One thing I’ve struggled with this year is finding a balance between being a tourist and living in a location. Part of our ongoing goal is to just be with our family, not spend every waking moment running from one place to the next. However, it is easier said than done when traveling to amazing new locations. I constantly feel the strong desire to not miss out on a local tourist attraction that we may never get back to.
In the fall, when we were in Europe, we spent my lunch break running to a museum in Zurich or catching a trolley ride up steep hills in Lisbon. I loved it, but there were also moments that I knew we did too much, or pushed the kids too hard. That is why I was so looking forward to this lazy February month in Panama, living on the ocean, exploring our tiny town, working during normal U.S. business hours and just being here.
A good friend of ours recently asked me if we had any plans in Panama, and I said not really. Play on the beach, go to the food store, collect our water from the local well, that was about it. However, later that day, I felt the nagging desire to make sure I didn’t miss out. I also read a recent New York Times travel article about the exact area of Panama where we are, and thought we must plan a few weekend trips. How could I go all the way to Panama for a month and not see anything but our tiny beach and town?
So, Isla Iguana was set in motion. I had heard from a couple of people that it was worth the trip and the images of the beach are truly beautiful. Tim and I did our research. It was about a 45 minute car ride to a beach where you pay $70 (we talked them down to $60) to get taken on a twenty-minute boat ride over the Pacific Ocean to the island. We planned to bring our lunch, some beach toys, a chair, and an umbrella. The tide schedule was right to depart and return around low tide when the waters were at their calmest. We brought the kids life “jackets,” assuming that they may not have any child-sized items on the boats, and set off for a nice day trip to Isla Iguana.
We almost missed the turn into the parking area but were waved in by a flurry of boat drivers eager to compete for our business. Since I speak no Spanish, I got the kids out of the car while Tim sorted out the details of costs and return time in his broken Spanish. After providing our passport numbers to a man with a clipboard, we were set to depart. Later I realized that these numbers were solely provided so that, in the event that a boat was lost at sea, the Panamanian government would know what embassy to contact to alert the next of kin.
We walked down the beach to see about a dozen glorified rowboats. I could hardly make out the island on the horizon, and I started to question the decision we had made. The boat was very small and the island very far away! The weather, although seemingly perfect in the morning, was now windy and whipping. The waves were choppy and the skies ominous.
I tried to keep my mood up to not frighten Oliver. I noticed him tentatively watching the workers use small foam balls as wheels under the mighty vessel “Mi Abuelo” (My Grandfather) to get it closer to the ocean, ready for us to depart. They worked quickly, and were soon holding the boat in the aggressive ocean waving for us to get on board. There was no time to think, so I plopped Vera into the boat and tossed all of the beach day items in, followed by Oliver and Tim.
Vera called BS on the whole thing the instant she got into the boat. She started screaming, having no idea why we were in a boat and unsure of the entire situation. Oliver was hesitant and still waiting to decide if this was a good idea. Tim and I were feverishly trying to put on the most pathetic version of an adult life jacket I’ve ever seen. To be honest, I’m not sure it would have saved my life in a kiddie pool, let alone the open ocean. Oliver’s life saving device was a set of swimmies and Vera’s life vest was meant for a 35-pound child, not a 25-pound baby. It was immediately apparent that this had been our worst parenting decision to date.
The captain, a barely 20-year-old bleached blonde Panamanian surfer dude and what was probably his 17-year-old little sister jumped on the back of the boat. Off we went, head first into tall choppy waves and whipping winds in an overgrown rowboat with an outboard motor. I had now entrusted the lives of my family to the ability of two very young adults who looked like they would rather be kitesurfing.
Our captain turned out to be quite adept, as the entire boat ride was a maze of slowing to avoid the next oncoming wave, or racing forward to not get pummeled by it. As the boat bounced and twisted and jumped and bobbed in the waves, I clung to Vera with every muscle in my body, hoping she wouldn’t pop out of the boat with each wave we hit. This situation was not helped by the fact that Vera was screaming bloody murder and then heaving, “ALL DONE, ALL DONE, ALL DONE” for the first twenty minutes of what ended up being about a fifty-minute boat ride. The reality was that I too was “ALL DONE.”
About halfway there Vera relented, got on my lap and buried her head into my chest, not wanting to look up until we had arrived safely to wherever the hell we were going. Oliver, on the other hand, had decided this was a great adventure and giggled joyously with each wave. As Tim and I clung tightly to our children, it was nice to know at least one of us was enjoying the ride. A flock of seagulls swooped down and raced alongside the boat, as if to say, “What the hell are you doing out here?”
I lost years of my life in those fifty minutes as I ran through the list of horrors that could take place. Most revolved around the boat capsizing, our children falling out of their life vests and sinking into the ocean, me being knocked unconscious and not being able to get to them, or our tiny skiff running out of gas and us floating aimlessly out into the Pacific Ocean.
We finally arrived at Isla Iguana at 11:15am. The now calm water was teal blue over a stunning coral reef. There were thousands of hermit crabs covering the entire white sand beach, so that it appeared as if the sand was moving. This in itself was enough to convince two young kids that the trip was well worth it! I, however, spent the next hour still trembling from my previous hour of terror and anticipating the dreaded reality that we still had to get back!
My nerves started to calm when I spent a blissful ten minutes snorkeling in the coral reef with Oliver, and watched his delight in looking under water for the first time. It was a magical experience that I’m hoping to repeat again soon.
However, this was unfortunately cut short by our boat captain informing us that the tide would be too low to leave at 1pm as planned, but we could stay longer and leave from the other side of the island. Tim and I agreed that we wanted to stay for longer (anything to delay getting back on that boat). We packed up and hiked the kids on a five-minute trail across the island, looking for the island’s namesake iguanas but finding none.
Upon arrival, we found the same choppy, windy, and treacherous conditions we had just left on land, as this beach faced the open ocean and oncoming waves. Our captain just barely squeezed the boat in between the rocks and motioned for us to to get on. There was no way he could safely hold the boat in that position, so at 12:15 were were prematurely hustled off the island and back onto the boat. Vera screamed and Oliver giggled as we surfed the waves all the way back in what was thankfully a much smoother twenty-minute boat ride.
Moving forward, don’t judge me if we spend the rest of our two weeks here eating at the local beach restaurants, swimming in the ocean in front of our house, and not doing much of anything. I think I’ve had enough excitement for a few weeks!