In western Panama between Volcán and Cerro Punta, nestled in the mountains along a winding road, is the Bambito Hotel. In contrast to other places you pass along the way, Bambito is quite different. As you slowly come around a curve you will see a high cliff to your left, and then a large landscaped garden and several ponds on your right. Not only is the resort in an ideal and exotic location, but it is also very clean. You won’t find any garbage or plastic bags blowing around here. Even if you don’t stay overnight, stop and explore the area for an hour or so before continuing on up to Cerro Punta.
I have always liked Isla Taboga since my first visit back in the late 70′s. Part of what I liked about it was that it never seemed to change. If it did, it was at a snail’s pace.
One big change came in 2007 when the former Hotel Taboga was demolished, and there has yet to be a replacement. There was quite a bit of talk for a few years about condos and a marina, but so far nothing has materialized. The ruins of the old hotel are still here at Playa Restinga and El Morro. I can picture its former beauty in my mind. I’ll never forget. And I hear, literally, the peacocks, now hiding in the jungle, as they call to each other.
There are small huts on Restinga, up along the former Hotel Taboga wall. They can be rented for the day. And among the ruins are vendors that will cook or get you a cold cerveza. In-between cooking corvina or renting out umbrellas and chairs, they play cards and dominos.
A couple of places to stay, (and there are others) are the Vereda Tropical and Cerrito Tropical. I have stayed at both and they are fine. On this last trip I met the expat owner/ operator of the Agua Sol Villa. My family and I had dinner over Taboga Bay, and Ted told us about the five rooms he has available. It’s a beautiful place in an ideal location.
I finally saw, after I don’t know how many excursions to Taboga, the elusive neon green and black dart frog. I spotted it on a section of PVC pipe just as I started up the jungle trail to The Three Crosses, and I was able to get a picture before it hopped into the dark foliage.
We were a little bewildered on the far side of Taboga. I took the wrong trail and we came out on the Wild Life Refuge side and discovered where the pelicans nest. It was quite a nesting area. And then another first. I met a traveler off of the beaten path. A Scotsman from Edinburgh who liked the myriad of butterflies that call Taboga home. I pointed the way for him to find The Three Crosses, the gravesite of three pirates who were killed during one of many attacks over the centuries.
Things are changing on little Isla Taboga. There was a time when you never saw a car. Now there are several small trucks, vans, golf carts and at least one noisy moped. As we found out when we crossed over the top of Taboga, the daily flights out to the Pearl Islands screech by very close. All the same, if you are in the area, I would highly recommend the trip. The island is beautiful, and it has a colorful history.
Isla Taboga — Island of Flowers
Between Penonomé and Aguadulce on the Interamericana Highway is the small town of Natá de los Caballeros. Natá is home to only a few thousand residents. But it is also home to the oldest church still in use in all of the Americas. La Basilica Menor Santiago Apostal de Natá was founded in 1522. This makes it two years older than the Church of San Pedro on Isla Taboga.
You may need to ask for directions once you arrive in Natá. The church is located several blocks off of the Interamericana in a residential neighborhood. There is also a nice small park across from the church. The building has been restored over the years, but much of the original construction can still be seen. Inside you will find many intricately carved alters. You will see wooden faces all around, and fruits and flowers carved into ornate columns. There’s even what appears to be a feathered serpent, something I thought was a crocodile at first until I looked closer. This is definitely one of those places where you could spend all day exploring.
Church of Natá
Black Palm is one name for this nasty jungle tree, but it’s known by a lot of others, especially if you are unfortunate enough to brush up against one. Panama has a wide variety of trees such as the tall Robles with its pink, flowery petals. And the giant Corotú, that is great for shade. You can even find square tress in El Valle. Panama’s most recognizable trees are the curved coconut palms we see near beaches, the fronds blowing gently in the wind.
But there are about two-thousand varieties of palm. One of those is the memorable black palm. On its trunk thousands of long, sharp needles grow straight out. It you simply brush by one, the needles will penetrate your shirt or pants, and embed in your skin. If you don’t get the broken barbs out, the area will fester and get infected rather quickly. Even dead black palms can be dangerous. If you step over a fallen one, you need to make sure you step as far over it as you can, or else the needles will go right through your boots. Typically while in the jungle you may only see a few black palm trees which you can easily avoid. Only once did I come across a small forest of black palms that I had to go through. It was a nightmare of needles and I was pulling out barbs for days.
If you see this tree during your travels, it’s best to avoid it if possible.
It was June, 1979. I was approached by another NCO in the Fort Kobbe parking strip about an honor guard detail at Howard AFB for a civilian. A journalist killed in Nicaragua. His name was Bill Stewart. He was shot dead at a checkpoint by a soldier from the Nicaraguan National Guard along with his interpreter. We didn’t know it then, but the whole episode of what happened had been filmed. Soon, it was everywhere on the news. I couldn’t believe that even the US news services showed it, over and over. All I could think about was Stewart’s family and what they must have been going through.
On-board the USS Saipan; all smiles after a successful mission