Isla Taboga: The Easy Island Escape From Panama City

A Day On Panama City’s Closest Island Pearl

My family has really come to appreciate the brightest and sunniest days Panama can offer—which primarily occur from January through March each year. Sure, they’re hotter than most other places we’ve been to, but that is what you should expect living as an expat in the tropics.

The difference this time of year is that there’s no daily rain storm, the average daily humidity is palpably lower, and there’s a seasonal breeze that sweeps through the city off the Pacific, all providing some relief from Panama’s otherwise ubiquitous heat. That’s the reward of the dry season in the tropics—and the perfect time to hit all the islands and beaches this country has to offer.

In Panama, everything is so close you can “find your beach” from your living room window if you’re lucky. It’s on these bright, clear days when the time is free that I savor my coffee extra early and from my breakfast table, zero in on my beach destination.

Behind the downtown skyline, the bank high rises, the Caja de Seguro Social administrative building, and urban sprawl is a bluish mountain that rises out of the Pacific waters. The locals call it Isla Taboga.

Free To Decide

Forty-six rivers, three major lakes, and two oceans… that’s a lot of shorelines, islands, cabanas, resorts, and all-around waterside fun for one country. But since the first time I came to Panama in the early 80s, and after all the places to splash I’ve experienced, Taboga has yet to disappoint.

Some places have a new crowd, others a new smell; Taboga, that distant island at the far edge of my morning view, has remained the same. The shores we relax on, the fish we eat, the ferries we take, the very prices we pay have all seemed to remain uninfluenced by the rising tide of progress and popularity on mainland Panama. So in between the drives to Coronado, the treks to el Mar Caribe, and any other water fun we travel for in Latin America, we keep coming back to our little island retreat less than an hour off the coast of Panama City…

We usually see the holidays from work and school coming weeks ahead of time, but only the night before do we actually decide to go anywhere. The next day we rise early and pack the basics into a large canvas bag: towels, some sunscreen, and changes of clothes. If we wanted to go all out, we could load a cooler with sodas, sandwiches, beer, and water—but we usually don’t; all that can be had at a reasonable price once we arrive, saving us the trouble of schlepping it.

At the breakfast table we plan our day… but not too much. A day on Taboga happens organically; it’ll work itself out.

Coffee finished, my wife, our two boys, and I pile into the trusty Nissan to catch the ferry, and we’d better hurry if we want to bypass the tranque (rush-hour traffic) andbe on deck when she departs at 8:30 a.m. on the dot. Going against traffic, the drive to the Amador Causeway is typically low-stress at this time of the morning; we even have a secure parking lot to leave the car in while we go play… Now it’s time to catch our boat.

We ride on royalty: The Calypso Queen, of the Barcos Calypso fleet, has been ferrying sun and sand lovers to and from Taboga since 2005. The ticket counter, unlike some ticket counters in Panama, allows you to buy your roundtrip tickets for the reasonable price of US$14 for adults and US$9.50 for the little ones.

The trip, cutting across the routes the bigger vessels take as they enter and exit the canal’s Miraflores locks, is around 45 minutes one way. In fact, the ferryboat passes so close to the barges and tankers anchored offshore you can wave at their crewmen.

As we snap photos, look out over the sun’s blinding reflection on the open water, and send messages to family and friends not fortunate enough to join us, that bluish mountain begins to take on the lush green of the vegetation that graces most of the bucolic island.

By the time we notice this change in scenery, we are close enough to remind ourselves that this trip wasn’t only about a boat ride. No, it’s just the start of the fun on the way to our real destination, the beach.

Puerto Taboga And Its Surroundings

Our wheels parked safely in Panama City and the hardest working Queen this side of the Pacific behind us, we now head out on foot towards the sand. This brief stroll starts at the pier where the Calypso Queen and a few other boats like it make their daily morning and afternoon pickups and drop-offs. It’s 9-something in the morning, and we don’t have to be back until after 4 p.m. Time is not of the essence, for once!

Passing through a crowd of a few onlookers waiting for family or supplies from Panama City, the ground changes from the dock’s wooden planks to a concrete promenade and then to sandy trail in rapid succession.

Things are quiet in Taboga’s San Pedro village most of the time anyways, but for many of the island dwellers, their day is just starting, like it is for us. The restaurants and souvenir shops are barely stirring with activity as we pace by.

Out on the sandbar that jets out from the sleepy island village, it’s a different story…

From the deck of the boat we could already see a couple of uniform rows of multicolored umbrellas and beach chairs, and, believe me, they didn’t set themselves up. A group of locals run the show, and for around US$15 you can have a custom spot of shade to enjoy the sand, sun, and surf. The price for each item you request, from extra chairs and tables to umbrellas, is posted, so you know you’re getting a fair deal. You have to bring cash, though; ATMs are back on the mainland.

Taboga’s main tourist beach is funny. On any given day, things start out deceptively. The beach is, well, desolate… aside from the group that disembarked from the ferry with us and the attentive locals setting up slices of paradise, no one is here.

Just like the tide, however, people visiting from all over the Americas and Europe flow in as the hours tick by. By lunch time, you are glad you claimed your space early. Not only has the water level quietly moved out, but while you were taking a dip, business as usual on the dock has seen charters bringing in batches of sun-worshippers every 30 minutes or so.

The time passes steadily to the rhythm of the turquoise waves slapping the shore. After swimming, collecting shells, and lounging around since settling in at 9:30 a.m. or so, it is time for a welcomed lunch. San Pedro has a few eateries, and all of them appear to be frequented by locals and tourists alike.

On the farthest end of a pleasant, 15-minute walk through the village is a highly rated restaurant called Donde Pope Si Hay. On the closest end of that same walk is my highly rated choice, El Mirador.

El Mirador’s corvina frita is the best in the village

El Mirador claims to be the best at frying whole corvina (sea bass)—and it’s true. Whether you eat it at the restaurant or take it back to the sand to devour, it is a superbly prepared meal along with its sides of salad and patacones. Costs can vary, depending on the size, but the largest-sized catch is no more than US$12 and is enough for two adults.

The fish is their specialty, but you can order a burger with all the fixings or even chicken fried rice if that’s your preference. They even deliver to the beach if you feel particularly reluctant to get up. Plus, the side window of El Mirador serves as a mini-mart to fill any other snack or drink needs throughout the day. To our family, this is the most convenient spot in town if no one has set up shop directly on the sand.

Once 2 p.m. rolls around (and if I have already nodded off for a bit) it’s back to the water. We always find it hard to believe the day is starting to wane, being still in the midst of fun. But those aquamarine waves and time keep on moving.

A little more aware of my surroundings, I now see as other groups of visitors gather their things to go wash up, change, and board their respective ferryboats for a trip back home. The hot sun has caused us to shift our umbrella a few times and the tide is rising, all signs that it is time for us to finally follow suit with the other beachgoers. We packed lightly on purpose; it allows us to play and lie out on the beach until the last minute before departure.

Back To The City, Work, And School

At the dock, an even larger crowd has assembled. Local children and their parents are laughing or eating some barbeque being sold by one of the dockside vendors. On one of the benches we wait patiently, eating passion-fruit raspado.

Despite staying at the beach as long as possible, we always make it in good time. All that’s left is to queue up and find a place aboard our Calypso Queen—when the deckhand gives the signal, that’s exactly what we do.

Farewell Taboga…

It’s dark now as the garage gate to our building opens up to receive us. The trip is officially over, and all the stories of another great day have been shared.

Upstairs, the sandy shorts and shirts are thrown into the hamper, and we all rinse off for a good night’s rest. School will start bright and early at 7 a.m., work at 8:30.

We can’t whisk ourselves away to an island beach as often as we’d like to, but at least when the opportunity presents itself, the joy and memories we come away with hold us over until the next time.

Matthew Pond
Panama Insider