Ask a backpacker about the beaches in Panama, and it’s likely they’ll start waxing poetic about the Caribbean sands of Bocas del Toro. And for good reason — it’s a unmissable stop on the gringo trail of Central America. But for the hearty few that touch down on the golden sands of the Pacific side of Panama, there’s a hidden gem awaiting in the laid-back surf village of Santa Catalina.
With its remote location, undeveloped infrastructure, lack of high-end accommodation, zero ATMS, several bus connections required for arrival, and — gasp — extremely limited internet connectivity, Santa Catalina has yet to be discovered by the masses. Right now, the town with a permanent population of 250 is still a haven for surf bums, dedicated relaxation-seekers, and divers heading into Coiba National Park. Clearly, we fell into the latter group.
We booked-ended our four-day dive trip in Coiba National Park with two nights in Santa Catalina pre-departure, one one post-return. We did that not only for logistical reasons — public transportation in and out of Santa Catalina is limited, and travel distances exhaustive — but also so that we could soak up some of the tranquility the town seems to ooze.
Anders was in charge of finding us a place to stay, and he settled on Rancho Estero. Though it was about a fifteen minute walk away from the main street of Santa Catalina, we were completely won over by the views out over Estero Beach, and promises of both an outdoor kitchen and yes — internet access. After all, I was about to go off the grid for four days — I wanted to soften the blow of my inbox upon return as much as possible!
We arrived in Santa Catalina after seven hours of transit from El Valle, and instantly felt the stress of our three hectic bus transfers melt off of us. We strolled into town for a pre-trip meeting at the dive shop and some supply gathering. We quickly adapted to the local method of grocery shopping, which includes chasing down the local vegetable man who cruises through town in a pickup truck blaring his daily offerings through a megaphone out the window.
That night, we headed back to Rancho after dark, walking down a dirt road under a black sky speckled by stars. We were ready for a quiet, early night in our little haven in the middle of nowhere.
As we approached, we were startled to hear the ever-louder beat of an aggressive strain of Reggaeton music. By the time we got to our cute little cabin on the cliff, we could barely converse at a normal level. We soon found the source — a faint light revealed a small group of campers on the beach.
We tried watching a movie on my laptop but even with our headphones in we couldn’t hear over the music. Then I tried reading but I couldn’t really hear my own thoughts. I could not even describe to you the volume that this music was being played at — I would compare it to standing next to the speaker at a megaclub, except it was more like I was inside the speaker. And considering I was actually inside a hut high on the hill over the beach where the sound was emanating from, I’m kind of amazed the people standing next to it weren’t being treated for shattered eardrums. Later, the hotel manager would explain to us that he was tortured in this particular manner whenever it was a holiday weekend, and party-loving Panama City rich kids descended upon the otherwise peaceful beach.
It was a restless night, but mercifully at some point the music stopped and we figured the offenders either fell asleep or were killed by sound poisoning (that exists, right?). But at around 7:30am, the pandemonium began again.
I mean, I could probably be down with some full volume Bob Marley. But this was like a staticky used car salesman commercial overlaid with the most hostile dance-hall reggae imaginable. This time, fueled by exhaustion and onset insanity, I jolted out of bed and strode for the door. Anders looked truly terrified when he called after me, asked what I was going to do.
In the light of day, I could clearly see the offenders. They were gathered around a bright green Jeep Wrangler with a multi-thousand dollar sound system built into the back, staring impassively as I approached them with bed head and glasses askew. “¿Es posible bajar la música, por favor? Muchas personas necesitan dormir.” I tried to be as friendly as one can be under the influence of sleep deprivation, while still emphasizes subliminally that I was not above violence. I received a hint of a nod in response, though I saw one of the crew hop off to turn the volume down a few notches. A bleary eyed fellow guest clapped upon my triumphant return.
While our ears were no longer on the verge of bleeding, sleep was still pretty much out of the question. On the plus side, the shared experience gave us plenty to chat about with the other travelers at Rancho, who had also come to Santa Catalina for some peace and quiet. When the manager joined he laughed at the bravado of a blonde-haired gringa approaching a group of hardened Panamanian badasses and asking them to turn the music down, por favor.
After breakfast I accepted that the noise wasn’t going anywhere — we were still in the nightclub speaker — so if we couldn’t beat them, we would join them. I tried to meditate on my Burning Man principles, and how the green jeep-ers desire for a party weekend was as valid as my own desire for a sedate one.
And off we went to the beach.
Estero Beach was the perfect representation of an untamed Pacific ocean coastline. Dark sand, tangled tree trunks, and angry waves beating against the shoreline. We spent a lazy morning dipping in the ocean, searching for hermit crabs, and reading on the sand.
Our budgets were still hurting from all the irresistible restaurants in Panama City, so we were thrilled to be cooking our own meals again — and you can’t beat a kitchen with an ocean view. Or a dining room made of hammocks.
By mid-afternoon, the noise terrorists seemed to cleaning up shop. Throughout the day we had watched with amusement as a parade of fed-up beach-goers pled their case — as a result the volume would be turned down temporarily, though it always crept back up. But before revving off into the distance, the green jeep made one last territorial show of blaring their music to the point that every last person in Santa Catalina must have heard it. We were not the only ones cheering when they left.
Feeling like we had just been freed from a sound prison, we did a triumphant lap up and down the beach.
That night we strolled into town once again, this time to drop off our dive gear and watch a seaside sunset from Santa Catalina beach. It was stunning.
Aside from the particularly ugly sound situation, I loved our time in Santa Catalina. And just to head off any “whiner!” criticisms, I want to be clear that if I was in a city or known party place I would never have the audacity to complain about noise. But when a destination is billed as a soothing and quiet retreat, I’m not expecting to bring earplugs. Still, it’s a special thing to visit a place with the potential to explode with tourism — yet before the masses arrive. Change is in the air in this laid back surf town, and I have a strong feeling that Santa Catalina will be one of those places we look back on someday and starting waxing nostalgic about “way back when…” So come to Santa Catalina quickly, while it’s still a town that time — and most tourists — forgot.
You may, however, wish to skip the holiday weekends.
Where I stayed: Rancho Estero
Where I ate: We mostly cooked for ourselves. Jammin Pizza was okay but nothing mind-blowing.
How I got there: It took seven hours to arrive from El Valle via public transportation. I spent $3.50 on a minibus from El Valle to Penonome, $5 on a minibus from Penonome to Santiago, $2 on a minibus from Santiago to Sona, and $7 for my share of a pickup cab from Sona to Santa Catalina (we missed the last bus.)
Bonus Tip: There are no ATMS in Santa Catalina — stock up on cash before arrival. Also, don’t expect to answer any emails. Even places that claim to have wifi will often have service outages that last for days.
Would you make the trek to Santa Catalina? Have you ever had a peaceful retreat interrupted? How did you handle the situation?
Haha oh wow, good on you for standing up to those rich kids! I sort of love reading about experiences like this, because things often do go wrong or unexpected like that while traveling. Sorry about your eardrums, though!
They really do, and when in the heat of the moment I like to remind myself of a simple fact — “Everything is funny in retrospect.” It’s almost always true!
Such a paradise!!! LOVE that 1st pic, it should be your new FB profile pic.
Thanks girl! Anders is a pretty great photographer, yet another reason he’s a lovely travel buddy!
Yep. Rejkavik in June on a Friday night during their all-night “runter.” Deafening noise from nearby nightclubs and ten thousand people partying outside my hotel until dawn…People inside the hotel screaming at each other. I was jet lagged from just arriving and desperate for sleep. Crappy black out curtains that failed to keep out the 24-hours of light there. Shots of vodka finally solved the problem.
If only we had had liquor. Next time I’m stashing that with the earplugs!
I love to cook, so that’s amazing that they have an OUTDOOR kitchen! Not sure what it is about an outdoor kitchen or bathroom that gets me so excited… I dream of having both one day. Sounds like you were able to make the best of the noise situation, too!
I am all about the outdoor kitchen! My domestic failures are well documented, but this time I actually enjoyed cooking 🙂
Damn kids! (jk) I know the situation all too well. You just want to sleep. I never made it as far as Santa Catalina. I got pretty wrapped up in El Palmar just south west from Coronado.
Really digging the huts and chairs against the beach setting. Just seeing a balboa again reminds me of many good times.
I don’t think we would have come to Santa Catalina would it not have been for Isla de Coiba (coming up next) but I’m so glad we did! Pacific beaches just have a completely different feel.
You are so not a whiner!! But I really have found in South and Central America that people have no concept at all that (gasp!) not every person within a 2 mile radius wants to listen to their music. I don’t think it’s malicious, they’re totally oblivious. I failed hard on this here – my neighbors blared reggaeton on their shitty cell phone all night. I happen to love reggaton and don’t mind listening to it, even a little loud, but not on blown-out crappy cell phone speakers. So I bought them an inexpensive little MP3 player/speaker thing that they could plug & play so we could all listen on better speakers. Smiles all around, and many ‘gracias’, and then it was promptly sold the next day for cash and the cell phone speaker noise abuse continues 🙂
OMG Rika that is hilarious. Great story! I actually am a reggaeton fan as well — it makes me feel like I’m somewhere warm and exotic — but, you know, I prefer it in different settings 🙂
The pictures of this paradise are beautiful. I love stories like these it reminds me of the time in Brasil where someone a few floors down from us though criminal at 6 am on a Saturday was acceptable. The funny part is I’m usually the one to get bent out of shape over that and I was the one calming my friend down. He also had that song stuck in his head for a week.
Ha! Luckily we didn’t know the words to these ones, so we didn’t have to fear getting them caught in our heads 🙂
LOUD is very common South of the Border. One Saturday night in Baja we all got blasted from a hut in front of our hotel. The hut contained a small army garrison who guarded the little airport in front of the hotel. Conveniently their power got cut off. I have a feeling it was supplied by the hotel.
I carry earplugs – need’m on airplanes too sometimes.
Ha! If only I had had that kind of power in this situation 😉 I never travel without ear plugs but in this situation they were rendered useless. It was on another level!
Ahhh the unmistakable beats if reggaeton. I feel like that kind of music soundtracked my life when I lived in Venezuela! It was blaring loudly from every single car in the city I lived. Constantly. I don’t think you’re a whiner at all- I would have done exactly the same as you! Like you say, you’re at a relaxing beach area not a down town party city. I feel sorry for the hotel manager. Anyway, it looks beautiful there and I’d still love to visit, despite the occasional noise terrorists!
I think if you go anytime other than a holiday weekend you’ll be okay 🙂 It is such a beautiful setting!
I love your photos here! It looks absolutely gorgeous, especially that ripply sand beach! I’d definitely make the trek.
Thanks Jade! Anders took quite a few of them… I was being lazy 🙂 Sometimes it’s nice to hand the camera off, especially when you get photos like this!
haha! I love that you described the music as aggressive & hostile. i can totally hear it now. high 5 for asserting yourself. gorgeous photos as always, especially the last 2 (i might have to start calling you ‘sun flare queen.’)
I’ll take that title! Sunflare, shadows, reflections — can’t get enough.
Wow – so beautiful! I can’t get over how something this gorgeous is so deserted. I hope it stays this way.
Well at the moment it’s quite difficult to get to so I’m sure that’s part of the reason! I do think it is on the verge of really blowing up in popularity though — glad we got to see it as is.
Beautiful looking spot!
Sounds like a great place to while away a few days.
I’m thinking we’ll look it up later this year 🙂
Definitely set aside a good chunk of time for Panama — it’s worth it!
Well… we do have the luxury of spending as much time there as we like.
Looking forward to this no schedule or pressed for time travel life! 🙂
Great piece, Alex! Arrggghh – Reggaeton! Of all the music played at full blast, this would be the one they chose! I am very sound sensitive so this would have been a nightmare for me! Had a similar experience with Phnom Penh party goers on the tiny island of Koh Tonsay. The sound system would not have been out of place at Ministry of Sound. Looks like a gorgeous place though and at least you had something to talk about!!
I would say the same of myself, Sarah — super sensitive to sound. I am forever asking people to turn down the TV and the radio, and I really cherish moments of absolute silence! I missed Koh Tonsay and headed for the more remote Koh Rong, and it sounds like I made the right call!
Ugh, I hate nuisances like that. So far the level of noise-depriving music, conversations, partying hasn’t been an issue on our trip. I am like you, if the locale is meant to be calm, then I am all for asking for some peace and quiet! I love how you had the gumption to go and plead your case!!
Normally I just suffer in silence… I’m pretty shy! So this was a very extreme case to be able to prompt that reaction from me!
Ha, this made me laugh, because Chris and I pretty much have to ask people to be more quiet in the various hostels we stayed at all the time. Some travellers just have to learn what manners are and I am always more than happy to teach them. :-p
I would love to be a fly on the wall for that! I am generally very unconfrontational and just suffer in silence.
I love your story. It makes me remember I’m not the only traveler who gets irked by noise! I recently had a similar experience in Lembongon. In my case, I was oblivious to the fact that there was a Hindu holiday occurring the night I arrived. The chanting started at sunset and continued (at an ungodly volume) until midnight. I was miserable at the time, but in hindsight these things are always funny.
Ah, I love Lembongan! That must have been a little interesting though, right? For five minutes? 🙂 I lived on Gili for the entire MONTH of Ramadan so I can relate. It. was. so. loud.
Your beach photos look so much like Samara beach, Costa Rica to me! The wide beaches of dark sand and lack of people.. perfect for a relaxing holiday. Thanks for sharing this part of the world with us.
I haven’t been to that area of Costa Rica just yet, Wendy! Maybe I will get to check it out on a return visit. I love the Pacific.