Monday, July 9, 2018

Panama Trip - Day 4: .... We Have Fun and Games

In late May, 2017 I embarked on a trip of a lifetime to Central America. Specifically, I visited Panama's steamy rainforest province of Bocas del Toro, a place I had never heard of before, but of which I had read many encouraging accounts.

But first, if you wish to read up on what has transpired before, click on the links below:

Day 1: Here There Be Balboas!
Day 2: Honor Among Thieves. Sorta (But No, Not Really).
Day 3: Making the Best of Things.

And now for the continuation.

DAY 4: ....We Have Fun and Games.

I'm awaken by the sound of something large growling in the dense jungle beyond my open-air cabin. It's one of the howler monkeys whom I've yet to see, but who I can hear perfectly fine moving through the dark trees surrounding me. I imagine there's a family of them in there, watching me, plotting. During the early pre-dawn hours I think one of them jumped on my roof, scurried across it, then jumped back into the trees on the other side. Probably the same one who just woke me from a fitfully earned sleep; or maybe his sister or an uncle. Great fun .... for them.

Me? Maybe not so much. Truth be told, my first night at La Loma Jungle Lodge and Chocolate Farm was a frightful one for a kid from the inner city. I, of course, am accustomed to sleeping through such fracases as late night fights and shouting matches in my neighborhood of the South Bronx where I live: the rummaging of garbage cans below my windows, the odd gunshot ringing out from the rooftop across the street at 3am, or through a cacophony of honking horns and sirens flying by the nearby intersection just before midnight. I sleep through all that like a boss!

So what could possibly have kept me awake for most of the night in a nice little hideaway jungle oasis deep inside Panama's tropical rainforest province?

Bugs. Lots and lots of BUGS!

Thankfully, much in part due to the reams of thick mosquito netting cocooning my bed, no bugs actually crawling on me. No. But, rather, what felt like every insect under creation was out there flitting by in the night, bumping into my nets and trying to get at the sweaty, hot, stinky human full of delicious hemoglobin who they could sense lying there just beyond their tiny grubby grasps. A whole heap of 'em rubbing legs and wingtips together, chirping, clacking, or otherwise producing an alien-like chorus of sounds that took a long time to get accustomed to for someone who, yes, may have hailed from a jungle of the urban variety -- but not the jungle; ancient, primordial, green and alive. I mean, the night air was thick with these suckers inhabiting this very real jungle around me. And boy, they were LOUD!!!

Partial daytime view of my bed with much welcomed netting!

Added to this was the reality that nighttime temps in Bocas del Toro in June seem to bottom out at a not-so-bottom 88-degrees F. And the humidity is easily north of 90%!!! So when they say "you're in the thick of it" here in Bocas, they really mean it.

Then there's this other fun tidbit of wholesome knowledge: Because the lodge I was staying at prides itself on being off the grid (mostly) and eco-friendly, there are no ACs in this place. Which is perfectly fine and understandable, as the cabins only have one wall and are otherwise largely open to the elements, but what this means is that the only thing you have to combat the oppressive jungle heat with is a high speed fan above your bed. And perhaps a silent prayer to the rain gods to send a fast moving low-pressure system in to scrub the atmosphere away -- albeit temporarily. It always returns, though, the humidity. And your choice is to either: 1) Accept it; or 2) Take a cold shower .... and accept it.

I ended up doing the latter quite frequently during my stay.

But see, it really wasn't all that bad. The sounds of the night simply took some getting used to. That, and the fact that I was all alone on this trip, as well as having been assigned the highest, most secluded cabin on the very top of the property attributed to my unease. The base house where all lodgers can go to meet up, to eat and plan the day's excursions, to chat with the owners or their staff, to pet the many dogs and one cat .... well, it was located all the way down at the bottom of around 100 steps carefully hammered or hewn or cobbled together into the heavily vegetated slope which comprised part of the outfit's self-sustaining farm. La Loma grows its own everything, you see, not the least of which is the cacao that it is locally known for. A nice American/British couple, Henry and Margaret, own the property and maintain the grounds along with a closely-knit staff of local and indigenous helpers who are pretty much like family to each other.

In fact, it was Henry who, the day before, personally welcomed myself and a group of other strangers who came via the water taxi out from Bocas Town back on Isla Colón. When our little motorboat sidled up to the property's dock, there he was with a couple of dogs to help us with our bags and show us to our lodgings. We didn't all know each other yet, but we were about to spend 4 days together eating and exploring and generally having fun in this secluded jungle hideaway. I was very happy to be here, especially after having had a little bit of a rough go of it at my previous lodging the day before.

Our host, Henry, pacing the dock as we approached La Loma lodge.

But, I was at last at the place I wanted to be: the hotel that was really a lodge; the lodge that was really a farm; the farm that was really a paradise away from the burdens and pressures of the modern world. It couldn't get anything but better for me from here on out. And boy, it really did!

But first, I had to survive that initial night. Honestly, waking up with the sun (a feat you can't help but undertake when your room has no walls) wasn't all too bad. After finally quelling my fears of all the strange noises and unseeing eyes seeing me from the trees -- some of those eyes belonging to several species of primate, sure; but there were also bats, giant spiders, lizards, and even a sloth or two as well  -- when the sun eventually did rise, the jungle became this tame, innocuous lulling song that made me instantly happy to be there enjoying it all. Simply put, it was quite magical!

The photos below are of the grounds at La Loma, and the hike up to my cabin atop the highest hill on the property:

After so much climbing, these last set of stairs were for me alone.

The gorgeous view from my cabin.

And so here I was. In the jungle, baby! And, unlike the songs says, I definitely did not intend to DIE here. In fact, I could not wait to get started with the day's fun!

While I was still in bed, someone on the farm thoughtfully brought up a tray with coffee and small muffins to the cabin for me to start off with. It was very nice, and I took my leisurely time eating and drinking after first taking a shower. Then, it was time for real breakfast at around 8:30am. This entailed leaving the cabin and descending through the jungle canopy down a ladder of winding, damp and slippery steps to the ground level where the main lodge was located. There I met up with my fellow lodgers just in time to be greeted by Henry and Margaret, who happily explained to us which excursions we would be able to partake in that day.

The majority of us agreed upon a day trip of snorkeling in the morning within the nearby waters of the protected reserve known as the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park, followed by an afternoon of relaxing on the isolated beach isle called Isla Zapatillas.

The lovely folks at La Loma had packed us all a nice gourmet lunch to take on the journey, and soon those of us going on the excursion boarded a small motor boat and headed out to the coral reef where we did a little snorkeling.

After struggling with my goggles and mouth tube, I eventually got settled in the water and, with my ancient underwater touristy Fujifim camera, took the above pictures displaying the small reef features. Unfortunately, I did not see a lot of marine life here save for the occasional starfish.

We then traveled for another 15 minutes to the secluded but gorgeous Zapatillas island. It's quite remote, so much so that it has served as host for the international version of the reality show, Survivor, on more than one occasion.

Once here, our boat pilot left us to our own devices for the next 3 or 4 hours. It was glorious to have the island to ourselves, and I proceeded to do . . . nothing, nothing at all for the entire allotment of time. It was quite the great accomplishment to pull off, I must tell ya. Relaxing is such hard work!

But alas, eventually the afternoon wound to an end and the shadows drew long. On the way back to La Loma, our guide slowed the boat down long enough for us to see a sloth high up in a tree on another island.

I had my telephoto lens when I snapped this photo, and thankfully so. Because, honestly, this guy appeared to be nothing more than a little pinhead to the naked eye. Thanks to modern technology, though, I was able to look into the review screen on my camera and see this furry face staring right back at me. How cool is that?

All in all, it was a great first day in Paradise as far as I was concerned. Back in my cabin later that night, ensconced once again in my fortress of mosquito netting and listening to the jungle truly come alive around me, I had nothing to do but let it all soak in. In the dark; alone. To reflect on how far from home I truly was, and how never before had I ever undertaken a trip quite as exotic as this one.

At long last, I was at a place where I could just let go and be myself. I could truly unwind and forget all my troubles. And above all else, reflect on how it was all WORTH IT.

Continue on to Day 5 ---> (click)


  1. Absolutely beautiful! I can't with the bugs though. "Giant spiders" you say? Fuck that! :-D I am so content to experience this through your eyes. :-)

    1. Yeah, if anything I've actually *downplayed* the insect attacks I endured. On the plus side, there were plenty of geckos running and climbing all around my cabin to help deal with a goodly portion of the bugs. I thanked them ... but at the same time, was not too keen on seeing them up in my grill when I tried to use the toilet and one crawled over my face! Welcome to the jungle, indeed!


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