Getting Lost and Found, Finding Whalesharks, Panama
My dream to swim with whalesharks started more than a decade ago, but several attempts to see these majestic creatures have failed. As I was travelling south from Nicaragua I kept hearing stories of whalesharks being seen in a small Pacific surf town of Santa Catalina. So I could not bypass an opportunity to fulfil a dream.
Arriving at sunset, I was greeted by the great orange ball setting on the ocean as surfers rode the world class break given the same name as the town. What followed were four days of paradise: eating seafood, surfing, bonfires on the beach and searching for whalesharks.
Isla Coiba is an hour boat ride north of Santa Catalina and a beautiful marine park full of amazing life. It is possible to stay the night on the island and dive a number of reefs but I opted for the dedicated whale watching snorkelling tour. The tour agency said four whales were in the area and that Isla Coiba had a resident whaleshark that stayed all year round.
We visited four different snorkelling sites and spotted a large school of Manta Ray which was spectacular, but unfortunately little time was actually dedicated to searching for whalesharks and by the end of my tour we hadn’t spotted on. The search continues.
Isla Coiba is a playground for the rich and famous with Bill Gates visiting just a few months ago and some of the nearby islands owned by a car magnate. But it is a place everyone can visit regardless of budget.
Tours: Snorkelling is $75 including park entrance. Diving starts from $160 for a two tank dive.
Hostel: Surfers Paradise. A 20 minute walk from town, this relatively modern hostel has unbelievable views of the ocean, sunset and the class wave of Santa Catalina. Dorms (US$15) have five beds spread over two floors with the front open to provide uninterrupted views. Privates and camping is also available. Set on the cliff overlooking the break, it has a bar, decking, a kitchen, but no breakfast.
Oasis Surf Camp is right on the beach and offers camping and private rooms. It has a restaurant but no kitchen facilities. It is accessible by foot only and high tide turns a small creek into a river, making the crossing difficult for about an hour a day.
Getting there: all buses between David and Panama City pass through Santiago. From there take a bus to Sona (check) and from Sona buses run to Santa Catalina (last bus 430pm). Shuttles run direct from David to Sanata Catalina.
Note: there are no ATMs in Santa Catalina and the nearest bank is in Sona, a 1.5 hour bus ride away.
Between Bocas and David is a hostel set in the mountains that is a must visit. Located close to waterfalls, having its own river and cascades passing through the property, this is a great place to stay for a few days or more.
A wild white-headed capuchin monkey regularly visits and joined us for a yoga session. A very cute rescued kinkajou (honey bear), named Rocky, loves to be visited at night, and has a particular palette for wine.
The owners have created a brilliant community vibe with communal dinners, a bar, and a treasure hunt that adds a fun twist to a jungle hike. We had a great group and it was hard to leave.
Nearby is a small canyon and waterfall which can be accessed on local transport. Lost and Found also offers tours to coffee farms, hot springs and further to reach waterfalls.
Getting there: Lost and Found Hostel is on the road between David and Almirante (ferry to Bocas) about 50 minutes from David. Busses run every half an hour. Be prepared for the 20 minute uphill hike to the hostel.