With a stable government, exceptionally well-kept roads, and the US dollar as the national currency, Panama makes an excellent travel destination. Even if you are a group of females, solo travelers, or a family you can feel confident surfing Panama. My husband and I explored the region for almost a month with our one-year-old baby. The pacific Coast of Panama doesn’t get the attention of surfers as the Caribbean coast but don’t write it off. There are plenty of waves on both sides of the country. Especially if you’re willing to go hunting. Here is my in-depth guide on where to surf in Panama.
Fly into Panama City. It is a major international airport with direct flights arriving daily from the US and around the world. A rental car is a good idea if you want to explore different surf spots. Many of the spots below do have some accommodations right at the break. So if you want to just surf one wave you can easily get private transport right at the airport by negotiating with the taxi drivers out front. If you’d rather plan ahead, there are services you can arrange in advance such as the Beach Break Shuttle.
If you need to stay a night near the airport there are several nice options. Our favorite was Rianda Airport Hotel and Casino, with a nice restaurant, gym and awesome pool. Cost is around $115/night.
When to Go
Panama’s Pacific Coast surf season corresponds to the southern swell window of about May to September with the most consistent swells being from June to August. Other Central American destinations this time of year include Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Mexico
For most countries, including the US and Australia, you can enter Panama for free for up to 180 days. No visa is required in advance. You will need to go through immigration when you arrive at the airport.
As of the publishing of this guide COVID test requirements are some of the easiest in the region. A negative COVID test is required within 72 hours of entry. However, the test can be PCR or antigen. If you do not get your test in advance you can get it done upon arrival in the airport for $50 USD.There are four testing sites at the airport.
Tides and Wind
Like most of the pacific coast, when surfing Panama the wind is generally light and off shore in the early morning with onshore breezes starting between 10am and noon. Sometimes the evenings glass off with offshore winds providing a second surf session. The tides in Panama are significant, changing by 20 feet in some places. This means most spots are very tide sensitive. Some high tide spots are nothing but dry reef on the low tide while low tide spots are mushy and weak at high tide.
What things cost
The local currency is the US dollar
- Bottle of Water: $1
- Rental Car: $15/day plus mandatory insurance for around $30/day
- Hostel dorm room: $15/day
- Private room with shared bathroom: $40/day
- Private hotel room or Airbnb: $50 and up
- Breakfast: $4-$8
- Lunch/Dinner: $6.50-$20
- Beer (the local beer is Panama Lager): $1.50
Where to explore:
Just an hour outside of the city, you will find the first surfing region known as San Carlos. This area is located in the gulf of Panama so it takes a fair bit of swell at the right angle to work. But when it does it is generally very uncrowded, even empty. There are several surf spots within a 30-minute drive including, Hawicito (Little Hawaii), Malibu, Tetas, San Carlos, Jefferies and more. They are a mixture of beach breaks, reefs and points. The best way to explore these waves is with a surf guide. You can stay at Rio Mar Surf & Skate Camp San Carlos with dorm rooms starting at $10 and private rooms starting at $40.
Pronounced playa “Van-now”, this is the most popular pacific coast destination for those who like to surf and socialize in Panama. Located in the Azuero Peninsula, this beach break works best on a medium to low tide. This is probably the most popular place for surfing Panama. The quality of the waves ranges from poor to very good. Like any surf trip, be prepared for some surfless days and some very fun days. The beach here is lined with brand-new clubs and restaurants. Just a few years ago there were just a couple of surf camps, now it is a hopping beach town.
A variety of food can be found in Playa Vanao. It is similarly priced to American restaurants. Additionally, there are lots of places to rent boards and a couple of surf shops. You can also find yoga classes here. If you are looking for a quiet place to escape crowds, Vanao is not your destination. While the crowds in the water were minimal,l the party was in full swing and going all night long. A great place for singles looking to mingle! Hotels were some of the most expensive in the region. A basic private hostel room such as at Nao Venao starts at $70/night. Some of the nicer hotels like Panama Surf Camp and Resort, offer all-inclusive packages starting about $150/night. Most hotels offer airport transfers for the five-hour car ride to Playa Venao so you could avoid the rental car if you just want to stay here. All hotels are within walking distance to the break.
Playa Guanico is a mostly unknown beachbreak. Just a 20-minute drive past Playa Venao. When surfing Panama, this is your destination for empty waves. It works on low to medium tide. It is never crowded and often completely empty. This beach break is very mellow by beach break standards, suitable for beginners but still has some size. But on its better days even advanced surfers will find fun waves. There were a few families surfing there since it had fun waves for both kids and adults. There are only a couple of places to stay and about four restaurants. Surf Camp Guanico has comfortable private rooms with shared bathrooms for around $40 per night. You can buy a bar of wax at the surf camp or select a board rental from about 15 boards to choose from, other than that there are no options for buying or renting a board in Guanico.
Playa Cambutal is a beginner-friendly beach break. For more advanced surfers the real gems are a few miles up the road from there: a series of rock bottom, right hand, point breaks. Drive about 15 minutes down a washed-out dirt road and you will find the point break Quatro Once (4-11). Continue to the end of the road (across a couple of rivers) to find another point Corto Circuito. I would not recommend doing this drive in a rental car as the road is very bad. I am adventurous and had an all-wheel drive SUV and still opted to turn around before reaching Corto Circito. Stay at one of the local hotels such as Hotel Playa Cambutal, they will transport you to the breaks. These points work on the high tide and need quite a bit of swell to really light up. Restaurants can be found inside of the hotels as well as a very limited selection of board rentals. There is also yoga available to the public at a couple of yoga retreat centers. At the pointbreaks themselves, there are no amenities so be sure to pack lots of water and snacks.
A sleepy little beach town where the main attraction is world-class diving. It seems their perfect right-hand point break is their best-kept secret. This wave is a five-hour drive from the airport in Panama City and also a five-hour drive from Playa Vanao since you have to drive around the peninsula. When is comes to surfing Panama, these are the best waves you’ll find on the pacific coast.
Right in the town of Santa Catalina you will find the break called “Santa Catalina” which is a beginner beach break. (My one-year-old surfed there). But that is not where you will find the serious surfers. If you walk about 45 minutes to the northwest on the beach you will find two fickle (and shallow) point breaks which are only surfable on high tide. Most of the time these points are empty and difficult to find the right wind/tide/swell conditions to make them really work. Drive ten minutes to the end of the road and you will find a much heavier beach break, not world-class but still has some fun waves if you pick the right ones. Another 40-minute walk to the southeast on the beach will find you another fickle point break which again needs the perfect combo of high tide in the morning (when the wind is offshore) and a big swell.
None of the aforementioned waves are where you will find the locals or most of the traveling surfers. Most people who come to Santa Catalina to surf mostly surf “La Punta” or simply, “The Point”. The only road access is through Hotel Santa Catalina. It is a high-end hotel with a pool and restaurant looking right into the break. Otherwise, it is a short 10-15 minute walk on a footpath from the more affordable accommodations at Casa Maya (fully furnished houses with kitchens) or Vista Coiba (waterfront hotel).
This is a right-hand pointbreak that works only on medium to high tide. On the low tide, it is very shallow and impossible to surf. This is one of Panama’s biggest waves, if not the biggest. It can hold waves up to 25 feet on the faces. This is the biggest wave for surfing Panama. Although it works well in a small swell too. When it is big you’ll find only a couple of people out. It isn’t very top to bottom and gives a relatively gentle roll-in even when it is large. Although it surely has its barrel days with the right swell direction. When it is smaller several locals come out but it still doesn’t get overly crowded as there is also a workable left on the small days.
The Town of Santa Catalina has a few restaurants and a nice fruit and veggie stand. There are no surf shops. Board rentals are available in the hotels but the selection is limited to mostly old longboards.
As you continue northwest along the coastline (towards Costa Rica), you will encounter many more surf spots, some widely known such as Moro Negrito (barrels), and many more waiting to be discovered. Panama also has several islands with surf on both coasts, some easy to access with a private surf charter and others only known to those with their own boats. Much of Panama remains an unexplored surf frontier for those looking for adventure.
Good to Know for surfing Panama
If you choose to drive a rental car in Panama you will have to pay mandatory liability insurance even if your credit card covers you. It ranges from $15-$30/day US. Also, cops are on the lookout for tourists! We were pulled over twice. The first time the officer told us there was a tax. His hands were shaking, he was more nervous than us! We pretended not to understand, he let us go. The second time we got a speeding ticket.
Panama with its rolling green hills, beautifully maintained highways, easy currency, and stable government is a wonderful place to visit. It is less of a surfing destination than other Central American countries and as such its waves are mostly uncrowded and fairly user-friendly. Finding a peak for yourself is not hard to do. While finding the optimal wind/swell/tide window can be tricky, when it all lines up it will make your trip!