Get your bucket list ready. In this guide, we’ll show you the best things to do in Santa Catalina, Panama and how to experience them. Need help planning your trip? Check out our tips for visiting Santa Catalina — you’ll find the best restaurants, where to stay, how to get around and more!
What to expect in Santa Catalina
Santa Catalina is the kind of destination where you arrive and can’t believe that the rest of the world hasn’t discovered it yet.
Once a small fishing village, word of this hidden gem is slowly spreading. Whispers of some of the best surf spots in Central America are attracting avid surfers, and those wanting to try their hand at surfing. Santa Catalina is a great spot for pros and beginners alike.
Now more than ever Santa Catalina is worth visiting, if you want to see it before it hits everyone’s radar. Once this happens, the laid back charm that makes Santa Catalina so enchanting might not be the same.
If you want to explore untouched national parks, surf awesome waves, eat delicious food and lounge on empty beaches then Santa Catalina is worth visiting.
#1 Surf some of the best waves in Central America
First and foremost, Santa Catalina is a surf town. The cherished secret of some of the best waves in Central America is slowly spreading. So if you’re visiting Santa Catalina, you should probably at least try to catch a wave.
The great thing about Santa Catalina’s surf is that there’s something for everyone. Whether you’ve never stood on a surfboard before or you practically live amongst the waves, Santa Catalina has got you sorted.
When is the best time to surf in Santa Catalina?
You can surf pretty much all year round in Santa Catalina. The swells remain consistent all year, ranging between 1.5-3 metres. If you want to catch the big boys, head to Santa Catalina between February and August. Waves can reach as high as 6-9 metres.
And what all surfers love to hear — the water is always warm, so there’s no need to wear a wetsuit.
Where to go surfing in Santa Catalina?
There are plenty of surf spots in the area, but here are a few to get you started:
- Santa Catalina — this is the famous break that has given Santa Catalina its reputation. It breaks pretty far from shore, and opens up to both left and right sides.
- El Estero — you should head here if you’re a beginner. It’s situated right in front of town and where you’ll find most surf lessons happening.
- Punta Brava — a 30-minute walk southeast, Punta Brava tends to have bigger and more consistent waves than Santa Catalina. It also has three breaks.
Looking to catch your first wave? Waluaa is a reputable surf school that will get you standing up on that surfboard in no time.
#2 Dive, snorkel and hike around the biodiverse Isla Coiba
A close second of must-do things in Santa Catalina is visiting Isla Coiba — one of the most biologically diverse places in Panama and the world.
It’s so beautiful and precious that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.
Interestingly, Isla Coiba managed to remain largely untouched as it was previously a penal colony — a place where exiles or prisoners are sent to keep them separate from the general population. Access to the island was limited, which thankfully means that we get to see it in its full glory today.
What can you do on Isla Coiba?
There are plenty of ways to explore Isla Coiba and its stunning turquoise waters — hiking, snorkelling and, best of all, scuba diving.
Isla Coiba is a world-class diving destination, given that the underwater world has been preserved and it sits in the same corridor as the Galapagos Islands.
Diving here brings the chance of seeing manta rays, whales, hammerhead sharks and dolphins. Not to forget the Bahia Damas reef which will keep you captivated for as long as your tank allows.
If you visit between December and April, you may be lucky enough to see the magnificent whale sharks as they pass through. And don’t worry, all of this isn’t restricted to just divers. Snorkelers you’re in luck too!
How to visit Isla Coiba?
Santa Catalina is the gateway to Isla Coiba and the best place to visit from. The journey isn’t short, but it’s the best you’re going to get. The boat ride takes 1.5 hours and you’ll need a permit to visit the island.
These can be obtained by going with a tour operator. The best way to book a tour is to shop around when you get there. Speak to the different tour operators and dive shops to try and negotiate the best price.
For two dives in Coiba, you’re looking at around $150. Snorkelling trips start from around $60 per person.
#3 Laze on the beach all day long
When you’re staying in a beach town, what better way to spend your time than lazing on the beach. In between surfing, of course!
Playa Santa Catalina and Playa El Estero are the two most popular beaches in Santa Catalina.
If you want to be at the heart of the activity in Santa Catalina, head to Playa Santa Catalina. It’s directly in front of the town and where most people spend the day. It’s a beautiful black-sand beach, backed by palm trees.
El Estero is also a black-sand beach, but a lot less busy than Playa Santa Catalina as it’s slightly further from the town. If you’re lucky, you might get the whole beach to yourself. Now that’s what we call paradise!
#4 Escape from the world on Cebaco Island
If you’re looking for a secluded island getaway, you can’t get much better than Cebaco Island. The third biggest island in Panama, it’s entirely solar powered and you’ll struggle to get internet there. Sounds perfect if you’re looking to disconnect from the outside world, right?
With only one accommodation option on the island, Cebaco Sunrise, you’ll get a truly local experience, rather than a tropical island flooded with other tourists.
And only 300 locals live here, so you’ll feel like you have the whole island to yourself. What a unique and authentic experience!
The only downside of there being only one accommodation is that it’s pretty expensive — $100/night. However, this room can fit four people, so if you manage to split it between four, it doesn’t work out too bad. Plus all three meals are included!
How to get to Cebaco Island?
You’ll be glad to hear that it’s only a 20-minute boat ride from the mainland to Cebaco Island. Speak to Cebaco Sunrise and they’ll help you to arrange transportation there.
#5 Explore Santa Catalina’s water by Kayak
A great way to spend a few hours is kayaking along Santa Catalina’s coastline or joining a kayaking trip to Isla Coiba. It’s a peaceful way to see the surrounding area and get a workout at the same time.
There is plenty to explore around Santa Catalina — coastline, mangroves, river estuaries, islands and areas that remain untouched.
And don’t worry, the waters are warm all year round, so falling in won’t be too bad!
You can book a kayaking tour with Fluid Adventures Panama or scout out a kayak/tour when you get to Santa Catalina. That way you can haggle on the price.
#6 Get a panoramic view of Santa Catalina on the Crest Trail hike
If you’re tired of all the lazing around on the beach and want to give your legs a good old stretch, why not take on the Crest Trail?
It’s a short but steep hike that will get the calf muscles working. At the end, you’ll be rewarded with a panoramic view overlooking the ocean.
The hike shouldn’t take more than an hour from the centre of Santa Catalina and the trail begins next to Brisas del Mar.
The trail is a loop, which you’ll see on the map at the beginning of the trail. Great news, it’s an easy to follow hike.
Take on this hike at sunset if you want to have incredible views with a golden glow.
#7 Relax your body with some yoga
Wherever you find surfing, you normally find yoga too. They seem to go hand-in-hand and that’s exactly the case in Santa Catalina.
Yoga is the perfect way to improve your strength, flexibility and balance, whilst taking the time to relax and focus on your breathing. And it can’t get much better than doing it to the sound of waves.
#8 Watch the sunset from the beach
There’s no better way to end your day than beer in hand, sand underneath your butt and the sun setting over the sea.
Both Playa Santa Catalina and El Estero offer spectacular views of the sunset. If you fancy sitting in a beach bar to watch the sunset then stick around Playa Santa Catalina.
For those that want to save a bit of money by buying their own beer, and have a more intimate sunset, go to El Estero. Fewer people go here for sunset, so it will feel like a private showing!
Rounding it up
Now you’ve picked the best things to do in Santa Catalina, it’s time to start ticking off that bucket list. Not sure how to plan your trip? Our Santa Catalina guide is here to help! You’ll find out how long to stay in Santa Catalina, where to eat, how to get around and more. Happy planning!
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Kate is a writer, (ex)Management Consultant and avid traveller. She recently returned from a 2-year career break exploring the world and decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She’ll soon be testing life as a digital nomad. She’s visited over 40 countries and fell in love with Latin America in particular. Her travelling has inspired a passion for yoga, salsa, hiking and Spanish.