By Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Cristian Pinzón
Strangely enough, coastal Panama City does not have a glamorous belt of beaches along its coastline. The few that used to exist have been swallowed up by urban sprawl. The closest resorts are on Taboga Island, visible from the mainland, and Veracruz, a community east of the Panamanian capital, near the Panama Canal. People who travel to Veracruz do so to swim in the ocean, of course, but also to admire the sunset, eat seafood in some of the restaurants that line the sandy areas and, for a couple of years now, to practice a sport that is gradually gaining popularity: SUP (Stand Up Paddle Boarding).
The custom of stand up paddling is as old as civilization (just look at the murals in ancient Egyptian tombs or the age-old tradition of the Venetian gondoliers). Today’s SUP originated in Hawaii in the 1940s, when some surfers decided to use the wide Maori paddle to propel themselves on their surfboards. In the 1980s, several California surfers, after suffering injuries that prevented them from riding the waves, seized on SUP as a way to “return to the sea.” Today, the discipline is very popular in the United States and Europe. In Latin America it is practiced primarily in some of the Lesser Antilles, Costa Rica, and Panama.
There is an enormous potential for developing this sport in Panama, thanks to the thousands of beaches and other available ocean areas, especially in the Caribbean. The country has the advantage of access to several ecosystems where SUP can be practiced that can be reached in less than two hours. If so desired, fans of the sport could be up at dawn paddling in the fantastic waters of the bay of Portobelo along Panama’s Caribbean coast, then have breakfast and take the highway to Veracruz before noon, to paddle once again in a completely different environment on completely different waters, all in one day. There are also other places like Gatun Lake, certain sections of the Chagres River, and the mangroves of the upper Bay of Panama: all, as noted, less than two hours from one point to the other.
But back to Veracruz, where I am about to experience SUP for the second time, because a self-respecting journalist should experience what he writes about… (and to think they pay me to do this). My first time was not so lucky: I could never manage to stand up and I spent more time in the water than on the board. Deyanira, my instructor, the very personification of patience, told me not to worry. “The important thing is not to be upset about falling in the water. Keep trying. If you stay with this attitude, you will soon get it.”
And here I am, ready for my second round. “What’s going on, vas pa’l agua? Are you going in the water?” Giovanni Mola, another SUP fan who practices here and who is also the founder of SUP Republic, greets me. The beach club was not very busy on a weekday, but the few people out repeated this phrase to me whenever they saw me, by way of greeting. In fact, “vamos pa’l agua” is a slogan and hashtag many SUP practitioners use to share information on social media networks about activities related to this sport in Panama. The sense of community is just one of the emotional benefits of SUP boarding. Boarding is done in groups, as much to allow practitioners to help and advise each other on appropriate postures and movements as to celebrate new things and discoveries along the way.
I join Deyanira who, along with three other women and two men, is preparing to go out. My board is ready. I attach the safety strap to my ankle, which binds me to my board, and I measure the height of the paddle (shoulder and elbow should be extended, but not locked). We go into the water and, when the level reaches my knees, I get on my board and start paddling. About sixty-five feet in, I try to stand up. The first time I try, a southeast wind that is gentle but still strong enough to curl the waves a bit, stops me. The next time there is no breeze and I am successful.
Little by little I get the hang of it. I look ahead and, so as not to focus too much on my shaky legs, I talk with Deya about how she started in SUP. “I used to participate in canoe races. I was part of several teams, but in sports like that you often depend on your other team members’ levels of commitment. With SUP, the commitment and challenge are all yours,” she replies. She heard about this sport for the first time four years ago and she got together with friends to practice it. A year ago she became a certified trainer.
Giovanni Oro, Deyanira’s friend, found out about it around the same time and confirms what she says. “SUP is a sport, but it’s also a lifestyle. There are competitions, but you also compete against yourself to discover your limits. It’s a complete exercise: you work your back muscles, your core, and the rest of the body. You also work your mind because, when you navigate, you have to develop strategies to move forward on your board. Water is an element that is always changing,” he explains.
While all the SUP fans we’ve spoken with highlight the intimate and personal profile of the sport, this does not mean that it lacks a highly competitive component. In fact, the Panama Stand Up Paddle Association organizes multiple competitions and works in conjunction with the Panama Surf Association to strengthen the national circuit. Two years ago the National SUP Circuit was instated and in August 2015 the National SUP Circuit Race began, with five dates per year starting next August. Both circuits will determine national rankings for competitors, who will be supported by the Panama Sports Institute (Pandeportes) and the International Surfing Association (ISA), the surfing world’s leading organization. The ISA is working with the International Olympic Committee to include the SUP Race in future Olympic Games. If it gets a favorable response, Panama may be one of the few countries in the region ready to send a delegation.
In any case, my aspirations for SUP are much more modest and closer in time and space: I have barely paddled half a mile, but I feel as if I have been around the world twice, and I want to return. The tide begins to rise, always pushing my board toward the coast and forcing me to paddle to keep me far enough out: I don’t want to run aground or have the breaking waves topple me. Finally, the elements get the better of me and I fall into the water, but I am able to climb up and straighten up once again on the board; now I’m getting the hang of this sport. We only have a little more than a quarter mile to reach the place where we started and suddenly, a young ray with a speckled body jumps in front of us. The moment is fleeting and I don’t have enough time to alert the rest of the group before the animal dives, like a silver flash, back into the water. Only Deyanira, who was close to me, could share the moment. “That was my welcome gift to you,” she says as we are taking the boards out of the water after completing the course, “but I have more in my bag of gifts: rainbows, sunsets, dolphins….” She doesn’t need to say any more: this will be my second time practicing SUP, but it certainly won’t be my last.
The editorial team of Panorama of the Americas used the SUP Republic grounds in researching this article, but it is not the only place where you can practice this sport in Panama. Below is a list of the available locations:
SUP Republic: province of Panama, Veracruz, Venao Beach, next to the restaurant Karimar. Tel. (507) 250 6300, email@example.com, www.sup-republic.com. SUP classes, equipment rental, and community activities related to the sport.
Hotel Palmar Surf, Beach & School: Province of Panama, San Carlos, El Palmar, Cuarta Sur Road. Tel. (507) 6673 0820, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.palmarsurfschool.com. SUP is one of the courses offered, in addition to surfing and bodyboarding.
Shokogi Surf School: Province of Los Santos, Pedasí, El Arenal Beach, Urbanización Villa Milagros, Calle Principal, House 3A. Tel. (507) 670 15476, email@example.com, www.shokogi.com. SUP classes are offered, in addition to traditional surfing and kite surfing.
Hostal Selina: Province of Bocas del Toro, Colon Island, Calle Costera 1B. Tel. (507) 202 7966, info@SelinaHostels.com, www.selinahostels.com. SUP rental equipment.
More information on the areas where you can practice and learn SUP in Panama, as well as information about activities and groups associated with the sport can be found on the Panama Stand Up Paddle Boarding Association Facebook page.