By Juan Abelardo Carles R.
Photos: Javier Pinzón
There are many reasons Panamanians have favored Taboga as their main beach destination over the centuries, even though the capital boasts closer beaches that can be reached by land. When public health restrictions were relaxed a bit, it is not surprising that many residents of the capital headed straight for what is also known as “Island of the Flowers” to breathe fresh air and relax after so many months of lockdown. If you happen to be passing through, here are a few suggestions for making the most of your time; if you live in this country, they’ll make you want to visit the island again.
This is the most obvious reason to visit the island. One nice thing is that two of the island’s most popular beaches are accessible simply by walking to the end of the pier after stepping off the ferry. To the north, La Restinga features a sandbank that connects the main island to Peñón de El Morro at low tide, revealing a broad sweep of sand bathed by water on both sides. Closer to town, Honda Beach is less popular than it should be, considering its lovely sand and larger size. A string of small businesses, from restaurants to tour operators, stretches between the two beaches, supplying everything you need to have a good time. Among the most popular are Hotel Taboga Palace (tabogapalace.com), close to everything, and the Calaloo Beach, FishBar & Grill (calaloobeachtaboga), considered by many visitors to have one of the most enjoyable atmospheres. To the north of La Restinga, trails lead to small sandbanks that barely qualify as beaches, but are nevertheless sought out by those who seek silence and solitude. The best known are Jobo and Piedra Llana. The road is rough and high tide can block your return journey, so if you are not a reasonably experienced hiker and in good shape, it might be better to try something else.
Speaking of hiking, Taboga offers many excellent options, making this the second reason for lingering on the island. Like the town, the surrounding roads can claim their own legends and historical incidents in addition to the more conventional sightings of flora and fauna. For example, Tres Cruces commemorates the unconsecrated burial of three criminals, whose ghosts tormented Taboga residents until a priest blessed the road and planted three crosses on the burial mounds. Vigía leads to the point where people watched for incoming ships, especially during the time when the United States administered the Panama Canal and built a fortified gun emplacement on the defensive perimeter of the inter-oceanic waterway. There are more trails as well, and the town of Taboga is readying a bike route as part of its 500th anniversary celebrations. (See the inset).
For such a small place, Taboga boasts some significant historic highlights. It was here in the growing, recently-founded town that Francisco Pizarro heard tales of a wealthy kingdom governed by Birú (or Pirú) beyond the Southern Sea (Pacific Ocean). The only vestige of those times is the small church of San Pedro, the second oldest on the Pacific Coast of the Americas. The Peñón del Morro continues to reveal rusted bits of cranes and port machinery erected by the Pacific Steamship Navigation Co. in 1850, when Taboga was the bustling southern terminus of the route between Panama City and San Francisco. It is said that in 1887, painter Paul Gauguin was captivated by the colors and shapes of the tropics on Isla de las Flores, prefiguring his love for the island of Tahiti, as expressed through his canvases. Young Taboga locals hanging around the wharf are always willing to escort visitors to the places traditionally linked to these historic events.
The opening of the inter-oceanic waterway waylaid the island’s commercial ambitions. An unexpected benefit of this decline, however, was less intensive use of local lands. This allowed Taboga’s eastern shore to be set aside as a refuge for wildlife, especially nesting birds such as brown pelicans, cormorants, frigate birds, and seagulls. This coastline, along with the nearby island of Urabá and the sea between them, comprise the nearly 10,000 acres of the Taboga Wildlife Refuge. The best time to see broods of chicks is between December and July, when you can approach in a launch. You might see whales, dolphins, and turtles as well. Visitors can also dive to explore select shipwrecks.
In a town as old as Taboga, the official version of history is often complemented by legends simmered over the slow fires of time and seasoned with popular oral traditions. A resident might tell you about the children who accompany hikers up and down Mt. Vigía, but are visible only in photos, or about the echoes of axe blows and falling trees heard around Mt. Turio at midday. In 1946, a U.S. military jet crashed on the southeastern slope of Mt. Vigía in an area called “La Soledad.” This side of the mountain faces the coastal zone of Punta Santa Catalina. The boatmen who pass through now request silence from their passengers, since legend has it that the waters grow choppy if anyone speaks or shouts. With respect to these phenomena, this reporter can attest that the wind seemed to whisper hymns in English as we approached the foreign cemetery in Sendero de El Morro. If you would like to learn more about the legends of Taboga, ask Gilberto Botello, the man who lovingly preserves Taboga traditions.
Taboga Reactivates Its Tourism Industry
Taboga’s handling of COVID-19 has been exemplary: it kept the number of infections relatively low during the peaks of infection rates, and no deaths have been reported. The economy is another story: the pandemic hit them hard, since it started just as the island was expecting a wave of tourists at the beginning of Panama’s dry season and the country’s traditional holiday season. Mayor Magaly Ricord remembers, “By the beginning of January, we knew the virus would come here. We instituted protective measures, but no one could have predicted the scope of what was going to hit us.” The flow of tourists began to slow during the first half of March and by the end of the month, ferry service between the island and the Panamanian capital had ceased. “The island’s economy suddenly lost 85% of its income, and this was complicated by the fact that food, medicine, and goods in general were harder to source,” she tells us.
Now that the pandemic seems to be loosening its iron grip, tourists are starting to return. People crave spaciousness after months of lockdowns. The town is preparing: tourism-related businesses all offer customers temperature checks, hand sanitizer, and reminders to socially distance. Inspectors ensure compliance with public health measures on beaches and in public places. Ricord explains that they are working to restore the nature trails as part of the tourism program, and as soon as circumstances allow, they plan to resume popular festivities like Carnival and the Taboga Flower Fair. They will also introduce new ones, such as a Congo Drum Festival. All these activities will be part of the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the town’s founding, which will be observed in 2024. “Taboga is culture, nature, history, and tradition. It has all the elements to become the most important tourist island in the Central American Pacific. I know it sounds ambitious, but we have every reason to think we can do it,” notes the mayor.
Cerrito Tropical Ecolodge
Come enjoy the pristine natural surroundings, outstanding oceanviews, and pure air that draws oxygen from the nearby tropical forest. Kick back and relax. Leave the rest to us!
This boutique ecolodge with personalized service sits on an exclusive parcel of Taboga Island hillside. Birdsong greets you in the morning as you wake up with freshly-brewed coffee, sip cold drinks by the plunge-pool at noon, and feel the enchantment of the twinkling lights of ships at dusk.
Pleasant rooms and mini suites in a private haven on Taboga Island.
WhatsApp: +507 6489 0074
Taboga Palace “Spa” y hotel
With an ideal location across from Honda Beach on Taboga’s main beachfront boulevard and just steps from the public pier and La Restinga Beach in the heart of the island’s tourist zone, the Taboga Palace is just the spot for your holiday in the Panamanian Pacific.
All rooms feature ocean views and luxurious decor and come equipped with all the amenities. The owner’s personal attention to detail is evident as you sip cocktails by the pool or regain your sense of inner peace in the spa.
WhatsApp: (507) 6389 2721
Ferry Roka Panamá
Our fleet of eight boats transports passengers, crew, cargo, and even documents in compliance with all safety standards and Panama Maritime Authority (AMP) and Panama Canal Authority (ACP) regulations.
Trip to Taboga
The Isla de las Flores (Flower Island), as it is known, is located in the Gulf of Panama, just twelve miles from Panama City. The island has more than 500 years of history. Join us for the trip from Panama to Taboga, which is only twenty-five minutes long.
For reservations, call:
(507) 6997 4444
How to Get There
Several companies provide ferry service between Panama City and Taboga Island. Most of the ferries depart from the Flamenco marina at the end of Calzada de Amador. The Panorama team used Roka Panamá. For schedules and further information, visit https://rokapanama.com.