You can get to any town in Panama, you just have to change the bus several times. Going across the country on the Pan American highway is quick and straightforward but as soon as you want to go to those surfing towns at the pacific coast, it becomes more time consuming.
On our surf trip along the pacific coast of Panama we relied on the public transportation and it was a stress-free and cheap way of getting around. However before getting on the buses we found it almost impossible to find any information on the internet about connections and travelling with surfboard.
Now we want to share our experience with you - in the hope that you can benefit from it. All the mentioned bus prices are per person, the taxi prices are always for the entire vehicle. We traveled with two surfboards ( 6'0 & 6'3) and two backpacks.
Bus: Panama City to Playa Venao
Route: Panama City - Las Tablas - (Pedasi) - Playa Venao
Duration: 7-8 hours not including waiting time.
Get a direct bus to Las Tablas (5h / 10$) at the Albrook Mall Bus Terminal in Panama City. Prebooking the ticket, even at the ticket counter, is not possible. Buses leave every hour - we got the one at 6am and arrived at 11am.
The connecting bus in Las Tablas doesn't leave from the same terminal but from the main square Due to our surfboards and laziness we got a taxi ride there for 1$. From the main square you can either catch a bus to Pedasi and change buses again or you wait for a direct bus to Playa Venao. We got the direct bus at 1:30pm. Waiting was not a problem for us. We left our baggage on the bus, grabbed some lunch, relaxed in the sun and enjoyed the free wifi on the main square.
It takes around 1 hour to get to Playa Venao and costs 4$. Alternatively you can take a taxi from Las Tablas for about 40$ or take a taxi from Pedasi to Playa Venao for 24$. If you miss the last bus in Pedasi (3pm!), taking a taxi is your only option.
Surfboard: Travelling with the surfboard on the buses was not a problem. On the bus to Las Tablas the boards went in the luggage compartment below. The bus to Playa Venao was much smaller and the surfboards went on the roof. We did not have to pay extra.
Bus: Playa Venao to Guanico
Route: Playa Venao - Cañas - Tonosì - Guanico
Duration: a bit under 3 hours
Playa Venao and Guanico are not far apart but the journey takes a while. In front of the EcoVenao hostel in Playa Venao we got on the 6am bus to Cañas (20min/ 0.60$). After waiting in Cañas for 20 minutes we caught the minibus to Tonosi (1.5h / 2$). Only a couple buses per day drive from Tonosi to Guanico and we just missed one. Hence we got a taxi for 10$ and the ride was about 30 minutes long.
In the event that you are coming from Panama City, a direct bus goes from Las Tablas to Guanico. The bus ride costs about 6$ and is about 2 hours. In case you want to check out the surf in Cambutal, just take a bus from Tonosi.
Surfboard: It was cramped on the minibuses as all the seats were occupied. The vans didn't have a roof rack so our shortboards went on the backseat with the noses sticking out the windows. However the taxi to Guanico was a pick-up truck and therefor had enough space. The transportation of the surfboards for the whole journey did not cost extra.
Bus: Guanico to Santa Catalina
Route: Guanico - Las Tablas - Chitre - Santiago - Sona - Santa Catlina
Duration: 8.5 - 9 hours
On this route we had to take five - 5! - different buses, nevertheless it was a very uncomplicated and relaxing journey. It was always a smooth transition with the connection buses from Guanico till Sona. The first bus was the 6am minibus in Guanico that went straight to Las Tablas (2 hours / 6$). Tell the bus driver where your next destination is and he will drop you off at the correct bus terminal. Our second bus went to Chitre (1 hour / 2$) and from there we got on the third bus that drives along the highway to Santiago (1.5 hours / 2$). The fourth bus connection was from Santiago to Sona (1.5h /2.50$).
In Sona we had to wait one hour for the fifth bus to leave to Santa Catalina - which was perfect as it was lunch time. 🙂 The minibus to Santa Catalina costs 4.65$ and was another 1.5 hours drive.
Surfboard: From Guanico to Las Tablas it was a bit difficult with the surfboard. Due to the lack of a roof rack and because four surfboards were onboard. With all the surfboards, backpacks and passengers, tourists as well as local, we had to use every possible niche. Nevertheless it went well and everybody was relaxed about it. The driver did not ask for an extra charge but our surfboards did take away two seats - so we gave him 2-3$ more.
The buses from Las Tablas to Sona were full-size coaches and the surfboards went into the luggage compartments underneath at no extra costs. The minibus from Sona to Santa Catalina had a roof rack. It seemed very common that surfers come by as they handled the surfboards very careful and it did not cost extra.