Our team member Sali just returned from a month of surfing the Panama and the Azuero-Peninsula at the Pacific Coast.
Arriving at the International Airport Tocumen in Panama City was a whole new experience! As I stepped out of the plane, there was a stuffy breeze stinging into my nose that reminded me of some old rug – wet doggish smell. And as soon as I left the arrival hall, it felt like a sledgehammer punching my face! It wasn’t even the heat that made me meld down, but the humidity was just incomparable! Still a bit dizzy I stumbled out through a whole bunch of fussy cabdrivers, trying to not let them drag off my surf bag. Getting a ride shouldn’t be a problem here I thought.
But I’ve been travelling already for quite a bit, so I knew it would be a gringo-rip off to hop into the very first taxi right there. Despite their vigorous attempts to pull in sales I walked past them and waved down some local taxi further down the street, away from all that hustle and bustle. It took me a 30 min. ride to get to the Gran Terminal in Albrook, which is the main hub for pretty much any bus leaving Panamas biggest city.
Pulling of my tie down straps of the cab I was already surrounded by another bunch of crazy bus drivers yelling at me. Slowly but for shizzle I realized that travelling Panama was all about negotiating! The taxi ride, the bus ticket, the car rental, the fruit and water bottle at the bus station, everything!! Thank god I speak some Spanish and could understand that the Panamanians usually pay no more than 25-50% of the price they were asking me for. So finally I got a ticket to Las Tablas for a reasonably good gringo price of 9$, including the transport of my double board bag and duffel bag. The bus was surprisingly comfortable, air conditioned and roomy, so I could have a good nap along the way. From Las Tablas to Pedasi I had to change to a smaller bus and from there to an even smaller one to the Venao beach.
Unexpected surprise of the day was the driver dropping everyone off right at their doorstep, which was dead useful after such a long day of travelling! So even after all it was a simple thing to get there by bus, although I had to change a lot and it wouldn’t have been possible without bringing my own tie down straps to keep my travel bags safe on the roof!
Playa Venao lies on the Azuero peninsula in between two small hills leading into the Pacific Ocean on both sides, protecting the half-rounded bay from stronger winds. The sandy beach leads into tropical jungle vegetation, being home to an incredible variety of flora and fauna. Howler Monkeys, Macaws and Mexican Grackles are just a few to name, giving their area a very own ambient noise 24/7.
The Azuero peninsula is not as famous yet as other pacific surf treasures like the prestigious region around Santa Catalina. But the surf here has always been a regional classic. The place was discovered in the flowering 60´s and since then it has attracted mayor amounts of surfers from around the world. Amongst these, old timers like Tom Curren, Matt Archbold and Sunny Garcia helped to spread the word. The most recent exposure has come from International Surf Contests, the ALAS (Latinamerican Surf Association) and the local Panamanian Surf Circuit. Since then the place kept exploding in development with new real estate projects every day. Which might not be the coolest thing for the upcoming future, but unfortunately is an unstoppable reality here.
|Luckily for now it still is a hidden gem to explore. The beach break offers two main peaks in the middle of the bay, peeling down into lefts and rights on either side. While on full tide waves get a bit fat and on low tide closeouts occur pretty often, they pick up best during mid-tide. Wave size mostly ranges from 4-6 ft. but can also hold on to bigger swells up to serious overhead conditions. During these days the break is offering long, hollow barrel sections on the outside, making the fast and sucky drops a challenge left to the more experienced surfers, while softer peeling walls on the inside offer more playful and forgiving sections making it even a great spot for cruisy, mellow longboard rides! In most cases, the glassy mornings and late afternoons will dominate the line-up, while after 10-11am you can expect some onshore winds. During the rain-season it is most likely to get really glassy after the showers. Accordingly to locals high season peaks from around December to March, respectively July to August. In between more inconsistent surf with variable winds can be expected, although reasonably good swell hits the bay all year round.
I just can say that in mid-July I had the most wave time since a long time and it was well worth it to wait for some good swell picking up, since the outside barrels just get magic on these glassy days!!
It was kind of a surprise for me that on a surf spot like this there was no such thing as the usual localism and rivalry out there in the line-up. Maybe it was because there were only very few locals out surfing at the time and they ripped way more waves than anyone else anyway! Or it was the fact, that on the good days the bay delivered so many peaks along the 2.5km stretch that everyone could get on the good spots at some time. At least I never had any issues out there with the local surf community and they even cheered at you while getting a good drop! Mahalo for that!
After a good session every surfer knows that feeling of getting out ravenously hungry! And there is no such thing as the perfect meal at the right time when you come back to the shore. But as I am picky about a good way to recover and refuel quickly I’m always on the run finding the right food or a good place to eat. Which on the seaside most of the times consists of fresh seafood, fruit and tons of veggies. Still there surprisingly was a great deal of meat dishes on the menus everywhere. And the beef was of excellent quality at all times!! A bit strange for a fishing town I thought, until I found out that the Chiriqui region is also called the Texas of Panama and is very well known for its proud cowboy culture and a prolific cattle production. So when coming to the food issue, the locally very different ceviches, the surf n’ turfs, good old steaks or simply the catch of the day on a barbie were my way to go. And the only thing I could complain about was the chitras or mosquitos having a bite too while sitting outside at night.
Getting a rental car to spot check the different towns for other surf spots or simply to get out to the next town to buy some food was pretty much the only trusty way without being dependent on the regional bus system. Driving through these remote villages surrounded by rainforest or lush green fields was giving me a feeling of being in a giant real life zoo environment.
An environment that should be taken care of I thought first. But the further away from the touristic hotspots I went the worse it got concerning waste management, sanitation and over all the preservation of rare species and nature. It was not only the ignorant tourists hauling half of their homes to the beach and leaving heaps of trash behind. It was also the local people simply not knowing better how to solve their problems. Without accusing them not to know, I was in for a shock seeing them throwing just anything into the ocean, dropping out all their garbage along the roads or even plundering newly laid sea turtle nests to sell the eggs to local restaurants as a so called delicatessen for a good amount of money! It seemed that up to now they simply just didn’t have to care about environmental issues. Everything they needed for a living was there right in front of them for years, plenty of it!!! But times are changing, more and more local people are taking their chance trying to open new hostels, restaurants, touristic tour guide companies etc. But the structures to manage all this upcoming tourism are just not there. There’s a lot of effort needed to educate the people how to change into a more sustainable way of life. Otherwise this hidden surf gem will no longer live on in its unrivaled beauty for more than a few years.
|I am grateful and really happy to have seen Panamas west coast in a yet very pure and original way, but I’m very curious about how this place will cope with its destiny in the future. Let’s hope it’s still worth to come back for a surf in ten years. For now Panama, it was quite an adventure along your way! And there’s more to come.
Mahalo – Pura Vida!