way into and out of a cold 6mm wetsuit!
After surfing the Pacific for another week, then making one last trip to Salsa Brava on the Atlantic Coast of Costa Rica (across the border, just north of Bocas del Toro) where we got pumping hollow surf for days, we had to catch a bus back to the airport in San Jose and fly back to Halifax (I guess we should have bought one of those open-ended tickets).
We got some great surf on the Atlantic side but that surf is anything-but a beginner break, which made it difficult for some of us. My recommendation would be to go during our summer as the Pacific delivers more consistent, less punishing surf.
The worst part of this trip…going home.
If we missed something, post below and one of us will get back to you!