Like what I wrote at the end of my time in Morocco this March, here is the summary of my fantastic five and a half months in Panama. This article has become quite long, but I've gone into details as much as I can. Hope you'll get a clear idea of what it's like to travel and surf in a country of bananas, mangos and coconuts.
1. Visas (As of August 2014)
As for Japanese nationals and most European nationals, we are entitled to stay in Panama for maximum 180 days. However, depending on your officer at the border and his/her mood then, they might ask you to present one or both of the following requirements:
A) Proof of exiting from Panama within the next 6 months such as an outbound flight ticket, a bus ticket, etc.
B) Proof of your bank-statement or having at least USD500 in cash with you.
I was asked about my outbound flight ticket when I flew from Morocco via Madrid this past March. I was also asked about both when I renewed my visa for Costa Rica in Paso Canoas, the border-town between Panama and Costa Rica on the PanAm highway.
Needless to say, not every foreign national is eligible to receive 180 days to stay in Panama. Please consult with your local Panamanian embassy before you plan your trip.
I don't know if there's any clear set of rainy seasons in this country because it does rain a lot when it does, of course! But the rainy season seems to hover around between what local people think of based on their experiences and what climatologists statistically define.
Either way, one thing for certain is that the dry season is "normally" between December and April here. Thus, all the rest of the year is rainy season in my opinion. Nevertheless, some locals claim that there is a little semi-dry season between two intense rainy seasons: from late June to August when North America is fully in summer. Yeah... I kinda noticed it, but it still rained quite a bit anyway.
Essentially, like all other places under tropical and sub-tropical climates, it sometimes only drizzles, otherwise, it comes hammering down followed by a temporary power-cut. It's actually so easy to predict whether or not it will rain on the day as the weather-pattern here is clearly visible: when it's sunny in the morning, it quickly becomes hot and humid by midday, and then clouds appear out of nowhere. It'll eventually rain by 3 or 4pm. I love rain.
Despite the fact that I am personally against the financial globalization with crappy American dollar bills, Panama utilizes US dollar as its currency and I must admit that it's very convenient because most international travellers including myself always carry some, if not a few, in dollars.
Banks and ATMs are everywhere but very few money-exchange offices in Panama. The maximum withdrawal amount from an ATM is USD500 at a time and you'll be charged extra 3 or 4 dollars, so-called the "transaction fees".
Many shops and restaurants accept credit-card payment, though they might ask you to show your IDs, especially if you shop at a supermarket. What I always did was that I made a copy of my passport and showed it to the cashier every time I was asked about it. You'll have a hard time paying your stuff with 50 and 100 dollar bills.
Comparing with my previous visit in May 2011, there's been a big change in public transport for today's Panama except the never-ending heavy traffic jam in the city. Here can be a few tips to make you go mobile in Panama:
I. Travelling in Panama City
If you are planning to spend some time in Panama City, I highly recommend that you purchase a Metro card for 2 dollars at a Kiosk or in a subway station or in Albrook bus terminal (hereafter Albrook.) Yes, Panama City has introduced a shinning subway this year!
Basically, you pre-charge the card through a vending machine installed in a subway station and simply place it onto a validating machine every time you take a subway or hop into an inner-city bus: the fare will automatically be deducted from your card then. Keep in mind, however, this card can not be used for those Chicken buses, a.k.a. Diablo Rojos.
II. Travelling Outside Panama City
Panama has a very good bus & mini-bus network throughout the country. If you plan to visit a remote place, you basically catch a long-distance bus at Albrook and then you usually change to a mini-bus once or twice for your final destination. This is not Africa, so your waiting time at these connecting points shouldn't be too long: even if there aren't enough passengers, your mini-bus will depart at its scheduled time. Fares for both long-distance buses and mini-buses are already fixed, no negotiation with your driver is required, although you might be asked to pay a couple of extra dollars for your bulky board-bag.
Taxis are plentiful in all major cities and towns. They are usually yellowish vehicles just like those in the USA.
As for taking a cab in Panama City, you shouldn't pay more than USD2.00 to 3.00 for a ride between Albrook and Casco Viejo, the old town in Panama City, and no more than USD4.00 for a ride between Albrook and the central district. Never ever forget to negotiate the fare before you get into a cab, but don't be too hard on your driver at night: it's almost mandatory to pay a little extra for a night ride.
IV. Car Rental
There are many car-rental offices in Panama City and at least one or two in other cities too. A few places that I went surfing to are not impossible to be reached on foot, but surely better and 100 times quicker by car. One thing that international travellers who are willing to stay for a long time in Panama must be careful with is that your driver's license issued in your country is valid in Panama for only the first 90 days.... So what should you do if you still wanna rent and drive a car legally after the first 90 days? Obtaining a Panamanian driver's license is apparently impossible for non-residents (I once seriously researched on this.) Therefore, leaving for Costa Rica and coming back in with a new entry stamp on your passport is probably the best way.
I've stayed three different hostels in Panama City and all of them are clean and up to high-standards, although I (AGAIN!) got bitten by bed-bugs at one of the hostels. Ahh... Many hostels in the city tend to concentrate either in Marbella where banks, shops and the World Trade Centre are located, or in Casco Viejo where a few good cafes, bars and restaurants are located. A dorm bed costs between USD12.00 and USD15.00 with simple breakfast normally included.
For accommodation outside Panama City, the below briefly describes the hostels that I stayed in;
I. Venao Cove in Playa Venao
One of the top 5 hostels I've ever stayed in throughout my 4-year RTW trip. It's located on the beach beside the cove (as the name says) and is surrounded by all kinds of vegetation, animals and insects. The hosts are really cool and both are surfers. We also had an awesome BBQ every Friday night. I terribly miss this place.
II. Surf-side Inn in Santa Catalina
Three years ago I stayed in Rolo's Cabin, but it was at least a 15-minute walk to the main break. Whereas, this slightly run-down place is located in front of the point, kind of hidden amongst other popular guesthouses. I stayed here this past June and August and had no problem at all apart from finding a staff member for my payment or for an inquiry. The staff were all nice, but somehow they weren't always there when I needed them.
III. Villa Lilimar in Coronado
I initially wanted to stay close to Playa Malibu, but there was no reasonable accommodation in the area. Instead, I found this B&B in Coronado, about a 15-minute drive from Playa Malibu. The Panamanian host was very friendly and even drove me around the area one day in search for a good-spot to surf. The nearest break from this B&B is Playa Serena, about 20 to 25 minutes on foot. Better to have your own car if you stay here.
IV. White Spider Hostal in Torio
One of the cheapest and simplest hostels I've ever stayed in. Fundamentally, you get what you pay for. So don't expect anything luxurious but feel grateful for having at least a bathroom, a kitchen and a bed with an occasional WiFi connection! The downside of this hostel is its location - 7.5km away from Playa Morrillo.... In fact, there is a hostel right on the beach of Playa Morrillo, but I didn't like one of the Venezuelan hosts there. Like the B&B in Coronado, better to have your own car if you stay here.
V. Hostal Hansi in Bocas del Toro
I mentioned about this hostel in the previous article. It's apparently run by a German, therefore (?) it's well organized and tidy, and seems to attract lots of German-speaking tourists. This is the place for you in Bocas as long as you can tolerate that assertive-sound of the German language. They take no reservation. So fist come, first serve and no wishy-washy!
VI. Hostal Gaia in Boquete
If you plan to spend a couple of nights in David just because you wanna break up your trip between Bocas and the rest of Panama or between Costa Rica and Panama, why don't you stay in charming Boquete instead of monotonous David? You would still have to pay at least USD2.00 for a cab from David's bus terminal to your hostel in David while you only pay USD1.75 for a Chicken bus to Boquete. This hostel in Boquete is quiet and chilled. No surf, though.
Yes, camping in Panama is possible. Some hostels even provide a camping ground for campers. I also saw a few people, mostly Panamanians, camping at a site by the beach of Playa Venao. Without a doubt this is the cheapest option for you to stay everywhere in Panama. And in one way, it sounds cool, but in reality it's just bloody hot to sleep in a tent!
6. Food & Drinks
I feel very fortunate to be Japanese as rice is the predominant dish in Panama. Typical Panamanian lunch at a local restaurant consists of rice, beans, a few pieces of fried plantain along with meat - mainly chicken, or else pork or beef. The cheapest lunch I ever had was USD2.00 at a local bus-stop. It was rice with some kind of soupy chicken. Pretty good!
Fish is readily available too and I had a few occasions, especially in Playa Venao where we got a whole yellow-fin tuna and held an endless feast with the freshest Sashimi and tuna-BBQ afterwards.
The below is a list to show you average prices for food and drinks in Panama (All prices are in US dollars):
- Loaf of Bread: 1.50 ~ 2.50
- Mineral Water (1L): 1.80 ~ 2.50
- Coca Cola (375ml): 0.75
- Beer: 0.50 ~ 0.60 *1
- Banana (or Plantain): Free *2
- Coconut: Free *2
- Mango: Free *2
- Yellow-fin Tuna: Free *3
*1 this is the price you pay at a supermarket. If you drink in a pub or a bar, a bottle of beer usually costs at least USD3.00
*2 only if you find them on the road, which is not so rare in Panama anyway.
*3 only if you go fishing and catch it then. Normally, a local fisherman would sell a whole 30cm-long tuna for USD20.00 ~ 25.00.
By the way, many hostels in Panama City offer pancakes for breakfast. As a result of spending nearly half of this year, I think I've become a master of pancakes.
7. Surf Spots
Little did I know that Panama is heavenly with all types of breaks: empty river-mouths, punchy reef/point-breaks and quality beach-breaks. Panama particularly made me re-appreciate beach-breaks in which constant paddling and duck-diving became the norm of my surfing. If you spend a considerable amount of time on surfing in Panama, the below are a few tips for your surf-trip:
A) Don't get stuck in Santa Catalina, but go guerrilla and search for empty breaks elsewhere. You might not score as powerful and big waves as in Catalina, but your wave-count will drastically increase.
B) Believe it or not, I had to wear my 3/2mm wet-suit a few times in Playa Venao this past March and April. The water was quite chilly, plus tons of jelly-fish came up to the coast then. This was probably due to a seasonal current at that time. After the disappearance of those ghostly stingers, however, the water got warmer and I no longer needed my wettie.
C) Most spots in Panama, even beach-breaks, are quite tide-dependent. Thus, if you plan to visit a spot just for a day, find out which stage of the tides best works for it beforehand.
D) If you wanna surf in Bocas with few crowds, go there during a gap time in the off-season between late June and August. I did see some forecasts constantly showing swells of 3 ~ 6ft with 9 ~ 10sec and offshore winds. I also scored a few good waves there for myself this past August :-)
And one more thing!
If a gigantic swell is ever approaching Central America, Panama City's Casco Viejo could offer a couple of spots to surf. I seriously doubt the water-quality there though.
I had very few problems in this respect everywhere in Panama. Yet I don't say that nothing bad ever happened.
Once, I had an American ex-pat deliberately drop in on me at Playa Venao. We nearly crashed into each other then. Another time was when a beginner surfer from Belgium dropped in on me at Playa Venao, and he later told me that I should have yelled at him. But Ha? How come he was telling me to do something when he did something wrong...? And one more time was in Playa Morrillo, where an American wanker and a Venezuelan loser kept paddling around and giving hassles to the rest of us on the line-up.
You see. Statistically speaking, I've had no problem with local Panamanian surfers in the water: absolutely none! Whereas, I've had a few hiccups with surfers from other countries.
There is no need for us to show off or prove anything. Be water, my friends!
9. Surf Gears & Surf Shops
In Panama City, Juan's shop (a.k.a. BOA) is probably the most respected and well-known surf-shop with a good selection of new and secondhand boards. It's located in a suburb called San Francisco in the city and his shaping room is just across the street from the shop. If you are interested in a custom-made board, go and talk to him in person. It's always enjoyable to have a chat with a shaper like Juan.
Other than BOA, there appear to be a couple of other individual surf-shops in town, but I couldn't find them. Albrook Mall and Multiplaza Pacifico, two of the most popular shopping malls in Panama City, have big surf-brand retailers where you will find all kinds of surf-accessories and major-brand surfboards such as CI, Byrne, Lost, Super Brand, Firewire, etc. A shop called Super Deporte in Albrook Mall has good stock in surfboards.
Keep in mind that prices for these imported brand-new boards in Panama are at least USD550 with additional 7% tax on top of it. It's not very cheap! It also seems that more boards have Futures than FCS fin-boxes all around in Panama, which is no problem for me as I switched from FCS to Future a long time ago.
10. Other Considerations
The below is mostly my blah blah blah and has very little to do with surfing in Panama apart from the very first paragraph. I'm still posting this anyway, so that you might find some of my blah-blah-ness useful.
I. More Surf-spots
Other than what's mentioned above, there are heaps more surf-spots in Panama. Colon areas on the Caribbean-side and near David have already been explored, yet it's worth checking them out. You'll be stunned to discover scarily empty spots. Otherwise, if you are a Kepa-like adventurous surfer, you might wanna try the coast of the Darien Gap. But please make sure you take the best policy for your travel-insurance and come back alive!
II. Illegal Stuff
Unfortunately, the white powder and other illegal substances are silently but surprisingly openly creeping into Panama. Well, you might think that it's cool to do it and you are taking advantage of being "anonymous and overseas". However, what's illegal in your home country is mostly illegal in Panama too. You might still say: "Whatever I take and do is none of your business!" Indeed.... Nevertheless, once you turn into a psycho with your red eyes wide-open and start intimidating others or acting weirdly, you are uncool.
III. Young Ignorant Backpackers
Don't get me wrong! I'm not calling for anti-Semitism at all and I have nothing against Jews: I'm not Muslim. Nonetheless, I do have a say to those young Israeli backpackers in Panama: Why are they so inconsiderate and always self-centred? Why do they always travel in a group with such an aloof attitude? Why do they always paddle around and try to take off on every single wave?
I know any people in a big group could misbehave in public. We, Japanese, might do it too. Yet my personal experiences with those least mindful Israeli boys and girls were so overwhelmingly bad, and I swear that no other nationalities could ever surpass what I witnessed them doing in Panama.
IV. Panamanian People
In my opinion, many Panamanian people slightly resembled Japanese people because they were quite reserved in the first place. Yet, as I got to know them, they slowly started to show who they really were.
Generally speaking, Panamanians are very relaxed and easy-going: they can be too relaxed at times which got me frustrated on a few occasions. It seems to me that many Panamanians are struggling to come up with the definition of their true national identity apart from having constructed that great canal.
Being a travelling surfer in Panama for the past five and a half months, I can assure you that this country has such a great diversity of people - indigenous, migrants and ex-pats, and it can also boast of its wide variety of animals, birds, insects, vegetation and waves. Furthermore, I met lots of exotically beautiful women in this country, although a few of them made me seriously wonder whether their faces and figures were real or fake. Hahaha!
Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain.
Panama has now become one of my favourite countries. I will come back here again for sure!