Camping on Isla Zapatilla

Camping on Isla Zapatilla

The heat and rotting food and lack of water on the fifth day of the Isla Bastimentos power outage overpowered our island- born laziness, prompting us take a few days off of hostel work in exchange for a trip to Isla Zapatilla, one of the smallest additions to the Bocas del Toro archipelago.

We heard that only 10 people camped on the island each year, and that the only inhabitants were a couple of hermit park rangers and a single, elusive sloth left behind by the Survivor Panama film crew. Besides these creatures, there would be no leering eyes to stop us from frolicking naked amongst the coconut trees and allowing our color deficient bottoms, whiter than the sand, to float like luminescent jellyfish in the Carribean Sea.

So we caught a ride on a tour boat out to Zapatilla despite forecasts for thunderstorms. The boat dropped us off a few feet from shore and zoomed away as soon as we’d unloaded the provisions that would sustain us for the (two) days that we’d be vulnerable to Mother Nature’s mood swings. Ready to tough it out, we set off down the beach.

No more than one minute later did a park ranger appear and tell us that we’d have to wait for his boss, ‘El Jefe’, to return from a fishing trip before we could set up camp. Frustrated that we were subject to rules even on a nearly uninhabited island, I pouted to for two hours under a pagoda until El Jefe arrived. But when El Jefe did finally appear, he had his men erect a tent for us and outfit it with a mattress. They then proceeded to offer us drinking water and use of their kitchen. It wasn’t turning out to be the hardcore camping trip we’d expected.

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But all the good parts played out as imagined. We smashed open coconuts and pranced naked about the beach, hidden from the rangers by walls of dessicated coconut husks left from the Winter oil production. We sat on the ranger’s dock as the sun set in the West and turned the water a pastel pink, while heavy grey clouds to the North and white- capped waves added a shadowy buzz of excitement to the evening.

Soon all the land, sea, and sky were indistinguishably black and little bits of light sparkled all around. Bioluminescence and glowing jellyfish passed under the dock, fireflies and green insects flickered from the trees, and the stars tried to outshine each other. Then, the sky decided to brag a little more with a honey- colored moon rise behind wave- shaped clouds, casting an ominous orange hue across the water.

The next day El Jefe, whose extreme friendliness led me to fear ulterior motives, had one of his men take us out in the boat to snorkel. But as the silent ranger motored for ten minutes towards the open ocean, I panicked as I imagined our dead bodies in a coral crevice and the park rangers excitedly dividing our possessions. Despite suspicions, we jumped into the turbulent water and tried to appreciate the bodacious reef between glances to check that we hadn’t been left for shark bait. Fortunately, our chauffeur waited patiently as we flopped around next to the boat.

That evening, the rangers gave us a free ride into Bocas town. The rangers, who all come from the indigenous tribes that were some of the first people to inhabit the Bocas del Toro islands, showed un required generosity without expecting anything in return. I guess that anyone who surrounds them self with such profound beauty will find a better connection to both the earth and other humans.

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We returned to Bastimentos- where the power was still off- with faces full of sunburn, stomachs full of coconuts, and spirits full of appreciation for Zapatilla and the people who take care of it.

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