Discovering Isla Taboga, Panama




The island of Taboga in Panama is one of lush natural landscape and rich cultural secrets. It's not far at all from Panama City which makes it the perfect weekend escape, potentially for Panama's jet-set crowd; a perfectly rustic alternative to the posh Pearl Islands. For me, it was the Rueben show.

We arrived on Taboga around ten in the morning and were soon thereafter greeted by a young man with front teeth the size of small tombstones. He wore long shorts made of nylon and a YMCA t-shirt which I'm pretty sure I used to own back when I was twelve. "I Reuben" he told us, walking beside us backwards like a college tour guide. "We can help for to get anything? For to have umbrella? For to have beers?"

I liked the way Rueben in his broken English talked, almost in a whimsical Shakespearean tongue. "For to have fish or tours or anythings beautiness" Rueben revealed, "I, Reuben is the man for this."

It's a nice feeling really; to arrive at a new destination and be offered anything you want. It's a feeling of immediate governance much like, I imagine, the way a Prince or President is greeted. Rueben was playing role of aid and we were eating it up.

"Come to think of it," I told Reuben, "some lagers would be nice." He jumped at the opportunity and after helping set us up by the beach, dashed off as if he were delivering some sort of hand grenade or time bomb. He returned a few minutes later with an ice-chest full of cold domestic brews. Reuben was great. This was great.  

Although nestled away on the Pacific Coast, not far from Panama City, Taboga maintains this great sense of Caribbean calm. It's like a mini Bocas del Toro but without all the backpackers. (Backpackers, if you're reading this, you'd love it here. But do us all a favor and take a shower before you arrive.)  

Taboga has a number of beaches, several of which are tainted due to sewage run-off from town and nearby fishing vessel discharge. We chose the beach with views of the gorgeous Panama City skyline (as the water quality was better). Keep an eye out for the occasional sting ray in season.

Rueben showed us to this cute little boutique hotel perched up on a hill beside the church which he described as "one hundred percent beautiness." By the end, I had deemed it the nicest place to stay on the island. I forget the name, but it's got red shudders and a white façade. I doubt Reuben had ever stayed there as he seemed less the luxurious and more the scanty type. He was dead on about it for me though.

Rueben revealed that tourism on Taboga is still pretty limited to Panamanians looking to get away for a day or two. You'll see them lined up on the ferry (which leaves from Mi Ranchito Restaurant on the Causeway a few times a day) with large coolers, inside of which often resides enough liquor to last a leap year. You'll also see the occasional tourist group on these ferries smothered in suntan lotion as if they were white travel ghosts. They wear large bucket hats and high socks to protect themselves from the sun. The Velcro sandals Rueben was unable to explain

The daily routine of sitting on the beach until lunchtime, then eating fish at a beachside shack before retiring to a hammock-slung afternoon nap nearly brought me back to Spain, where weekends in Valencia and Girona seemed to disappear as effortlessly as the sunset. Everything moves at a slower pace on Taboga, in such stark contrast to the downtown banking district off in the distance.

In the center of town sits an age-old church, around which spider these narrow passageways that echo life of a different era. Rueben says pirates ransacked the town back a few hundred years ago. "I no know the name of the pirates" he explained. "But they bad bad pirates."

The steep landscape is very reminiscent of your typical Caribbean getaway: island life characterized by brightly painted houses, music blasting from windows, and spectacular views of the ocean because everything is set on a lush jungle hill. On the main strip, which runs along the khaki sand beach, you'll find a number of street vendors selling smoked meats and ceviches and ice cream.

There are some good secrets on Taboga, such as the ancient cemetery atop the hill and the dinosaur bones buried beneath one of the main walkways. Locals are starting to see some development on the island including a private mansion on perhaps it's most prominent beach corner and some new condos which rent out by the month ($500).

There are sufficient restaurants and bars to keep you full and entertained for a few days: and that's perhaps the perfect Taboga trip: leaving on Saturday morning and coming back Sunday night.

Search out Rueben if you go. He's a character and a half. Upon getting off the ferry, he had us at "cerveza" and I don't think the trip would have been the same without. Taboga's my new favorite weekend jaunt spot, so you may run into me there; hanging out with Rueben by the beach; simply taking in the beautiness of it all.