Life is Better in Cambutal

Coraline Valentine

The waves never stop breaking on Cambutal Beach. They pulse the daily life of the locals and the ever-growing number of tourists.

In Cambutal, a startled dog barking or the humming of a pick-up truck filled with surfboards, construction materials or animals are the only things that interrupt the sounds of the jungle. On the one and only road in Cambutal, everybody greets each other with a wave and an « Ola, buenos dias ! »

We leave a small town called Tonosi to get to Cambutal, our taxi speeds through the rice fields with our neatly packed surfboards in the trunk. With some hesitation, the driver finally takes the steep muddy road to the right and drops us off with a relieved smile in front of the Hotel Kambutaleko.

Ion greets us from his second-floor apartment. He is Spanish and has been living here for the past 10 years with the ocean as his backdrop. With all his kindness he shows us our room, at the front of the house. The terrace has a stunning ocean view. Butterflies make their colours sparkle in the sunshine and hummingbirds fly in and out of giant flowers at an incredible pace.

The place is calm and rejuvenating. The hammocks are an invitation to idleness. It is rainy season and everything is of a brilliant shade of luscious green. The ocean is endless. Max and I exchange looks, we’re not far from paradise.

Ion tells us that Cambutal is his home now. He also wonders what the village is going to become, with all these hotels being built and the numerous plots of land for sale. Tourism is recent in Panama, only about 10 years old. Most visitors come for the luxuriant wildlife (over- and underwater) and some of the tourists come for the surf.

On the main road, we find a restaurant: Brisas del Mar. A caravan has been converted into a kitchen, clients eat under a corrugated iron awning. The restaurant only seats about 10 people. Minutes after having ordered in our Pidgin Spanish with just a « vegetariano », a couple of 12 year-olds arrive proudly with two full plates of rice, red beans, lettuce, and plantain crisps.

The ocean is just there, behind us. The two kids laugh at the table next to us when we try to start a conversation in Spanish. There is a lot of laughter at lunch. Then a curious spectacle begins on the beach. A man, driving a pick-up truck attempts to tug an old fishing boat out of the water but his towrope looks too thin. Eventually, the whole restaurant gets involved and after a few endeavours, he cheerfully rumbles off: case closed.

When we get back to the hotel, I sit in the armchair and Max in the hammock. We both stare at the ocean. The tide is coming in and the waves are crashing on the reef. The horizon is calm and we see a container ship slowly crossing: in a few days time, it will have sailed through the canal and will be on the Atlantic Ocean.

A whale and her calf appear in the ocean. First, we see the spout, then some ripples and black shapes surfacing under the water. The mother leaps out of the water, then her baby tries to imitate her. We can’t believe our eyes.

Tide is coming in and it’s almost the right time to surf 4.11, the best surf spot in Cambutal. To get there, you have to hike on a trail in the jungle for 40 minutes. We move forward, one foot in front of another, with our eyes boggled by the density of the undergrowth. Max is carrying his surfboard.

Thousands of shades of green colour the jungle. Some leaves are over a meter long, clusters of bananas hang from the trees. We don’t see them but we know we are not alone: there are noisy insects, cheerful birds, and small reptiles and mammals. Howler monkeys start to get excited and deliver a concerto of frightening howls.

We finally make it to 4.11, after having waded across three rivers. Perfect waves peel in front of us and would make anyone forget everything else. All we want to do is jump in.

It doesn’t take Max too long before gets in. He paddles around the wave and joins the dozen of locals and foreigners that are already waiting at the lineup. The wave isn’t that large today : 3-5ft but it is beautiful, it gently breaks leaving each and every surfer to enjoy it to the end.

Two women are in the water and they are among the best surfers today. There are two or three local youths that are enjoying their local playground with the particular ease you earn by surfing the same spot every day.

For me, the rocky reef under the surface is still a bit too intimidating. I’ll surf tomorrow, on the beach break. I watch Max surf with his inimitable style that I could recognise among hundreds. He takes at least 10 waves in the afternoon and comes out with a beaming smile on his face, turning his head to the ocean in gratitude. It is with this glowing feeling that he communicates with nature and with the ocean when he surfs and that convinced me to get a surfboard and join him in the water a few years ago.

We were warned, “When the ocean turns dark blue, the rain is coming”. On our way back, we speed up the pace. It’s getting darker; the air is sticky. A few raindrops tickle our shoulders and before we know it, we are under sheets of rain.

Just before we get to the first river, a white 4-wheel-drive stops next to us and offers us a ride. I get in the front seat and Max climbs into the boot. Justin is from California, he’s in his fifties and is a surfer too. We are immensely grateful as he spares us a tough walk back. We ride under the pouring rain, Justin tells me about his surf session at another spot : Dinosaur. I look back and see Max bumping around in the trunk with a beaming smile on his happy face.

As we bounce through the jungle, we approach the village, Justin breaks the silence : “I love surfing, man”.

That evening we decide to go to the posh hotel in the village. Two mojitos and a couple of fresh pineapple Pina Colada later we lay on the sunbeds. Little fairy lights joggle between the palm trees. The stars begin to appear in the dark sky and the local kids catch their last waves. In Cambutal, there is a sense of total tranquillity.

The beach in front of the hotel is covered in branches washed ashore by the ocean. Tomorrow morning, two hotel employees will brush them aside as they do every morning. Just like the sun that rises every day on the ocean and brings its share of surfers, before giving way to the storms, the rain, and the stars.

Tonight it’s pizza night at the hotel and it makes a bit of a change from the eternal rice-bean combo. Smiles are shared as we go deeper into the night. The sounds of nature die down, with the exception of the waves that continue to crash on the shore relentlessly.

In the hotel’s gift shop, tourists buy T-Shirts adorned with “Life is Better in Cambutal”.