A Picture-Perfect Weekend in Panama

Julia Preszler, CAMD'21

Julia Preszler is a fourth-year student majoring in journalism and minoring in environmental studies. She has interned at The Boston Globe, The Chautauquan Daily and two community newspapers in Connecticut. Julia will be studying abroad at Universidad Veritas in San José, Costa Rica. She is looking forward to exploring the country's national parks and learning more about environmental issues, since she hopes to focus her career on environmental journalism.

By Julia Preszler

Somewhere off the islands off the coast of the islands of the Bocas Del Toro Province in Panama, I jumped over the edge of a small boat into the bright blue water below, goggles in hand. While treading water, I stretched goggles over my head, stuck a snorkel into my mouth and laid my face into the Caribbean Sea.

It was my first time snorkeling and I was amazed that I could keep my face down in the salty water for minutes at a time. The ocean floor was about 15 to 20 feet below. The coral was neutral shades of grey and brown, but the shapes of the reefs were interesting to see nonetheless. With my ears below the water line, the sounds of the other people in my group were drowned out and it was just me and the coral and the fish. The ultra-salty water and buoyancy of the goggles made floating effortless.

As I swam farther from the boat, I started to notice some tiny, dark grey fish. As I saw more and more, it became clear that I was in the center of a school. I moved carefully, afraid that my limbs would bump into one of the fish, but I needn't have worried because they all swam quickly, pivoting their sleek bodies back and forth on a dime to move with the group and stay a safe distance away from me. Farther below, I saw some blue- and yellow-striped fish and one whose scales flashed the colors of the rainbow as it swam.

Floating on top, peering into the world below, I felt like I was living in a nature documentary. It was a surreal experience where suddenly my reality had aligned, for a moment, with the stuff of imagination. I thought about how that day, I was just a visitor, but when I got back on the boat and went to the island, and when I returned to Costa Rica, and even later, when I resumed my life in the United States, these reefs, and these communities of fish, would still exist in this space. It made me realize how narrow the paradigm of our human experience is.

Snorkeling was just one picture-perfect moment that I experienced during my weekend to Bocas del Toro. The whole experience started with a trip that involved three vans, a walk over a bridge, and a boat. First, we took a five-hour van ride from San José to the town of Sixaola on the Costa Rican Border. We abandoned our first van, got checked out by customs, and walked with all of our stuff over a bridge into Panama, accompanied by stray dogs who apparently didn’t need a passport to cross international borders.

On the other side, we piled into a different van, with our stuff packed into another. For the next 45 minutes, we sped past banana plantations, through small towns, and down a big hill in a forest to get to the boat that would bring us to the town on the province’s main island, Isla Colón. Dark had fallen and a light rain had come by the time we arrived at the port. I knew we would be taking a boat to the island, but I had envisioned a ferry or a some kind of a vessel that had an indoor portion. Imagine my surprise when we lowered ourselves into a small motorboat with no windows, open sides, and a roof that didn’t cover my seat in the front row. Since the boat didn’t have any lights on it, the driver, who stood in the back, intermittently used a flashlight to warn other boats of our location. To protect myself against the combination of rain and sea spray that were drenching us, I put my hair in a bun, put my baseball cap on, zipped up my raincoat all the way up, and lifted the hood over my hat, tightening the coat’s strings. For the next 30 minutes, the dark ocean stretched ahead of us. We could see almost nothing around us, save for the shadows of mountains in the distance. Between getting soaked and speeding into the seeming abyss, the whole experience felt so ridiculous I couldn’t help but to laugh. When my friend Owen stuck his hand into the spray of the boat, we could see bioluminescent algae. It was a boat ride unlike any other I have ever taken.

The next morning, we hopped right back on a boat just like the one we had ridden the night before. In the daylight, I could finally see our surroundings. Surrounding the bays we rode through were a number of islands covered in beautifully green forest. We passed large swaths of mangroves, whose roots were visible under the clear water. In their shelter were starfish the size of a human head and jellyfish that weren’t dangerous or harmful — our driver proved this fact by scooping one up in the palm of his hand. We eventually made our way to a bay, where we lingered, watching for dolphins. Sitting quietly, all scanning the calm water for signs of life, we saw some smooth, grey backs breach the surface.

After snorkeling, we ate lunch at a restaurant set up on a collection of docks at the edge of an island. With colorful buildings and hammocks stretched below a roof that provided shade, the whole thing screamed “tropical island!” I ordered a coconut from the bar. The bartender stepped out from behind the bar and used a machete to trim the top of the coconut and create hole for a straw. I sat on the edge of the dock with my friends and sipped on the water within the fruit. When the juice was gone, I gave the coconut back to the bartender, who whacked it open and used his knife to make a spoon out of a piece of the shell of the coconut so I could use it to scoop out the meat.

That evening, back on the main island, we explored the town, which had lots of beautiful, colorful buildings and a nice park in the center. We went to a café to get burritos, but not before we stopped at a roadside churro stand.

The next day, we took a van on an incredibly bumpy 30-minute drive to another part of the island. Once the van dropped us off, we took a 15-minute walk along one of the prettiest coastlines I have ever seen. The crystal-blue water was framed by a small strip of gorgeous white sand and palm trees, which cast patterned shadows on the ground. Fallen palm fronds covered the path in parts. Finally, we arrived at Starfish Beach. While we didn’t see any starfish, the water in the cove was perfectly smooth, like a giant, salty natural swimming pool.

That night, we hung around the town, got dinner and hung out at a dockside bar to celebrate a friend’s birthday when the clock struck midnight and we entered the new day. And just like that, our trip to Panama came to an end all too quickly. By six in the morning, we were back on a small boat, speeding back to the port where the whole adventure had begun. Instead of hurtling through the dark, this time, we were instead able to watch the sunrise over the islands.