There's a lot to love about Panama if you're a surfer … just not right now. As I stood face to face with three black, and angry, and possibly armed pimps in a Bocas Del Toro back alley at 3am it was definitely not warmth I was feeling for this place.
Moments ago, the two prostitutes I'd given money to for cocaine and blowjobs had taken off. Dressed in mini-skirts and platform shoes, the two women, both of African descent, had rounded the street corner with their backs arched and the flawless body torque I'd first witnessed in the great American 200 metre runner, Michael Johnson.
They'd easily outpaced my compadre and I, disappearing into a hotel, into which we followed them, whereupon we were met with a less than helpful clerk who seemed to know nothing of two panting prostitutes in platform shoes and mini-skirts who must have just rushed in. I pressed him insistently. He made a phone call. The three pimps arrived. But I was not afraid. I complained to them as a short-changed customer is entitled to do. "I'm a far from affluent freelancer writer," I told them, "and I paid good money for my cocaine and blowjobs. Now, what kind of business are you running here?" I asked. Their reply, said with sneering menace, was simply: "Welcome to Bocas."
Paying for sex and drugs in Central America might seem like a disaster waiting to happen but in Panama it is very much just part of the tourism experience. Prostitution is totally legal and government regulated here. Hookers carry licenses, which they earn by getting regular STI check ups, and they are required to pay tax on their earnings (for a mental picture of the product you're paying for think something along the lines of the Reef girls, who as it happens were originally from Panama). Sharing a border with Colombia also makes Panama one of the world's cocaine capitals. A rock of Colombia's finest goes for around $USD5 in Panama City though most of it ends up here on its way beyond Panama, via the famous shipping canal, to the States and Europe. In fact the largest cocaine seizure of all-time was recorded just off the coast here in 2007 when 19.4 tonnes of pure blow was found on a cargo ship (pure coke retails for about $USD20,000 a kilogram. You do the math).
But all that was just a distraction. We were here to surf and Panama is something of a hidden jewel in global surf travel. We'd landed on a tiny island off the country's Caribbean coast, which we'd reached via the gut-wrenchingest of light plane rides. Due to the constant storm activity in the Caribbean Sea, to the island's north is one of the most consistent zones in the world for chest to overhead waves (it's mostly windswell but the storms are fierce enough to bump it up to a mid-range wave period). The abundance of reef and beach break set ups here make for the ultimate wave park, providing everything from big wave bombies to wedgy reefs and whomping tubular beach breaks. Everyone from DriveThruSouth-CentralAmerica to Julian Wilson, the Hobgoods, Archy, and Dorian have passed through here. The dozen or so wharf-front bars that overlook the surreal aquamarine waterway, with its fluorescent fish, also make it favourite on the tourist party trail. After a day of tubes and layback gouges, there are few better ways to spend an evening than with a pina colada in the sunset and a steel drum serenade (and maybe a giant line of the pow-pow if you're that way inclined).
At its widest point Panama is just 177 kilometres from coast to coast, meaning if there's a swell on the Pacific side you're only a five-hour drive away. The wave we ventured to was situated at a rivermouth home to a large housing project. The river is also one of the closest access points for drug runners coming to Panama from Columbia. Our guide told us he'd often seen them flying up here in speedboats full of blow, sometimes while shooting it out with cops. When they reach the shores of the housing project they dump the bundles on the shore for the poor, predominately black, inhabitants to carry up and stash in safe houses. It is later collected and shipped out via the Panama shipping canal. The wave was fun, a wedgy left-hand reef that ran a fair way. On the boat ride back we passed an overturned canoe riddled with bullet holes as well as the island lair home to the villain in 007 Quantum of Solace.
That night as we drove home I was jerked out of sleep by the van coming to an abrupt halt. Outside beneath floodlights a carload of black men was being frisked at gunpoint by police commandos. We'd stumbled into a drug raid and it was no joke. Our guide pointed to the way the cops were holding their machine guns: with their fingers poised over the triggers. They were expecting an ambush.
For the most part Panama is safe, or at least a lot safer than other Central American surf faves like El Salvador and Nicaragua. Mostly it's because of the shipping channel here, which America owns and is committed to keeping open and stable. In 1989 this was one of the reasons America invaded Panama along with arresting the nation's leader Manuel Noriega for what they said were drug trafficking offences. Today, Panama remains tied to the US dollar and benefits from the stability and political influence of the superpower but there are still pockets of destitution. Things got awkward when the commandos told us our van matched the description of the one they were looking for, and more awkward again when he asked our American driver for his license … only to find he'd left it at home with his wallet. Our Panamanian guide exited the car and engaged in a flowing Spanish dialogue, the commando never taking his finger off the trigger. Eventually he cracked a smile and he waved us off with his machine gun. Opposite: Jack Freestone in a Panama pit. This page: Panama offers everything you'd want in a surfing sojourn – gleaming tubes, intriguing locals and natural wonders.
Just be sure to choose your planes carefully. || all photos Duncan Macfarlane