Panamá - Caribbean Blue

Panamá is a kind of almost-country, in the shadow of its past as a province of Colombia, a period of occupation by France and its recent creation as an independent country by the United States.

Panamá is a kind of almost-country, in the shadow of its past as a province of Colombia, a period of occupation by France and its recent creation as an independent country by the United States.

The Caribbean coastline of Panamá has its own distinct atmosphere and rhythms, completely different from the Pacific.

While not as popular with surfers and travelers as nearby Costa Rica, Panamá does attract a considerable amount of North American and European visitors to its lush jungles, prolific wildlife, nightlife and banking facilities in Panamá City and plenty of surfing opportunities on both the Pacific and Caribbean sides of the country.

Wizard Beach on Bastimentos Island has a user-friendly sand-bottom beach break good for beginners and intermediates.

Panamá was wrestled away from Colombian sovereignty to fulfill the engineering ambition of building a canal through the isthmus of Panama, a project that had been under consideration for hundreds of years and is one of the largest engineering feats ever accomplished by humans.

With no roads or cars on Bastimentos, Wizard Beach requires a hike across the island to access.

The Canal has defined modern Panamá, indeed the Canal is the raison d’etre for the existence of Panamá as a country, but the Canal almost didn’t happen.

Bluff Beach on Isla Colón is famous for its punishing beachbreak - hollow and powerful waves.

It was the French who started the project in 1881, following the engineering and financial success of the Suez Canal in Egypt. A route was mapped out, investors were solicited, and construction began after bringing in heavy digging equipment and thousands of workers.

The long and hollow left point at Isla Carenero is one of the best waves in Bocas del Toro Province of Panamá.

Unfortunately, at that time the role of the mosquito as a disease vector was unknown. In supertropical Panamá, there are plenty of mosquitos and many of these Panamá Canal workers were, of course, unvaccinated.

Cheyne Cottrell from Florida, USA surfing in the Caribbean Sea in Bocas del Toro Province of Panamá.

They were quickly infected with mosquito-borne illnesses including malaria and yellow fever, for which there were no known effective treatments at that time and thousands died after weeks of suffering.

The road from Bocas Town to Playa Bluff features a string of quality coral reef waves in the Caribbean Sea.

The human mortality rate among the workforce was so high that deadlines were not met, there was a shortage of experienced engineers and the project fell years behind schedule.

The Bocas del Toro area has several reef breaks with powerful waves breaking over coral reefs.

With the loss of investor confidence, stakeholders began to pull out their money, doubtful the canal could be finished on time; if ever, under the current circumstances.
In 1904, the United States assumed ownership of the remaining French assets, including the strip of territory known as the Canal Zone.

Bocas Town has a lively waterfront of private residences, hotels, bars and restaurants.

With a financing package from Wall Street heavyweights like JP Morgan and other financiers in place and mosquito-breeding suppression tactics started, the work was resumed in earnest and after ten years of construction, the canal was finally completed in April, 1914.

Wizard Beach is a sand-bottom beachbreak on Isla Bastimentos in the Caribbean Sea.

After decades of American control and operations, a treaty was signed between the United States and Panamá under Presidents Carter and Torrijos in 1977 and the Canal Zone and the Canal itself were delivered to Panamanian sovereignty and management in 1999.

Sam Bleakely, surfing in the Caribbean Sea in Bocas del Toro Province of Panamá.

To many people’s surprise, the Canal, a vital component of world trade infrastructure, has continued to operate smoothly and was further upgraded in the early 2000’s to accommodate the largest “Panamax” container ships and now handles an estimated 15 000 ships a year, traveling in both directions.

Bocas Town and surfing in the Caribbean Sea in Bocas del Toro Province of Panamá.

For visitors, especially surfers, Panamá has attractions that have nothing to do with the Canal, the jungle, the prolific wildlife or even the Darien Gap smuggling route that is bringing thousands of would-be migrants north towards the US border through some of the toughest jungle terrain on earth - surfers are interested in waves, and Panamá gets great surf on both coastlines, at different seasons of the year.

Taking the hiking tack through the center of Isla Bastimentos.

Modern surfing started in Panamá with the Americans in the Canal Zone. With thousands of US citizens living and working in Panamá for decades, and a major military base within the zone at Howard Air Force Base, it is inevitable there would be a few surfers in the mix and there were.

Wizard Beach is a fun sand-bottom beachbreak on Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro Province.

First explored were the nearby beachbreaks of the Pacific side like Playa Venao and Playa Malibu then further to the north, where a world-class reefbreak was discovered in Veraguas Province at Santa Catalina.

Panamanians love their pepper sauce and put the condiment on almost everything they eat.

About six hours drive from Panama City, Santa Catalina was something of a secret spot for decades, with only a few gringo and Panamanian surfers knowing the location and the conditions for good waves.

The surfEXPLORE® Group, walking on tropical Wizard Beach on the Caribbean Sea.

Santa Catalina needs a south-angle swell to break, with the season for waves between March and October, when long-period groundswells arrive from intense winter storms in the high latitudes of the south Pacific Ocean.

Sam Bleakley, surfing a sharp and shallow reef wave in the Caribbean Sea.

With Santa Catalina’s open exposure to seasonal south swells, dry season offshore winds and rock reef bottom, it can handle up to 20 foot faces and quickly become known as one of the most consistent surfing locations in Central America.
With several offshore islands nearby, accessible by boat including the Isla de Coiba National Park, the area offers a great variety of waves in a small area and deserves its popularity.

Old Bank is the only town on Bastimentos Island in Bocas del Toro Province of Panamá.

Cheyne Cottrell, sunset on the Caribbean Sea.

Surfers have moved north from Santa Catalina, towards the northern border with Costa Rica, finding more waves in the strong tidal push areas in the Gulf of Chiquiri around Morro Negro and other offshore islands, many of which remain secret spots as they take a boat to reach and local knowledge of the strong tidal differences. A good wave at medium to high tide can be dry rocks at low tide, with the 3 to 4 meters of tidal difference in this area.

The ferocious and powerful beachbreak at Playa Bluff on Isla Colón breaks many surfboards every season.

Overlooked by surfers for years in the rush to surf the Pacific coastline was the Caribbean coastline of Panamá, a lush and tropical area with poor infrastructure and populated by indigenous tribal groups, especially the San Blas archipelago to the south.

The surfEXPLORE® Group, hiking through the center of Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro Province of Panamá.

On the northern coastline of the Caribbean Sea near the border with Costa Rica is the archipelago of Bocas del Toro (Mouth of the Bull) a banana-growing area of green and fertile tropical islands visited by Christopher Colombus and his fleet of ships in 1502.

The left point at Isla Carenero is one of the beast waves in the Bocas del Toro area.

Bocas had a period of great prosperity in the early part of the 20th century when the area was used for large banana plantations. The fruit grows well in the tropical conditions and was exported by ship to the United States. Like nearby Costa Rica, a labor force for the banana plantations was imported from Jamaica, hence the large numbers of native English speakers still prevalent in the Bocas del Toro area.

Sunrise on the Caribbean Sea in Bocas del Toro Province of Panamá.

After the banana boom, the Bocas area fell into a period of tropical torpor and economic decline, with many residents leaving the province for better opportunities in Costa Rica, Panama City or the US. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that surfers discovered Bocas del Toro, probably traveling south from the Puerto Viejo area of Costa Rica, which had been surfed since the 1970’s.

So common is boat travel in the Bocas area that gas stations are on floating docks, dispensing petrol for outboard motors.

While the Caribbean Sea is not rated by most surfers as a major source of swell, in the western Caribbean this is a mistake as the consistent easterly tradewinds blowing over hundreds of miles of water can produce consistent and in some cases, very large waves.

With no roads or cars, all travel on the Isla Bastimentos is on foot.

Just as Salsa Brava on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica can produce some of the largest waves in the country, so can the Bocas area for Panamá, in particular the reef break next to Bastimentos Island known as “Silverbacks” which can produce giant, hollow rights comparable to Sunset Beach on the north shore of Oahu.

Stopping for supplies in Old Bank, the only town on the Isla Bastimentos in Bocas del Toro Province of Panamá.

Other waves in the Bocas area with less size that break more often than the rare swell for Silverbacks are on the Isla Colón, Isla Carenero and Isla Bastimentos, all of which have quality waves, both shallow, sharp reef breaks and user-friendly beachbreaks.

Isla Carenero has several accommodation places and restaurants over the waters of the Caribbean Sea.

Playa Bluff on Isla Colón in particular, is a heavy shorebreak barrel on sand that is better suited to bodyboarding than surfing as it snaps boards like toothpicks. One of the first questions new arrivals receive on arrival in Bocas is “Got any boards to sell?” as so many standard polyurethane and fiberglass surfboards are broken surfing at Playa Bluff.
In addition to an influx of surfers, the entire Bocas del Toro area has seen an increase in arrivals over the past 30 odd years, with Americans, Canadian and Europeans deciding Bocas ticks all their boxes as a perfect tropical paradise to live in for their retirement or to build a boutique restaurant or accommodation facility for guests.

There are still reef breaks in the Bocas area that are seldom crowded with other surfers. The further from town, the better.

Real estate agencies line the main street of Bocas Town, many of them with signage promoting Español/English for easier communication and many of them listing properties, businesses and land for sale in the Bocas del Toro area for potential investors.
Bocas is definitely not Cancun in México or even Tamarindo in Costa Rica for overall levels of development at this point; there are no large concrete megahotels or tourism complexes.

Surfing in the Caribbean Sea in Bocas del Toro Province of Panamá.

If the inflow of surfers, travelers, retirees and gringo cash continues or perhaps accelerates in the next decade or so, it will be well on its way to being another established tourism outpost in Central America.

Surfing the powerful and hollow reef waves of the Caribbean Sea in Bocas del Toro Province of Panamá.

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Text and Images © John Seaton Callahan / surfEXPLORE

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