The 10 realities of island life

I’m currently spending my days in remote Santa Catalina, Panama, known for its exquisite diving and proximity to Coiba National Park. I’m helping out in a dive shop in return for lodging and the occasional dive.

A whale shark hangs in the blue, just below the surface. A snorkler appears tiny next to it.
A lucky encounter just before our first dive of the day: A whale shark!

Technically I’m not living on an island. But I’m living by the coast, with beach, palm trees and ocean within walking distance from my house. The next bigger “town”, Sona, is a 90 minute car ride away.

“What a dream!” you might exclaim.

Yes, it’s certainly something. But let me familiarize you with some of the realities of what it actually means to life here – not in a hotel with breakfast and on-site restaurant, room service and aircon – but as a local.

Reality number 1: It’s hot.

There is no airconditioning anywhere. Not in the supermarket, not in restaurants, not in the dive shop, not at home and definitely not in my bedroom. Between 11-16h it’s so hot, you don’t want to leave the house, on average between 33-35°C.

It also means I have completely given up on exercise right now because the only time cool enough to do it would be while it’s dark – which is not the best time of day to be outside, or just around sunrise/sunset when I have to be at the shop.

The air flow on the inside is terrible, so that eventhough the outside cools down to between 23-25°C at night, it doesn’t propagate into your sleeping quarters, no matter how many doors/windows you leave open.

The iconic palm trees you see by the beach are more or less the only green we have. Away from the water, everything is brown and dry, it hasn’t rained in weeks – as it’s the middle of dry season.

Dogs regularly lie on our front porch, sleeping through the midday heat.
It’s okay, doggy, I’m hot too.

Reality number 2: You can be utterly powerless

Quite literally. The entire village is prone to power failures and you never know when the next one will hit or how long it will last. Most only last a second or two, those are very common, some last minutes. I’ve had power outages for a couple of hours here, but the last one before I arrived had lasted three days!

No power also means no water, as the water is pumped from a tank, and the pump requires electricity.

The lesson is to always keep your devices charged and have a head lamp and power bank ready to go and emergency bottled water standing by.

Reality number 3: We’ll fix it later

Speaking of headlamps: I have no light in my room. It’s not that the light bulb is broken – it works for a couple of minutes at least once a week – but the rest of the time the light just refuses to turn on.

This is the case with a lot of things here. They get fixed as much as necessary and not further. So you are living with broken power outlets (random stuff is stuck in it), chewed through and exposed wiring (it still works after all), a gas stove where only half the burners turn on and, well, broken lights.

This is also fun when washing dishes in the evening since the sink is outside – and there is no light. Another usecase for your head lamp.

A fairly dark bedroom, light just barely falling in through the curtains.
Even during the day my room isn’t very bright

Reality number 4: It’s not really cheaper

Somehow I had assumed that Central America would be cheap – at least a lot cheaper than Europe. It’s not. Not only is the cost of eating out in restaurants on par with a good middle-class European restaurant, but the supermarkets aren’t any cheaper either. Everyday goods, like pasta, canned veggies, oatmeal, are all expensive.

Reality number 5: What is infrastructure?

Earlier this week, a truck came by to fix some potholes in the road. It was a big spectacle! No one is used to things getting fixed here.

But it’s also part of another issue of living remotely. The village, or rather the two roads that make up Santa Catalina, has no post office, no bank (and no ATM), two tiny supermarkets and a newly opened Frutería where you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables. There are five dive centers though.

The police station is a little hut near the beach and their patrol car an ATV that they routinely use to watch the sunset in the evening.

Santa Catalina police station, shaded under trees, an ATV parked to the left.
Whoop whoop, that’s the sound of da police

There is no fire station, there is no doctor – although all the dive centers have to have first aid kits and dive masters have first aid training – so that likely doubles as medical care in case of smaller issues.

Internet is close to non-existent, if you want email, you need data. The only network provider that works here is masmovil – with exactly one signal bar.

Reality number 6: I hope you’re not picky

Speaking of supermarkets, “super” is probably the wrong term. It’s a shop that sells groceries. A tiny shop with about four aisles, 2 meters each, that’s re-stocked maybe once a week.

Canned fish easily has the largest range of selection. Why?!

Shelves and shelves of canned fish which is incredibly popular in Panama.
Not from the local supermarket, but the one in Bocas del Toro. So much canned fish!

Joghurts and chocolates you can only buy on re-stock day – they immediately sell out. What gets delivered is different every time. Last week they had natural joghurt and cherry joghurt. This week they only have guanabana. M&Ms are popular as they don’t melt as fast. But chocolates are stored in the fridge anyway.

Cheese does not exist, and I refuse to accept Kraft Singles as “cheese”. I still buy them though, as there is nothing else.

Juice, real 100% juice, does not exist, but there is a wide variety of sugary crap like fruit nectar, gatorade, punch and other fruity drinks.

The pasta selection is surprisingly decent, but then again pasta doesn’t really go off, so it’s easy to store.

“Bread” is soft and squishy, full of sugar and has no taste, like in the US.

I have not seen any meat in any of the fridges, but I have a suspicion that maybe you can only buy it by order or it’s kept in special fridges in the back.

Any sort of household article like toilet paper, kitchen roll, sponges or washing powder are sold in single serving sizes which is very convenient for me.

Fruit and vegetables are still your best friend as the Frutería that I mentioned before has a great selection – and who can say no to a 1$ fresh-from-the-field pineapple or papaya. Papayas, by the way, are at least twice the size here compared to what you can buy in Europe.

A wooden fruit plate loaded with bananas, a pineapple and a papaya.
Fresh tropical fruit every day! The wrinkly things in the back are lemons from the tree in our garden.

Reality number 7: “Pets”

It’s lovely: there are dogs everywhere. They roam around freely and eat, drink, sleep wherever they find an opportunity to do so. But there is more.

Little lizards can be found sitting on any house wall, ceilings, sinks and pretty much any place they can reach, which is good because they keep the ants in check.

Ants are omnipresent: on your counter, in the sink, in the garbage bag. If you’re filling a pot with water to cook, better make sure to flush the tap out first, or you’ll have extra protein in your oats! I even spotted a bullet ant on our front porch the other day. Bullet ants, in case you don’t know, are among the largest ants on the planet (around 2,5 cm) and have a sting that’s as painful as getting hit by a bullet – hence the name. The neurotoxin they excrete affects your nerves and can even lead to irregular heart beats. Better not pet that.

As of yesterday we also have a massive wolf spider hiding out under the kitchen shelves. I saw it casually strolling in and now it’s refusing to leave.

Massive spider hiding behind a glass shard under a kitchen shelf.
Hiding behind a glass shard, the little bugger.

The occasional giant grasshopper or leaf insect also find their way inside.

And that’s in addition to all the “smaller” spiders that hang out in every corner of the house. There’s no cleaning those away.

Fortunately, mosquitos seem to be rare this time of year, so I only get stung occasionally instead of every other minute.

Reality number 8: “Remote” does not mean “quiet”

The locals love pimping their cars and roaring their engines up and down the two tiny roads. Cars are almost never turned off, they are always put in idle and left running for however long.

When people are not busy driving they’re pumping up the volume on the reggaeton – and not just on the car stereos: portable speakers are incredibly popular and their volume goes to 11. Sleeping is not always easy.

Shouting conversations are the norm because who wants to go out into the sun to cross the road, when you might as well just shout from your hammock.

Reality number 9: You will never have clean feet again

I love sneakers and I hate flipflops, but if you’re routinely standing up to your knees in water and not walking around that much anyway, flipflops are the better choice. So I haven’t been wearing full foot shoes in a while.

A few days ago I got concerned about a large miscolored patch of skin I discovered on my calf. Even after showering and casually cleaning it, it was still there. Only when I ran over it with my fingernail, scratching a nearby mosquito bites, did I realize it was dirt. A combination of sunscreen, sweat, road dust, salt water, sometimes insect spray and then some more dust… this stuff hardly comes off even after a thorough scrub.

When I get to Panama City, I’ll have to make sure to check into a room with a bathtub, buy some of those steel wool pads and spend an hour scraping those layers off.

Reality 10: It’s beautiful

When all is said and done, it’s still a great place to be – at least for a while. The sunset every evening is breathtaking and the entire village comes down to the beach to watch it.

Time rarely plays an important role. Shops more or less open and close when they feel like it – even in the middle of the day. People walking the streets do so completely unhurried and often stop to chat.

The kids are incredibly well behaved and love to chat.

I’m sure I couldn’t live here for the rest of my life. I like amenities, I like a good infrastructure. It’s not quiet or comfortable here. I miss dairy.

But it’s a new experience and for now that’s exactly what I need.

An orange sun disappears behind Coiba island as the locals gather at the Santa Catalina beach to watch.
Santa Catalina sunset by the beach, Coiba island in the background.

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