December is my favorite month, not only because of the food, holidays, and celebrations, but because I get to catch up with old friends who I’ve missed throughout the year. And it was over a happy hour one scorching afternoon here in the city of Panama that an old friend of mine invited me to a camping trip at La Yeguada, a forest reserve located in the Veraguas province of Panama.
As an innate adventurer and lover of nature, I have always wanted to go. My only worry was, of course, that I’d never camped before. The name La Yeguada, however, already seemed to promise a memorable experience, one I would never forgive myself for missing had I said no. Her family – including parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends they invite – have been going to La Yeguada every January for 15 years now; it is a big group, of all ages, and everyone is an expert at camping.
The forest reserve protects the lake at La Yeguada, which provides hydraulic power to La Yeguada hydroelectric pant. It is under protection of the National Authority of the Environment of Panama (ANAM). I also learned the lake is the crater of a primitive volcano, and was created in 1967. I knew this visit would offer the most spectacular, incomparable sights; and I was honestly eager to get away from the urban chaos.
At exactly 6:11 a.m. on January 2nd we were woken up, though I’d barely caught any sleep. We had approximately four-and-half hours of driving ahead of us: about 118 miles on the Inter-American Highway and then 44 miles on a rock and dirt road up the mountains. We stopped a few times on the way to load up the gas tank, stretch our legs, at a supermarket for last minute essentials, and also a couple times to accommodate the load of the pickup truck.
The contrast between the capital and the countryside of Panama is radical. The open space becomes breathtakingly beautiful, with traditional, colorful Panamanian houses dotting the scenes along the way. As we deviated from the Inter-American highway and began our final leg into La Yeguada we could see miles upon miles of green hills against a backdrop of the Veraguas mountains, covered in pines. Every now and then, a beautiful Guayacan tree brightened the landscape with its vivid yellow leaves.
We arrived at La Yeguada around 1 p.m. and, once there, began the process of unloading the cars and setting up the tents. I wanted to help out as much as I could (and learn for next time) so I connected them tent poles, inserted them into flaps, hammered the stakes into the ground, helped lift the tents up, and swept the floors inside of them. Even though it was tiring, I figured it was better to help so we could go on to the fun stuff already! I was sweating so much and all I could think of was food. It was nearly 2 p.m. and all I had in my stomach was a ham and cheese sandwich at about 6:30 a.m. and a granola bar at 11.
Then it was time to blow up the mattresses, set all our bags inside the tent, set up the camping tables and chairs, and allot the food and the ice coolers. When almost everything had been taken care of, we jumped in the lake for a quick cool off. Despite cold (for Panama’s standards), the water had never felt so good. I submerged and felt so refreshed and renewed. It was a quick swim, because the burgers were now ready and we literally rushed to shore to eat.
We waited a bit after eating to take the kayaks and the SUP boards out to the lake. Once there, we spent hours drifting with the wind, watching the clouds pass by. The tall pine trees cast their reflection on the water, and far away the mountains soared into the sky. I had never been somewhere more scenic and calming. Once the sun began it’s decent to the horizon, the temperature went down with it too. And so, the ones in the kayak rowed back, and the ones standing on the boards paddled. Since little, I’ve always been a night person. I was impatient to experience the darkness out in the forest, and be amazed by the glistening of the moon and the stars.
My friends and I opened a bottle of wine as we sat around the fire. I looked up, and there they were – millions of dazzling diamonds scattered in the night sky. It was a striking scene, and I could have stayed there forever. I suddenly realized this was already one of the best experiences of my life. The group’s energy was contagious. The nature that surrounded us spellbinding. The simplicity of the forest enthralling. And then we had arroz con guandu – a typical Panamanian dish consisting of rice with pigeon pea – steak, chicken, and corn on the cob. It suddenly hit me that I had a long way to go if I wanted to become an expert camper – I can barely cook a descent dish at home (just kidding….), any attempt of cooking on fire would be truly pitiful.
As beautiful as the night was out there in the forest, it’d been an arduously long day, and I couldn’t wait to catch up on some sleep.
The next morning I woke up to the rays of light that entered the tent windows. It was half past seven, so I grabbed “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell and lied on a hammock, perfectly content. The morning was quietly glorious; the sunlight streaming through the canopy of the trees. A couple of hours later, we had breakfast and I was downright impressed at how easily the members of our party cooked on the fire. We had scrambled eggs, Panamanian corn tortillas with melted cheese, sausages, orange juice, and even coffee.
After breakfast, we decided to visit the nearby Cascada el Desvío (English: Detour Waterfall). We drove to the ANAM house, parked the car, and walked a bit until we could hear the pounding on the rocks. We walked down some dirt stairs and crossed a wooden bridge, and there we were. For a few moments, we sat on the rocks admiring the spectacular 35-meter drop. The water was aquarium blue allowing us to see the rocky bottom. Then it was time to dive in; at first it was freezing and we were shaking with cold. The sun was nowhere in site, hiding somewhere behind the tall pine trees. We gave our backs and as the water tumbled down the mountain it massaged our shoulders and backs therapeutically.
About an hour later, the cold water started to penetrate our bones, so we drove back to camp and grabbed the kayaks and boards. The scorching sun felt nice out on the lake; the water was statue still. We spent a good deal of time lying on the boards, talking about everything and anything; I watched as the clouds slowly drifted on by, and I swear I felt in heaven. When it got too hot, we jumped in the lake. I loved that it was freshwater; I’m used to the ocean always irritating my eyes.
We paddled back to the camp around 3:30 p.m. and to my delight on the menu were tacos. After lunch it was time for a trip to the bathroom so we hoped on the back of the pickup. On our way back, we drove around the hills and rocky roads of La Yeguada and we were shown other campsites – I still liked ours best. Having the lake in front of us was truly unmatchable. At one point the car got stuck in the mud (plus no signal, it was honestly super scary) but our driver handled it like a pro. It was all part of the adventure! Upon returning to camp we opened a few beers and took in the last bit of sun of the day.
It must have been around 8 p.m., before dinner and while the children were still awake, that someone in our group found out two women had sneaked in our camp area. It was the most bizarre thing ever. They had broken the entry lock with a rock and drove in with their car. That was a crime, I thought. They also sounded quite drunk and had no tents or ice coolers or nothing. When confronted, they said they had honked and yelled to be let in but since no one responded, they just broke the lock and drove in. But they were lying; they didn’t honk or yell – we would have heard them.
We told them we were replacing the lock (with a spare one we had), and they could either leave right then or wait until the morning – but the lock would not be opened at night. We also told them we were calling the police. They were probably scared that we mentioned the cops and left shortly after. Indeed the police arrived later and checked on us continuously throughout the night. The situation could have been a lot scarier and I reckon the girls were simply being drunk and reckless.
I felt stuffed from tacos but couldn’t pass on the corn on the cob, or the sizzling chicken with a tad of barbecue sauce. The food was simple yet everything tasted so good. After dinner we sat there chatting, and later, one by one, folks started saying their goodbyes and heading to their tents. I was determined to stay up longer that night, not wanting this incredible trip to end. There was also something magical and mysterious about that night in the woods.
At times the flame would go out and someone would find wood or hay to keep it going. But the darkness was quite lovely, because the stars would shine even brighter. I had never seen as many. They looked so close to us, too. I thought about how much light pollution in the city gets in our way at night – but do we even notice the stars when we have television, laptops, Wi-Fi?
In that moment, I did not miss a single thing from densely populated Panama City. Not the ongoing traffic. Not the loud construction workers at 6 a.m., adding even more skyscrapers to our overcrowded skyline. People are always in a rush; even in the weekends it’s like we can’t catch a break from the pandemonium. Its places like La Yeguada that make you realize what’s truly worth it in life. Nature, for me, is the cure for everything. I always associated nature with the ocean. My parents bathed me in salt water from the time I was a newborn, and I’ve always felt connected to the sea. But here at La Yeguada I felt connected to something even bigger.
I didn’t check what time it was when we went to our tent, but I do remember it taken very little for me to doze off.
I woke up at around 6:40 on our last day at La Yeguada. Again, I grabbed my book and lied on a hammock watching the serenity of the lake. I was the only person awake; the silence was so calming. It got a little chilly at one point so I had to go back to the tent and grab a blanket. The girls were sound asleep.
Little by little, the others started waking up. Today will be the coldest day, someone said. Indeed – maybe the lake’s way of saying goodbye to us. It suddenly hit me that La Yeguada was over and all I wanted was to stay there forever. It had truly been one of those special places, like falling in love with Sydney or Paris, but this time, I had barely spent any money and it was just a couple hundred miles from my house.
After being such an advocate for traveling the world, it occurred to me that maybe I should begin with exploring the hidden corners of my own country.
Breakfast was even more amazing that day; tortillas with melted cheese, slices of turkey and pepperoni, scrambled eggs, BACON (!!!), sausages, and even pancakes. I had a bit of everything… So much for being super healthy this year. Anyway, we were technically still on vacation. It was January 4th, but the New Year didn’t start until we arrived back to the city, right?
After breakfast and chatter, we started loading the pickup, which was probably my least favorite thing of the entire trip. Unlike unpacking and setting up the tents, we truly had nothing to look forward to but 4 and a half hours of reminiscing and missing the good vibes shared the past three days. The group effort took well over a couple of hours; there was so much logistic on how to pack the tents, the order we loaded the stuff in the car – I felt, once again, like a rookie in the whole camping thing.
As we drove back to the city, all I could think of was how close to us the stars looked at night, the smell of pine trees and bonfire, and about how the flame would go out and darkness absorbed us but it was all pure bliss. What a great thing to be alive! I thank everyone who made this trip possible, and the adventurer inside me for seizing every second of this experience. I wouldn’t change a thing.