By: Steve Betrisal.
Rules are a part of life, and if I could state one rule I have about Santa Catalina, it’s that one should never go there unless you are prepared, both physically and mentally, for an experience like no other with the ocean and with nature in its rawest form. Today, in 2016, it has been over 30 years since I had been there, every year of which I would fantasize about the amazing waves, the abundant sea life, and the green lush environment. I would often doze off at the office, reminiscing of my old childhood days spent surfing the point at Santa Catalina with my closest Zonian friends (Zonians is a term for Americans that lived in the formerly American operated Panama Canal Zone), but so much time had gone by, that I began to think it was only a figment of my imagination, yet the vintage photos on my wall reassured me of these amazing times in my life.
Interestingly enough, just after I had one of those reminiscing moments, I received a call from an old friend who has family roots down in Panama, and he insisted that I accompany him on a trip, to which I quickly agreed, conditioned upon us visiting Santa Catalina. While my entire childhood and adult life in general has been structured around surfing, my family commitments, work careers, and life’s curve-balls have forced me to put surfing on the lower priorities list over the past 20 years or so. While in spirit I still keep surfing close to my heart and soul, living many miles from the nearest surf break, I’m lucky to catch an occasional day of surfing the Northern East Coast on high holidays. As my trip to Panama was nearing, I began to realize I needed to begin doing some training if I expected to surf Santa Catalina with any sort of confidence, but it was the middle of winter with 4 feet of snow outside my doorstep, and I was overloaded with work at the office, so I just did push-ups and jumping jacks in my living room until my clothes were completely soaked in sweat, while my wife and kids just stared at me in bewilderment as they watched the local news on TV. After a few anxious weeks of preparation, I said my goodbyes to my co-workers and family, and I was off to Panama.
To my amazement, flying from JFK to Panama was shorter than flying to California. As I stepped out of the air conditioning and through the sliding glass doors walking outside towards the bus lane at the newly renovated Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, I had forgotten just how warm it is in Panama. Although it is intense at first, I felt invigorated with the heat, my muscles relaxed and my tired frozen bones seemed happier and more flexible. Here they only have 2 seasons, dry and wet. Dry season is from December through April, and the north offshore winds provide for perfect barrels all day long. On the drive up to Santa Catalina, I had the opportunity to stop and check some of my childhood surf breaks along the Pacific coastline of Panama, and there was a nice little south swell running, so I had the pleasure of riding some fun chest high surf at Rio Mar Point, my old go-to spot about an hour out of Panama City, which to my surprise now has a huge Casa Mar condo development with a 5 star hotel… nothing like the good old days when my friends and I would park our jeeps in the jungle, and shimmy down the cliff to empty waves. By all means, it was nice to get my surf legs back and warmed up in some non-intimidating, warm water surf, because after that, I felt OK about going back to what has always been my favorite wave on the planet, and I told myself I was now ready to tackle Santa Catalina.
After a 3 hour drive from Rio Mar, we finally arrived at Santa Catalina in the late afternoon. I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the distant surfers riding some overhead waves at the point as the sun was setting behind the beautiful Santa Catalina island, just to the right of the point. I was somewhat comforted by the smaller sized surf I saw, but the friendly manager at the hotel informed me that the forecast was indicating a size increase the following day. Positivity was in the air. I was fortunate to get a room at my zonian friend Kenny Myers’ place, Hotel Santa Catalina, as it is now called, which has come full circle since the old days of Kenny’s Surf Camp. It used to be an old tree house like structure, but on the most perfect spot in front of the point overlooking the wave and conveniently located in front of the paddle out channel. At any of the other lodges or hotels in Santa Catalina, surfers have to hobble over sharp jagged reef to get out to the surf break, so staying at Hotel Santa Catalina is key if you are here to surf, not to mention it is for sure one of the nicest places to stay at Santa Catalina. The hotel’s outstanding level of comfort was unexpected to say the least, just the opposite of my comfort level when I got out to the surf the following day, with solid 6 to 8 foot waves, as forecasted.
Drastic change in communities often happen as a result of social progress, and Santa Catalina as a whole was almost unrecognizable from what it was 30 years ago. Rio Mar, Santa Catalina, and many of the popular surfing spots in Panama have become established surfing and tourism destinations. Since my first journey to Santa Catalina back in 1985, Santa Catalina has blossomed in many ways, yet it is still the sleepy little fishing village as it always has been. Kenny’s old surf camp (now Hotel Santa Catalina), which did not even have electricity or running water back in my day, now has all the comforts of any nice boutique beach resort, infinity swimming pool overlooking the surf break, a gourmet restaurant that serves the finest grilled tuna I have ever tasted, satellite TV with all the channels you can imagine, WiFi internet, instant hot water, rooms complete with kitchenettes’ and amazingly comfortable beds and quiet air conditioning, kids play park, surf shop, massage services, yoga classes, you name it, they have it… even hair blow driers on their bathroom walls… In Santa Catalina? Are you kidding me? I literally had to pinch myself. I was shocked but at the same time relieved because at my age, camping is no longer my preferred lodging option for surf trips.
As I meandered around Hotel Santa Catalina, making conversation with other travelers both at the hotel and around the village, I was shocked to learn that the majority of Santa Catalina’s visitors have no intention of ever paddling out to surf the amazing waves at the point, but nevertheless have an enjoyable stay in Santa Catalina just visiting the various beaches, enjoying the great little restaurants and pubs, and going on eco-tours to outer islands in the Coiba National Marine Park, which during my time was forbidden to visit as it was a high security prison for major Panamanian criminals. I always knew that Coiba had amazing sea life, particularly huge quantities of reef sharks (which is why the Panamanians put their highest security prison there, knowing that prisoners would not dare try to swim off of the island), but I learned that Coiba is actually part of the largest living coral reef system on the Pacific coast of the American Continent, which includes the Galapagos islands off of Ecuador, and the Coco’s islands off of Costa Rica. Much of the same marine life seen in the Galapagos can be observed right here at Coiba, at a fraction of the cost, which is why Coiba is becoming so popular among eco-tourists, bird watchers, snorkelers, and scuba divers. Coiba is Americas’ version of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
As I thought about the “social progress” that Santa Catalina has endured, while not exactly first world yet (although slowly headed that way), for the first time, I witnessed at least 15 surfers at the point when the tide was filling in (less surfers as the tide dropped). I could not believe it. Prior to this Panama trip, several of my friends had warned me about how shocked they were by all the change that has taken place since our days of isolated paradise with not a soul in the ocean. The surfing world in general has grown well beyond my wildest imagination. Crowds have become a factor every surfer must deal with just about anywhere they go these days, so I must accept it for what it is… Social progress. It has its’ good and bad aspects, as with anything. But I have to say that overall, it seems like Santa Catalina’s change is mainly just better roads, basic infrastructure like public power, water, communications services, a dozen mom and pop type restaurants & pubs with great food, and a few hostels and hotels servicing mainly non-surfers, which is great for surfers. Other than that, from the point of natural beauty on the ocean, beaches and islands, nothing has really changed… The rawness of all the natural elements are still pristine and just as beautiful as ever.
Although I am not very religious, I said my prayers and asked God for safety as I paddled out on my 8 foot fun board, my heart racing faster and faster with adrenaline as I neared the big rock at the end of the channel, just before turning towards the peak at the point. I paddled over a hefty swell and witnessed the first set rolling in. Suddenly, that magical feeling of amazing stoke reappeared from 30 years back. The surf was as magnificent as ever, perfect tubes pealing with the offshore winds showering me as I paddled over every wave. One thing had not changed a bit, while all my other thoughts disappeared into an abyss. The whole experience just completely validated and completely reassured my faith and my foundation of surfing was still strong as it ever was. Whether I was surfing alone or with a group of friendly travelers like myself, it was irrelevant, as I was once again back in my element and life could not be better.