What to Do in Santa Catalina in Panama? 10 Tips! (Updated 2023)

Santa Catalina is a quaint fishing village located on the Pacific coast of Panama that remains a relatively undiscovered travel spot. Here, locals and travelers coexist, creating a wonderful, tranquil atmosphere. Santa Catalina may not offer a wide variety of activities, but it’s a must-visit for surf enthusiasts due to its fantastic surf spots, relaxed ambiance, and Coiba National Park, which boasts a rich underwater world. The volcanic reef along the coast gives the area a unique appearance, and numerous hammocks are available for those seeking a few relaxing days. In this article, you’ll find all of my tips for Santa Catalina!

How to get in Santa Catalina?

Santa Catalina can be reached by rental car or bus. Renting a car is by far the most convenient option, as taking the bus may require changing buses. For more information on renting a car in Panama, check out our tips for renting a car in Panama. Below are the details on how to get to Santa Catalina from various destinations.

From El Valle de Anton to Santa Catalina

By bus: To get to Santa Catalina by bus from El Valle de Anton, take the bus to Las Uvas and transfer to the bus going to Santiago de Veraguas. From Santiago de Veraguas, take the bus to Sonas and then take the bus from Sonas to Santa Catalina. The whole trip takes approximately 8 hours.

By rental car: This is a 5 to 6 hour journey.

From Playa Venao to Santa Catalina

By bus:Take the early morning bus to Las Tablas and transfer to the bus to Chitre. Then take the bus to Santiago de Veraguas and transfer again to the bus to Sona. In Sona, transfer for the last time to the bus to Santa Catalina. The entire journey takes about 8 hours.

By rental car: If you have a rental car, you will be on the road for about 5 to 6 hours.

From Boquete to Santa Catalina

By bus: From Boquete, take the bus to David and transfer to the bus heading towards Santiago de Veraguas. Then transfer again to the bus to Sona and from Sona, take the bus to Santa Catalina. The entire journey takes about 7 to 8 hours.

By rental car: You cannot pick up a rental car in Boquete, but you can do so in nearby David. Take the bus from Boquete that will take you to David in about an hour and pick up your rental car there. From David, it is a 4 to 5 hour drive to Santa Catalina. 

Tip: Since 2022, there is an ATM in Santa Catalina, but it does not always work, so bring enough cash.

What to do in Santa Catalina?

It’s highly recommended to stay in Santa Catalina for at least two to three days, but staying longer is definitely a great idea.

Take a daytrip to Coiba National Park

Coiba National Park is a popular destination in Santa Catalina and known for its unique plant and animal life, earning it the nickname ‘Galapagos Islands of Panama’. The park encompasses 38 islands, with Isla Coiba being the most famous. Until 2004, Isla Coiba served as a prison, but now it is a protected national park. As the islands lack infrastructure, such as hotels and electricity, the main attraction is the stunning nature. Despite its significance, Coiba National Park is not heavily visited, making it an ideal destination for those seeking a tranquil and authentic experience.

Visiting Coiba National Park requires a guide, but guided day trips can be easily booked through most accommodations in Santa Catalina. The journey to the park takes approximately 1.5 hours by boat, but it’s definitely worth it, as dolphins and whales can often be spotted along the way. Once at Coiba National Park, visitors can explore various sandy beaches and go snorkeling or diving at different locations. The underwater world here is stunning, with high chances of seeing turtles, reef sharks, rays, and other tropical fish. From December to January, visitors have the best chance of seeing whale sharks and manta rays, and from June to September, humpback whales can be spotted in the area. Coiba National Park is truly a unique and remarkable destination.

Tip: Do you want to enjoy Coiba National Park for longer? If you want to experience more of Coiba National Park, consider booking a tour with an overnight stay at the ranger station. The accommodation is simple, but this gives you the opportunity to hike on the island and explore more of the park.

Watch the sunset in Santa Catalina

Santa Catalina offers many beautiful spots along the coast to enjoy the sunset. Take a stroll on the beach or enjoy a delicious cocktail at the bar with your feet in the sand. Some places that I highly recommend are Surfers Paradise and the stunning Playa El Estero. However, for the ultimate sunset experience, head over to Playa Santa Catalina to catch the best view of the sun sinking into the sea

Tip: This location is also a beautiful and relatively hidden spot to enjoy the sunset. To get there, turn left at the gate of Vista Coiba and take the path before reaching the beach. Then, turn left again and continue past the hill with a ruined house until you reach a stunning view..

Yoga in Santa Catalina

Yoga is often offered in areas with surfing, making it a perfect combination to train your body for surfing movements or find inner peace. The wide beaches of Santa Catalina are perfect for practicing yoga in the morning by the water. You can also attend yoga classes in Santa Catalina, for example at Waluaa. In addition to yoga classes, Waluaa also has Professional Surf Coaching and Surf and Yoga Retreats. They specialize in complete beginner up to intermediate level.

Go surfing or take a surf lesson

Santa Catalina is widely considered as one of the best surf spots in Panama, and some even say in all of Central America. Surfers of all levels can find good surfing conditions here year-round. It’s the place where the best surfers in the country can be found, and where you can take lessons to improve your skills.

Playa El Estero is a popular beach among surfers, located about a 20-minute walk from the main street on the other side of the village. The waves at this beach are gentle enough for beginners, making it an ideal spot for surf lessons. The beach is also bustling with activity. However, experienced surfers seeking a more challenging experience should head over to Punta Brava. This spot is not recommended for beginners due to the waves being close to the reef, which can make it dangerous.

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Tip: You can rent surfboards and take lessons almost everywhere. If you want to learn to surf properly and dedicate a few days to it, you can, for example, go to Hotel Oasis & Surf Camp. You can stay with them and have a surf lesson program designed for you. 

Kajak or SUP to Isla Santa Catalina

If you’re interested in other water activities besides surfing, consider renting a kayak or a stand-up paddle (SUP) board and paddling to Isla Santa Catalina, a small island across from Playa Santa Catalina beach. It’s best to plan your trip in the morning or late afternoon to avoid the intense heat during the day. Fluid Adventures Panama, located on Playa Santa Catalina, offers rentals of paddle boards and kayaks.

Horseback riding on the beaches of Santa Catalina

There’s something magical about horseback riding in Santa Catalina, especially during sunrise or sunset. You can book a tour through Hotel Santa Catalina, where local farmers will take you on their horses and show you the most beautiful spots in the area. Even if you have no experience with horseback riding, this tour is suitable for you since the horses are used to many tourists riding them. Whether you prefer a peaceful ride or a gallop on the beach, you can set the pace that makes you feel comfortable.

Best restaurants in Santa Catalina

Despite Santa Catalina being a small village, there are many good restaurant options. I have tested many of them and these are my favorites.

Café Panachocolat – This is a coffee shop in the main street with the best coffee, crepes, and sandwiches.
Jammin’ Pizza’s – This is the place to go for the best pizza in Santa Catalina.
La Moncheria – This is a cozy little place with delicious homemade ice cream and iced tea.
Fonda La Arena – For good, affordable, and easy local food.
Oasis Surf Camp – On Wednesdays, there is karaoke here, and on Saturdays, there is always a fun party at the bar.

Our favorite places to stay in Santa Catalina

Bodhi Santa Catalina is definitely one of the best places to stay in the area. This social hostel has a super cozy atmosphere, and there are plenty of hammocks available to relax in. You can choose between a dorm room or a super cozy bungalow. Tiki Lodge Bar & Restaurant is an excellent option for those traveling on a small budget. The bungalows here are small but cute and offer just enough space for a mattress and mosquito net. The staff is incredibly hospitable, and the bungalows are surrounded by a beautiful garden. For those with a slightly bigger budget, Villa Coco is a fantastic choice. The cozy cottage here provides plenty of privacy, good air conditioning, and even a warm outdoor shower. The hotel has a nice pool with plenty of lounge chairs and a beautiful garden full of flowers and plants. You don’t even have to leave the hotel for good food as there’s a fantastic restaurant on-site.