An unshaven young guy quietly sat across from me at the table when I was having dinner; I had escaped from wet Panama City in the morning and had just checked in at a rusty hotel/hostel in wet wet Santa Catalina. I was quite exhausted by then but relieved to be in Santa Catalina for the third time. He and I exchanged our glances for a moment and we both remained silent in a little awkward way. A slight thought popped out in my head: "Mmm... This guy kinda looks familiar. But never mind." I didn't think any further and kept on eating.
His friend came out of the kitchen and they started talking to each other with such a thick Oz accent, mate. Now this unshaven guy's voice sounded quite familiar to me. So I looked back at him. And it was Lee, whom I was travelling and surfing with back in May 2011 along with another Australian guy called Clint.
Of course, the very first thing that instantly came out of my mouth was;

" WHAAAAAT THE F*******K ! ! ! "

Excuse my words, but please understand if you were ever in a situation like this. So was the second thing I said;

" Ohhh.... WHAT THE F**K! "

And Lee went on after me;


We ecstatically swore with a few WTFs, and it took us a minute or so to eventually shake our hands and to truly feel this astonishingly sudden reunion here in Santa Catalina.
In fact, the funniest thing was that Lee, Clint and I first met right here in Santa Catalina in 2011. We ran into each other again in Pavones a week later and then we travelled together through San Jose and the southern Nicaragua until I left for Leon by myself while Lee and Clint continued their way north. No emailing, no Facebook (No way!), no Twitter (No f**ckin way!) and no other dodgy SNSs to stay in contact with each other after all. Yet this time Lee, without a crazy Clint but with his two other Australian friends - Darcy and Luis - came to Santa Catalina after they surfed along the coast of Peru this July. How super hyper coincidental was it?!
The photo below shows (from left) Darcy, Lee, Luis and me. All grinning :-)

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Because I've been going around the globe three times over the last four years, this wasn't the first sudden reunion for me.
As far as I remember, the very first occasion was probably in June 2012 when I was just about to paddle out to Supertubes in J-Bay, South Africa, I ran into David from Cape Town, who was previously surfing in Lombok, Indonesia in 2010 - so was I then. Funnily enough, a couple of weeks later in the same month while I was surfing at Supertubes, I bumped into Whip, a Delta Airlines pilot, who I previously met and surfed with in Senegal in December 2011. The third occasion was when I ran into a French surfer while surfing in Lafitenia, France in August 2012, we previously met each other in Barra de la Cruz, Mexico in October 2011. And the forth occasion was with Rachel from the UK, we happened to be staying in a tiny sea-side town called Tofo in Mozambique last August, we previously met each other in El Tunco, El Salvador in June 2011.
To run into somebody who you have met before in the same country is actually quite possible. However, to run into somebody in a different country on a different continent is extremely rare, though it has occurred to me at least four times now. What A Tiny Wonderful World!

Speaking of which, this was my third visit to Panama's most famous break - Santa Catalina: The first time was in May 2011, then I met Lee. The second time was this past June and the third time was early this month, then I met Lee again.
The waves in Santa Catalina were good: I say "good" because they were neither fantastic nor bad, but were simply good. There were a couple of days both this June and early August where the waves reached 5ft+ on sets with occasional bombs. I did enjoy Catalina's typical wally punchy waves with a little anxiety inside me: "I might hit a rock if I keep going deeper on the inside...." I never hit any rocks but a couple of wipe-outs, in which I went over the fall and might further have damaged my herniated disc in the spine. Ahh....

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The above photos were taken in the morning of August 06th (Wed) when the forecast was showing 5 ~ 6ft with the period of 15 ~ 16sec. The wind was very light offshore throughout the day, and the waves picked up to almost 7 ~ 8ft just after midday as the tides started dropping. Luckily, it wasn't too crowded on this day with the neap tide and actually surfable even on low tides. I surfed until my shoulders became almost crippled.

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Ok. This is it for my time in Santa Catalina, a.k.a. the world-class coincidental spot!
I'm heading to Boquete now to indulge myself with some seriously good coffee.


I must have bored many of you for the past few months because my articles since the beginning of this year have been about surfing after surfing. Sorry, but that's pretty much all I do!
Having said that, it's good for me every now and then to leave all my surf-equipment behind and to do something else in no relation to waves or the ocean.

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Last week I went to a small mountain-town called Boquete where the air was no longer sticky but cool and fresh with a couple of tranquil rivers running through the nearby mountains. Yes, I'm talking about mountains and inactive volcanoes here in Panama. A few of them are even over 3000m high in fact.
Boquete slightly reminded me of Gifu and Nagano, the central highland in Japan, due mostly to the presence of high mountains and the density of all kinds of trees and flowers in and around this town.

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Some of the green in Boquete areas actually consists of coffee trees. And that was my main reason for visiting this small town in Chiriqui province.

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Despite the fact that I often try not to join any tours wherever I go, this time I had to take part of a coffee-plantation tour simply because I couldn't just walk up to a plantation-site by myself, climb over a security fence and get shot instead of getting a shot of nice espresso....
The tour I chose was organized by Cafe Ruiz - one of the most respected and truly Panamanian-owned coffee beans producers.

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My tour-guide was a local Panamanian called Carlos, who was clearly born and bred with coffee here in Boquete. He spoke fluent English and taught me two English phrases that I'd never heard of before; 1) Snow birds 2) Gated communities - both of which are mostly referred to retirees with money from North America buying up many pieces of this beautiful wild land around Boquete. A shame.

I can write tons of things in this article about what I learnt through the tour, but I can't be bothered and I don't wanna bore you again. All I'd like to say is that this tour was awesome and only deepened my knowledge in coffee as well as deepening my addiction to coffee except the bloody mass syrup juice producer - Starbucks, and the capsule waste maker - Nespresso. Hahaha.

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Lastly, I was remembering the days of travelling in South East Asia early last year with Eli, my Colombian girlfriend at that time. She and I had at least one or two cups of coffee on a daily basis wherever we went from Vietnam and Laos and Thailand down to Indonesia. One day, we walked into a little special cafe in Ubud, Bali. It wasn't an ordinary-looking cafe, it was owned and run by a coffee-freak. I mean "coffee-freak" not only because of the excessive amount of caffeine this person was presumably taking every day, but also because of this person's hyper blah-blah-ness in coffee.
When we sat down at the counter, this British owner asked us where we came from: I said "I'm from Japan and she is from Colombia." And the word "Colombia" must have escalated his hyper blah-blah-ness then. He kept on talking and talking about coffee. We listened away and eventually managed to get our orders across; "a regular coffee" for Eli and "a normal espresso" for me. Simple! A couple of minutes later, we were served with what were supposedly the coffees that we had ordered. However, my super weak espresso wasn't in an espresso mug. For some reason it came in a medium-size glass with an Indonesian sweet on the side, which was almost like an imitation of the traditional Japanese tea-ceremony. So was Eli's coffee. We instantly looked at each other, but made no comment apart from saying "Oh, interesting..." because this British caffeine addict was still bragging about all the coffees in his cafe and repeatedly saying to us "Your coffee should be real Goooood."
Back in our hotel room later that night, I asked Eli if she liked her coffee at the cafe. She straight away said "No! Not at all." And neither did I. Then we just laughed so hard at each other afterwards.

So what is real good coffee?

Eli and I completely agreed on this: It doesn't matter where the coffee is from. It doesn't matter how it's nurtured and processed. It doesn't matter what sort of aroma and flavour it has.
The one you really enjoy in that moment is your real good coffee. Full stop!

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Whenever other travellers bombastically recommend a town or a city for me simply because of its reputation for all-night parties and such, my rational voice instinctively descends and I deliberately exclude the place from my itinerary: booze-up is not my business anymore, whereas, surf-up is. Nevertheless, I somehow found myself in Bocas del Toro a couple of weeks ago, arguably the most famous and infamous party-town in Panama.
I swear eight to nine out of ten international travellers visit this cluster of islands in Bocas del Toro (hereafter Bocas). Most of them go there with pure intention for partying, and others may go there for diving, snorkeling or surfing in the Caribbean waters.
Honestly speaking, one of my reasons for suddenly having Bocas on my radar was that the swell-forecast was showing 3 to 5ft with max 10sec for the Caribbean while it was only 1.5 to 3ft with max 13sec for the Pacific coast over the next few days.

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Now I must admit that my rational voice wasn't quite right this time. I actually enjoyed myself and ended up staying in Bocas for ten days with lots of waves to catch.
The below is the summary of my time in the Caribbean of Panama:

* There are two ways to travel from Boquete to Bocas (The 1st option is more expensive but less time-consuming than the 2nd option):
1) Take a shuttle bus from Boquete to Isla Colon - the main island in Bocas del Toro. It's USD30.00 one way including the fare for a water-taxi from Almirante to Isla Colon (Duration: 4hrs+)
2) Take a Chicken bus from Boquete to David's main bus terminal for USD1.75. Take a long-distance bus from this main bus terminal to Almirante for USD8.45. Take a taxi from Almirante's bus terminal to the port of water-taxis for USD1.50. And then take a water-taxi from the port to Isla Colon for USD6.00 (Duration: between 6 and 7hrs)

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* The downtown of Isla Colon is tiny, and the vibe amongst local people is easy-going and laid back just like that of Belize. One unfortunate thing is that this town is a bit dirty and can be noisy at night as tons of stupid drinkers, junkies and vampires all come out roaming around till dawn. I stayed in a hostel called Hostal Hansi. It was USD13.00 for a spotlessly clean private room with a shared bathroom and a fully equipped kitchen. This hostel is probably the best choice in town for budget travellers who seek minimum comfort as well as privacy.

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* There is no El Rey or Super 99 or Riba Smith in Bocas, all of which are Panama's popular supermarket chains. Instead, there are quite a few super mercados owned and run by the second or the third generation of Panamanian Chinese, aka "Chinos". Their stock in food and drinks is pretty good, but I found most items a little more expensive than what I would normally pay for them on the mainland.

* There are many restaurants and bars in downtown. Most restaurants charge at least USD7.00 for a decent meal for lunch. I forgot the name of a restaurant located between the fire station and the dock of Taxi 25 on Calle 1; This place mainly serves seafood and I really enjoyed my pan-fried fish fillet with coconut sauce on it. Otherwise, I somewhat fell in love with a bakery/dulceria called John's Bakery owned by Panamanian Chinese. I kept going back there almost every day just to get a couple of doughnuts (USD0.75 for each) and cookies (USD0.25 for each). Yum!

* The weather was hardly balmy but overcast or rainy most of the days (in August). However, I was somehow less bitten by mosquitoes, sand-flies and other insects in Bocas than I was in mainland Panama, even though other travellers told me how annoyingly bad sand-flies could be here. I have no idea how this happened to me - either the whole island was sprayed before my arrival or I became a mozzie repellent myself....? I'm neither stinky nor filthy for sure.

* You can also stay in Isla Carenero, a small island located just east of Isla Colon. There are a couple of hostels on this island and two known surf-spots. Carenero is easily accessible by boat from Isla Colon (cost is between USD1.00 and USD3.00 for one way, depending on the distance.) Basically, I was based on Isla Colon and took a boat to Carenero whenever I felt like surfing La Punta, a pointbreak just at the northern edge of Isla Carenero (more details of this spot come later in this article.)

* Another reason why I stayed on Isla Colon for my whole stay while in Bocas was simply because I wanted to keep at least two options for my surfing every day: one was to take a boat to Carenero as mentioned above, and the other was to rent a bicycle in downtown Isla Colon and to search for a good spot of the day somewhere along the coastline of the main island. This worked out really good for me and I didn't have to unpack, pack and drag my luggage from one island to another.

* The cost of a rental bicycle varies, depending on your renter and also how long you wanna rent it for. It's usually USD1.00 per hour with a chain provided to lock your bicycle. Don't expect that your bicycle will have shinning disc-brakes and several gear-shifts with proper suspensions on the wheels. There's no such a technological thing in these Rasta islands! You would be lucky enough if you could rent a bicycle with hand-brakes on it! Many bicycles in Bocas are those classic beach cruisers with a pedal-brake which I really hate to ride!

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* There are at least five known surf-spots in Isla Colon. and two in Isla Carenero and about three in Isla Batismento. The below are the spots I have surfed:

1) La Punta in Isla Carenero - Lucky me! I met a Jehovah's witness surfer from Florida on my first day. He knew about this spot and was kind enough to show me around Isla Carenero. We paddled out together from the shore to this lefthand pointbreak while others would usually take a boat straight to the spot by paying USD3.00 one way. The waves here were fun with a little barreling or racing section between the outside and the inside. It can be quite crowded and it also appears to be ridiculously infested with sea-urchins at the bottom, especially on the inside.

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2) Paunch (or Ponch) - I had quite a few fun rippable lefthand waves here: you can also go right and end up landing on an urchin-infested flat rock at the end section. Lucky me again! I accidentally found a little keyhole to paddle out on my first day here. Thus, getting out was relatively easy for me. However, getting back in was quite tricky. I saw a couple of locals coming straight back in over the flat-rock: This technique would definitely require not only local knowledge, but also a good timing as well as good luck. For all my sessions at Paunch I successfully dodged all urchins and managed to come back in without bulldozing my board over the rocks. What I basically did was that I paddled for almost ten minutes all the way down to the beach where another spot called Tiger Tail is located. The safest way for sure!

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3) Tiger Tail - Located right in front of a restaurant & bar called Paki Point. The wave here is a short-ride for both right and left. I actually scored two proper barrels as well as two wipe-outs during one session at this spot. I found the waves here a little similar to those in Keramas, Bali: If you fail your take-off on low-tide, it's very likely that you touch the rough surface of flat rocks at the bottom, maybe with urchins in your feet too. Yes, I got a few scratches on my feet in exchange for the barrels :-)

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4) Playa Bluff - Such a pristine beach with wild jungles surrounding the white sand and very few people around. I highly doubt if this marvelous beach can ever be ideal for swimmers as the rip-tides were menacingly strong when I was there.

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The echoes amongst local surfers are not misleading at all: Most waves here are seriously dumpy shorebreaks. I personally recommend that you shouldn't even be bothered to check this spot when the swell is over 5ft because the waves are likely to be breaking all over the place then: Of course, right at the shore....
The photos below are in sequence, proving that the waves here love to just suck you in. No wonder I ate quite a bit of sand.

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Now the below are the spots that I didn't surf this time, but I heard of from local surfers or saw waves breaking there:

5) Playa El Itsmito - Not as wild or unspoilt as Playa Bluff, but it looks so much calmer here than all the above spots as it's located at the end section of the half-moon bay in Isla Colon. I never surfed here, but I did see ridable waves of max 2ft while I was riding my bicycle on my way to some of the above spots. Very ideal for long-boarders and beginners.

6) Dumpers - I saw makable lefthand waves peeling off exactly parallel to a very straight-line flat rock which was just hungrily waiting for you to fall; A couple of the waves I witnessed even wowed me for their perfection and their breaking speed. This spot is the furthest outside of the half-moon bay of Isla Colon where Paunch, Tiger Tail and Playa El Itsmito are located. I could never figure out from where to paddle out and paddle back in for this spot though.

7) Silverback - Located at the northern edge of Isla Batismento. Supposedly the biggest wave spot in Bocas areas as it's said to be able to handle up to 20ft! I never surfed here, of course, and it never seemed to be working at all during my whole stay in Bocas anyway because the swells were not big enough for this lady. This is one of the very few righthand pointbreaks in the region. Yet, according to some locals, one of the most notorious spots to be surfed.... It somehow sounds tempting to me.

8) Other spots - Apart from notorious Silverback, Isla Batismento has at least two beach breaks, but I didn't go to either of them this time. So you go and find out for me. I also presume that there should be at least a couple more spots further north from Playa Bluff on Isla Colon, but the road to reach for them is blocked by a company called Flying Pirates unless you purchase an entry pass from them for USD20.00.... Why do they do that? Nobody should own any beaches!

I slightly underestimated the wave-quality in Bocas because all the major forecasts showed such low-period swells at all times. But now I can guarantee that waves in Bocas are in no doubt surfable and quite good even though your forecast only shows 2 to 4ft with 8 to 9sec for the area (if figures go below them, I don't know....)
Overall, my very first surfing experience in the Caribbean turned out to be great with a few thorns of friendly sea-urchins in my thumb in the end. I wouldn't mind going back to Bocas again. And next time I'd like to challenge Silverback for my own novelty value.

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