Inside Panama’s Secret Surfer Paradise

A five-hour drive south of Panama City’s high-rise condominiums and glitzy casinos is the Azuero Peninsula—a surfer’s paradise that the rest of the world is just now catching onto.

Inside Panama’s Secret Surfer Paradise

Photo courtesy of Surf Dojo

For years, Panama’s Azuero Peninsula was known mostly for its seco, a sugarcane-based spirit mixed with coconut milk, and its polleras, traditional hand-embroidered dresses worn at beauty pageants and festivals. Now, seemingly overnight, the peninsula is Panama’s hip place to be. In the area around the once-quiet cowboy town of Pedasí, about 200 miles from the capital on the southeastern coast of Azuero, waves of young Panamanians and expats are opening upscale surf resorts and farm-to-table restaurants at a dizzying pace.

The most interesting development centers around Playa Venao, a horseshoe-shaped bay fringed with jungle, about 16 miles southwest of Pedasí. Resorts such as El Sitio and Playa Venao Hotel Resort offer whale-watching and fishing trips to clients who sometimes fly in on helicopters, while no-frills surf hostels like Selina and Eco Venao serve the basic needs of hard-core surfers. Bolstered by one of Panama’s most consistent, year-round breaks, Playa Venao is also home to Surf Dojo, a surf school where world-renowned surfers such as Magnum Martinez run camps.

On the west end of Playa Venao, Guatemalan chef Andrés Morataya opened the restaurant Panga in mid-2016, sourcing sustainable spider crabs from a local diver and oysters from a farm on nearby Isla Cañas. Morataya brines his chickens in ocean water, forages for wild berries, and experiments with food waste such as fish fins, which he smokes over nance wood, fries, then serves in a soy-vinegar sauce.

Along a jungle-shrouded road just off the beach, visitors can get their caffeine fix at the tiny Playa Venao Café and Roastery, which roasts beans from the highlands of Panama’s Boquete region. Chill on the patio with a cup of pour-over.

If isolation is the endgame, there is the 11-cabana Sansara Surf & Yoga Resort in Cambutal, a village 32 miles west of Playa Venao. Daily yoga and meditation sessions take place in a thatched-roof rancho facing the Pacific. For beach outings, the staff will fill your cooler with fish tacos or Thai-style Buddha bowls. Surfboards are available for rent, bicycles are complimentary, and secluded, empty beaches await.

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