Isla Taboga is the most easily accessible island from Panama City . It’s just 12 nautical miles away, a trip that takes about an hour by ferry. It’s a pretty, quaint little island. If you squint, its whitewashed walls, curving staircases, and flowering trees may remind you of a Greek island.
Taboga is home to a full-time population and attracts many weekend visitors. It’s an appealing place that inspires a nostalgic affection somewhat out of proportion to its modern-day charms, especially for those who like deserted, pristine shores. Beaches here are okay, if a bit rocky, but they can get relatively crowded on dry-season weekends, and some trash washes up from Panama City.
Since Taboga’s attractions can be explored in a day and there aren’t many facilities on the island, you may not want to spend the night. But it is a good place for a day trip.
The ferry ride over is half the fun of a Taboga visit. It leads past the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal , under the Bridge of the Americas, and along the Amador Causeway . You can occasionally see dolphins on the way over, and if you’re very, very lucky you may spot a humpback whale.
A water festival in honor of the Virgen del Carmen is celebrated on Taboga every July 16.
The main beaches are on either side of the floating pier, where the ferries arrive. The more attractive one, Playa La Restinga, faces Panama City. A right turn as you leave the pier leads along an ocean path shaded by tamarind trees. Avoid the stretch of beach on the far left as you face the ocean; the smell of sewage will tell you why. At low tide it’s possible to walk across a sandbar from Playa La Restinga to the neighboring islet of El Morro. The sandbar disappears at high tide.
When Paul Gauguin first left Europe for the tropics he was so taken with Taboga that he tried to buy land here. However, he was broke and ended up having to help dig the Panama Canal instead, a job he detested. He never could afford Taboga’s prices and soon sailed on. He eventually found Tahiti, and the rest is art history.
There’s a plaque commemorating his stay, from May to July 1887, up the high street by some picturesque Spanish ruins. Don’t miss the lovely garden filled with a rainbow of flowering plants. When the jasmine, oleander, bougainvillea, and hibiscus are in bloom, you’ll understand why Taboga is called “the Island of Flowers.”
The quaint, white-washed church in the center of town, Iglesia San Pedro, was originally made out of wood, erected after the founding of Taboga in 1524. It’s supposedly the second-oldest church in the western hemisphere. Taboga is a hilly island that lends itself to walks past old gravesites, abandoned U.S. military bunkers, and the overgrown remains of Spanish fortifications. The cemetery, on the edge of the ocean toward the end of the road, makes for a picturesque amble.
It’s possible to take a moderately strenuous walk to the top of Cerro de la Cruz, which, as the name implies, is topped by a cross. There’s a good view of the ocean from here. The south side of the island, together with neighboring Isla Urabá, is part of a national wildlife refuge that protects the nesting area of an important brown pelican colony.
Until recently Taboga lacked decent places to spend the night; most people are content with a day trip. There are once again a few options, the most popular of which is El Cerrito Tropical (tel. 390-8999, cell 6489-0074, www.cerritotropicalpanama.com , starts at US$77 s/d), which is on a hill about a 10-minute walk from the ferry pier. El Cerrito is a B&B with three “B&B rooms” and three apartments. The apartments range from a one-bedroom for up to two people (US$110) up to a three-bedroom that can sleep six (US$262). The B&B rooms are simple but cheerfully decorated, with air-conditioning, private bathrooms, and a shared balcony. These range in price US$77–104.50. Rates include a continental breakfast.
Your hosts are Cynthia Mulder, a Canadian, and her husband Hiddo, who is from the “Dutch Caribbean.” They can organize a range of tours, including fishing, snorkeling and exploring the island. El Cerrito’s website has good information on the island and how to get around. Also check out www.taboga.panamanow.com .
Food options are still limited; day-trippers may want to pack a lunch. Note that there are no ATMs or banks on the island, so take all the cash you think you’ll need.
El Calypso (tel. 314-1730 or 390-2403) uses two ancient ferries—they were already old when I was a kid—the Calypso Queen and Calypso Princess. The round-trip fare is US$10.
El Calypso ferries make the trip to Taboga at 8:30 a.m. Monday–Friday, with a second ferry at 3 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On weekends and holidays they leave at 8 a.m., 10:30 a.m., and 4 p.m.
Trips back to Amador are at 9:30 a.m. Mon.–Fri., with a second ferry at 4:30 p.m. Mon., Wed., and Fri. The weekend and holiday schedule is 9 a.m., 3 p.m., and 5 p.m.
Ferry schedules are more theoretical than real; service is erratic. Make a reservation or show up early on dry-season weekends and holidays to be sure of getting a ticket—this is a popular day-trip destination for Panamanians. The ferry requires passengers to arrive at least an hour ahead of time. Also, since there’s no assigned seating, board early to claim a spot out of the sun—it’s easy to get fried before even reaching the beach.