Central America has yet to develop as a serious yachting destination and it’s hard to understand why. After all, it offers an incredible array of lush, tropical seascapes, along with a unique variety of activities. There’s the Caribbean coast, with its distinct cultural flair and feel. And there’s the Pacific, lined by dense primary forests and boasting some of the best sport fishing the world has to offer.
And then there’s the location: Below the hurricane belt and near the Panama Canal.
After all, yachts are constantly traversing the canal. Many yachts make the transit – especially with the increased appetite for expedition-style excursions throughout the South Pacific.
For a long time, it seems, that this proximity to the canal was actually a detriment, because people were so focused on getting through the canal that they forgot to look around and consider the beauty that’s so close at hand.
“It’s just great cruising here,” says Dan Olsen, the marina manager at Red Frog Beach Marina in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Olsen arrived while cruising with his wife and daughter a little over a year ago. “We left California in 2010 and this is, by far, the most beautiful place we’ve run into yet.”
Well, it appears that the region has finally looked to capitalize on that allure.
Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia have all responded by building up some impressive facilities for yachts and luxury boats in recent years. And while there are still infrastructural drawbacks – like no major refit or repair yards that live up to those in the Med or Florida – there are some powerful incentives to be found.
It appears that this region is on the rise and we’ve found some of the top marinas and destinations where you’ll be able to experience some truly unique moments.
One big canal, no hurricanes, lots of beaches
Perhaps the whole oversight from yachts transiting the Panama Canal can be understood. After all, it’s a waypoint: a means to an end. You pass through that area on your way between Point A and Point so you’re not thinking about what’s in between.
What makes less sense is why there aren’t more Caribbean-based yachts that spend hurricane season in this region of the world. Forget finding a good hurricane hole; skip that altogether and you could be hurricane free by making the move south every year.
From Puerto Rico, it’s around 850 nautical miles (970 miles & 1,500km) to Panama, which isn’t much farther than the journey between Barcelona and Malta.
And not only that, but the weather is pleasant and there are some beautiful cruising destinations which allow for an extended charter season. Aside from stunning coastlines and numerous isolated white sand beaches, there’s a host of other attractions.
For example, the Isla del Coco is 300 miles off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. It’s a World Heritage Site and it’s described as being similar to the Galapagos Islands in terms of scenery and the amazing display of biodiversity.
“These are known as the Jurassic Park Islands,” says Dan Effaldano, the marina operations manager with Marina Papagayo in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. “This is a unique dive destination due to the concentration of large pelagic fish.”
Cross over to the Caribbean Coast and there’s Bocas del Toro, where Red Frog Beach Marina is located. “You can do a whole season here,” says Olsen. “There’s 68 islands here. It’s incredible. And it’s totally protected.”
“There are multiple white sand beaches where you’re the only one,” he says. “Great diving. Really good lobster – and if you can’t find any, you can buy lobster here for $5. The little town in Bocas, I equate to Key West 40 years ago.”
Continue south and east, and you’ll hit the San Blas Islands between Panama and Colombia.
“They are the best – just beautiful islands,” says Maurice Lemaitre de la Espriella, the manager of the Manzanillo Marina Club in Cartagena, Colombia, which is about 180 miles from San Blas. The archipelago consists of over 350 small, low-lying islands, of which only around 50 have any inhabitants. There are no hotels or even concrete, as the inhabitants are the local indigenous population of Kuna Indians.
The islands, like much of this whole region, exist in a natural, almost completely untouched state. The islands are covered almost exclusively with palm trees and huts on stilts, as the locals travel between islands in dugout canoes.
Finally, only 20 miles or so from Cartagena, are the Islas del Rosario. This Colombian National Park offers more underwater adventure with its impressive coral reef system.
The only real drawback is the absence of any major repair yards in the region. Most people, when asked, will generally recommend going to California or Florida to have work done – especially when you’re talking about major work or refits on superyachts.
Both Cartagena and Panama have facilities which can accommodate some boats of a limited size, although it’s probably not recommended that significant work is done here.
Additionally, one additional word of warning ought to be added here: Customs throughout the region can be a bit of a headache. However, if you’re prepared for it, then you should be fine. Additionally, many of the marinas in the area are very helpful in navigating these bureaucratic headaches.
The place to be in Colombia is Cartagena. In actuality, it might be the only real city that you’d be interested in visiting in the whole region. With a population of around 900,000, it’s a traditional Spanish Colonial city that simply oozes with charm and character.
“Cartagena is like the playground of Colombia,” says Lemaitre de la Espriella, whose family came to the area as French sailors long ago. “It has walls that the Spanish built to protect the city. The people are very happy. There’s dancing everywhere. The girls are nice. Lots of life – lots of life in Cartagena.”
“For people who are coming as a crew of a megayacht, it’s like a Disneyland for them,” he says. In the past few years, the city has benefitted from greater security and a surging economy, which may have turned some people off to the area in past years. Perhaps due to this, Cartagena has seen the number of visits from megayachts increase in the past few years, and dealerships have been set up in the city by Azimut and Pershing.
Club de Pesca is the more luxurious of the two, though Club Nautico is currently having work done to expand its dockage.
Club de Pesca offers bunkering, a restaurant, WiFi, laundry and showers.
Club Nautico is a little more rugged, and is more of a cruisers' marina – mostly for sailboats under 50 or 60 feet. It has a clubhouse, along with showers and facilities. It uses the Mediterranean style of docking, and most areas accommodate a draft of 7 feet, though it can dock boats with drafts up to 12 feet.
While these facilities aren’t quite up to the standards of most megayachts, there are several others nearby which are.
Not far away, on the way to Barranquilla, is a small new marina that is still being developed: Puerto Velero. It has moorings only for boats up to 20m, but the facilities are nice and they have started to open up a variety of apartments and suites that will be part of a boutique hotel.
Farther up the coast, in Santa Marta, is the Marina Santa Marta, which is an IGY Marina. This is probably the top marina facility in this region of Colombia. While Santa Marta may lack a bit of the vibrancy and the charm of Cartagena, it’s no slouch itself. The city is a nice destination, and it’s tucked into a beautiful coastal area and surrounded by National Park, with views of snowcapped mountains rising up behind the city proper.
The marina has a substantial breakwater and it can accommodate boats up to 132 ft in length, with five slips dedicated to 100-ft-plus yachts. It has 24-hour security, a helipad, along with bunkering and other modern amenities.
The premier marina in Panama is the Red Frog Beach Marina, located in majestic Bocas del Toro. When Olsen took over management of the IGY Marina in April 2014, the marina was at 30 percent occupancy. Now, in the low season, with a focus on online marketing, they are at 92 percent occupancy for the slips and 100 percent occupancy for megayachts.
“What usually happens is that people come to the marina for a week, and if I can get you into the marina for a week, I guarantee I can get you for a month,” says Olsen. “And if I can get you for a month, I most likely can get you to stay longer. So, 50 percent of our slippage is six months or longer.”
One megayacht has moved permanently to the marina and a 100-foot sailboat which is running charters out to the San Blas Islands is also considering a longer stay, says Olsen.
The marina really starts to fill up in March as Caribbean-based boats look to find a safe berth for the hurricane season. By June, they’re generally at capacity.
“What makes this marina fantastic is that we have a 1,700-acre resort attached to it,” says Olsen. Red Frog Beach Island Resort & Spa has zip lines, horseback riding, mountain biking, beach bars and a whole lot more.
And the infrastructure is top-class, with brand new docks and no pilings. “It’s incredible,” says Olsen. “It’s all fiber-tech. There’s no wood…By far the nicest dock I’ve ever been on.”
The marina – which is in the process of doubling in size – can take seven megayachts, up to 270 feet long. In addition, it offers bunkering and all customs paperwork can be done at the dock.
Perhaps nicest of all: the marina will take care of all Panama Canal paperwork for you.
“That saves a lot of time and they love it,” Olsen says.
In addition, there are several marinas around Panama City and Colón. And while Panama City offers some metropolitan flair – along with some quality dining options and hotel resorts – it is not generally the place to spend your time in this area of the world.
Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast is hard to beat. Even with significant development in certain regions, it is pristine and lush, and completely unique.
And for any anglers out there, it offers some of the best game fishing in the world. “Many world records have been caught in Guanacaste,” says Eaffaldano.
A longstanding problem has been a lack of facilities for high-end boats. That, however, has changed as of late.
We’ll start off in the far north of the country – not far from its border with Nicaragua.
The Marina Papagayo is an exquisite place, north of the Nicoya Peninsula and south of the Santa Rosa National Park, on the Peninsula Papagayo. Also on the peninsula is a Four Seasons Resort with an Arnold Palmer Signature Golf Course, and a Hyatt Andaz Hotel, both of which offer spas and a variety of dining options.
The marina itself is in its first phase, says Eaffaldano.
“Marina Papagayo currently has 180 slips,” he says. “At completion we will have a total of 380 slips.”
They can accommodate yachts up to 250 feet.
“We offer crew amenities that include a pool, gym, bath suites, laundry facilities and internet stations, along with a casual restaurant and bar,” says Eaffaldano.
The marina is protected by the Bahia Culebra, and the location offers close proximity to the Santa Rosa National Park. The park includes the Murcielagos Islands and Witch’s Rock, which is well known worldwide as one of the best surf locations on the coast, he says. “There are many secluded beaches and anchorages in the area,” he says.
In addition, there is fishing, diving, inland exploration, golf and fine cuisine.
“This is also a destination that is not spoiled or over-crowded,” says Eaffaldano. “Yachts can still anchor in solitude in many locations on the coast. The destination appeals to an exploration-minded yacht owner.”
To the south is the Los Sueños Resort and Marina, which is affiliated with Marriott. This marina is also on a hotel resort, which offers a variety of dining options, along with a fine golf course nearby.
The marina has 200 wet slips which can accommodate yachts up to 180-feet.
It is tucked in a small bay on a 600-acre rainforest reserve, with a five-star Marriott hotel and a variety of personal residences.
The rest of Central America doesn’t quite have the infrastructure that can be found in Costa Rica, Panama and Colombia. It does, however, have some incredible coastlines – and nowhere more so than Belize.
While lacking in marinas, Belize offers some incredible cruising and dive options, including the Great Blue Hole, a massive sinkhole in the middle of a reef system. It was declared to be one of the top dive destinations by none other than Jacques Cousteau.
Given that Belize’s economy is based largely around tourism, it may be only a matter of time before a luxury marina pops up along the coast.
A region on the rise
Beyond these fine options, there are several other marinas in the development stage. However, no marina is ever complete until it’s complete – especially in this part of the world. Funding often falls through (or it was never really there to begin with), and work can often be sporadic.
The yachting scene in the area, however, is clearly on the rise. One piece of evidence is the new Panama International Boat Show, which took place from 29-31 May 2015, at the Flamenco Marina near Panama City. It is the show's second year and organizers are very excited about the growth it represents.
“The response [from visitors] has been overwhelming,” says Olsen. “They have no idea we were here and then when they come, they just love this place.”
It seems as if the area has finally emerged from its “hidden gem” status, and it stands poised to capitalize on the opportunity.
*Photos courtesy of: Red Frog Marina; Marina Papagayo; IGY Marinas; Shutterstock;"Islas San Blas øyer" by Haakon S. Krohn - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.; "Cartagena de Indias desde el cerro La Popa" by Norma Gòmez - originally posted to Flickr as Pie de Popa e islas de Santa Cruz de Manga, Boca y Castillo Grande y Tierra Bomba vistas desde el. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.