Traveling to Santa Catalina, Panama

Santa Catalina is on the Pacific coast and is a wild paradise. It’s a mecca for surfers and scuba divers. I’m going to extrapolate on our adventures there later, but first wanted to cover a little bit about the travel logistics to get to & from there.

I referenced some other travel blogs in my planning, which were a little bit out of date. Transportation seems to have changed in the last few years, whether because of Covid-19 or just the course of time.

From the Albrook Terminal in Panama City, you can catch a bus directly to Sona. It is the same bus that goes through Santiago, but the sign on the front of the bus says Sona. An Uber ride from Casco Viejo to Albrook terminal cost $5. (Side note: It is not common practice to tip Ubers or taxi drivers in Panama City; I tried once and the driver was confused.) The bus to Sona cost $10 per person and took a little over 6 hours. Note that this is quite a bit longer than the times you will find listed on Rome to Rio or other internet searches. Driving on the Panamerican Highway is extremely slow-going.

Because the bus took longer than expected, we missed the van from Sona to Santa Catalina. We left Panama City at 10 AM, which turned out to be too late. The only way we would’ve made it is if we’d caught the 8 AM bus from Panama City, since the last van to Santa Catalina which leaves at 4 PM. Upon arriving in Santiago, the bus driver told us that he could call a taxi to wait for us in Sona. The only other option would have been to find a hostel in Santiago, which is just a really ugly and busy city where I would not have wanted to stay. So we chose the taxi.

The taxi was a nice change from the bus, since we could roll the windows all the way down and breathe fresh air. The first part of the drive was absolutely gorgeous, with the sun setting over the rolling hills of Sona. The road was full of pot holes and steep hills, which got harder to navigate once darkness fell. At each bump the taxi made strange noises, and at one point something fell out of the bottom. The driver stopped to put it back on and then continued. Despite the rough conditions, the driver was kind and friendly.

I’d read online that the cost of the taxi for this ride is usually between $45 and $60. I never asked the driver the price, but decided to pay him the upper end of that range because I thought he deserved it. Plus he obviously needed some cash to fix his car. Upon seeing the money, the driver surprisingly teared up; it seemed to mean a lot to someone living in the countryside.

A few days later, going the opposite direction, we did ride the van from Sona/Santa Catalina. It runs every 2 hours, takes about an hour, and costs $4.50 per person.

Walking down S.C.’s one road, you will be approached by friendly dogs. (Note it is standard for dogs to be wandering free in small towns. If they approach you, just hold out your hand so they can smell you and everything will be fine!) The locals wave and chickens roam free. On the side of the road you will see lizards, frogs, and caterpillars – as well as plants with enormous leaves. The town is small and quiet, and everyone’s inside by 10 or 11 PM. Part of this has to do with a curfew that was imposed at the beginning of Covid, which apparently the authorities forgot to change. S.C. was the only place we visited where masks were not expected. This is because there have been no cases of the disease in the area, the villages are very small, and everyone lives in the open air.

I learned that the vast majority of Panamanians are vaccinated, yet they continue to wear masks inside and outside, enforce curfew, and require temperature checks upon entry to public areas. From my American perspective this is total overkill, given that masks have not been required indoors for over a year – and were never required when outdoors. Panamanians are either very worried, very compliant, or both.

We stayed at Tiki Lodge in a garden bungalow. It was perfect. The outside temperature was comfortable since it was the rainy season and we had the ocean breeze. We really did not need A/C, nor would we have wanted it. The fresh air was so much better. Plus it was really cool to hear the noises of the jungle all around us at night.

It is run by a kind and adventurous international couple named Claudia and Yann. The bar has fancy tropical drinks and insanely delicious food, and it is the only night life to speak of in the area. You can expect to pay $18 per entree for dinner – the meals are large and you will probably have leftovers. We didn’t want to pay that much for every meal, so we made great use of the communal kitchen. It has 6 burners which allowed multiple guests to cook at the same time. The sink still got a little crowded, but it worked out just fine.

In this region there are a plethura of fresh fruits and vegetables. The little produce stand across the street sold everything you could possibly want for extremely reasonable prices. We bought mangos, oranges and maracuja for snacking. We were also able to get ingredients for a stir fry: tofu, potatoes, fresh garlic & ginger, red onions, green beans, zucchini, carrots, oyster sauce and coconut milk. The little stand even had dried beans and quinoa. All those ingredients for less than $20!

Claudia and Yann were very knowledgeable about Panama, especially about the marine wildlife. They are avid divers, which is what brought them to Santa Catalina years ago. Claudia helped me identify some of the fish I’d seen on my snorkel expedition, which really added to the experience. There is no snorkeling on the Santa Catalina beach. To experience aquatic wildlife, you will need to travel to Coiba Island. Day trips are available for $60 per person.

The first night on the Santa Catalina beach we met a Venezuelan traveler with dreadlocks named Andy. He is an artist with a wonderfully unique skill: molding wire into any shape or word you want! Right in front of us, with nothing but wire and pliers, he shaped this Panama keychain for me. It is one of the most special souvenirs I’ve ever had.

We quickly learned that Santa Catalina beach itself is not the best place for snorkeling, surfing, or even sun-tanning. However, everything you need could ever want is just a short boat ride away. I’ll go through those things in the next post!

Next up…

Kayaking to a deserted island!
Snorkeling at Coiba National Park!
My first surf lesson!
Camping on the beach!

Stay tuned.

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