Santa Catalina, Panama is a small surfing and fishing village on Panama’s Pacific coast. It’s remote — about a five hour drive from Panama City — and still underdeveloped.
The village has a fruit stand and two small “grocery” stores that sell some basic items: rice, noodles, canned goods, shampoo, random hardware and cleaning supplies. My local CVS or Duane Reade in New York has a wider selection of groceries. The stores don’t get deliveries every day — or even every week. Many times I’ve gone in to find shelves almost bare, until the delivery truck rolls through town.
There’s no mail service here.
The closest bank, ATM machine, and pharmacy are in a town one hour’s drive from here.
The road from the main intersection of town to Playa Estero, the big surfing beach, is approximately one mile long. It was paved only in 2010, before a big surfing even that happened here.
The other streets in this village are dirt and gravel roads, with no lights.
What it lacks in amenities and shopping it more than makes up for in vibe, beauty, and peace. The beaches are beautiful. The water entices. At night, the black sky illuminates the stars. The people are friendly and generous.
Yards aren’t fenced. Dogs and horses roam free, and feed off the land, or out of garbage cans.
There are a disproportionate number of restaurants for such a small village, with an incredible diversity: sushi, pizza, spanish tapas, Italian, Mexican, and lots of fresh fish. The food is universally excellent.
Here’s what you won’t find in the food scene: “to-go” cups. Only the pizza place offers take-out. People sit like human beings to eat and drink.
Santa Catalina is not the backwoods. Many hotels and hostels offer air conditioning, hot water, and toilets that flush. Although I met a woman the other day who is living in a house where she must put her toilet paper in the trash (instead of flushing it), that seems to be the exception, not the rule.
The Quality of Living
It’s easy to sit in a big city and, from the distance, deride this place as “third world.” But when you come here, and you stay a while, you begin to question what is really “third-world.”
Although the quantity of things and amenities here may not be much, the quality of life — the quality of living — feels much higher than what I most people I know experience in the U.S.
The people who live here don’t seem to feel they are lacking in anything. They are happy in their lives. They aren’t pining for more money or more things, caught in an endless cycle of working to fulfill desires that don’t fill their souls.
I can’t say the same for people I know back home, where everyone is striving for more, only to feel like they increasingly have less.
Many people here work 6 days a week, but on their day off, they rest. They swing in the hammocks in front yards during the day and gather with friends in the evening or good food and good conversation.
Every place in this town is like the bar in the old TV-show Cheers.
Santa Catalina is a great place to slow down the pace of life and learn to live according to the rhythms of nature. It’s a place where schedules run by the timing of the tides, rather than the time of the clock. There is no time famine here — no mantra of “I don’t have time” or “I’m too busy.”
A Special Place
In my time here so far, the other travelers I’ve met have agreed with me: this is a special place. Most people are concerned that this place will eventually become another Tamarindo or Tullum — havens that now feel over- commercialized and over visited.
The locals have passed laws to prevent too much over-development — there won’t be any chains here, hotels are restricted in size. But there’s no doubt that within five years, it will look much different here. That won’t be entirely bad.
With that development, ATMs and other conveniences — like more reliable internet and cell service — are sure to follow.
For now, life is simple here. The fact that there aren’t many conveniences or much development is part of its appeal.
Even the daily power outage that knocks out cell service and wifi is a reminder of why you come here: to connect with what’s important — yourself, other people, and the wonders of nature.