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800 Days in Panama
workers pose while leveling off land for storage tanks in Abajo community, Panama
QP Arriba workday in the Abajo community - leveling off land where we want the water storage tanks

800 Days in Panama
Story & Photos by Eric Rosenfield

Meet Our Guest Writer

Eric Rosenfield

Living in the jungle-mountains of Panama's Bocas del Toro province, Eric Rosenfield is an Environmental Health Peace Corps Volunteer. His childhood upbringing in the suburbs of Los Angeles and his studies in civil and environmental engineering at the George Washington University in Washington, DC have led him to this point: in his rural community, he is helping the indigenous Ngabe families build gravity-fed water systems to bring running water to their homes. He is learning about everything from organic chocolate farming to night-fishing in the streams with a machete to not falling while running down hillsides in rubber boots.

ari koin dere, my readers, as we say in my community, speaking the indigenous language of Ngäbere. It means "very good afternoon." And a very good afternoon it is.

Fortunately I've been lucky enough to have some time off recently, since funding for my next aqueduct project has yet to be filled (to donate, click here – thanks!). Panama is a very small country (about the size of South Carolina), but it can be quite diverse in its geography – it has ocean(s), mountains, jungles, islands, rainforest. I would describe where I live as a jungle, though a lot of the land close to families' homes is used for farming. But even the fincas can seem like jungles – I was walking through a finca the other day with Sanji (my puppy), and I looked up the trail and saw two guys from my community. One had his sling shot out, which is quite common for younger kids to carry around to kill birds and whatnot, but this guy was not a kid, so I kind of knew something was up. Well, he shot a few rocks at something black that I saw move between the branches and leaves on the ground. I picked up Sanji, walked up a few feet, and saw a HUGE black snake, making its way down into the jungle, away from the path. It must had been seven or eight feet. Yes, it freaked me out, and I'm super thankful that those guys got to it before I did, or Sanji did. But anyways, moral of the story is, the jungle is everywhere (or nowhere is safe from scary animals?).

Anyways, I've recently taken two trips to different parts of Panama. Trips that would make you quite jealous once you see the pictures. So I'll start with the first.

mountains of Costa Rica at sunrise in the background viewed from the summit of Volcan Baru, Panama

I went to Volcan Barú last month, which is the highest point in Panama. The volcano is about 3,475 meters, or 11,400 feet high, and is located in the province of Chiriqui, south of my home province of Bocas del Toro. So because Panama is so skinny, from the top of Volcan Barú on a clear day it's possible to see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

So myself and a few other volunteers started the 13.5 kilometer (8.4 miles), six and a half hour hike up the volcano at midnight. Yes, we climbed in the nighttime, such that we could see the sunrise at the top. We planned the hike on the night of a full moon, so I actually never busted out my flashlight to use – the moon was bright, and the path up the volcano wasn't too shaded. That worked out perfectly, but unfortunately a full moon doesn't warm up the earth during the night. It was... pretty damn cold. I want to say that the last two kilometers were the worst – the path became unshielded from the wind, so that the breeze was strong and biting. I prepared myself, however, with two pairs of socks, board shorts, pajama pants, regular pants, a shirt, cardigan, hoodie, and rain jacket and I was decently okay. It certainly wasn't the coldest I've ever been, but I had never been so cold and far away from heat!

morning sun over Volcan Baru and the Costa Rican mountains in the background
And the sun is out

We ended up getting to the top of Barú around 625am. As you get to the very top, you pass a whole mess of cell phone/whatever electrical towers, which was a little weird. But to get to the very, very top, you have to climb up some rocks (one bad step and you may or may not fall off the volcano) and finally reach a big white cross. We sat down, at the highest point in Panama, and watched the sun rise over the Caribbean Sea and watched the full moon set over the Pacific Ocean.

So the Volcan Barú trip was super legit. The hike down lasted a good five hours or so, and I kind of wanted to kill myself. My toes were DEAD, and the trail never seemed to end. But five minutes into the hike back down, when the sun was out, I was no longer cold and I hiked down in just board shorts and a shirt. Crazy, how the sun works. Overall, it was well worth it, but I don't think I'll be doing that hike again. Unless one of you wants to come visit me and it's your dream to climb a volcano – if so, I'll join you.

writer and his companions walk by old and abandoned prison cell, Isla Coiba, Panama

My second trip actually just ended – I got back yesterday from Isla Coiba. It's a reallyyyyy big island (the largest in Central America at 194 square miles), located on the Pacific side of Panama. A penal colony was established on the island in 1919 (almost like an Alcatraz), but it was shut down in 1998 due to... torture, political murders, and other human rights issues. Now, Coiba is a World Heritage Site and a national park – it is protected by ANAM (Panama's EPA equivalent), and most of the island remains ancient forest. And in much simpler words it is BEAUTIFUL.

A group of 8 of us hired a boat driver to take us out to Coiba as well as drive us around wherever during our two-day stay. The trip to the island is about an hour and a half by boat.

beach on Coiba Island, Panama

So we had our own personal boat driver, an island with very few people on it, and tons of sunshine (dry season in Panama's Pacific side). The trip was wonderful. We took a trip to see the old prison which was creepy, and made me a little nervous. But to be a prisoner on a pristine beach... hmm. I guess it's more doable than other situations.

writer's group on boat at a beach in Coiba Island, Panama

And the rest of the time, we snorkeled a bunch and laid out on the beaches. The water was amazing. I saw schools of giant fish (20 pounds or so, and dozens of them), large sea turtles, flying fish, dolphins, needle fish, brighttttt colored fish, and a six-foot sting ray. Our boat driver took us to seemingly random islands to snorkel. And it was all so pretty.

view of Coiba Island coastline from a hill
I also hiked up the island to see the view of all that lied below

See what you guys are missing, not being in Panama? Well, I'm here for another...I don't know, actually. My two years are up in October, but I don't want to leave just yet. So you guys have some time to visit me - we can go to the mountains, go to the islands, go to the jungles, or all of the above.

Related Articles:
Costa Rica; Magical Aruba; Mayan Ruins, Riviera Maya, Mexico; Inside Cozumel, Mexico; Playa del Carmen; La Paz, Baja California Sur

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FEEDBACK FOR PATTI

I enjoy your newsletters -and particularly Patti Nickell's article about the 'Pudding Club' in the Cotswold's. An old friend of mine is taking a holiday there this year and plans to try their Jam Roly Poly and Spotted Dick - amongst many!

--- John & Maggie - UK

FEEDBACK FOR JULIO

The way I read this article, you stayed at the "Breeze and Waves". Do you have any pictures of the cottages, and would you recommend to some first time visitors to Caramoan?

--- Richard Simons, Stockton, CA

Hi Richard,

Breeze and Waves was still under construction when I stayed there in Feb. 2010. It should be finished by now. You can see pictures of the resort on this page. We got to stay in one of the small cottages in the picture. I'll recommend it to budget travelers but you might want to look at other options. We chose it because of its location right by the beach. You can try other resorts in the Caramoan town proper (you have to get a ride to get to the beach and the jump-off point to go island-hopping but it's a relatively short distance). There are also two higher end resorts located on a cove and very near the islands: Gota Village Resort (unfortunately there is something wrong with their website right now) and its twin resort Hunongan Cove. Caramoan is a relatively new tourism development so resorts are just now being built.

You can go to this site for a good list of choices for accommodations in Caramoan.

I should add that it might be good to go to Caramoan (and almost anywhere in the Philippines) during the dry season from December to May. June to November are the typhoon months and sometimes typhoons will still come during early December.

Julio

* * * * *

Hi, I'm planning to go to Caramoan this coming May. Would you know the number of Breeze and Waves Cottages? Thanks!

--- Ann, Manila, Philippines

Hi Ann,

Breeze and Waves' phone number is 0908-2911072. Look for Freddie. Hope you have a grand time at Caramoan!

Julio

FEEDBACK FOR WENDY

For Nature's Playground: The South Island of New Zealand

Hi Wendy,

In winter, Heritage Heights Apts. now offers free shuttle service to and from Queenstown 24/7 to guests without cars. We own a 7-passenger 4-wd Toyota Highlander used specifically to taxi guests up and down the hill during winter months. We also run advance purchase winter promotions which include a 4-wd rental.

If any of your readers head over this direction, I will enjoy extending Heritage Heights hospitality!!

Cheers

--- Ailey, Owner, Queenstown, NZ

* * * * *

New Zealand text and pix top drawer! Almost as good as making the trip. ( but one still wants to. . . ) Full of useful detail. Only trouble with the website: It's tough figuring out which feedback goes with which article, and the more there are, the tougher it gets!

--- Ken W., Camarillo CA

Thanks Ken..."álmost" is right, you really have to experience the South Island firsthand. Granted this piece is long, but still all I can think about is how much I left out! I agree abut the relevancy factor re the feedback--it can be confusing...sometimes I have a "Wait a minute...what?" moment myself.

Thanks for writing,

Wendy

* * * * *

Okay Wendy, from now on whenever you book your travel, please reserve space for me. I will carry your luggage, bring you cold drinks, massage your shoulders, and change the film in your camera (oops, I guess you don't have to do that anymore). Wonderful ideas and recommendations. Can you get to New Zealand from Boston in less than a week?

--- Carl A., South Easton, MA

Ha ha ha Carl, you're quite the comedian! But you'd be surprised how short that flight feels. I suspect Qantas isn't the only airline who's figured out that 3 movies, 2 full meals, lots of snacks and a complimentary travel pack (eye mask, warm socks and neck pillow) equals a quiet, well-behaved cabin. It really isn't bad. Just fly direct--pick the shortest flight w/ no lengthy layovers and you'll be fine. Re: signing on as my Super Sherpa...why not? I think you know I seldom travel in anything less than Party mode. There's just that pesky background check...

Thanks for writing,

Wendy

For Excellence Riviera Cancun:

Wendy, I truly enjoyed your info especially since we leave in a week to celebrate my 50th Birthday. Was it necessary to make reservations at the restaurants? Was there a dress code for the restaurants? What would you recommend not missing while there? Was the spa experience worth it? Did you travel away from the resort while there? Thanks,

--- Kim P. Fuquay, Varina, NC

Hi Kim.

Sorry for the delay in responding...you had heavy competition with the holidays. Reservations at Excellence restaurants are not necessary and you will not find a wait. The dress code is basically no bathing suits and flip-flops...with a decided a mix of atmospheres. Mostly the open-air beachside spots are super casual, the rest slightly more formal. Truly, as long as you are clothed, I don't think you'd be turned away anywhere, though most people seemed to enjoy dressing up at night...I suspect more for their own pleasure than any sense of decorum.

The spa experience was worth it, though my favorite part wasn't the actual massage. The precursor was a 45 min. or so rotation from sauna to a series of (kind of wild) water jets which was very different and very cool, not just for women. In its' entirety, and with the serenity of the beach/champagne/strawberries, it was memorable.

We did not travel away from the hotel this trip, but the hotel is very helpful in arranging day excursions to fit your desires and you do not have to book these until you arrive.

Have a great time!

--- Wendy

FEEDBACK FOR NINO

I enjoyed Nino's contribution, since we all read about the frightening terrorist attack. Having travelled somewhat through India years ago, I am continually impressed with this country and the gentle spiritual aspects of this nation. Some day I look forward to going back. Nino has encouraged me. Thank you!

--- Yoka Y., Westlake Village, CA

FEEDBACK FOR RUSH & CHUCK

Dear Mr.s/counselors Brown and Koro,

Thank you for a very informed and succinct article on motorcycle accidents and the law. It inspired me to think about getting a motorcycle, but not have an accident. But, if I do I am now well informed with the basics of what to do providing I do not perish in the accident. Any tips about that too?

--- Unnamed

Dear Rush and Chuck,

I wish I had read your article before our camping trip the Friday prior to President's Day.

My wife and I were in a car accident on our way to a camp ground. We were "rear-ended" and the impact caused our car to crash into the car in front of us. The contents of the truck that we were riding scattered onto several lanes. It's a miracle our two dogs decided to stay inside the car. My wife and I were shaken up badly but despite the mess, I was still able to walk out of the car. I got the license plate of the driver in front of me but, to my surprise, after reviewing the little damage on his car, he then sped off. I didn't know you could do that! The driver who hit me from behind gave me his information and then he too left the scene without saying good 'bye. When the police arrived all I had to go by was the little information I had jotted down which I hope was truthful. What if it was bogus? What if I had written the plate number incorrectly? How would that affect my insurance? What if we were unconscious, who would have written down all that information?

I do have one suggestion if you are injured in an accident. The police asked if my wife wanted an ambulance to bring her to the hospital but we declined the offer. I remembered when I rode an ambulance years ago that it was not a comfortable ride. I was strapped to the stretcher and there were all sorts of medical equipment dangling noisily above me. As long as you are able, it is a more relaxful ride inside a car. Besides, isn't there a fee for ambulance service?

--- Dave S. of Pasadena, CA



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