ASU students taking a break during a hike on Barro Colorado Island.
I did my dissertation research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, based in Gamboa, Panama and traveling around the country collecting bees and observing. While this time 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.
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, don’t 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 or if you can’t give evidence of an end date for your stay. 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. Take care to be respectful and honest. Sometimes travelers are deported for not showing any proof that they can pay for their stay or a departing flight. This is rare, but you should be aware. It’s a good idea to print out your return flight information and have it on hand just in case.
Having taught the ASU undergraduate field course several times, I’ve made travel arrangements for students, picked them up, and dealt with their immigration problems. Please get all your paperwork in ASAP to the course instructors. 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 it’s a good opportunity to get to know the other students and instructors a little better. 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 extra waiting.
If you’ve ever been told that your education is what you make of it, field courses are perhaps the best example. 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. Participate fully all 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.
Here’s an example of a student paper that came directly from Erika Cevallos Dupuis’s course project on leaf cutter ant trails.
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. 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. That’s not to say that great romantic relationships among students in the course haven’t developed after the course was over…
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 your skin and it’s not practical for hiking through the forest. Insects can even be attracted to some brands and scents, especially if they’re floral or mimic any kind of food.
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 otherwise foreign. Nearly everyone there is associated with STRI. Some STRI interns and grad students are starting to live in Santa Cruz in rental accommodations too. Most inhabitants of Gamboa 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 higher prices for food and beverages. It’s pretty and comfortable, but there isn’t much entertainment to be had there for students.
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. If you’re good with Spanish, then it’s probably fine. The course instructors will be driving you everywhere you need to go, and you’ll find that you really don’t have free time to wander to Panama City anyway.
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 these 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 not in the US.
One potentially annoying thing if you’re female is the kind of cat-calling attention you may receive from Panamanian men. The best thing to do is ignore it and move away from that area. #MeToo is strong right now, but there are different standards outside the US and being confrontational can get you into additional trouble, especially if you’re alone. I’m all about empowerment and getting men to be better, but be safe. 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, and Dengue fever), 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. You’ll be covered under ASU travel insurance but let the instructors know ASAP if you think you might want to see a doctor.
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.
A fer-de-lance we crossed paths with during one course hike, nicely camouflaged, and a great reason to wear your boots.
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 malaria. I’ve gotten all other recommended vaccines that are available, however. I have known several people to develop dengue fever, including myself. 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 (any standing water sources), you should have no problems. Again, I’m NOT A MEDICAL DOCTOR. Go to the 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.
A hike up Rio Mendoza form Pipeline Road in Gamboa to the waterfall is always fun and a greta swimming opportunity.
Some possible field trip locations are:
- Mirafores Locks on the Panama Canal
- Embera Drua Village in Chagres National Park
- Barro Colorado Island
- Gamboa/Chagres River tour with Rachel Page’s Bat Research 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
- STRI headquarters in Panama City
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 according to project schedules and deadlines.
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 only speak Spanish.
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 wealthy 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 a 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.
Students and some Embera tribe members in Embera Drua next to the Charges River.
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 except extra snacks and alcohol. You’ll be well-fed at the school house at meal times. 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.
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 your 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. My own field clothes are mostly older cotton shirts and cargo pants.
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, waterproof if possible
- High rubber rain boots
- Backpack rain fly (or large garbage bag)
- 3-5 pairs of loose-fitting pants (Jeans are not recommended. They’re 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 tuck 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 medium smart clothing like shorts and casual shirts you would wear on vacation or a sundress. Be reasonably modest. You are there to take a course.
- 2-3 sets of athletic shorts and shirts to wear around the school house
- Personal toiletries & medications
- Swimsuit (Again, be reasonably modest.)
- Round-brim hat or baseball cap
- Backpack or drawstring bag
- Rite-in-Rain notebook and pencils
- Water bottle or Camel-Pak
- 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). Ideally you won’t carry your copies with your originals in the event that you lose both.
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 because I work with insects that can be harmed by pesticides. If I have to, I use 98% deet and spray it on my clothes rather than my skin. It’s nasty but works.)
- 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 in the school house)
- Bedding/pillows (will be provided)
- Towels (will be provided. Bring a beach towel of your own if you like for swimming.)
- 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
If you have questions about the ASU field course, feel free to reach out. I’m happy to hear from you. If you aren’t participating in a field course but are interested in doing research or traveling around Panama to see natural sites, I’m also happy to chat.