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Rails & Tales
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t was finally here...
Panama awaited us, and we were SO ready to go! The day started off at the Waffle House, across from the Daytona 500, as we waited for our photographer, Gabriel, to finish photography class. After filling our bellies with the last US meal we would enjoy for a week, we headed to FedEx to mail my diamond ring back home. We had been in Florida for business, but didn’t want to be “targets” in South America, so we were taking all the necessary precautions. After all, no need to tempt anyone there, right? We picked up an excited Gabriel and headed to the airport, surfboard bags sticking out the side of our small rental car. We were excited... After months of planning and research, we were finally on our way! Arriving at the airport, we searched several floors of the parking garage before finally finding a cart (we never pay for those things!), and piled it high with backpacks and board bags, then headed for the TACA Airlines counter. Unlike most airlines these days, TACA Airlines checked us in with glowing smiles and everyone was extremely helpful. We knew the board bags would be a hassle- they usually are, but surprisingly-- not at TACA. It was almost like it was a usual occurrence for surfers to be traveling with them. Through security, down the ramp, and onto the plane, TAKEOFF!! That’s when we knew there was definitely something different about flying with TACA. Unbeknownst to us, included in the flight (for FREE) was a nice meal (even on our 45min flights), and right after takeoff they came by with drink carts stocked with complimentary snacks, coffee, soda, juice, and adult beverages. Free headsets were also offered (with a smile), and with over 30 movies to enjoy on our personal video screens, time flew. Upon landing in El Salvador for a quick plane change, a cruise of the airport- making note of anything we liked and might want to pick up as a souvenir on the way home-IF we didn’t happen to find it in Panama City, we were back onto TACA to our next leg, Costa Rica. TACA filled us with another round of food and drinks, a bevy of in-flight entertainment, and touchdown—we were in Costa Rica. It was the rainy season for South America this time of year, and clouds filled the evening sky,
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Dan & Gabriel... Happy to be flying TACA Airlines! making it feel even more remote and exotic. The Costa Rican & El Salvadorian airports were quite interesting to explore, and with a 1 hour layover, we spent it cruising the shops, sipping on coffee samples (the airport shops offer free coffee, chocolate and liquor samples right there in the airport. Strange, but who’s gonna turn down free coffee!) and watching the planes come and go on the water-soaked runway. Boarded flight #3 and we were now amped. Next stop? PANAMA!!! Touchdown... Panama City! Once through customs, we were greeted by David; Morro Negrito had sent him to meet us, take us to the bus station, purchase tickets, and show us where to wait-- nice! Our good friend, Christina (surfer/ photographer), who had arrived earlier from Florida on a different airline was with him also. After excited hugs, jumping up and down in excitement, anticipating the fun we were about to have, we followed David to the van, loaded our bags, and made our way through downtown Panama City to the bus station. Now Panama’s bus system is a little different than what you’ll find in the States... To start with, the terminal was more like an airport... 2 levels, and HUNDREDS of double-decker buses that were plush—and air conditioned. We had been told to dress warm for the ride—the night bus was known to be a bit frigid. After a bite to eat at the bus terminal, we purchased water and boarded our bus (only $15 US per person for a 5 hour ride) bound for the province of David. The midnight bus would be making one stop about 3 1/2 hours into the trip, and we were warned to set our watches and NOT FALL ASLEEP after that point, as we would have to remind the driver to let us off at our remote stop. It was in the middle of nowhere, and if we missed it, it could be hours before getting back. Sure enough, it WAS in the middle of nowhere, but it wasn’t a problem, because as soon as we got off the bus, we were greeted by our Morro Negrito contact, who loaded up the boards and bags again, and we began the slow 1/2 hour drive to the waters edge, through winding roads hedged with thick, lush, jungle foliage. Arriving at the Morro Negrito Surf Camp “holding area” was a relief. It had now been 15+ hours of travel, and brushing our teeth, taking vitamins, wrapping our bags securely in plastic (they warned us everything may get soaked during the boat ride- they were right!), and catching a quick snooze was at the top of our lists. Though the staff offered us beds to sleep in as we waited, we opted for the outdoor
Sandra adding her bikini sponsor stickers (Honey Girl), to her brand new Fluid Surfboard
www.TacaAirlines.com www.MorroNegrito.travel www.PanamaSurfCamp.com
David, ready and waiting to pick us up in Panama City Christina, Dan, David and Gabriel
REAL cuban cigar anyone?
Making our way through the bus termina with our guide, David
Now THAT’S a view to remember!
At the Morro Negrito Surf Camp holding area, waiting for the tide to rise high enough to allow the boat to come pick us up.
Headed to the boat launch... ready for adventure!
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hammocks instead, and relaxed as Gabriel snapped photos of the local horse that roamed freely about, the chickens, and a picturesque bridge near the boat launch. We were waiting for the tide to rise high enough to allow the boat to come pick us up. 7am brought the sound of the boat’s motor, and we eagerly gathered our bags and started down the cobblestone path to the boat launch. Doug (surf guide) and Irvin (boat captain) greeted us. We piled in and were off for a watery, rain-drenched ½ hour ride down a winding, twisting river, surrounded by thick jungle, leading to the open ocean. Majestic outcroppings of black rocks and small islands dotted the horizon everywhere. After 15 minutes, we could finally see the Morro Negrito Surf Camp up ahead, with its bright orange bungalows dotted against the deep green and uninhabited landscape. The rain began to let up SLIGHTLY as we arrived on shore where a handful of staff greeted us and proceeded to carry ALL our bags and boards up to the camp- what service! A short 3 minute walk later, and we had arrived at camp, soaked to the bone, but stoked on our adventure as we followed our guides to our individual rooms. Well groomed trails seem to lead in all directions, each to its own small bungalow, and since Dan and I were the only couple on the trip, we got to stay in the family room, which was farthest from shore, but also had its own private lanai and bathroom, and the best view! Smooth, round, black rocks tumbled in and out with the shoreline break- a mere 25 yards below, and the bungalow overlooked Emily’s… a nice little left that was dependant on the tide levels, but always a fun way to catch a few more waves before dinner, when you needed just one more! Emily’s was unique in that you could surf it ANYTIME you wanted since you didn’t need a boat to get to it, and your friends could watch you surf from the nearby openaired dining room or hammocks. It was like having your own cheering section! That first day in we took much needed naps, and woke to the sound of the lunch bell (love that sound every morning, afternoon and night!). After a filling meal, Christina, Dan and I loaded up the boat with the boards, accompanied by Doug (surf guide), and Eric (boat captain), and we left in search of surf. Morro Negrito Surf Camp is awesome in that there are all styles of waves available. The staff made sure we knew which spots we were surfing, and where they were on the large map drawn on the dining room wall... offering a buffet of
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waves and conditions. You have ankle-kissing baby waves near the boat launch (Elijah’s), Emily’s- the smaller break directly in front of the camp, and Snickers—which soon became one of our favorite waves. Snickers is a solid beach break, canvassed by a mile-long black sand beach, and gets REALLY good on a rising tide (lefts and rights). El Toro (the bull) is another great wave, nestled between giant, foliage covered black rocks, and offering a punchy left or right that looks like it’s going to break right on shore—yet you rarely touch the sandy bottom. There are more advanced waves available- on the right swell- such as Nestles (we didn’t get to surf this spot since it only breaks when it gets over 15ft). Nestles is apparently a death defying drop, into an extremely shallow, boulder-filled, ocean bottom— and just waiting to teach you a lesson. We’re told this is a pop-up fast- while air-dropping into a stand-up barrel that shoots you like a rocket out of the danger zone. No shoulder to speak of on this wave AT ALL. Yikes! Lastly, you also have the ever popular Point, which was close to camp, and offered heaving barrels galore. Less sketchy than Nestles, this was the spot to hone your barrel riding skills, without the crowd. At the Point, a steep and dedicated takeoff is mandatory, and there’s no avoiding the closeout by going for a doggy-door here either. On the waves that barreled, you had to ride into a closeout almost every time, or pay your dues on the shallow, rock-infested inside, that sits mercilessly near a steep, un-scalable cliff. Not the friendliest conditions, but a magnificent wave to say the least. While the Point was FUN we later found out, it also drew most of the other 10 surfers at camp, and after living in Hawaii and dealing with crowds, this spot wasn’t at the top of our list. After all, we were in Panama to surf waves all to ourselves, without hassling with lineups or overly aggressive paddle-battlers. Instead, our crew usually opted for Snickers, which hosted 6’-10’+ wave, after wave, after beautiful glassy wave, after another. As with any surf spot in Panama, the tide really affects the breaks, so on our first day in, we chose the Rock, which was just that… a little rock sticking out of the ocean, that peeled a fun right-hander, with a sometimes, make-able section. Coming from Hawaii, this little wave was a lot of fun to play around on, and I got a serious wake-up call when I caught the rail of my board… squarely on the right jaw. Hearing an alarming crack and fearing the worse I checked my teeth—they were still all there. (Praise God!) An immediate froggy appeared though and cuts lined
Christina and Jordan, practicing their own “surf duet”. They met here in Panama, were inseparable, and have been dating ever since. NICE! Photos: SecretSurf007.com Dan and Sarah at Emily’s
Morro Negrito Surf Camp
Dan at El Toro
Surf guide, Doug, at The Rock
Dan & Sandra, headed to Emily’s for an evening session Sandra @ Emily’s, testing out her new Honey Girl swimwear. BEST SWIMWEAR for surfing... EVER! (honeygirlwaterwear.com) Christina hitting the lip at Snickers
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the inside of my mouth where my teeth had almost pierced through my cheeks. Swelling set in and by nightfall—I looked a bit like a chipmunk hoarding food—for a really long winter. Not all bad came from the accident however. Back at camp that night, after multiple chunks of ice were applied, I was officially awarded the camp’s daily trophy of excellence. Surf guide, Jordan, explained that every evening, directly after dinner, they give an award to the person who really gave it their all that day, made an impressive snap or maneuver, or also- for the most stupid move of the day. I laughingly accepted the award, admitting I had won for the latter, and promised to try to get the award later in the week, for something “smarter”. That night, worn out from traveling, we were asleep by 8:30—and dreaming of surf. Dan and I were excited to greet our longtime friend and surf buddy, Sarah Dean, to camp the next morning. She had endured a laborious flight delay coming out of Hawaii due to engine plane failure, but had now finally arrived! Now, Sarah is famous for getting hurt. The girl rips/charges/she does it all... but she occasionally beats herself up in the process. So upon her arrival, the rest of us felt better-- knowing she was likely to be the one taking the “injury” cake. Coffee and a breakfast of fresh fruit, eggs and fried Indian bread with jelly filled us up, after which we grabbed our boards, some snacks for later on the boat, and headed out for our first surf session that day. El Toro was the call this time… and we enjoyed a day of trading wave after wave with our core group of 6, hooting each other on. Dan was stoked to be in the water and experimenting with his new HD GoPro Camera that he had mounted on the nose of his board via an FCS plug. He later realized that some his best and favorite video taken was of us duckdiving through the waves when paddling back out. But, he warns to watch out when duck-diving, because he took the skin off his nose a couple of times before he learned his lesson-- to not bring his head so close to the camera. That session was one of those when all you can do is sit on your board, drinking in the exotic beauty around you, and wondering why you’ve been blessed with such an experience. Life doesn’t get much better. No injuries to report this second day… tired, sunburned and worn out though, we hit the beds early, in anticipation of the building swell and our 5:30am wake-up call.
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Ding, ding, ding… the
breakfast bell awoke us from a delicious, deep sleep, and it was all we could do to pull ourselves out of our comfy beds, and into a cold shower to wake up. The sun peeked up soon, revealing a well-formed Emily’s. The swell had come up—a little bit! Excitedly, we ate breakfast, and headed to the boat launch, where we each helped the boat guys by lying wood down in front of the boat, and rolling/ pushing them to the waters edge. Kind of tribal and a very different surf experience. The other surfers (5 guys) took one boat to go check an outer island spot, and their girlfriends piled into the WSSM boat, for a quick ride over to Snickers. Leslie (camp chef), was just learning to surf. She was a bit cautious, yet eager to surf with all the girls, but was admittedly in over her head when one big set rolled through (which we couldn’t believe she paddled for- and caught). It took her all the way to the beach! After considerable effort, she simply wasn’t able to make it back to the outside, so she settled for an onshore view of the action. Rayna and Milica had surfed before, but due to where they live (MT and northern CA) they don’t get the chance to do so very often, so Snickers, this day, was a great way to get them back in the water—without having to deal with barrels, or wave hungry dudes.
Sarah snags a nice one at the Point Photos: SecretSurf007.com
After 2 hours of fun waves, we all piled back onto the boat and headed over to EL Toro, where we enjoyed more countless waves and laughter. What a fun day! Evening came, and it was my turn to pass the trophy torch. I gave it to Rayna, who- though she had just had a baby 18 months before, and RARELY surfed, had gone above and beyond – paddling herself into overhead waves, and riding them! Rayna had easily overcome the intimidation that comes with surfing with a group of girls she didn’t know, that were better surfers, and she didn’t give up. Way to go Rayna! The swell continued to rise overnight, and we slept to the sound of rain pounding on the tin roof while waves crashed below. With not a mosquito in sight, we didn’t utilize the mosquito nets- thankfully, and awoke to the breakfast bell, once again. This was the day of all days for Dan and me in particular. The group headed to Snickers, but the tide hadn’t quite come up enough yet, causing closeout conditions. Christina and Sarah became disillusioned and headed back to camp after about an hour to try out Emily’s and later on- the Point. Dan and I, Doug (surf guide) and
Dan dips deep to avoid taking one on the head at the Point. His HD GoPro camera got some great underwater video of this wave! (goprocamera.com)
Christina @ the Point Sandra @ the Point
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Eric (boat captain) stayed behind-where we soon enjoyed one of the most memorable, epic and perfect surf sessions of the trip. Doug had advised us all to stay, saying the rising tide would fill in nice; dissolving the dumpy, shifty, morning conditions. He is a wise man! Sure enough, about 45min after the girls left, the wave turned on, churning out set, after set, after set, of well overhead, perfectly glassy, smooth faces-- both lefts and rights! You would catch a wave, paddle a short distance back out, and there came another one, and another one, and another one.
waves, we reached the shoreline, and began our beach exploration as we made our way back to camp. Seashells littered the beach as far as the eye could see, and sand dollars the size of small pancakes were easily found. What a magnificent place Panama is!
The swell held and we all enjoyed some barrels at the Point the next day, amid pouring rain and the most crowded session we had surfed to date while in Panama. After our 5 hour surf session the day before, we were so stoked and worn out, and didn’t want to deal with the “crowd” factor of 10 guys at the Point, so after a couple quick After another 2 hours, we returned ones, we headed back to Snickers, to the boat for a quick snack and picking up a new arrival, Bram from second application of Ultrasol Sunthe Netherlands, on the way. He creen spray (love that stuff!). Doug unfortunately got TRASHED on an asked us if we were tired and wantoutside set that rattled him, but he ed to return to camp for lunch, but stuck with it, and after we returned it was like a dream we never wantto camp about an hour later, he ed to end. With only four of us out, enjoyed a much more successful and Gabriel snapping photo after session with Dan that evening, photo on the shore… how could catching Emily’s until the stars we leave? The waves were perfect, came out. 8-10ft+, and the We had worn water warm. The It was like a dream ourselves out-black sand beach and knew we had that we never stretched out for reached the pinnaa mile- without a wanted to end... cle of our surf trip, single person in it just couldn’t get Wave after wave, sight. This was truly any better! Panama paradise, and we after perfect had become a blur never wanted to of perfect waves, wave, and only leave. good friends, four of us out! 6 hours had finally early mornings and passed since we sunrise sessions, left camp, and our arms finally exquisite yet rustic surroundings, wore out, so we paddled back to and evenings spent playing guitars the boat to drop off the boards. and ping pong. Our plan was to walk the beach Two days before we left, we got to back to camp, since this would sit down and chat with the camps probably be the only time to do co-owners, Steve and Marilyn. so, since the rest of our time was Turns out, they started the camp spent either surfing or relaxing 12 years prior, importing the bafrom the surf. nana and coconut trees that now The ocean, however, had one more supply all the camp’s fruit needs. nugget in store. As we all paddled They also built the bungalows, and back to the boat, we were about hired boat captains, cooks and halfway there when a sneaker set maids to keep the place running rose up in front of us. It began pullsmoothly. Overall, it had been a real ing up, and up, and up in front of undertaking that was now a beautius- each of us looking longingly at ful and successful surf camp. it. We were beat- our arms hanging by our sides, how could we? Swapping surf stories and experiDan couldn’t resist… and with a ences made the evening fly by far quick whip of his board, he turned too quickly. Steve told us about around, letting out a “you’ve got to the famous surfers who had stayed be kidding me…I can’t let this one with them. Christina showed her go!” He gave two quick paddles shark bite scar- which led to the and dropped into the biggest set discovery that this particular area of the day… out of sight. had been over fished in the 50’s A faint whoohooo echoed from by the Japanese whaling boats, far away, and Doug and I sat and therefore, sharks no longer up waiting for Dan to reappear, existed in the area. Marilyn joined shaking our heads in disbelief. We us on our last night for the big were almost halfway to the boat group bonfire, chatting about life already-- This wave had come out in Panama, children, and all the of nowhere… AND we couldn’t work that had gone into making believe he caught it! this fabulous place possible. She also answered the question we had Stoked and smiling from ear to about the “star” that shone bright ear, Eric and Doug dropped us above us each night. Turns out it close to shore and raced the boat was actually Neptune. Wow! back to the safety of the open ocean before the next gnarly set Our last day finally arrived, and rolled through. Swimming with the Dan, Gabriel and I packed up and
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Sarah’s here! Fresh coffee or coconut, anyone? Dan-the-Man, in a boat full of ladies. WSSM surf travel rules!
Milica doing a funky-board dance
Sarah, tossing water at Snickers
Sarah, Sandra and Dan-- surf buddies for life! Brave soul, Leslie, catching her wave of the day
Dan setting up for a floater at Snickers Fresh coffee and a full breakfast greeted us each morning...
The camp “enforcers”
Our Fluid Surfboards were an excellent choice for these South American waves. Thank guys! Fluidsurfboards.com
Gabriel’s self portrait on the beach at Snickers.Thanks for all the great photos, dude!
Rayna drops into her second wave at El Toro
The coconut cutting station
Sandra, Sarah and Christina at El Toro Back at camp, Jordon teaches Christina how to play the guitar, while Dan and Gabriel look at the HD video footage from Dan’s GoPro camera
Dan exiting his tube at the Point
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headed back to Panama City where Christina and Sarah would be joining us later that evening. We left in the early afternoon, eager for our 5 hour bus ride through the countryside during the day, so that we could get a feel for the “real” Panama. It looked a lot like Mexico, brightly colored buildings, small towns where simplicity in living is just regular life for most. Pure poverty is the norm, but they don’t seem to mind and for the most part are a happy and welcoming people. We spent the night at a nice hotel ($42 US total- no tax, for 3 people) called the Vera Cruz, in the heart of Panama City. It was 70’s decor to the core, but extremely clean and we felt safe there. Across the street we checked out the Fiesta Casino. Initially Dan wasn’t allowed in because he wore a shirt with cutoff sleeves, however (with a sweatshirt on) we did finally go in, only to find guys in slippers, wearing old, dirty stained t-shirts, and women in spaghetti strap tank tops. What a trip! Panama City itself was quite beautiful and picturesque. Old buildings that were once quite detailed and ornate line the narrow streets. Far away on the horizon, large ships and barges wait in long lines for their turn to pass through the Panama Canal. That day we explored an older part of Panama City, also known as the French quarter, gathering souvenirs, macking on $.75 gourmet hotdogs and snapping photos. One thing we noticed while in Panama, is that EVERYONE uses US dollars! No matter where we went, from the fruit stands, to the restaurants, to the airport & bus terminals... EVERYONE uses US dollars, and acted as though we were from Mars, when we asked for Panamanian money for our coin collection. We managed to find some coins here and there, but we could count them on one hand. Nuts! Christina and Sarah left early in the day to catch their flights home, but the rest of us weren’t due to fly out until the next day—which meant we would have time to check out the Panama Canal! Yeah! After our morning of adventure in the city, David picked us up at 4pm and took us to the canal, where we got to see one of the great wonders of the world. Built in 1913,
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everything about the Panama Canal oozed with history, making it a very surreal experience. David explained to us how the locks work, the schedules on which the ships pass through (different directions at different times), all of which was rather interesting. One ship in particular came through right as we entered the 4th level viewing deck. The seamen were yelling and waving at all of us tourists, laughing and beckoning to us, celebrating what must have been a milestone in their journey. It was as if they had been out to sea for MONTHS and were excited to return to civilization. What a different life that must be than ours. Looking back, Panama was so much more than we had anticipated and hoped for. Though we endured sea lice and Portuguese Man-o-war that stung us, intense rain and lightening storms at night, a banged up jaw and loosened teeth for two of us girls, we had enjoyed ourselves tremendously. On the injury list, my swollen jaw was a battle wound that could have been a lot worse. A nasty fin cut turned into a gnarly looking bruise that lasted for weeks, and in addition, I also nearly knocked out my front teeth. Seriously! Having too much fun and not paying attention to an approaching set after exiting a wave was my mistake. I whipped my board around too quickly, placing it between me and the wave-- a real no-no. I got hit so hard, my teeth actually punctured the fiberglass, and were a bit wobbly for the next day or so. Thank you, God, they’re all good to go now. Sarah, our other casualty, was true to her reputation of injuries, as she also made contact with her board. Upon surfacing after a long hold down at the Point, she caught the tail of her board directly in the mouth! It completely knocked out her lower retainer, but her teeth were saved! Minor injuries (war wounds?) aside, we had the most fulfilling, wonderful time in Panama and at the Morro Negrito Surf Camp. The food was good, people friendly, landscape inspiring, and the surf will definitely be calling us back for many years to come.
Surf travel to paradise DOES exist… and you too can find it in Panama! u
Photos: SecretSurf007.com The Panama Canal
Sarah Panama City!
The WSSM crew! (L to R) Leslie, Sarah, Christina, Sandra, Dan and Gabriel
“Wear the Beach” anklet- one of the coolest souvenirs I’ve ever had! You fill it with sand from your favorite beach... and wear it!
Published on Jan 15, 2011
WSSM's annual surf travel trip to Panama, hosted by Morro Negrito Surf Camp. Exquisite locale, incredible waves... Panama will be remembered...