Surfing Bocas del Toro

Haynes Carstens Surfing

When the waves come to Bocas Del Toro, Panama, it’s time to surf.  December through mid-April bring the biggest swells of the year to the Caribbean followed by summer swells in July and August.  Bocas has many different types of waves from fast peeling reef breaks, to big hollow beach breaks.  On almost any swell we can find a good wave that will challenge any level of surfer.

Isla Carenero is a world-class point break that shouldn’t be passed up while Bluff Beach and Red Frog Beach are great shore breaks.  The variety of waves in Bocas del Toro make it perfect for your family surf vacation in Panama.  Tranquilo Bay has a large quiver of short and long boards, foam tops, body boards, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards to suit any style of surfing.

Air Panama flies surfboards on domestic flights throughout Panama for a very reasonable charge.  So don’t forget surfing Bocas del Toro while planning your next family vacation to Panama.

Seasoned Water Man

We have a seasoned water man with us for about six months in 2013.  He is a professional photographer who is fascinated with water. His last name happens to be Viola. Yes, he is Jay’s cousin.

Franklin Viola has been influenced by water in every step of his life. He started out young swimming in it, surfing in it, diving under it and sailing over it. He formally studied water at Texas A&M University at Galveston, graduated in 1982 with a BS in Marine Science and Marine Transportation and then set out as an US Merchant Marine officer. When he returned to the beach in 1986 he focused on painting pictures of water with a camera.

Literally, Franklin’s focus on painting pictures of water through the optics of a camera has taken him all over the world. He has completed photography assignments for Audubon, National Geographic, Travel Holiday, Islands, Discovery Channel Online, Sport Diver, The Nature Conservancy, American Express, Turner Broadcasting, and Delta Airlines among others. He has led photography safaris and seminars above and below the water. He is happy to share his knowledge of photography and the water with us all.

He decided to come down to Tranquilo Bay Eco Adventure Lodge to help us with a number of projects. He is sending photos of his adventures out in a variety of mediums. He has a test run posted on Ikelite’s Facebook page here: He does a photo a day on his website here:

Surfing Panama

He got this one on Sunday when we took the kids surfing.  Marlon was helping the kids catch waves and was able to grab one for himself.  Franklin was in the water to snap the photo.

We will keep you posted on Franklin’s work while he is spending time with us in paradise. He does a great job capturing life near the ocean.

Perfect Amalgam

Friday was one of those days that does not come around often. Many things all blended together forming the most perfect amalgam. A true rarity with sunny blue skies, 5-foot swell prediction, a scarce dash of free time, a boat scheduled to leave for town after lunch (near our favorite surf break) and my son Tres would be finished with school. Holly Mackerel! It was like a message from the gods, not to be taken lightly.

The decision made itself over a cheeseburger and fries lunch, a rarity in itself here at Tranquilo Bay. I was well on my way but still needed to secure maternal consent for the boy. Mom gave us the go ahead (Thanks Mom) and we had only 30-minutes until the boat was to cast off. We were so stoked.

Shades, hat, rash guard, sun screen, wax, before we knew it the boat was speeding away from the dock and heading towards the beautiful glassy lines we knew we would find. Tres choose his 6-foot blue thruster and a 7-foot green fun shape for his buddy Scott, who would be joining us later. I choose an Ocean Kayak Big Yak, great for surfing medium sized clean surf, a real fun ride.

I could see the anticipation on my son’s face as we started across the big channel. As we coasted the boat in and got our first look at the surf it was clean and about one whole foot. I’m not talking Hawaiian style, these were 1-foot on the face. The boat dropped us off and we agreed upon what time to rendezvous.

At least we would have some fun paddling around and could reluctantly check out all the coral heads we routinely surf over. Flat days here are actually kind of creepy because of that. Better to surf in mind-numbing bliss than to actually know what is underneath you I always say.

We had been there about 10-minutes, goofing off on the inside, when all of a sudden we were caught off guard by a monster 3-foot set. The set made me think about checking out the real break on the other side of the point. Just maybe there would be something to ride.


“Hey Tres” I shouted to my son, “not much going on here, do you want to paddle over to the big point where I surf and try to catch one?” “Yes, yes, yes, I am ready Dad,” he said. As we paddled around the point a few swells moved under us as they began to stack up on the reef. It was open-water and Tres seemed very alert and a just a little bit anxious. I started up with a little small talk while we were paddling to ease his mind. Then a couple waved at us and took our picture from high on the rocky point. Tres noticed the photo and I could tell he felt BIG paddling out to the real spot with his Dad.

Just then a head high set (Tres’ head not mine) rolled in off the point. Tres instantly got a little nervous, “Dad maybe we should go back to wait for Uncle Jay, it looks pretty big Dad.” “Common,” I said, “we paddled all the way up here to take a look, lets at least paddle over and just feel a couple waves.”

We arrived at the take off spot and watched a few roll under us. Tres was ready, tried paddling hard for a few, but couldn’t quite get in. Then I saw some nice pretty lines coming so we paddled out just a bit farther. We let the first wave of the set go, but the second one was to perfect. We both took off on the same wave, at the same time, just a few feet apart. It was his first wave ever at Carenero.

The visual image I shall maintain with clarity. He dropped in the wave to my left, I stayed a high line at the crest of the wave looking down. He looked beautiful sliding down the face of that clean wave; his first of what will be many here, in this home spot. It was so cool; I know we will return often as his skills advance.

After feeling a little “horsepower” at Carenero, Tres was ready to go back and meet his best buddy Scott in more familiar territory. We were back in the lineup at our normal spot, where Tres feels at home. I could see the tension in his body language fade.

Uncle Jay, Scott and Patrick pulled up just at the right time. Scott jumped in without his board and swam over to our line-up. “I just feel like swimming Uncle Jim,” Scott said. He didn’t miss much. As we talked about the day, Tres said, “Hey Scott, my Dad and I went up there and surfed Carenero and it was kinda big.” I only smiled and interjected nothing.

Well, the “Perfect Amalgam” never really generated that beautiful 5-foot surf, but it sure produced one hell of a lifetime memory.

Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP)

So, I took a dare from my seven year old son last Saturday. It was my 43rd birthday and he wanted me to do something different. He told me I needed to try out stand up paddle boarding. He and his dad took the board for a spin on Friday afternoon and Tres was hooked. So I tried it. And I am hooked.

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I went out again on Sunday just to confirm that I had really enjoyed it the day before. On Sunday the water was a bit choppier in the open ocean so I headed into the more protected area of the bay to keep trying things out. Time passed and I had been on the board for almost an hour without even realizing it. It does take a special board in order for you to keep your balance unless you are say Tres at age seven. He can use a foam surf board for a stand up paddle board. Me – not so much.

I am working on a way to get at least one of these here for me in the near future and if at all possible see about offering them to our guests at some time. There are no manufacturers here in Panama so we are going to have to import them which makes things a bit more complicated. In the mean time, if you have a chance to try a stand up paddle board on calm waters, go for it. It is a great way to enjoy nature and get a work out at the same time.