Never have I been in a place so long and seen so little! That was not my plan when agreeing to a three week house sit in Boquete, Panama. Surviving the quarantine in Panama for Covid-19 was about to be a new travel experience for me.
After a quick 10 day stay to visit with friends in Costa Rica, it was time to head south to Panama. I spent my last two nights in Costa Rica staying in a dorm room in the Selina Hostel in San Jose. Who knows if staying in a dorm room with a bunch of strangers will ever be an option in the future.
I had a feeling the moment I checked out of the hostel that my future travel plans may not work out as expected. Tracopa had a 7am direct bus to David, Panama, with a fare of $15US for the eight hour journey. It was comfortable and uneventful although things started to feel a little different. A few passengers were already wearing masks, and many were being careful to sanitize everything around them. At that point, who knew that was the way things were going to be for the near future, or maybe longer.
I was a little less prepared than normal for the border crossing. I had no onward ticket and didn’t know the address of where I was going to be staying. That is something I normally make sure to have. The Panamanian immigration agents did not like that. With a quick WhatsApp call to the homeowners who I would be staying with, and a few white lies, they decided to let me into their country. After a quick check of my temperature, I was back in my seat for the short journey to David.
After a quick and easy bus change at the terminal in David, I was on my way to Boquete and what was to be my home for a lot longer than I planned.
Ted and Jan, the American couple I was supposed to be house sitting for, picked me up at the bus stop on the bustling main plaza in downtown Boquete. It was colorful with pretty flowers and full of life, both locals and tourists enjoying their afternoon. This would be the last time I would get to see it like this.
Whilst in the car for the short journey to their house, Ted and Jan broke the news to me. With all the complications of travel with the coronavirus, they had just that day decided to cancel their three week trip to the USA. Luckily for me, they have a big house and invited me to stay with them for the next three weeks anyway. I gladly accepted their offer.
The first few days in Boquete with my new roommates were pretty normal. We went hiking together, ate lunch out, even hit up a few happy hours in town. But very soon things started to change. Like many places in the world, businesses slowly started to close, restaurants became take out only, and the town in general just became much quieter every day.
A 5pm to 7am curfew was the first phase of the restrictions we had to deal with. This was no big deal for me as I could still get out for a nice hike, and be home for a happy hour beer on the deck of the house instead of in town. In fact the view was much better at the house anyway, and the beer was cheaper!
The 5pm to 7am curfew didn’t last long, less than a week infact. The next stage of restrictions came as a shock to everyone.
We were now only allowed out for two hours a day to go grocery shopping. It was based on the last number of your ID/passport. The last number of my passport is 4, which meant I could only shop between 4-5pm, and I was allowed 1/2 hour of travel time before and after. You had to show your ID to get into the supermarket at your designated time. They also restricted the capacity of supermarkets to 50 people at a time, including employees. This made things even more difficult. Luckily my time slot seemed to be fairly quiet so I never really had to wait in line. People of 60 years and above had no choice but to shop between 11am and 1pm. This would always be the busiest time of day with regular lines of 40-50 people outside each supermarket.
My hiking days were over. But luckily it was a twenty minute walk to the supermarket from the house so I could still get a little exercise everyday. The walk back up the hill to the house carrying a backpack full of groceries would be the best exercise I could get for a while.
Looking back on things, only being allowed out for two hours every day was really not so bad. It was only a week before the restrictions got even tighter. Now they segregated men and women. Women were allowed out to shop on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while men could go on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Kids were not allowed out at all, and Sunday was a total quarantine for everyone.
Once again, looking back at things, this was not so bad. After the first week the government decided to take away Saturday for men. This was due to too many men being caught being out outside of their designated time slot. This really sucked! I would have to stay home from 5.30pm on Thursday until 3.30pm on Tuesday, almost five full days! Carrying five days of groceries back up the hill on a Thursday was a good workout, especially with all the wonderful fresh fruit I was eating here.
The caring Panamanian government must have been considering my struggle of carrying groceries up the hill. For this reason, I’m sure, they enacted the dry law in Panama. While we were still just on our wonderful 5pm to 7am curfew, the government banned the sale of alcohol. They did this across the whole country without any notice. This was to last for the next two months. At least now I didn’t have to worry about carrying beer back up the hill too!
Some of the stores in town were worried about being broken into. With all the booze still on the shelves, and a few decided to sell it out the back door before it got stolen. We were lucky enough to have a connection and I managed to secure a case of beer and a bottle of rum. This would help me to survive the long few months ahead of me.
As you may have gathered by now, I ended up staying much longer than my initial three weeks. As of today, June 12th, it has been three months that I have been here. Luckily my gracious hosts kept extending my stay in their beautiful home as I really have nowhere else to go.
The house is in a fun little neighborhood of just six houses, all occupied by other gringos. Although it wasn’t good for my Spanish practice, I feel like I have made a lot of lifelong friends over the past few months, both human and four legged.
The other great thing about the location of the house was the amount of nature around there. Even under strict quarantine I could still manage to get out and walk every day without being seen. Sometimes it would just be a few laps up and down the driveway. This usually involved more visiting with other neighbors or their dogs rather than actual exercise. But most days I would venture out on a few trails in the woods nearby. Most mornings would begin with a few laps down to the parrot tree, a huge palm tree where about thirty brightly colored parrots were nesting. Upon approaching the tree they would all give me a loud squawking fly by, quite an impressive sight to start my day.
With the help of the neighbors and their machete, we managed to discover a trail down to a small creek in the canyon below the house. This quickly became a favorite. With a few other trails on the other side of the canyon, an hour and 15 minute hike was possible. This could usually be done without seeing any other people.
I really didn’t have to hike that far to photograph all of the amazing flowers in the neighborhood. The scenery here was constantly changing. Flowers were here one day, gone the next, or vica versa. With the fertile volcanic soil, combined with a perfect climate, the flora of Boquete is as diverse as I’ve ever seen.
Experiencing quarantine in Panama for Covid-19 was definitely not what I had in mind for this trip. After selling my house, car, and most of my belongings I thought I was a free man. Well, that didn’t last long! I can’t say that my time in Boquete has been the most exciting time of my life, but surely not the worst. It’s definitely been boring at times. Between some nice short walks, puppy sitting, a little photography, and making new friends, I have managed to survive. I really can’t imagine going through a pandemic many years ago without WiFi and Netflix!
My time in Boquete is not over yet. After three months the airport and land borders are still closed with no signs of reopening anytime soon. At least now we are back to a 7pm to 5am curfew and I have some freedom to get out and explore a little. Signs of life are starting to reappear as some businesses reopen their doors, whether the government says they can or not. But life is still pretty quiet in this little tourist town. With the rainy season now in full swing, most people are still spending plenty of time indoors.
After three months here I’m really ready to travel again, but I don’t know when that will be yet. My visa here is valid until mid September and I’m praying I don’t need to extend it. Boquete really hasn’t been such a bad place to spend quarantine for three months. I’m sure there was many worse paces in the world I could have been, heck, we never even ran out of toilet paper!
Where in the world did you spend quarantine or lockdown for Covid-19? The big question really is where do you think you would like to spend the next lockdown????