It has been three days since my re-entry into the real world after spending a week in Panama. Three days since I was lounging around in 80 degree weather, and three days since I had nothing else to think about except what to have for lunch.
Panama was never on my bucket list. Aside from knowing of the Panama Canal, I didn’t give this Central American country a millisecond of thought. I definitely didn’t think of it as a must-see destination.
My opinion has now shifted. I’m so fortunate that I was asked to consider leading a yoga retreat to Panama by The Travel Yogi, a company that pioneered the yoga and adventure industry. It would be my first retreat with The Travel Yogi, and I was thrilled to join forces. I was especially excited to relinquish the often burdensome work of planning a retreat.
Fast-forward several months to GO time.
I landed in Panama City on a humid Saturday afternoon and was met by Raúl, the driver of my airport transfer, who slowly spoke to me in Spanish and patiently listened as I tried to remember the conjugation of half a dozen verbs. Raúl dropped me off at the lovely Central Hotel, in the historic Old District known as Casco Viejo.
Our retreat group began our time together with a two-hour guided tour through Casco Viejo, during which we learned of the high-speed gentrification process underway. Only 20 years ago Casco Viejo was overrun with gangs. Today many gang members have chosen a new life outside of crime; some are now working in the tourism industry – one of whom even narrated part of our tour.
The Old District is an incredibly charming area of Panama City, but its shininess is a stark contrast to the slums just a few blocks away. Imagine colorful Spanish and French colonial buildings with wispy, wrought-iron balconies adorned with flower baskets; the area teeming with tourists milling about in the safety of police-protected streets. Then imagine the same style of buildings, but with graffiti-laden crumbling walls and balconies used to hang laundry; these neighborhoods are still home to many locals. It felt like a real-life version of the Prince and the Pauper. I was fascinated by the dichotomy of poverty in third-world Panama alongside its partial glitzy revitalization.
After a good sleep, we headed to a regional airport for a hopper flight to Bocas del Toro, an island location along the Caribbean Sea. A bumpy van ride brought us to the Island Plantation Resort, a Balinese-inspired hotel nestled into the vegetation near the pristine beach of Playa Bluff. Here we were able to put our feet up and drop into a much needed state of relaxation.
I led two yoga classes daily, most of which were held high up in an open-air shala hidden in the jungle canopy. Two of the evenings, we found quiet places on the beach to sit and be introspective, to fall deeply into meditation, or to simply watch the waves and think of nothing else but the present moment.
The Travel Yogi also arranged two group outings for us. The first was a private six-hour catamaran sail, complete with great tunes and a cooked lunch. It was a slow, beautiful sail, where we spotted playful dolphins and enjoyed snorkeling in the warm waters. The second all-day tour was on a high-speed boat (hold onto your hats!), where we zoomed around parts of the archipelago, saw more dolphins, did more snorkeling, walked along a protected, uninhabited island, then later spied three sloths on “Sloth Island.”
Speaking of those incredibly slow-moving creatures, I spotted one more as we headed back to the airport on our final day in Bocas del Toro. He was getting a little snack of leaves, and seemed unfazed with us yogis as we made him Instagram-famous. It was the perfect way to say good-bye to an island that boasted so much beauty, and provided a healthy balance of adventure and self-care.
Back in Panama City, it was time to wrap up our time together with a final dinner and big hugs. It’s amazing how a group of people who are strangers beforehand can come together to not only find common ground, but also to establish mutual respect and admiration for one another. This is the magic of a yoga retreat.
Having reflected on my time in Panama, I realize it was such a gift.
Just like the facets of a diamond, Panama’s many different sides come together in sheer brilliance. Everything from gentrified, polished buildings, to depressed neighborhoods ; from tropical islands of wildlife and the occasional torrential downpour, to serene and pristine beaches. It is all authentically beautiful.
I’m aware of my privileged position in life to be able to experience a country as colorful as Panama, and I don’t ever take it for granted. All I can offer in return is my gratitude, and the sincere hope to one day visit again.