Santa Catalina is a small beach-side town on the Pacific coast of Veraguas, Panama. Santa Catalina is known for fishing, surfing, snorkeling, and SCUBA diving. Most visitors will exploit its proximity to Coiba National Marine Park.
Santa Catalina has a population of around 300 people and an expat community of about another 50 people. Most of the townspeople speak only Spanish.
There are no ATMs in town. Credit card usage has become more common among the dive shops and hotels, but not among the restaurants/bars, so be sure to pack enough cash.
Santa Catalina is accessible via a single road from Sona. A 4x4 vehicle used to be a requirement for this road, but it is now paved so an economy rental car should suffice. Although the town is only about 50km from Sona, the drive takes an hour and 10 minutes due to all of the potholes.
A local bus runs 2-3 times a day between Santa Catalina and Sona for a cost of $4.65 and takes around 2 hours. From there you can connect to Santiago.
The San Isidro bus line connects Sona to Panama City, at a cost of $10 and another 5 hours of travel time.
Taking a taxi from Sona is a little faster than the bus and costs $30.
On foot, one can walk the entire town including both beaches in about 2 hours. There are two major roads that intersect at the town center which allow access by car.
Both beaches, Playa Estero and the smaller one at the end of the major road through the town are idyllic.
As one may gather from the hammocks strung up on nearly every piece of property, the primary pastime in Santa Catalina is chilling out.
- Scuba Coiba. The oldest diving and snorkeling shop in Santa Catalina, run by an Australian expat named Herbie Sunk. This shop is so laid back the only thing they take seriously is minimalism.
Santa Catalina has one tiny store in the middle of town which sells toiletries, canned goods, alcohol and random produce. Now accepts credit cards.
Fresh produce is sold off of trucks which can be a welcome midday snack, and fishermen gather by the mango tree to sell their daily catch.
There are few independent restaurants; see the sleep or drink section for information on hotels or bars that serve food.
All of the bars in Santa Catalina close their doors at 10 and this is tightly enforced. Drinks start at $1
Transporting open containers is allowed, but consuming them in public is not. Be careful, the police are bored.
- Dive Stop. A bar in the town center run by a Canadian expat which serves Mexican food. Tourists can't resist this place.
- The Santa Catalina Inn, ☏ . Adrian, the hotel manager, is possibly the most hospitable person in the world. This hotel is near the center of the town and has five rooms available with AC, showers, and hot water. The restaurant on-site cooks fresh local food but is closed one day during the week. The hotel is affiliated with Scuba Coiba. $45.
- Hotel Sol y Mar, Calle Principal (at the entrance of Santa Catalina, the cabins on a hill overlooking the ocean), ☏ . Check-in: 2pm, check-out: 12noon. hotel y restaurant sol y mar has spacious,comfortable cabins spread on the slope of a hill overlooking the ocean and surrounded by tropical trees. The rooms have a/c,private bath w/ hot shower, satellite tv,mini-fridge,terrace w/ hammocks. The restaurant offers food,drinks,pool table,billiards and internet service. Credit cards accepted. 60 to 90usd.
The town has no hospital, doctor, but has a pharmacy.
Although you won't get malaria from the mosquitos in Santa Catalina, they are still relentless and walking around with hundreds of bites can be a major drag. Sand flies (chitras) are rarer but can inflict quite painful stings. If you invest in one piece of personal care product for your trip, make it good insect repellant.
If you plan to take a dip into the open waters of the Pacific a wetsuit is highly recommended. The water is warm enough (unless you're diving), but the larger concern is these string-like jellyfish which some people discover they're violently allergic to.
Pack appropriately, as the nearest hospital is at least an hour away in Sona. Visits to specialists will require a trip to Santiago, another hour further still.
Aside from the usual crimes of passion, the town is extremely close-knit and serious crime is unheard of.
There is the occasional petty theft, so the usual precautions apply.
Drug dealers will solicit you but are quite timid as the police take drug enforcement very seriously. Simply ignoring them works best.
The townspeople, including the police, do aggressively cat-call women which takes the usual Panamanian form of hissing. Women do best to just ignore these advances, as responding appears to simply encourage their behavior.
There is one internet cafe outside of town limits, about a 20 minute walk up the main road. Some of the hotels/hostels have wifi at varying speeds, though they generally prefer to keep their internet to their guests.
Claro and Movil+ provide 3G cell service.
Your only way out of town is back to Sona from which you can take another bus, usually Santiago or Panama City.