Playa Venao: Surfing in Panama

The setting sun glistens off of a surfboard in Panama.
The setting sun glistens off of a surfboard in Panama.

Playa Venao, Panama for some Surfing

By Jared Shein

I just wanted to surf.

I was in college in Massachusetts and it was cold and I was bored.  I had taken some lessons in Israel the year before and had become a not horrible surfer. I could get up on the board most of the time if the waves were small.

And getting up felt so good.

Actually riding a wave (even a small one) was such an exhilarating feeling; I wanted to learn to ride bigger waves, but I needed practice and practice is hard to come by on the east coast in December.

Ariel and I with our surfboards at Playa Venao
Ariel and I with our surfboards at Playa Venao

I had expressed my interest to my mother a few months back and she had mentioned seeing cheap flights to Panama.

I remember taking a quick look at prices and not really think too hard about it.

I had never really planned a trip before.

But then I spoke to my friend Ariel who had expressed interest in going to South America after college.

The pieces in my mind started to come together. “If you really want to go to South America, why don’t we just go now?” I asked him.

A few months later we were at Logan airport at four in the morning.

Journey to the Beach

We connected in Florida and landed in Panama City, where we took a cab to our hostel and went for a walk to stave off the jet-lag.  Wandering around is one of my favorite parts of traveling. The town we were staying in was nice, and only a short walk from the ocean.

We awoke the next morning and took an Uber to the bus station.  We used some printed out directions to find the right gate and around four hours later we found ourselves in small, rural Las Tablas.

The public bus ride was pleasant.  It was one of those big tour buses, and not only were the seats big and comfortable, but the air conditioning was on the whole time. I took a few looks around at the people and we looked to be the only tourists.

Locals eat at a restaurant in Las Tablas Panama
Locals eat at a restaurant in Las Tablas Panama

Las Tablas

Once in Las Tablas, our directions instructed us to find a minibus to smaller and more rural Pedasi, so we started walking towards the center of town.

We walked for a few minutes and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere, so we turned around and went the other way.

No dice.

We re-read our directions.

Then we re-read them again.

We walked around some more.

We thought about asking for directions, but neither of us speaks Spanish, so we went back to the gas station where the bus dropped us off and pondered what to do next.

Lucky Break

Then a guy came up to us.

“¿Están perdidos?” he asked us.

“No Hablo Espanol,” we responded.

Then, in perfect English, with no hint of an accent, he said, “Sorry, do you guys know where you’re going?”

We were stunned.

“Were trying to get to Pedasi, and then Playa Venao,” we said.

“Oh,” said the guy, “I’m going there too, come with me.”

We obliged.

The isolated bus station Alan brought us to
The isolated bus station Alan brought us to

Alan From Colorado

We started to chat as we walked towards the town.

His name was Alan, and he was from Colorado. He came to Panama a few years ago and befriended a guy near Playa Venao. He had come back every few years since and planned on moving there in the future.

We followed Alan down a few side streets and into the center of town.

Las Tablas isn’t so big, but there were shops and restaurants and plenty of minibusses going to all sorts of places.

It wasn’t long before I spotted one with “Pedasi” written on it, so I told Alan. “That’s not the right one,” he said, and we kept walking.

We passed more shops, more restaurants and more buses headed to Pedasi, but none of the buses was the one that Alan was looking for.

We kept walking and the town started to dwindle out. The streets became quieter as we walked towards a small building with a sheet metal roof.

A box of chicks atop a van
A box of chicks atop a van

The Bus Station

There were unmarked minibusses next to the building, and Alan went to talk to one of the drivers.  Ariel and I looked around. We expected to go somewhere remote, but not like this.

There were locals sitting around the bus station, fruits, vegetables, and chicks in crates on the vans.

Alan came back and told us that one of the buses was going straight to Playa Venao in a half-hour, so we put our stuff down and chatted some more.

We told Alan that we were going to go surfing, and he told us to remember to put sunscreen on the tops of our feet.

When the half-hour was up we put our bags on the roof of the van, piled in and went on our way.

For three hours we drove through the Panamanian countryside, stopping to drop people off at their isolated houses, and even at a river to drop off at a boat.

We arrived at our hostel, thanked Alan, got our bags, and paid the driver (the three-hour journey cost like $3 each).

The front of Venao Cove Hostel at Playa Venao
The front of Venao Cove Hostel

Hostel Venao Cove

We walked down the dirt road to our hostel, and my god was it nice.

Venao Cove Hostel is a simple place.  There were two dorm rooms and two private rooms, an open-air kitchen area, a big table for eating, and a sitting area with hammocks.

The beach is so close you can see it from the hostel.  We walked out past more hammocks and wandered along the sand.  For the first time in a while there was nowhere we needed to be.

The view from the sitting area in back of the hostel at Playa Venao
The view from the sitting area in the back of the hostel

The hostel also had surfboards to rent for a few bucks a day, and the next morning we hit the water.

Ariel had never surfed before, and I was shaking off the rust so the first day was rough.

We didn’t get up much and I was a little discouraged.  You have to wipe out a lot of times before you can really surf.

The next day was better.  Ariel stood up a few times, and I was getting more used to the new boards.  At the end of the day, we showered, ate and talked about our plans for the rest of our week.

There was a small hike by the ocean to do at low tide, but the rest of our time was to be spent surfing, and enjoying our warm escape from the cold New England winter.

On Friday night everyone at the hostel gathered for dinner made from local fish, and fruits and vegetables from a truck that visits the hostel twice a week.

At dinner, we met a couple WWOOFing their way through South America, and sacrilegious Jew, and a woman who had moved to the area to start an ice cream stand on the beach. We also met Leaf, the hostel owner, who moved to Panama from Australia because he saw an opportunity and was bored with the status quo.

The view on a hike near the Playa Venao
The view on a hike near the Playa Venao
Ariel on a morning run at Playa Venao
Ariel on a morning run
A view of the beach
A view of the beach
An evening bonfire at Hostel Venao Cove
An evening bonfire at Hostel Venao Cove

We spent the next few days surfing, hiking and hanging out, then took a minibus back to Panama City. We spent our short time there walking through the fish market, and marveling at the stark contrast between the old architecture of the old Casco Viejo and the skyscrapers of the modern city.

Fishing boats at a dock in Panama City
Fishing boats at a dock in Panama City

Visit Panama!

Panama is a really great place to visit. It’s a small country, so its oceans, jungles, and vibrant cities aren’t very far apart and can be easily accessed by good public transportation. The country is very safe, and they conveniently use US dollars throughout the country.

Visit the Panama tourism website here

Check out Venao Cove Hostel here

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