Isla Taboga, Panama –What This Island Of Flowers Is Really About
Let me just start by saying that I’ve heard different opinions about Isla Taboga. I’ve heard everything from, “Oh my God, I loved going out there with my family when I was a kid” to “There’s nothing out there worth seeing” to “We absolutely love hanging out there on the weekend.” This island seems to stir up mixed emotions and that’s the reason I knew I needed to head out there on my own. I needed to see what this place is all about. Let me start by explaining, in short term, what Isla Taboga isn’t, just to clear up any confusion.
If you’re looking for a beachside resort where attendants are waiting to fawn over you, then this isn’t the place. You need to head towards Farallon and stay at Hotel DeCameron or Playa Blanca or one of the other all-inclusive resorts (and be prepared to pay the $150+ per night). Taboga is a place where locals live an easy, peaceful life, foreigners content with being set apart from the rest of the world spend their days hanging out with friends and enjoying their secluded slice of heaven, and tourists who just want a cool beach hangout for the day come to play. If you’re still interested in Taboga…read on.
Getting to Isla Taboga
Isla Taboga is located only 12 kilometers from Panama City, just across the mouth of the Panama Canal, which amounts to an hour ferry ride away. Taking the ferry is easy and really not that expensive, as you just go to the Amador Causeway, find The Beach House Hotel and look for La Playita Marina in the back parking lot. You’ll see signs on the causeway that mention ferry rides to Isla Taboga so don’t worry.
There’s a fast way to the island, which departs from the Balboa Yacht Club, but I’m going to focus on the way I got there, which was on the Calypso Queen Ferry. When I visited Taboga, on Jan. 13, 2014, the price of a roundtrip ticket was $14, and a one-way ticket was $8. I believe there was a discount for jubilados and for children. I don’t want to get too specific about the prices and the schedule, as these things change and I don’t want to misinform anyone. If you want to check it out ahead of time, go to the following link and see what the prices and departure times are: http://www.thebeachhousepanama.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=23&Itemid=4&lang=en
I set out on a Monday, purposely trying to avoid the hectic crowds that I’ve heard descend upon the Isla Taboga beaches during the weekend. As much as I love having plenty of people around to video tape and photograph, it’s hard to get a real feel for what life is like in any town during the weekend, when tourists and visitors usually arrive.
On this early Monday morning, I expected to find a ghost town at the dock, but the party was hoppin’ already as foreigners and Panamanians stood in line to buy their tickets. One family had two styrofoam coolers full of beer, sodas, and lunch while others sat around on their collapsable beach chairs, all waiting for the ferry to arrive.
If you’re planning on making this trip, make sure you arrive at least an hour early. As you can see from the photos, the ship gets crowded, and can run out of seats. I imagine on Saturdays and Sundays it gets really packed. Don’t forget your sunblock. I did, and I’m paying for it as I write this article, burnt to a crisp, to the point that the cashier at the supermarket last night giggled and asked if I’d been to the beach. I only saw suntan lotion at one little store on the island, and it wasn’t cheap. Also, make sure you bring cash. You won’t find a single bank or ATM machine anywhere on Taboga. I’ve heard that some of the hotels take credit cards, but just to be safe, bring cash even for your hotel room. If, for some reason, your card doesn’t work on the island, there’s no getting back to mainland and an ATM until the ferry returns. In my case, on that Monday, there was only one ferry back to Panama City and it didn’t leave until 4:30 p.m.
The trip to Isla Taboga takes about an hour, so relax and enjoy the ride. You’re free to sit wherever you want, get up and move about the boat, and there’s even a small bathroom.
While on the ferry, I met a woman named Barbara, a fellow American, making her way through Panama and Costa Rica all by herself. We chatted for a little while and she picked my brain about Panama. It reminded me of how many people are just coming here on a whim, floating with the breeze, seeing if Panama is right for them. Times are definitely changing and we’re not so afraid to leave home with the intention of giving a different country a try, permanently. My mom has expressed her concerns about us being so far away, but I always try to remind her that she lives in San Diego, California, and we lived in Columbus, Ohio. I think Panama is closer to San Diego than Columbus is.
Making the move to Panama isn’t all that different from making the move to South Texas. Even there it might be a good idea to learn Spanish. Of course, you have to deal with Immigration issues and stuff like that here, and I just overheard an argument the other day about whether or not Panama is third-world (I believe some parts still are, but definitely not all of Panama), but let’s face it, many parts of the United States could be considered third-world, and for those of you in other countries, I’m sure you can pick out parts of your country that would be considered undeveloped and old-world living.
After the hour ferry ride, you’ll arrive at your destination. If you want to get photos like the one above, of the whole town, this is the only time you’ll be far enough way, so head up to the front of the boat and snap your photos.
It’s obvious from the moment you reach the port that this town is very serious about its religion, and the Catholic Church reigns supreme. You’ll find religious monuments like the one you see above, spread out all over the town, plus a large Catholic Church marks the town plaza.
What’s This Place All About?
The majority of the people on their way to Isla Taboga will be there for one thing only…the beach. I’ll get to the beach and what there is to do in town a little bit later. First, I’d like to just show you around town a little bit and explain what you’ll find there. I think this article will be shorter than some of the others, a lot shorter than the Penonomé report, for example, because Isla Taboga is very small and you won’t find much there.
The entire island is only about 8 kilometers around, and of the approximate 900 residents, most live in San Pedro, the main town you see along the shore. Of those 900 residents, probably half of them live full-time on the island. Many Panamanians and foreigners go back and forth between Panama City and Isla Taboga. I met a gentleman who explained that he spends about 3-4 days per week on Taboga and the rest of the week in the city. This makes sense for a lot of people. For these people, Isla Taboga is their tropical getaway, but they’re not ready to be completely cut off from society.
When I got off the boat, I ignored the main beach hangout (to the right) where most of the ferry riders were headed, and instead made my way into San Pedro, a town that that was founded in 1524, and was the first port of the Pacific Ocean in the new world.
This is a place that is made up of a small town, its beaches, some farmland up in the hills, and the rest is completely covered by jungle. Tour companies are always offering hiking trips through the hills and canoe trips around the island to the secluded beaches. It’s definitely a cool place for a day trip or short vacation, but what about the people who live here? What can you find on Isla Taboga and what would the day to day life be like? Let’s talk about that.
First, let me say that the sleepy, really-chill atmosphere was evident right away, as it seemed this Monday morning (during school vacation) most of the restaurants were still closed at 10:00 a.m. and the streets were very quiet. I don’t think anyone is in a rush on Isla Taboga. That’s what makes this place so charming. It’s a town that says “no way” to hectic hustle and bustle.
Any craziness at all probably comes from the large amount of tourists that flock to the island, and to keep everything in order (and to keep drugs far away from this place), troops from Panama’s Aero Naval Guard (Panama doesn’t have a military) patrol the water surrounding the island and walk through town with dogs on leashes, dressed in camouflage military-style uniforms. These guys seemed more friendly than most of the cops on mainland. I waved to a couple of patrolmen taking a break in the shade and they smiled, passed me the typical greeting of “Buenas,” and waved back.
San Pedro is a hodgepodge of homes at all income levels. You’ll see a large, spectacular home, several stories high, and then right behind it, a lower-income home, maybe two-bedrooms, with just a front porch and clothes hanging out on the line.
These houses come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. White, orange, sky blue, neon yellow, lilac…the homes are nearly as colorful as the flowers this Islas de las Flores is named after. The sound of the ocean waves and the seagulls combined with the bright homes all around, creates a nice, warm, tropical atmosphere.
You’ll also find quite a bit of structures in mid-construction, where either the workers were off for the day, or work had been halted, which is what I believe was the case. I’ve read about people trying to have a home or business built on Taboga, while not actually living there or being around to supervise the work. Funds run dry and work is halted halfway through the project. So you’ll see some of these remains scattered throughout town.
Most of the homes on Isla Taboga are squeezed in very close together, and the close proximity to neighbors seems to have fostered a very friendly atmosphere. I watched as people walked by construction workers and stopped for a chat. Many neighbors gathered on friends’ porches for a noontime chat. Groups of residents hung out in shady spots around town joking and having a good time. As I usually do, I said hello and every time I did, they smiled and returned my greeting. I never felt unsafe or out of my element. It was nice.
The sidewalks run beside many of the homes, creating little alleyways for getting down to the beach or up the hills, and as tried to find my way through the shortcut maze, I couldn’t help feeling like I was trespassing on someone’s property. For some reason, the way the town is laid out reminded me of somewhere Jason Bourne, might hide away, with an escape plan through the corridors and out onto his awaiting speedboat at shore.
And I was surprised by the amount of children I saw in town. They were everywhere, laughing and having a great time. Many were flying up and down the sidewalks on bicycles or kicking a soccer ball around. In front of the town church, I stopped and watched some of the kids playing, while a larger group huddled in the shade of a nearby building. All this with the fresh ocean breeze blowing through.
As you make your way through town, you’ll see that there are no major roads, just a couple of narrow corridors that run the length of town, and then a dirt road that makes its way up into the jungle. I only saw a couple of trucks while in town, and those seemed to belong to workers hauling construction equipment back and forth or government workers, like the garbage collection team.
You wouldn’t need a car if you lived on Taboga. I did see one taxi, it was a little van actually, and it blew my mind. The town is so small that I can’t even imagine taking a taxi…ever. I suppose for the people doing their shopping in Panama City and bringing lots of bags and boxes back to the island, a taxi to help bring everything home would make sense.
Most people do walk around town, oftentimes carrying umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. I also saw a few people driving golf carts, which would be an excellent idea on the island because they’re just small enough to easily make their way through the corridors. I even saw two gentlemen on horseback. I asked if they minded me videotaping them as they passed, which led to a short conversation about what I was doing in town. Mr. Charles Muse, who owns a farm on the other side of the island, then graciously offered to show me the farming life on Isla Taboga. I’ll tell you more about that later.
For the general population, deciding to walk back and forth through town, this is a place that will definitely put your cardio to the test, as the sidewalks and corridors dip down and then rise steeply over and over again. So be prepared to sweat when you first visit Isla Taboga, especially if you plan to really get out and get to know the town. Make sure you wear your tennis shoes.
In addition to a good pair of sneakers (or flip flops), an umbrella, and possibly a golf cart, another asset residents might own is a speedboat for getting back and forth quickly between Taboga and Panama City. Living on Taboga would require frequent shopping runs back to the mainland as you won’t find shopping…at all on the island.
I found one mini-super, with most of its shelves bare. When I stopped in to buy a bottle of water, I did see someone purchase a chicken and watched as the shop attendant chopped it up for him, but aside from maybe some rice, a few canned goods, beer, soda, and little else, the store didn’t offer even the necessities.
Other than the mini-super, I saw one small shop where you could buy some basics from a woman behind a window (it wasn’t an actual store) and a few snack stands catering to tourists, selling sodas, water, and popsicles. At a Chinese restaurant near the beach, they sold some other things like suntan lotion, ice, liquor, and some snacks.
What else will you find in town? This is a tourist hotspot, so you’ll find a few hotels and bed and breakfasts. If you’re planning on staying the night, it’s a good idea to set up your reservation in advance, especially on the weekend. Remember, there’s not a single ATM machine or bank. I can’t stress enough that you need to have cash on you.
You’ll also find several restaurants. The cuisine is largely seafood although some of the hotels offer international cuisine. I ate lunch at the Chinese food restaurant near the beach and saw a few hip little hangouts spread out across town. Beer and soda cost $1.00 near the beach and the average I paid for a bottle of water was $1.50.
You honestly won’t find much else on the island. I saw one Centro de Salud medical facility, an electoral tribune office, a judicial office, the public ministry, the Aero Naval station, a few snack shacks, a place to buy your ticket back to the mainland, a real estate office, the big Catholic church, one public school, an internet cafe, and that’s about it.
You’d really need to travel back to Panama City to get most things accomplished. I spoke to someone living on the island who told me he travels back to the mainland once a week, to do his grocery shopping, to pick up his mail, to get a haircut, to see the doctor, etc. He basically plans everything around his trips back to Panama City.
Unlike many of the places I’ve introduced you to recently, Isla Taboga does have a decent sized group of expats, many of which get along with each other, but I have to warn you, they like their simple and stress-free life and don’t want a lot of drama coming to the island. As I made my way around, I saw a group hanging out on a balcony overlooking the beach, having drinks and gossiping, seeming to love life, and I’m sure they’re happy their paradise hasn’t become a super-popular retirement haven.
So you will hear English spoken from time to time, but don’t expect the locals to adapt to your language skills, as most only speak Spanish and will expect you to try to speak the language. It’s a good idea to at least learn the basics if you plan to make a go of it on Isla Taboga.
I saw many houses with satellite dishes attached, so I know satellite TV is available. An attendant at Cerrito Tropical hotel told me they have Internet available, plus I saw the little Internet cafe down by the church, so you’ll have no problem keeping in touch with the rest of the world.
Living in San Pedro, you’d have to grow accustomed to the tourists passing through town. I wasn’t the only one out on foot. I saw many tourists checking out the town and heard languages from all over the globe spoken around me. But what would life be like somewhere else on the island?
The Farming Side of Isla Taboga
I mentioned earlier that I ran into Mr. Charles Muse and his buddy Vidal Perez at the center of town. They were simply passing through on their way back to Mr. Muse’s farm. About an hour later, Sr. Perez picked me up in his pickup truck and took me up higher into the jungle to see the farming side of things. First, he offered to take me up to a mirador on the top of one of the mountains/hills.
Next, we traveled to Mr. Muse’s farm, a beautiful ranch with rolling hills, horses, cattle, peacocks, and of course, stunning views of Panama City and the sprawling ocean below the farm.
Mr. Muse has owned this land for 40 years and has spent that time fixing it up into this incredible wonderland. It’s truly stunning, with a main house, several other structures, a beautiful garden, and two rainwater recycling systems that each hold 30,000 gallons of water.
With a full-size kitchen, a pool table, a big study, and a back porch with the view you see above, Mr. Muse is definitely living the ideal island lifestyle. Even with so much going on, Mr. Muse and Sr. Perez took the time out of their day to show me around. That was really cool and I just want to say thanks to them.
After my farm tour, Sr. Perez drove me back to the main part of town and dropped me off near the beach so I could focus a little bit on the tourist side of things, but before that, let me explain the cost of living on Isla Taboga.
Cost Of Living On Isla Taboga, Panama
I was excited when I saw several “For Rent” signs in town, but after doing a little bit of research, it seems that most rentals available, are vacation rentals. As I mentioned earlier, many people go back and forth between the island and Panama City, so I think the norm in town is to rent apartments and homes out either by the day or the week. It’s common to find places going for $100 per day or $200 per day or $500 per week, something like that.
For that reason, rather than just come up with some figures, I decided to do the cost of living breakdown a little bit different this time. If you take a look at the chart below, I set the rent at $2,000 per month. That’s based on a $500 per week vacation rental. Of course, you might find something for less, and you can definitely find something more costly I’m sure. If you visit Isla Taboga and absolutely fall in love with the place, you might need to stay in a hotel or in one of these vacation rentals temporarily until you can find something more permanent. I did see land for sale and some homes for sale. so after you visit and make sure you like the place, then maybe you’ll want to move forward with a purchase.
The good news about vacation rentals is that the price usually includes utilities. So, for that reason, you’ll notice that I kept the electric, gas, and cable/Internet figures at $0. The rest of the budget is a lot like the others I’ve put together. I set the food costs at $400, which is what I put it at in the Amador Causeway budget, because you’d need to travel to Panama City for groceries, which would put you at the Amador Causeway to begin your shopping trips.
For entertainment, there’s not much to spend money on, on the island itself. So if you hang around Isla Taboga most of the time, you would probably only spend money on restaurants, so if you were to go out once a week and spend $20 each, you’d spend about $160 per month. Of course, if you’re living the vacation lifestyle, you might go out more often, so just adjust for that if you like to spend a lot of time out in restaurants and bars.
I kept the routine doctor visits the same as in every other budget. If you visit a clinic during your shopping run into Panama City, you should spend about $25 each, so $50 per month. For travel inside of town you shouldn’t spend a dime. It’s a walking town, so you should save a lot of money there not having to pay for gas for a car or for buses or taxis. However, travel outside of town is where you can spend quite a bit of money. Some people mentioned taking the ferry over to Panama City once a week to get things done. Of course, you can do it less often and save money, but let’s use their example for this budget. If you and your companion travel to Panama City by ferry once per week, that’s $14 roundtrip each. Plus, I figure the best shopping around is at Albrook Mall, which will probably cost you about $5 each way (there’s also city buses from Amador to Albrook so that’s a less expensive option). So that comes out to $38 per week, just over $150 per month.
Oh, and FYI, if you do bring groceries and stuff back to the island, you’ll find hand dollies at the port, to assist you with carrying your goods away from the boardwalk.
Take a look at the budget I put together below, for two people living on Isla Taboga, Panama.
Monthly budget for a couple living on Isla Taboga, Panama (Beach)
Rent Most vacation rentals charge per week, maybe $500 per week. $2,000
Electricity Usually won't pay electric in a vacation rental. $0
Gas Usually won't pay $0
Telephone/Internet/Cable Usually won't pay $0
Phone card for calling the U.S. (if you don't use Skype/MagicJack) Telechip International, for 5 hours talk time $5
Food For 2 people $400
Entertainment For eating out once a week on the island, $20 each per week. $160
Routine Doctor Visit Once per month for each person ($25 each) $50
Medication Varies, but for my monthly high blood pressure and diabetes meds this is what I'd pay just to give you an idea $45
Getting around town You'll walk in Taboga $0
Travel outside of town Roundtrip ferry for two, once per week, plus $5 each way by taxi to Albrook Mall. $38 per week. $150
Extras Other things you may need $50
Total Monthly Expenses For 2 people $2,860
Taking a day trip to Isla Taboga is a great way to unwind with the family. Many Panamanians have been doing this for a long long time. After mentioning that I was going to report on Isla Taboga, several readers wrote in just to tell me that they miss visiting Taboga with their family when they were young. This place holds a lot of fond memories for many people.
It’s a great place for hiking, boat tours, snorkeling, canoeing, fishing, and most other water sports. When I was there, I saw a boat parked just offshore and people hanging out in the water. I watched a couple set out in canoes, making their way out onto the open water. A group of teenagers played volleyball in chest-deep water while nearby kids splashed around happily. On the shore, people sunbathed and one family had a radio playing oldies music while they picnicked.
My only complaint about spending just the day at the island, is the fact that you’re kind of trapped there. I realized, when I finished my research a little bit early, that I don’t like the feeling of not being able to leave somewhere. By 2 p.m. I was done, and the ferry wouldn’t depart until 4:30 p.m. I was too sunburnt to go hang out at the beach, so I picked a shady spot and read a book.
Oh, and one more thing about visiting. If you’re not staying in a hotel, be prepared to pay to use a bathroom, a shower, or a dressing room. As you can see in the sign above, everything costs money. I paid $1 to change my clothes, then walked out and had to pay another $.50 to use the bathroom. Even the restaurant nearby was charging $.50 to use the bathroom.
The Real Deal On Isla Taboga
By now, many of you who’ve visited and didn’t like Isla Taboga, are saying, “Wait, Chris, you didn’t mention the garbage.” Ok, fair enough. That’s the biggest downside, in my opinion, to living on or visiting the island. When you first step off the fairy, everything to the left is clean and tidy. Sure, you’ll find some homes where construction was halted mid-construction, I’ve heard people mention that before and how it detracts from the esthetic beauty of San Pedro, but to me, that’s no big deal. Didn’t bother me at all, and I actually enjoyed the colorful blend of homes of all sizes. I’m not a fan of the cookie-cutter thing.
The beach on that left side is clean, and I saw signs posted around Isla Taboga, reminding people not to pollute, so it seems that whoever’s in charge of the island is trying to clean up its image.
Now, I hate to talk about the negatives, but this is Panama For Real, and I have to be real. There is a lot of trash on the right side of the island. The beach you see on the right when you exit the ferry is fairly clean, but if you round that corner back there, you get a startling image of what’s going on behind the scenes. Apparently, a ton of garbage washes up from Panama City. That sucks…because it’s not even Taboga’s fault, people!
On the concrete slab that sits behind the umbrellas and little cabanas, you find a lot of trash strewn around. Farther back and you’ll even find vehicle parts and an old refrigerator. It’s pretty nasty.
There. I said it. Still, if you lived on Isla Taboga, or even visited, you wouldn’t have to see any of that unless you wanted to. Just don’t go to that one dirty area. Stay on the clean side of the island, or better yet, maybe put together a volunteer group and help clean up the dirty area. I’m not sure if it would help much if all of that is really floating over from the city, but it’s worth a try.
My overall thoughts on Isla Taboga is that it’s much better than what I expected. I was a little bit worried about the trip, because I’d mostly heard people bad mouth the island. I went on a nice, sunny day, and found the place to have a fun, chill, tropical vibe. I can imagine living there and having a small group of friends to hang out with in the evening. Yes, the ferry ride might get old after awhile, but hell, traffic in Panama City gets old, really old. I sit in traffic much longer than an hour sometimes getting from one area of the city to the other, so an hour on the water sounds like a dream.
For those who’ve been to Taboga and didn’t like it, I can only say this. It is what it is. It’s not for everyone, but it’s special to many people living there. To some people, it’s perfect, they love it, and they wouldn’t go anyplace else. Maybe it’s for you. Check it out and see for yourself.
Well that’s it for this written report on Isla Taboga. I hope you’ve learned a little bit about the area.
Don’t forget to check out the Isla Taboga Video Report here.
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