In Panama, it is possible to swim in both the Caribbean Sea as well as in the Pacific Ocean on the same day….but it would be a shame to do so. If your schedule allows it, you should definitely plan a visit to both sides, as they are so very different and both totally worthwhile.

For my visit to the Pacific I’m headed for Santa Catalina. Leaving the Pan American Highway behind, time seems to have stood still here: sleepy little villages consisting of nothing more than a small school, a church and a tienda – shop – filled to the brim with everything you can think of, your basic local village store, where people still come shopping on horseback. The road is surprisingly new, which may be an indication of changes to come, but for now the contrast with modern cities such as Panama City couldn’t be greater. The same can be said for Santa Catalina, a tiny fishing village. Everything breathes a relaxed atmosphere around here, the going is extremely easy and the colourful locals, whose main source of income consists of fishing and tourism, mix wonderfully well with the surf dudes who, bare footed and with their boards tucked under their arms, walk out to sea to check the waves. What a great place! It reminds of places I saw in Costa Rica when I was there over 15 years ago.

After travelling through Central America in 2005, Americans Michelle and Mike were also taken in by this charming little town and subsequently never left. In Santa Catalina, they are the founders of small-scale and ecologically responsible tourism business.Together with the locals and expats, they have worked hard to preserve the village’s local and unique character and promote sustainable development. And that’s a good thing, because at the moment, there are currently no zoning and building restrictions in Santa Catalina which has the potential to lead to unorganized or larger scale developments. For Santa Catalina is the perfect starting place for a visit to Coiba National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage site). This archipelago, an hour and a half from the shore, is home to an impressive variety of unique flora and fauna, both on land and in the waters.

Michelle and Mike also run one of the first accommodations in Santa Catalina; La Buena Vida Hotel & Restaurant. A charming and alternative little hotel consisting of four villas in different sizes that sleep 2 to 8 people. All four villas are cosy and comfortable and are uniquely decorated incorporating mosaic and recycled materials. The couple run also a hostel directly next door and two other houses which offer something for every taste and budget. You can also enjoy a lovely breakfast, lunch or drinks in the pleasant ‘La Buena Vida’ Restaurant. And for all you yogis and yoginis, here’s an added bonus:……this Local Hideaway offers daily yoga classes in the private outdoor yoga studio. Michelle is a certified yoga instructor and alternates lessons with another instructor. La Buena Vida is a relaxed and lovely place to stay, and whether you’re together, with friends or with family, it is the perfect place to start enjoying the Santa Catalina slow life and the surroundings. For instance, there are several small shops and some lovely restaurants and bars in the town centre. And the sunset is unparalleled this side of Panama! Be sure to bring a flashlight for the return journey, for the stars are bright and the nights are pitch black around here!

Beach life on the Pacific side is different in the sense that it is all about catching the perfect wave here. If you’re not a surfer yourself, it is great to simply watch the surfers perform all those cool manoeuvres. Or you can book a lesson and try to tame the waves yourself. When you’re staying in Santa Catalina a trip to Coiba is a definite must; rarely have I seen so many incredible things when I was (just) snorkeling: various kinds of sea turtles, dolphins, sharks, eels, stingrays, colourful fish and, if it’s the season, you may even spot some humpback whales from the boat. (And if, like me, you’re not a diver, try booking a tour that’s exclusively for snorkelers with ‘Watching Dolphin’).

What a wonderful time I had in Santa Catalina! It’s great to see that there are still places in the world where time has stood still (no ATM’s, for instance), where life is pleasant and where you can find an amazing variety of people who will hopefully succeed in preserving this place for many years to come….that really is ‘La Buena Vida’!

Read more about Panama in my blog ‘Panama Post’

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