Situated in the Veraguas Province, along the country's Pacific coast and just west of the Azuero Peninsula, Santa Catalina is synonymous with surfing. As well, it serves as a gateway to Coiba National Park, which offers intrepid travelers world-class scuba diving, snorkeling, white sand beaches, and numerous other outdoor activities. Once a small fishing village off the beaten track, the town of Santa Catalina is still quite small but growing quickly.
Arguably Panama's most famous surf spot; local and international surfers frequent Santa Catalina to enjoy its consistent and powerful surf, and relaxed, laid-back atmosphere. Budget hotels, surfboard rentals, and surf camps offering all levels of instruction help ensure a steady flow of surfers in search of the perfect break.
Santa Catalina has two beaches: Estero Beach and Santa Catalina Beach. But which is which? Well, it all depends on who you ask. The main road that leads into town—if you follow it to its end—will take you to the ocean's edge, which, on most maps, in referred to as Catalina Beach. Some call it Town Beach and others Estero Beach, but regardless, there is no surfing done here. Rather, it is most frequently used by dive/tour operators as a departure point for trips to Coiba National Park. There are several small islands just off the beach, one of them being Santa Catalina Island.
The second beach, most commonly referred to Santa Catalina Beach, is located just a few minutes east of town—oddly enough, the maps have this labeled as Estero Beach. If you ask any local or surfer about Santa Catalina Beach, they'll send you here. The beach is long and crescent-shaped, with just one small section that extends outward about midway toward its end. To get there, you can either walk along the road that runs from town—turn left off the main road in front of the supermarket—or, if the tide is low, you can walk along the rocky coastline that separates both beaches. The rather uneventful walk along the road takes just 5-10 minutes, whereas the walk along the coastline could take 20-30 minutes, or more. If the tide is out, normal sneakers or sandals will do; the rocks are round, smooth, and easy to navigate.
The town of Santa Catalina is quite small, and the entrance road is lined with residential homes, hotels, restaurants/eateries, dive shops, fishing outfitters, and tour agencies.
There are no direct buses to Santa Catalina from Panama City. There are, however, direct buses to Soná from the Albrook Bus Terminal. Buses to Soná depart daily, throughout the day and stop briefly in Santiago before continuing; your trip to Soná will take approximately 4.5–5 hours. From Soná, you'll need to take a mini-bus to Santa Catalina, which takes an additional 1.5 hours.
From Panama City, you can also take a direct bus to Santiago, which takes approximately 3.5 hours; the buses that service Santiago are larger and more comfortable than those servicing Soná. From Santiago, you'll need to take a mini-bus to Soná, and then another to Santa Catalina.
If you're driving to Santa Catalina, take the Panamerican Highway until you reach Santiago and turn left at the Shell station (Ave. Central.) Continue along this street for approximately 2 miles; passing the church on the left-hand side. At the second crossroad, turn right and continue until you reach the Shell station. Here, turn left and follow the sign to Santa Catalina. Upon arriving in El Tigre de Los Amarillos, turn left following the sign for Santa Catalina, Lagartero. Continue along this road until you reach an intersection, then turn right and follow this road until you reach Santa Catalina. The trip from Panama City to Santa Catalina takes approximately 6–7 hours.