Panama’s Best Surf Break
A surfing expat community is taking hold in Playa Venao on Panama’s Azuero Peninsula.
If you made the journey all the way down to the bottom of Panama’s Azuero Peninsula to visit Playa Venao seven or eight years ago, you wouldn’t have found much. The occasional surf contest drew attention from around the country, and the occasional intrepid surfer from farther afield sought out Venao’s famous beach break. Otherwise, this was about as remote an outpost in this country as you could imagine. Anyone who wanted to stay overnight at Venao camped on the beach or strung a hammock between two palm trees.
Today, Playa Venao is increasingly recognized as a top international surfing destination, and a small expat community has taken hold. Among the full-time residents is E.J. Gorman.
E.J. hails from Chicago. His mother worked for an airline, so every winter the family would escape the Chicago cold with trips to warmer climes. E.J. learned to love the tropics and the lifestyle that goes with them. Today, you’ll find him in his office a few steps from the Venao surf…
What brought you to Panama in the first place?
My uncle invited me to come visit with him in 2004. I found Panama fascinating back then, full of opportunity but really nothing much happening yet. We were just beginning to hear about Panama in the press, but nobody knew much about the place.
What has kept you here all these years since?
I am drawn to wild and elemental places, and that’s the connection I’ve made in Panama, to the natural environment. There are obviously challenges and frustrations that go along with living in such a remote and undeveloped place, but, for me, the raw potential of this kind of environment makes it worth it.
Before Venao, I lived in Bocas del Toro. That part of Panama reminded me of Hawaii 20 years ago. Great surf and relaxed island lifestyle. I met my wife in Panama City, and we had a long-distance relationship for about a year while I was in Bocas. Then I moved to the city to be with her, but that didn’t work for me. I prefer to be in more rural surroundings.
Finally an opportunity presented itself for me to manage a development project on Playa Venao. I jumped at the challenge and haven’t looked back since. My front yard is one of Central America’s most consistent waves, and my backyard is a tropical paradise.
Playa Venao is a really special part of Panama. My wife and I discovered it in 2005. We used to drive down on the weekends to surf. We’d camp on the beach. Eventually, we bought a piece of land in the foothills overlooking Isla Cañas. My plan is to turn it into a permaculture farm one day.
I like the buzz that is developing in this area, like being part of it. Tourism is increasing, people are arriving to open small businesses. Development is progressing from Pedasi south along this coast.
Venao and Tonosi are still quite remote, though, aren’t they? What is it like to live there?
More expats are moving to this part of Azuero all the time, and it’s much easier than it used to be to get what we need. We can get some things in nearby Pedasi. It’s about an hour’s drive to Chitre for “big city” supplies and services.
I keep a condo in Panama Pacifico, near Panama City, for when I get cabin fever.
Do you miss anything about the United States?
My family, of course, but not really anything else. I have friends and family all over the States and get back a couple of times a year. Plus friends and family come to visit us on average once a quarter.
What is your biggest day-to-day challenge?
Bureaucracy. Every time you want to get something done officially, you have to allow two or three visits. It is easier now than a few years ago—more transparent and easier to get business done—but it is still frustrating. You need to bring all of your patience and flexibility with you.
What is it that keeps you here?
Life is a lot less structured here—more relaxed, not so intense. It feels like going back in time compared with life in the United States. I feel it keenly whenever I go back to the States. Everything there is so controlled and structured. Seriously unrelaxing.