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As the saying goes, everything is about location, location, location, and surfing is no different.   Choosing the right beach to learn to surf is key to getting the most out of your first introduction to surfing.

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Depending on the location you chose to learn to surf, your first experience with surfing can either be an enlightening, eye opening, life changing experience connecting with the ocean and mother nature in a way that bonds you forever to the surfing life style, or your experience could be a horrible life threatening one that you wish to forget.

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Without the right inside knowledge from a surfing expert, many beginners make the mistake of trying to learn to surf at beaches that are not meant to be for learning.  It would be the equivalent of trying to learn to snow ski on a very steep bumpy mountain, or on a completely flat surface that is impossible to get any speed on – you need a safe soft sloping surface to learn to ski.

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If learning to surf at the wrong beach that is too advanced, most beginner surfers end up completely frustrated and disillusioned after spending all of their energy struggling in waves that are too big and too powerful – not a fun experience.  On the other end of the spectrum, those who choose to learn to surf at beaches that have waves that are too small or too weak or inconsistent or poorly shaped, end up getting what we surfers call “skunked”, and they don’t catch any waves, don’t learn anything, and of course the experience is not fun.

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As a beginner, it is important that you learn to surf at a beach that has the following conditions:

  1. Ocean Bottom: The bottom of the ocean must be sandy and comfortable to walk on without hurting your feet, and without stepping on sting rays, lion fish, or coming into contact with other sea creatures like sharks that are dangerous.
  2. Current: The current must not be too strong.
  3. Water Depth: The depth of the water must not be too deep, ideally, waste to chest deep at most where you need to catch your first waves.
  4. Waves: The waves must not be too big or too strong but they still must be big enough and strong enough to enable a beginner to catch waves and actually stand up and ride them.
  5. Water Temperature: The water temperature of the ocean needs to be comfortable and inviting and not too cold.
  6. Wind: The wind must not be too strong, ideally the wind would be dead wind or light onshore or light offshore.
  7. Surfboard Rental Availability: Unless you purchase your own surfboard, you need to rent one. The beach needs to have availability of surf board rentals that are ideal for beginners. The ideal surf board should be a soft-top, wide board that floats you well, with at least 7 to 8 feet length, and should include a leash and preferably plastic fins that don’t cut your skin upon contact.

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Santa Catalina is considered by many surfing experts as having the best, most perfect, most consistent wave in Central America – but they are referring to “La Punta” of Santa Catalina (the point break).  The point break at Santa Catalina is world famous for its’ amazing tubes, incredibly long rides, powerful surf, and consistency of swell, which is why the biggest international surfing competitions have been held at La Punta.  Of course, La Punta should only be surfed by advanced surfers.

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However, Santa Catalina has multiple surfing beaches, and offers two different beaches that have the ideal conditions for beginners that are learning to surf in Panama.

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Playa Santa Catalina, located in the village (town) of Santa Catalina, offers ideal conditions for small children or toddlers to learn to surf. The Santa Catalina Island, just a kilometer off the coast, acts as a barrier to the south swells, so small 6 inch to 1 foot waves slowly roll up the sand bottom beach with water depths of just 1 to 2 feet, with no current, protected from the wind, so the little ones can easily be accompanied by their parents to be pushed into the waves on soft boards and have the time of their lives.  I taught both of my toddlers (ages 1 and 3) to surf at this beach, and it is really the best place on earth to teach small children to surf. Slap a Go-Pro camera on the tip of the board, and you will have the most incredible memories to share with your family for generations to come.

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For older children and adults, Santa Catalina offers Playa Estero, the absolute BEST beach in Panama to learn to surf.  It offers ideal conditions for learning to surf in Panama – flat sand bottom, water depths of 2 to 4 feet, little to no current, with perfect beginner waves that are just big enough to enable beginners to stand up and ride for a long distance in relatively shallow water in safe conditions. The water temperatures are perfect, like taking a bath in a comfortable warm Jacuzzi, and the winds are consistently light off-shores or light on-shores for ideal surfing conditions. At Playa Estero, there are no dangerous sting-rays, lion fish or sharks, and the beach is long and flat so your family can take long walks down the beach, play ball, ride bikes, or lounge in the sun. Plus, Playa Estero offers a nice creek that provides a fresh water bath after your surf lesson or surf session. Playa Estero at Santa Catalina really is the top choice for beginners to learn to surf in Panama.

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Another advantage that Playa Estero at Santa Catalina offers over other Panama beaches, is that beginner surfboard rentals are inexpensive and readily available with the various surf schools lining the beach, plus a variety of soft boards that are ideal for beginners of all ages are FREE for guests of Hotel Santa Catalina Panama (www.hotelsantacatalinapanama.com) .

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Hotel Santa Catalina Panama offers not only FREE soft boards for guests, but they also have their own on-site Santa Catalina Surf Shop (www.santacatalinasurfshop.com)  which offers a complete line of surfboards of all types, shapes, and sizes for all levels of surfing, for rent or purchase, plus all the surf accessories including surf wax, decks, leashes, fins, board bags, surf gear, board shorts, lycra shirts, bikini’s, hats, and surf lessons. If you happen to be in Santa Catalina, even if you are not staying at Hotel Santa Catalina, stop in and visit their surf shop, watch a surf video, and get to know the surf scene.

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My top 5 picks for beaches to learn to surf in Panama are the following:

  1. Playa Estero, Santa Catalina, Sona, Veraguas Province: Ideal for beginners or advanced surfers.
  • Advantages: offers sand bottom, safe 2 to 4 feet depth, consistent good waves for beginners, and board rentals and surf lessons are readily available at a variety of surf schools, plus free soft board rentals for Hotel Santa Catalina guests.
  • Disadvantages: heavy offshore winds during dry season (December through February).
  1. Playa Venao, Pedasi, Los Santos Province: Ideal for beginners or advanced surfers.
  • Advantages: offers sand bottom, safe 2 to 4 feet depth, consistent good waves for beginners, and board rentals and surf lessons are readily available at Shokogi Surf School.
  • Disadvantages: sting rays can sometimes be a problem, water temperatures can become quite cold and uncomfortable due to seasonal currents, heavy offshore winds and jelly fish during dry season (December through February), and large swells can cause heavy dangerous currents.
  1. Playa Reina, Mariato, Veraguas Province: Ideal for beginners or advanced surfers.
  • Advantages: offers slate rock bottom that is easy on the feet when stepped on, waves are consistent with good size (but never too big) and good shape for long rides left or right. Surfboard rentals are available at Hotel Playa Reina (hotelplayareina.com) .
  • Disadvantages: water depth is deeper so it is only for beginners that are comfortable and capable of paddling to catch the wave instead of standing on the ground when the wave approaches. Large swells can cause dangerous currents.
  1. Playa Cambutal, Cambutal, Los Santos Province:
  • Advantages: offers sand bottom, safe 2 to 4 feet depth, consistent good waves for beginners, and board rentals and surf lessons are readily available at Hotel Cambutal.
  • Disadvantages: sting rays can sometimes be a problem, water temperatures can become quite cold and uncomfortable due to seasonal currents, heavy offshore winds and jelly fish during dry season (December through February), and large swells can cause heavy dangerous currents.
  1. Playa El Palmar, San Carlos:
  • Advantages: offers sand bottom, safe 2 to 4 feet depth, small waves for beginners, and board rentals and surf lessons are readily available at Palmar Surf School.
  • Disadvantages: Surf is very inconsistent, so you have a high chance of getting “skunked” with flat surf conditions. Sting rays can sometimes be a problem, water temperatures can become quite cold and uncomfortable due to seasonal currents, heavy offshore winds and jelly fish during dry season (December through February).

 

About the Author: Jon Hanna –  From the Panama Canal Zone, with over 35 years of surfing experience around the world, a seasoned Panamanian surfer. He was the National Champion of Surfing in Panama, and has taught hundreds of beginners to surf at all the beaches of Panama, but mainly at Santa Catalina, his favorite beach in Panama.