Riza Ayson, Owner/Trainer at 9Round Fitness, Fountain Valley, CA
When her good friend up and moved to a remote surfing village in Panama, Riza Ayson started planning her visit. By plane, bus, car and boat she would make her way from bustling Panama City to the gated resort town of Coronado and on to Playa Venao, another 5 hours through the jungle along the Pacific coast. All with six year-old daughter Layla in tow.
Playa Venao, internationally known but hard to reach surf village in Panama
“She’s tough, man. I think some adults couldn’t have handled what we did.”
First, there was a fight at the bus station outside Panama City. “I thought the one guy was dead,” Riza explains. “And there was blood everywhere. But there was no where to go. We waited there for two and a half hours for the bus.”
They took the bus to the end of the line, Las Tablas, where Riza's friend Christelle was waiting to pick them up. But by then it was after 6pm - too late and too dangerous to drive the last hour and a half in the dark. The roads are narrow and rocky and the bridges have no guard rails. They needed to stay overnight.
“We just started walking around talking to people in their homes. They directed us to a hostel. You would never know it was a hostel they didn’t even have a sign anywhere on the door.”
Patience and perseverance in check, the next morning they made it to Playa Venao with rows of thatched roof huts and cabins, a restaurant and a few houses facing the beach.
Surf lessons at Selina Hostel in Playa Venao. Courtesy Selina Hostel.
“They have little surf hostels, but they were more like cabanas—no electricity—and people would go there and surf all day. People I talked to said it was like Costa Rica 20 years ago before it was developed.”
“My friend Christelle, whose husband is from Guatamala, just found this place to invest in because you could see it blowing up. You can see signs for developments of resorts that are going up there."
Playa Venao surf rentals. Photo by Riza Ayson.
The great surfing attracts people from around the globe. German, French, Israeli and Dutch visitors are common. But the nearest grocery store is an hour by car. And even electricity is no guarantee.
Riza Ayson lounging at the Selina Hostel in Playa Venao, Panama
"Power went out a couple of times and there was no notification system. I was like, ‘I wonder when the power is gonna come back on?’ And they were like, ‘Yeah, we don’t know.’"
Riza Ayson's daughter Layla gets a horse lesson in Playa Venao.
They rode horses on the beach; mingled with monkeys in the jungle foothills; watched whales migrating right off the coastline; took a boat to Isla Iguana Wildlife Refuge and snorkeled for hours around reefs in the crystal blue water.
One day they took a boat across a crocodile infested river to watch Olive Ridley Sea Turtles make their nests and lay eggs on Isla Cañas. Accompanied by a French biologist and sea turtle expert, Riza captured this video of a turtle digging a nest in the sand before laying her eggs and swimming back out to sea.
Once a year, Ridley sea turtles travel hundreds, even thousands of miles, to return to the beach where they hatched to lay eggs. Video by Riza Ayson.
“It just so happened that one huge turtle came up to the tent right where we were. It took about an hour we saw it make its hole, which is crazy the way they know where and how to dig the hole. Then the turtle went back into the water.”
Six year-old adventure traveller Layla Ayson in Playa Venao, Panama.
New developments are underway in Playa Venao and locals give it 15 years before it starts to attract a significant number of tourists. For now it remains remote, laid back, unspoiled, uncrowded, and worth the effort to get there.
FUN FACT: Panama’s Carnival celebrations are the second largest in the world behind those in Brazil.
- Make time to see Panama City, an international and bustling city with a mix of old-world and modern architecture. Visit the Panama Canal. Stay in the beautifully preserved historic neighborhood of Casco Viejo.
- Visit Coronado, a resort community on the Pacific coast about an hour outside Panama City, filled with expats from Canada and the U.S. drawn to beautiful beaches and affordable living.
- If you make it all the way to Playa Venao, Eco Venao offers a variety of accomodations, activities, and a restaurant.
Casco Viejo, the Old Quarter of Panama City, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo by Tamara Aguilar