Desde Pacifico hasta Caribe
This winter, Bruno, Txomin and Marie went to Panama trying to escape the cold french winter. Here is their adventure :
It’s hot, really hot.
This is our first impression of Panama as we step outside Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport on a beautiful spring evening.
After a fifteen-hour flight from Bilbao, we leave behind the heavy March rains that continue to pummel our native Basque Country and set foot in a tropical climate during the dry season. With temps peaking at over 35°C (95°F) and the humidity off the charts, at least the offshore winds promise to be as epic as our hopes and dreams…
No time to get acclimated: Roberto, our driver for the evening, welcomes us with a smile. We load the board bags onto the roof of his huge US-size 4×4 typical of the area.
Six hours later, after crossing the entire country on the legendary Pan-American Highway and driving through the remote countryside, we finally arrive in Santa Catalina, a real jewel along the Pacific Coast. It is midnight, and Pedro, with what will prove to be his characteristic exuberance, welcomes us to his splendid residence. We settle into comfortable bungalows along an idyllic beach with sands smoothed by the gentle wind coming off the Pacific. The trip can now officially begin!
Well, perhaps tomorrow: we decide get some shut-eye to rest up for tomorrow’s adventure.
Pedro Charriaud, a local guide and former competitive surfer from Grande Plage beach in Biarritz (France), has been surfing the area since the 1990s, slowly but surely settling in and building a family, a life, and a home along the water. Pedro is one of those rare characters whose comfort with his surroundings is simply mindboggling: the man knows and smiles at everyone, he fishes, hunts, gathers plants, surfs, and the list goes on and on. His wife, Maitane, and their son, Peio, also live in harmony with the bountiful natural environment that Pedro fell in love with 25 years ago. In one word, we are PSYCHED to discover their world.
The very next morning, we meet Igor Bellido, the smiley, energetic, and legendary photographer-film maker who will travel by our side throughout the entire adventure. Everything is all set: we know that we are spoiled and clearly hooked up with the right people. Now the trip can really begin.
Over the next two days we shift into high gear, leaving little time to rest as we surf one new spot after another, meet with locals, and eat incredibly delicious belly-filling meals. No time to think, either: we decide to beeline it to the Caribbean Coast to catch the promising swells in the forecast.
The always tireless Pedro loads the 4×4, and as if on a family trip we head off towards Bocas del Toro, an archipelago located an 8-hour drive away on the other side of Panama’s central highlands (which tops out at well over 3000 meters elevation). Along the drive Panama reveals its true inner beauty: rolling hills, cloud-capped peaks, quaint villages, native communities, volcanoes, and national parks. This crossing is simply a breathtaking experience.
Once we reach the end of the road and load our car onto the ferry, the Caribbean also reveals to us its own unique treasures: idyllic islands, tropical forests, mangroves, and the promise of new adventures.
The Caribbean Coast, covered in a thick tropical forest, houses a significant part of the world’s biodiversity. More exposed to rainstorms than the Pacific Coast, we definitely get wet; at certain times it feels like buckets of water are being dumped on our heads.
At any rate, the waves promised are here: we discover Playa Bluff’s legendary waves break (on Isla Colon’s main island) onto the golden sands of a beach surrounded by exotic vegetation. Two days of committed surfing for the crew and Marie, the only girl here, who cuts her teeth on the huge tubular waves. This is her first “tropical” surf trip, and she more than demonstrates that she has the right stuff. Way to go, Marie!
Bocas de Toro remains a place where Mother Nature still reigns, with white sand beaches, turquoise-blue waters, colorful reefs, giant turtles, dolphins, howler monkeys, parrots, etc. The archipelago is one of the last refuges for several endangered species. Aboard a “lancha,” the small characteristic boats used locally, we explore several spots on the surrounding islands where calmer conditions allow us to try new maneuvers and watch Peio on his way to becoming a truly great surfer; he may only be 11 years old, but he rides waves incredibly well.
The meals also live up to their singular reputation: corvina (a fish similar to bass), centollo (crab), prawns, shrimp, coconut rice, and patacon (fried slices of banana or plantain) mixed with tropical fruits such as mango, papaya, and pineapple. What a feast!
But there is no time to chill, since the forecast now calls for swells and great conditions over the next few days back on the Pacific Coast, so we decide to return to Santa Catalina. The drive takes even longer this time because a pothole in the road gets the best of even our rough-and-tough 4×4’s suspension. No problem for Pedro the mechanic who, with help from Txomin, makes the necessary repairs in the middle of the mountains. These two guys never cease to amaze!
Fatigue finally starts to set in Maitane, everyone’s mom around here, makes a hearty meal, and after a few local stories we head off for a fitful night’s sleep.
Our last few days in Panama alternate between surfing with locals at Catalina’s main break, hikes up and down the area’s creeks, and drinks at one of the many vista points to enjoy the sunset. Santa Catalina is a small fishing village where the locals are either cowboys or farmers. The atmosphere is simple and welcoming, a place where you can scuba dive, do yoga, kayak, and even horseback ride.
Coiba, the island facing Santa Catalina, contains a national park currently classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. This marine reserve is well worth the detour and offers the chance to go diving to see sharks, turtles, colorful fish, and so many underwater creatures! Add this so many empty beaches that are amazing by default.
After a few more sessions surfing at the spot right in front of the family abode, it is unfortunately time for us to head back to France.
The return drive offers our crew the opportunity to see Panama City by day. The buildings along the water provide it with its magical allure as the Miami of Central America. The atmosphere is pretty laid back and clean, but behind its postcard appearances is a serious underlying problem: the water here is extremely polluted. Apparently the city has no real water treatment facility, and the trash of some 1 million inhabitants is thrown straight into the sea.
However, there is a glimmer of hope, and change is apparently on the way: one of the country’s specificities politically speaking is their decision to significantly reduce defense spending in favor of protecting the environment. We can only hope that the situation will significantly improve over time.
What an incredibly intense trip. We owe it to Igor, Pedro, and his family, for opening up the country and culture, and allowing us to experience in 9 days what would have taken several weeks to explore. Panama offers a wide variety of incredible landscapes and curiosities that make the place simply unforgettable.
After saying our warm and tearful goodbyes, we step onto the plane, promising to return as soon as possible!
Muchas gracias Pedro y Mai ! Hasta pronto !
A few practical tips and info:
Photographer: Igor Bellido / @igorbellido
Guide: Pedro Chariraux / firstname.lastname@example.org
Lanchas/boat rides: email@example.com
The population of Panama: the country’s 5 million inhabitants are mostly descendants from Spanish conquistadors, Sub-Saharan African slaves, and native peoples. Not surprisingly, Panama’s population is very mixed (approximately 70%).
Currency: the balboa (like the beer), but aside from coins up to 1 balboa, the country does not print any bills, so plan to bring and use US dollars.
Beer: Balboa, like the currency, or Panama, but locals prefer the former.
Water temperatures: between 26°C (79°F) and 28°C (83°F). No need for a wetsuit, but an Eicoprene top will allow you to take full advantage of every session.
Also, consider that Panama has almost 2500km of coastline, offering plenty of opportunities to discover and explore new spots to surf…