The best days as a Kalu Yala Intern are vacation days, and for every 10 days of work, we get 5 days of vacation. The first vacation Nathan and I went on was to Santa Catalina. This little surf town is located in the Veraguas Province on the Pacific side of Panama and about 6-7 hours north of Panama City. So our first adventure to Santa Catalina was catching the bus from Albrook Mall to Sona. We woke and were on the metro bus to Albrook by 9:00 A.M. Once we arrived at Albrook we found the bus terminal that goes to Sona and bought tickets for $ 10 dollars a person. After our surfboards had been loaded underneath we climbed on the charter bus and waited for our departure. While we waited we ate our breakfast of PB&J’s and canned coke. Not the healthiest of breakfasts but it was what we had. Finally the bus departed the station and off we went to Sona. As we rode the bus I once again got to travel over the Panama Canal Bridge and got to see all the large cargo ships traveling along the Canal. It’s amazing to see the Canal and know that it is a man-made structure that was built over a century ago. The amount of work that must have gone into the Canal is hard to fathom.
The bus ride to Sona was suppose to be about a 4 hour trip. Luckily for us this bus wasn’t horribly cold like most other charter buses down here but it did have it’s downfall. The whole way to Sona the bus blasted the sound on the movies and luckily for us they were all children’s cartoons like Madagascar, a Kangaroo movie, and my personal favorite Alvin and the Chipmunks. No matter how loud we turned up our music and tried to sleep the sound of the Chipmunks continued to invade our sanity. At the halfway point we stopped at a great little rest stop that was very clean, had reasonably priced souvenirs and some good smelling food. When I climbed back on the bus I found my lovely boyfriend Nathan munching on some fried chicken legs. He said it was some of the best fried chicken he had had in a while. He offered me some but 10:30 was a little to early for fried chicken for me.
Once we arrived in Sona we had just enough time to grab our stuff from the bus we were on and hop on the bus going to Santa Catalina. It wasn’t one of the big charter buses we had just gotten off of but one that looked a little more dated and definitely smaller. I didn’t even know if we were going to be able to fit the surfboards in but apparently the bus driver had experience with them before because he stuck them through a window in the back of the bus and somehow wrangled the surfboards into the overhead compartments. Just had to duck if you were headed to the seats in the back. From Sona it was suppose to be a busride that could take anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours. Why such a big time duration you may ask? Well in Panama a very large portion of the population takes public transportation everywhere. To have a car in Panama isn’t a necessity, it is a luxury.
After what seems like 20 minutes we hear a loud bang, resembling an explosion, and the bus begins to slow and finally comes to a skreaching halt. Yep our bus had broken down so pretty much every man on the bus jumps out to inspect what they think could be the problem. Of course no one sees anything and the bus driver starts back up the engine like looking at the bus was going to miraculous fix our busted bus. To no ones surprise the bus wasn’t fix and just made a bad grinding noise when the bus driver gave it gas. After this I think they got the message and everyone unloaded. Luckily though there was another bus that was approaching from the other direction that the bus driver was able to convince to take us all to Santa Catalina and you know what the funny part was we still had to pay for transportation on that broken down bus. I wasn’t very happy about that. So on we climbed onto a different bus that was equally dilapidated as the one we had just gotten off of. It was another 2 hours after we got on that bus until we arrived in Santa Catalina. It seemed like every 5 minutes we were stopping to drop someone off at their home. Nathan found a friend though on the last bus whose name was Rachel. I think she was somewhere between the ages of 7-8 and really enjoyed smiling, staring, and talking to Nathan.
Once we arrived in the little beach town of Santa Catalina we were instantly greeted by a guy named Jeff who said he worked at a new resort called Time Out Cabanas and was trying to book guests at a still under construction rate of $50. This was a little too steep for our budget and we already had in mind that we were going to stay at Oasis Surf Camp which was located on right on the beach at a good surfing spot and had great reviews from the Lonely Planet Panama book. Even though we refused Jeff’s services he offered to take us to Oasis Surf Camp so we didn’t have to hike in. It was about a 15 minute hike to Oasis Surf Camp from the bus stop and the center of their little town. Once we arrived at Oasis we offered to tip Jeff for taking us, but he refused and just asked us to come check out Time Out Cabanas if we got the opportunity.
Nathan and I crossed the little river that cuts Oasis Surf Camp off from the rest of Santa Catalina and go into the office of the camp to retrieve our keys and room assignment. Room rates were $40 and included a private bath that was suppose to have hot water; unfortunately though that was just a myth. Oasis Surf Camp was really cute with it’s different colored cabins, palm trees, and Palm roofed cabanas. Plus it was literaly sitting right on the beach. You could walk out your door onto sandy ground and be in the water in less than a minute.
We were assigned room number 6 so we walked down the line of cabins and found our to be of a bright lime green color with a hammock swinging on the porch. We went inside and were satisfied with the room but the bed situation didn’t make me happy. In the one and only room were three twin beds. One a single one on the right side and bunk beds on the left side. This wasn’t quite how I wanted to spend my first night on vacation since that is currently what I have been sleeping on in the Kalu Yala internship house, but hey it was better than nothing. Since the day was approaching late afternoon and a storm approached we decided to hang out in the cabin until the electricity went out. That is one thing that is a constant battle in Santa Catalina. Over our stay of five days, the electricity went out three times. Anyway since the electricity was out we decided to go try and find some cervezas. Luckily we didn’t have to explore too far and went right over the little river to a hostel/restaurant named Mama Ines. Here we saw a couple of friends we had met on the bus and enjoyed a beer or two watching the sun slowly slink away. After that it got dark really fast and the bugs came out. Since the electricity still hadn’t come back on after we had finished our beers Mama Ines didn’t serve dinner that night, so we along with our California girl friend decided to go back to Oasis to see if they were still serving dinner. Luckily for us we crossed the river and the surf camp had lights. This was a good sign and meant dinner for us.
The restaurant is Italian owned and had very good food. For an appetizer we got bruschetta and I think it is some of the best bruschetta I have ever had. For dinner Nathan and Reesa had fish with a garlic sauce that came with rice, or patacones and a salad. I had the fried fish with patacones and a salad. I was very satisfied with my choice because the salad was very fresh and I got a whole fish, head and all. Overall dinner was great except for a pesky cat who wouldn’t leave me alone because he wanted my fish. He was a persistant little bugger who was clawing my leg and one time almost jumped in my lap to try and steal my fish away. Even after bonking him on the head with the handle of my knife he still didn’t get the hint until a staff member of the restaurant came over and scared him off. At the end of our dinner Reesa returned to her hostel and we decided to go hang out in our cabin. As we walked back home we saw what had to be hundreds of crabs running all over the sand. Both big and small ghost crabs as well as tons of hermit crabs. On our porch alone there we about five hermit crabs and three ghost crabs. I got a couple pictures and hung out in the hammock a while before we turned in for the night.
The next morning we woke up and checked out the surf. Unfortunately it was still overcast and cloudy. The waves were no good either because it was so choppy. So we hung out around the surf camp for a little while and I got to do a little writing in my travel journal. After an hour or so Nathan decided to go surfing since the waves had cleaned up a bit and I continued my writing in the hammock until the house made came up to me and tried to ask if I we were going to stay the next night or check out. I thought we had to be out by 12:00 that afternoon, but she must have been ready to get us out of there becuase she ran me out at 11:40. I wasn’t too happy about this and was glad to move on to the next place.
We decided to check out the situation at Mama Ines hostel but unfortunately there wasn’t any private rooms for the night so we decided to stay and have lunch and continue on our way. For lunch both Nathan and I had what we were going to be chicken tacos. When it came out though it was an open soft shell taco with re-fried beans, chicken, lettuce, tomato, and onions. It was surprisingly good though and we were glad it was only like $5.00. We also got a side order of patacones that were exceptionally tasty. After settling up for lunch we decided we would go check out Time Out Cabanas and see what they could offer us.
We walked about ten minutes along the one and only road in Santa Catalina which is lined with mountains, and cow fields until we found the road that lead to Time Out Cabanas. As soon as we entered the big wooden doors of Time Out Cabanas we knew we were heaven. Surrounding us were twelve cabanas, a large pool with swim up bar, and a palm covered pool house that we soon found was going to be the restaurant. Behind the bright blue pool was lush green grass and another small palm covered building holding several hammocks, which were perfect for watching the sun slowly sink over the ocean. About fifteen yards from the hammock cabana was a steep drop-off lined with palm trees that overlooked the rocky point and Pacific ocean.
As we stood around and looked at the resort Jeff walked outside and began to talk to us. He showed us around the property, and then took us to check out one of the cabanas. Each cabana was equipped with a porch, a full sized kitchen, a bedroom that had a queen bed, A/C, a flat-screen T.V., and dual sliding glass doors that led onto the porch. There was also a bathroom with modern appliances and hot showers. We couldn’t have been any happier with the $ 50 under construction price, so we told Jeff we would take it for the night. Luckily we got the cabana with the hammock on the porch too.
While we were getting settled in we got to the man in charge of Time Out Cabanas whose name was Phil. He was a cool guy and offered to help us in any possible. He even showed us his freezer full of goodies that made us fall in love with Time Out even more. Phil told us that since Santa Catalina was such a small place that a big grocery store was nonexistent and that the only place to buy groceries in the town was at the Panamanian tienda, which is usually very under stocked and have a very limited selection. That is why Phil thought it was essential to have frozen foods as well as produce available to his guests. We were very thankful for this because we got to cook our own delicious meals consisting of filet mignon, giant prawn, potatoes and onions, and tomatoes. He even offered to let us use his personal grill. Man those filet mignons were delicious and very reasonably priced at $4 a bag; which usually contained 2-3 pieces of meat. This guy had figured it out. Everything from the atmosphere to the small details, such as providing food, had been thought of and we were so glad to be enjoying it in the solitude of the little surf town of Santa Catalina. This is what we had been looking for.
That night we slept the best we had slept in a while. Maybe it was the clean delicious smelling sheets or maybe our full bellies, but regardless we were happy and excited to start the new day. Once again we made an awesome meal of fried eggs, potatoes and onions, and what do you know more filet mignon. Breakfast of champions for sure, but we were going to need all that protein for surfing and swimming. After we cleaned up from breakfast we took a walk down the rocky shore and found what seemed like hundreds of pieces of sea glass, as well as some really pretty conch shells. At the end of the rocky shore was a path up to Pooky’s old house which was located right on the point and was the best spot to watch the waves roll. We sat and watched the waves until Nathan worked up the courage to go test out the legendary surf spot. The point in Santa Catalina is a rocky right breaking point that has on average 4-15 foot waves weights, with the largest wave faces reaching 20-25 feet between the months of February to August. Talk about some big waves! The day Nathan decided to go beast the point the waves were anywhere from 8-12 feet. This was a little intimidating I’m sure but he paddled out and surfed his first point break. In total he successfully caught five waves. I was sitting at Pooky’s house watching, taking pictures and doing a little praying for my brave surfer.
Finally Nathan’s surfing session was over at the point and we decided to go check out the other surf spot in Santa Catalina called Estero. This sandy beach break is a great place for beginners to intermediate surfers and the ideal place for me to do a little surfing. Off we took with our surf boards under our arms passing Mama Ines, the little river, and finally to Estero beach where Oasis Surf Camp is located. Once there we were a little disappointed in the waves but decided to go out anyway. It took a while to paddle out since the ocean was a little choppy but once I finally made it out I realized it was probably too big for me, and I was right because as soon as Nathan realized that I wasn’t surfing in the whitewater close to shore he yelled at me to go back in because the waves were too big and he didn’t want me getting into a bad situation. So I paddled in, put my board on the beach, and went back out into the ocean for a little swimming. We stayed at Estero for probably two hours and decided it was time to walk into town to get some supplies for dinner. So we walked into the center of town to find the tienda; which like Phil said was very under-stocked. They didn’t have any beer in their fridge or any colas. We were able to find a pineapple, and a bag of Cheetos, some vanilla wafers, a bag of spaghetti noodles, and two little packets of spaghetti sauce though. With this we decided that we would buy some shrimp and beer from Phil and would make spaghetti with shrimp for dinner that night.
The next day we woke up and had Spanish omelettes and Duran coffee for breakfast. We once again took a walk on the rocky shore to digest our breakfast and look for more shells. After we checked the point and decided that the tide was still too low for Nathan to go surfing, so we went back to Time Out and spent a little time enjoying the pool. We had a friend join us in the pool too. The rottweiler named Bronco had decided he needed to cool off as well and sat on the pool steps watching as we swam around. Then he decided he needed to go to the swim up bar and chill for a minute. I thought this was the funniest thing but then Phil showed up and reprimanded Bronco for joining in on our pool fun. Guess it wasn’t as amusing to him that his dog was swimming in the brand new clean pool.
A couple hours passed and Nathan decided to go surf the point. This time I decided to stay at the pool and take full advantage of the rest and relaxation. I periodically went and checked on Nathan though making sure the monster waves of Santa Catalina hadn’t gobbled him up. One time I had gone to check on him I got to see a huge set of at least 12 foot waves roll in and whipe out a handful of surfers. I hated it for them but as far as I know everyone made it safely through them and continued on with their wave chasing.
I returned to the pool after my second check and decided to eat some Cheetos, and continue my sun bathing. After a while Nathan came up and we hung out in the pool for a little while. As we sat there a storm began to creep up on us and we knew it wouldn’t be long before our beautiful beach day was over. Luckily for us we had prime seats for the show. As it began to rain we made our way down to the palm cabana with the hammocks and watched as the storm enveloped us. Lighting lit up the sky and the thunder crashed down like a bomb. The rain would come in heavy sheets that blocked our view of the surrounding mountains and even the island that was across the way from Santa Catalina. I don’t think I’ve been that close to such a large storm in a long time. It had so much power that I sometimes considered abandoning the hammock cabana to find safer shelter but the storm captured me and I had to watch. It was beautiful and mesmerizing.
After the storm let up we decided that we would clean up for the evening and go get some food. By this time the power had gone out in Santa Cataling so Phil gave us a candle to light our way. We had read some great reviews about the pizza place Jammin that was right in front of Time Out Cabanas so we decided we would try that. Stone oven pizzas are always great and we hadn’t had pizza in a while. We asked Phil and Jeff if they wanted to join us for dinner and they agreed, so we all headed to Jammin dodging the puddles and hoping that the pizza place would be open since the electricity was still out.
As we arrived at Jammin, seriously a minute walk from Time Out Cabanas, we noticed that it was open and candles were lit everywhere. Obviously this was a common thing in Santa Catalina so having candles on hand was essential. Jammin was a bright blue two story building that had all open air seating. The atmosphere was very warm and colorful and made you want to sit and enjoy pizza and beers all evening in the candle light. The four of us all ordered a round of Balboas and looked over the long pizza menu. They had all the traditional pizza toppings I am use to but they also had some I wasn’t so familiar with but still sounded very good. One of those pizzas was a tuna pizza with onions and olives. Although it sounded like something I liked I decided to go with my favorite pizza of pepperoni, mushrooms, and black olives. Nathan decided on a Hawaiian style pizza that consisted of ham and pineapple, and he also added jalapenos onto it. Phil and Jeff also went with the Hawaiian pizza but they shared the one instead of getting a whole pizza like Nathan and I did.
We didn’t have to wait long for the pizza at all and were even a little shocked at how fast they came out. I couldn’t have been any happier with my pizza though. It was a thin, flat-crust pizza with loads of delicious cheese and fresh ingredients. This is probably one of the best pizzas I have ever had, so eating the whole thing wasn’t a problem. I started by not eating any of the crust, but after finishing the whole pie I decided I had to go back and finish off the crust too. It was just too delicious not to. After a few more beers and some good dinner conversations we decided it was time to settle up and get back to Time Out.
We had heard that the bar up the road was suppose to be having a big party that night, but Nathan and I were a bit beat so we decided to stay at Time Out while Phil and Jeff went to go have a few drinks and mingle with the locals. With our bellies full of pizza and a few beers it wasn’t long before Nathan and I were down for the count. We awoke the next morning knowing today was the day we would be going back to Panama City and back to work. Nathan was up and out before I even crawled out of bed. He wanted to surf the point one more time before we left Santa Catalina. Luckily he got a couple waves in and came back to help me get breakfast ready. Our last breakfast at Time Out Cabanas was another breakfast of champions. We had filet mignon, eggs, and potatoes with onions. During our stay at Time Out we definitely ate like royalty. Boy do I miss those filets right now.
After breakfast we packed our stuff, said our goodbyes to Phil and his doggies, and climbed in the back of Jeff’s truck. Off we went flying past the little town of Santa Catalina and through the lush green terrain. As we approached Sona we could see the sky turning into a dark grey mass of clouds and knew that we would soon be getting wet, and boy we were right. About five minutes outside of town the sky fell out, but luckily for Nathan and I we were partially protected by the cab of the truck. Our German friend who was sitting in the rear of the truck bed wasn’t so lucky though. We pulled into the bus station and quickly unloaded. Nathan and our German friend had to run to the ATM to take money out so I waited at the bus station hoping that Nathan would get back in time for us to catch the next bus to Panama City. According to the bus schedule the next bus out was at 1:30 and it was currently 1:23. Time was running out and we hadn’t even found that bus that we needed to catch. Luckily Nathan got back around 1:27 and we were able to run and hop on the bus going back to the city. Although we thought we had just made it we ended up sitting at the bus stop in Sona for another thirty to forty minutes waiting for the bus to fill to capacity. Finally we pulled out of Sona and were headed on our way back to Panama City. This bus seemed to take forever though and the bus drivers continued to stop and cram more and more people onto the bus. This got old really fast and unfortunately for us we had decided to sit at the very back of the bus so we were pretty smashed, and not to mention poor Nathan was soaked and the bus was heavily air-conditioned. Luckily I had gotten on the bus and was able to change clothes while Nathan held up a towel for me.
After what seemed like hours and hours we finally began to see signs for Panama City, but once again the Panamanian culture overtook us and the bus broke down. By this time I was over it and was just ready to get off of that cramped freezing bus. Luckily it was just a flat tire and the bus drivers had it fixed with twenty minutes. On we go, over the Panama Canal bridge and finally to Albrook Mall where we would catch the metro bus to our apartment behind Parque Urraca. Finally we made it back to our apartment and were thankful to be home. It had been an adventure for sure. We sat on our porch and reflected on our trip to Santa Catalina. Although we had had our difficulties with transportation to and from Santa Catalina overall the trip had been amazing and we were thankful for the great hospitality and friendships we had made at Time Out Cabanas. There we had found paradise and it had rejuvenated our minds and spirits. Hopefully I will get the opportunity to visit the beautiful little surf town of Santa Catalina again very soon!