Travelling to Panama for a field course: Recommendations and experiences from a student’s perspective

ASU students taking a break during a hike on Barro Colorado Island in June 2014.

ASU students taking a break during a hike on Barro Colorado Island in June 2014.

This year will be my third travelling to Panama to work at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute to conduct my dissertation research. While three years doesn’t make me an absolute expert in everything that is Panama, I have considerable experience living and working at STRI, exploring, and interacting with the culture. My first adventure in the country was part of a field course for graduate students. This also happened to be my first trip to the Neotropics and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Here, I’ll describe my experiences and opinions/recommendations on what to expect when you arrive in Panama for a field course.

For additional information on the ASU undergraduate field course, search through my posts from June-July 2014. For pictures, explore the course Flickr page.

Arrival

When your plane touches down in Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, you’ll notice that everyone else is making a bee-line exit to the immigration lines. Everyone must go through this before leaving the airport but THERE IS NOTHING but one restaurant outside of security. Before security, throughout the terminal, however, there are a number of options. With this in mind, if you want to eat or have some time to kill before being picked up, down go through immigration immediately. When you finally do go through security, it doesn’t take very long. You’ll stand in line, someone will stamp your passport and ask you how long you’ll be in Panama. They’ll send you on your way to pick up your luggage. Then you’ll put all your bags through an x-ray and exit security. It’s that simple. MAKE SURE YOUR PASSPORT IS VALID AND INTACT. Occasionally they’ll deport you on the spot if your passport is not in good condition. Sometimes, security will also ask questions about how much cash you have on you or how you plan to pay for your stay in Panama, or even when you plan to leave. Take care to be respectful and honest. Sometimes travellers are deported for not showing any proof that they can pay for their stay or a departing flight. It’s a good idea to print out your return flight information and have it on hand just in case.

During the previous undergraduate ASU field course, I was in charge of making sure everyone was present and accounted for. This involved getting everyone’s luggage taken to Gamboa and keeping the group together. You may or may not be asked to stay in the airport for several hours so everyone can depart together. This will likely be boring but perhaps we can change the transportation situation this year. When scheduling your flights, keep in mind when the instructors are arriving. If you can, schedule yourself to arrive around the same time of day to avoid waiting.

Academic Expectations

If you’ve ever been told that your education is what you make of it, field courses are perhaps the best examples. The course will be experiential learning through and through with some lectures and writing rolled in. All the field trips will be required and will enrich your experience. There will be times when you’re really tired, maybe sore, and too hot/sweaty to want to hike through the jungle. Do it anyway. You’ll see wildlife and gain knowledge that you will never otherwise gain by participating to the maximum in group activities. You’ll also be asked to develop your own project and complete data collection and analysis to write a peer-reviewed style scientific paper. Again, the more you put into this, the better off you will be. It’s possible for you to get a truly publishable paper if you strive for it, something invaluable if you plan to continue on in science even if you decide field work in the jungle is ultimately not your happy thing/place.

Living Conditions & Accommodations

You’ll be staying in STRI’s school house building in Gamboa, Panama for the duration of the course. It’s a canal style building originally put up when Americans were building the Panama Canal 100-200 yards away. The bedrooms are dorm style and will be shared, as will the bathrooms, dining room, laundry room, and living area. You’ll need to recognize and respect boundaries and privacy as much as possible. Avoid any conflicts that arise from living in confined quarters or forming intimate relationships in this setting. Both can be extremely messy and ruin your experience if not handled well. The instructors will tell you the course isn’t a dating service, so don’t use it as an opportunity for that kind of mingling.

Importantly, you’ll be staying on the top floor of the school house. The bottom floor is a set of locked laboratory spaces. Try to keep noise to a minimum because scientists and students work there 24 hours a day during the summer. Vibrations from dance parties or running through the hallway will not be appreciated.

The building is air-conditioned, a stark contrast to the high heat and humidity outside. You might be cold indoors so bring a sweatshirt. For anyone who routinely wears makeup, you’ll find after a couple days that’s it’s a nuisance. You will be sweaty. It will smudge and affect our skin and it’s not practical for hiking through the forest. Insects can even be attracted to some brands and odors.

The town of Gamboa is very small and divided into a couple sections. Nearest the canal is a primarily Panamanian section known as Santa Cruz. There is one small tienda there for snacks and minor groceries and a couple of food carts that serve local Panamanian foods around lunch time (rice, beans, plantains, and meat platters). These are within easy walking distance from the school house. The other section of Gamboa, where most of its population resides, is mostly American or foreign. Nearly everyone there is associated with STRI. Most are graduate students or interns but some staff scientists and their families also live there. Finally, the Gamboa Rainforest Resort is located in town. This is a nice place to go if you want to watch a game on TV (in Spanish) and you are ok with paying high prices for food and beverages. It’s pretty and comfortable, but not all that exciting.

Transportation is very limited. There are morning and evening busitos to STRI headquarters in Panama City daily. There are also SACA Co-op buses for roughly $0.80/ride into the city everyday but you are unlikely to have time to utilize these. There are taxis but I don’t recommend them. Foreigners tend to be overcharged and there’s no guarantee that drivers actually know where you want to go. Many won’t speak English. We’ll be driving the group everywhere we need to go.

Health & Safety

I’ve never felt unsafe anywhere I’ve been in Panama. There are, of course, spots to avoid but the likelihood that you’ll end up in any of theses is minimal given that you’ll be primarily travelling with the group. A good rule of thumb is to never act in any way that you would not deem appropriate in the US, and then throw in a little more caution since you’re in a foreign country.

One potentially annoying thing if you’re female is the attention you may receive from Panamanian men. The best thing to do is ignore cat-calling and unwanted attention and move away from that area. It’s common throughout Panama, however rude or unwanted it may be.

You should bring necessary medications with you as well as general items like moleskin for blisters, bug spray, and toiletry items. Over the counter medications for pain, allergies, anti-itch, and antibiotic cream may be a good idea. If you have any potentially serious issues, definitely let and instructor or TA know so we can have a plan. The nearest hospitals and clinics are in Panama City. In my experience (a staff infection after mysterious puss-filled insect bites), emergency medical costs are low and doctors speak English if you go to the better hospitals. They generally ask you to pay out of pocket up-front and get reimbursement from your insurance company. For major serious injury expenses, of course, you would not be charged up front. STRI and the course have procedures for handling these situations.

Since you will be outside a great deal of time, there is the possibility for you to injure yourself or encounter dangerous animals. Fer-de-lance snakes are common and venomous. You’ll require immediate care if you’re bitten. There are caiman in the canal, bullet ants (aptly named for how much it hurts if you’re stung), and the chance for Africanized honeybee encounters. If you’re reasonably careful, you shouldn’t have any problems with these. Don’t wander into the jungle alone or decide to take a swim in the canal. Both are regrettable ideas.

You’re probably wondering about vaccinations for tropical diseases. As I am not a medical professional, I cannot and will not tell you what you should/should not get. This is my experience thus far. Tropical diseases like yellow fever, malaria, Chagas, and dengue do turn up in Panama. There has been no malaria in the Canal Zone in quite a long time and as such I have not taken preventative medications for it. I’ve gotten all other recommended vaccines that are available, however. I have known several people to develop dengue fever. It’s not pleasant to watch or experience but there are preventative measures. If you wear appropriate clothing and insect repellant and avoid outside activity at certain times of day where mosquitoes are rampant, you should have no problems. Again, I’m NOT A MEDICAL DOCTOR. Go to the ASU Health Center and make a travel appointment for medical advice that’s appropriate for you individually.

General Program Schedule & Itinerary

The first several days of the course will be intense with lots of hiking and orientation in the forest. You’ll be pretty tired and overwhelmed at everything you’re seeing but this sets you up for a more fun and productive experience. The point is for you to gain exposure to as much as possible early so that you can develop your project ideas. After this, there will be routine group field trips around Gamboa and other locations throughout Panama. You’ll also be set loose on your own schedule to complete your data collection and observations. Use your time wisely because it’s impossible to do a sufficient job waiting until late in the course to collect data. If something can go wrong, something will when figuring out experimental design and how to collect data. This is true for any research.

Some possible field trip locations are:

  • Mirafores Locks on the Panama Canal
  • Embera Drua Village in Chagres National Park
  • Barro Colorado Island (overnight)
  • Gamboa/Chagres River with the Bat Lab
  • Playa Blanca (near Colon, access by boat only)
  • Cerro Campana Cloud Forest
  • Gamboa Pipeline Road in Soberania National Rainforest
  • Galeta (STRI field station for marine and coastal biology near Colon with mangroves forests)
  • Albrook Mall, Panama City
  • Casco Viejo Neighborhood, Panama City
  • Summit Gardens Park & Zoo
  • Sendero Charco

Field trips to civilization will be minimal. We aim to learn about tropical biology so there won’t be much time for shopping, going to bars, restaurants, or exploring city sites. If you’re used to city living, you’ll either find jungle life peaceful or nerve-wracking. Field trips will be scattered throughout the course accordingly.

Host Culture & Language

Spanish is the official language of Panama but you don’t need to be able to speak it. Many people speak English and much of the signage is in English. However, it’s always nice to try. Importantly, the couple who make meals and tend to the maintenance of the school house and the couple who own the tienda in Santa Cruz do not speak English.

Culturally, Panama has a lot of flavor and color. People are friendly and mean well. In most cases, anyone would help you out in the event you need it, provided you can communicate with them. There are a lot of rich people in Panama but also a great deal of poverty. You’ll see a mix of both. In Casco Viejo (Old Panama City), you’ll see a mix of Latin and Americanized businesses. It has been this way since Americans built the Canal and you’ll find good salsa dancing opportunities, a micro-brew called La Rana Dorada, and s couple of rooftop bars looking out on the Pacific Ocean here.

Most people are very modern but there are also a lot of indigenous peoples that you will notice by their distinct clothing and jewelry. Most commonly, you will see Embera, Kuna, Wounaan, or Ngobe-Bugle tribal people. Each has their own native language but most speak Spanish. They rarely speak English and try to maintain their culture as much as possible. Regardless of the origins of the locals you run into, be respectful and interact with them to gain a greater appreciation for Panamanian culture. Don’t take pictures of people without permission.

Expenses

You already know you’ll be responsible for plane tickets and passport fees. You should also bring money for souvenirs. All meals will be provided but extra snacks and alcohol. The currency is the US dollar and the Panamanian Balboa.

Let your bank and credit card companies known in advance that you’ll be out of the country. The tienda and food trucks only take cash so have some handy. However, you’ll be able to use either of 2 ATMs in Gamboa (one at the resort and one near the Canal dredging division in Santa Cruz). Most businesses will take debit cards or credit cards but occasionally you’ll need cash available. Don’t bring large bills- twenties and under are acceptable. Larger bills might be seen as counterfeit and not accepted. As you would do anywhere, be smart and keep your money out site and keep an eye on your wallet or purse.

 

Packing and Dress Code

DON’T OVER PACK. Restrict yourself to one checked bag, one backpack carry-on, and maybe on smaller carry-on item. This should be easy to accomplish because you can do laundry in the school house. The important thing is that you’re comfortable wearing clothing outside in high humidity for hiking and they all fit well. You don’t need to spend money on fancy new clothes from REI. If in doubt that you have the right gear, ask.

Items I find essential:

  • Light-weight rain jacket or poncho
  • A pair of flip-flops or sandals
  • one pair of sturdy sneakers or hiking shoes
  • High rain boots
  • Backpack rain fly (or large garbage bag)
  • 3-5 pairs of loose-fitting pants (Do NOT bring jeans- very uncomfortable in the forest humidity. Leggings tend to snag and rip on sharp plants and insects bite right through them.)
  • 4-5 pairs of high socks (Or more. You want to keep your feet dry.)
  • 4-5 cotton t-shirts or tank tops (It’s best if you can tack them into your pants. Show skin at your own risk of insect bites or scratch/puncture wounds from plants.)
  • 4-5 long-sleeve shirts (button-down field shirts or any old long-sleeve t-shirts are best
  • 1-3 sets of nice clothes (shorts and casual shirts you would wear on vacation or a sundress. Be reasonably modest.)
  • 2-3 sets of athletic shorts and shirts to wear around the school house
  • Personal toiletries & medications
  • Swimsuit (Again, be reasonably modest.)
  • Sunglasses
  • Round-brim hat or baseball cap
  • Backpack or drawstring bag
  • Rite-in-Rain notebook and pencils
  • Water bottle or Camel-Pak
  • Toiletries & personal medications
  • Sunscreen (High SPF- you’ll be a lot closer to the equator.)
  • Point & shoot camera
  • Headlamp and/or lightweight flashlight (A headlamp is extremely useful.)
  • Copies of all travel documents (passport, plane tickets/itinerary, etc.) and medical documents (vaccinations card and anything else you may need)

Items that are useful but not necessary:

  • Binoculars (great if you like birds or wan a better view but not needed)
  • Laptop/ other computer (There’s wireless internet but if you’re worried about your electronics, you can use a STRI computer room).
  • Moisture-wicking/ventilated or other athletic/outdoor clothing. (You’re better off bringing old t-shirts/long-sleeve shirts.)
  • Insect repellant (I don’t wear it unless I’m somewhere with an extraordinary number of mosquitoes or at dusk. Then, I use 98% deet and spray it on my clothes rather than my skin.)
  • Cell phone (The instructors and TA will have them for emergencies but you likely will not need one.)
  • Pocket language/culture guide (nice to have but not needed)

Items you don’t need to bring:

  • Garbage bags (These will be provided for water-proofing if you desire them.)
  • Plastic bags or waterproofing gear for smaller items (will also be provided for smaller items like camera if you want them and don’t have other water-proofing gear)
  • Anti-itch creams/solutions (There are certain Panamanian versions that seem to work best, and will be provided, but you can bring your own if you like. )
  • Mosquito-netting (simply not necessary)
  • Bedding/pillows (will be provided)
  • Towels (will be provided. Bring a beach towel of your own if you like.)
  • Compass or navigation gear (You won’t need it.)
  • Wildlife guides and books (will be provided)
  • Water purifying gear- not necessary. (All tap water in the Canal Zone is drinkable and safe unless specifically marked.)
  • Food (will be provided or bought locally. Unless you have a really specific hard-to-find snack you can’t live without, you don’t need to bring any.)
  • A first-aid kit (will be provided but bring items you believe are specialized that you will personally want/need)
  • Duct tape (will be provided)

Camping gear- not necessary. You won’t be camping

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Small Brains, Big Ideas in Chile

Just when I thought I’d be staying in the US until at least next summer, I was selected to attend a course and symposium in Santiago & Valparaiso, Chile, on the doorstep of the Andes Mountains. This is a biannual event with the catchphrase “seeding the future of science”. Most participants were from Latin America and I was lucky to participate in the course, hear about their research, and network with them.

Small Brains focused on, of course, animals with small brains ripe for scientific study in their simplicity: C. elegans, Drosophila, and honeybees. The faculty who led laboratory sessions, lectures, and activities were world class and truly devoted to inspiring more scientists to work with small-brained invertebrate model systems. To name a few (but not all):

Stephen Goodwin, University of Oxford

Scott Waddell, University of Oxford

John Ewer, Universidad de Valparaiso

Andrea Calixto, Universidad Mayor

Mark Alkema, University of Massachusetts Medical School

Fernanda Ceriani, Fundación Instituto Leloir

Marc Freeman, University of Massachusetts Medical School

Victor Ambros, University of Massachusetts Medical School

Jimena Sierralta, Universidad de Chile

Brian Smith, Arizona State University

I gained a great deal of insight into using model systems, ideas to apply to my own non-model invertebrate system, comments to improve my research, and contacts moving forward in graduate school and looking ahead at postdocs.

We learned a number of useful techniques that I’m eager to try out. I wish stingless bees were a developed model system so that I could use more genetic tools to get at more mechanistic questions about the evolution of body size. For now, I’m happy with the direction of my dissertation and the tools I have at my disposal. I’m happy with the possibility of collaborating with one or more of the faculty I met at SBBI. But, I’m itching to either expand to other model systems or develop stingless bees as an evolutionary comparative model system.

For more information on SBBI, visit their webpage: http://smallbrains.org/ or contact any of the faculty listed and myself. it was a wonderful opportunity for anyone looking at working with invertebrate model systems, especially if you work in the Central or South America or are from Latin America. Because this trip was so jam-packed with great information and experiences, I’ll have at least one more post on my travels through Chile.

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Taking in the views of Santiago, Chile with the Andes Mountains in the background.

Howl-oween at Cave Creek Regional Park

Better late than never so here’s an update on Bug Theater Halloween outreach activities. This year, we went to Cave Creek Regional Park, part of the phoenix Area Regional Parks system, for Bug Theater: Howloween Edition. We were joined by Wild at Heart (http://wildatheartowls.org/rescue.html) , a group that rescues raptor birds in Arizona and Rattlesnake Solutions (http://www.rattlesnakesolutions.com/) who both set up great interactive displays for everyone who attended. We had an estimated 180 visitors including, children, their parents, grandparents, and other members of the community.  The kids had a great time with a coyote howling contest, costume contest, games, and animal interactions.

We set up two interactive areas this year. Inside the Nature Center, we showed off pinned and live insects. Everyone was allowed to touch or hold our Madagascar hissing roaches, meal worms, and darkling beetles. We also had a mini honeybee hive, a colony of Pogonomyrmex seed harvester ants, and a tarantula. It was a thrill to see the faces of small kids light up when they figured out the bugs aren’t so icky or scary after all. Their parents are often a bit less enthusiastic.

Outside, we set up a black light, mercury bulb, and white sheets to draw in the local nocturnal insect life. Everyone was allowed to catch their own insects and get help identifying them from our volunteers. The majority of the catch was composed of geometric moths and grasshoppers but some beetles, spiders and parasitoid wasps also snuck in.

This was a great opportunity to generate interest in insects for all ages and debunk the “scary” and “gross” stereotypes that insects are often labelled with in the general public. It was a great time and we’ll be setting up additional Bug Theater outings in the coming months.

Camping & Insects in the Chiricahua Mountains

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Members of the Harrison lab hiking Echo Canyon trail in Chiricahua National Monument.

Phoenix can be an oppressively hot place in the summer. When Fall rolls around and monsoon rains keep the state relatively wet, the time has come to explore more hospitable regions of Arizona. The Chiricahua Mountains Wilderness and National Monument are in a biologically diverse area of Southern Arizona closely bordering New Mexico and Mexico. These mountains are known as sky islands for the way they abruptly rise out of the surrounding flat lands. The Chiricahuas are home to the Southwest Research Station and have long been a famous area for hiking, birding, and catching insects.

Our lab (a few undergraduate students, a former grad student, a visitor from Australia, two guests from Kevin McGraw’s lab, and myself- we were missing a lot of people) recently camped in Chiricauhua National Monument to get away from Phoenix, catch insects, and spend time as a group outside the lab. Two of our undergraduate students are French and have seen very little of Arizona. Tim, our visitor from Steve Simpson’s lab in Sydney, Australia and Paula, a new grad student in the McGraw lab from Brasilia, Brazil also took in some new and extraordinary view.

Our primary goal was to collect dung beetles. Mission accomplished. Arizona is home to many species of native and introduced dung beetles including predacious hysterids, ball rollers, and burrowers. We were after two particularly tiny genera- Onthophagus and Aphodius. When you find the correct consistency of dung, you find the beetles. To find the dung, you find the cows, and there are lots of them in the ranched grasslands east and west of the Chiricahuas. The job isn’t glamorous but the beetles are concentrated in and around their precious resource.

We also stopped to informally survey the grasshopper community. They were quite abundant and we casually caught at least 15 species  alongside the rode by sweep netting and chasing them with our hands, everything from lubbers to slant-faced hoppers, cryptic to aposematic. Paula may use some of the more colorful hoppers in developing her dissertation on carotenoid processing. It was an exploratory mission and grasshoppers may not be the correct organisms for the question but collecting allows some practice in carrying out methods, something we can all use in our first year of grad school. Even if they aren’t right for her project, some of the hoppers we caught were spectacularly colored and/or enormous. A certain species of lubber can reach a whopping 10 grams.

Amidst collecting, discussing ideas, and plotting science, we also took time to get to know each other a little more and enjoy being in a beautiful natural place. We consumed the largest, most gourmet camping dinner I’ve ever experienced and hiked a 3.5 mile loop trail with no incidences beyond two rattlesnake sightings. Hopefully more lab members can make it on future expeditions!

Social Insect Scientists Antennate in Wurzburg, Germany

Where do social insect scientists converge and collaborate? Many attend the International Union for the Study of Social Insects. Those from the University of Wurzburg, Germany and Arizona State University have uniquely large groups of these scientists and we met for our first joint symposium and workshop in Wurzburg earlier this year. It was time for us to put our heads together to talk abut ideas, research trajectories, current progress, and the potential for future collaborations.

It was a successful trip (most of ASU’s Social insect research group, also known as SIRG, attended including graduate students, postdocs and faculty) and ASU will be extending our hospitality to Wurzburg for the next social insect gathering.

My personal motivations for attending this conference were several-fold. I presented very recently collected data from Panama and gained feedback, chatted with other students I would like to see or work with in the future, and learned a lot about the objectives of both programs, of course. However, this was a double city mission for me. I moved on from beautiful, old Wurzburg and on to Berlin to meet a committee member and spend time in his lab learning a new histological technique.

My meeting with Randolph Menzel was exciting and productive. I spent the week explaining my research objectives, defending myself, and learning from his students and staff research scientists. I gained a lot of ideas and confidence in the methods I’d like to use in the future. In particular, I was there to learn a technique pioneered in mouse neuroscience at Stanford called CLARITY in which the lipids of cells are replaced with a matrix of polyacrylamide, leaving all other proteins and cellular markers in place. The Menzel lab modified this method for use in bees and has been doing a great job of testing its limitations, led by Gerard Labouelle, the scientist who taught em the method while I was there. This was an excellent addition to my toolbox and I’m excited to use it on stingless bees. For those wishing to explore the CLARITY method, resources can be found here: http://clarityresourcecenter.org/

Towards the end of my stay, the German equivalent of father’s day meant a day off of work for everyone, including me so I took some time to explore Berlin. What a fantastic city! And I saw little of it compared to what’s left to explore.

Isolation in the Islands of San Blas: The Importance of Taking Breaks

This is just the kind of view you need to take a short break from work int he forest.

This is just the kind of view you need to take a short break from work in the forest.

Sometimes science does not cooperate (this is often the case and the reason why most research takes years to complete). Science in the field is fun for a lot of the same reasons it’s exhausting. In Panama, you’re outdoors a large portion of the time, you hike a lot, you carry equipment, you travel, you spend long days taking care of your organisms or preparing for experiments or carrying out experiments. It’s work that requires a lot of physical and mental energy in a climate that is not forgiving. So, you inevitably end up needing a break.

On one of these occasions, I decided to go with a group of other students and interns to the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama. This islands are part of the Kuna Yala Comarca, lands controlled by the native Kuna people. It was a fantastic cultural travel experience in addition to a good way to relax.

To get there, we hired a jeep agency to drive us out several hours from Panama City to the Comarca where we were picked up by Kuna people in boats to go out to the islands. The road to the boat pickup point was one of the windiest I have ever experienced, complete with unexpected hills turns, and potholes. I haven’t been carsick in a long time, but this took me over the edge. I held it until we got to the boat pickup point and then promptly lost my breakfast.

Not to be dismayed, I was still excited for the boat ride out to the islands. We were taken slowly through a creeping mangrove river to the coastline where the water suddenly got so shallow the boatmen needed to use a pole to get us off the sandbar. We bobbed up and down in the water for a while before we were able to continue. Then we were on our way past a series of small islands that consisted on sand and palm trees with few or no inhabitants besides crabs and birds.

When we got to our island, Senidup, I was motion sick again but enjoying the amazing views. While some of our group went to snorkel around a shipwreck, I stayed on the island and walked around, trying to regain my stomach and see what there was to see.

You could walk the entire perimeter of the island in less than ten minutes and we stayed in huts. Kuna people stayed on the island and prepared meals for us. These consisted of fresh fish, rice, and some local vegetables. We were summoned by a conch blowing. No pictures were taken of the Kuna, however. They dislike it though they’re very friendly people. Some in our group bought molas, a form of sewn art where they use fabric layering to create scenes with animals and other native meaningful patterns.

There was little to do on Senidup but enjoy the beach, warm clear water, the food, and the company of whoever you met there. I greatly recommend San Blas as a vacation spot, though you can stay at a number of different islands with different levels of amenities and habitation from no people where you must take your own water and camp on the beach to small towns with fancy beach bungalows.

Best of all, this was the perfect short break before going back to work to complete the rest of my field season in Panama.