Panamaladies: Why Uncomfortable Vacations Are Actually Good

I am traveling in Panama (have been for the last couple weeks, hence the sparse blogposts) as a post-dissertation vacation. I started at Bocas del Toro, which several friends of mine recommended. Despite being somewhat hard to get to, Bocas is overrun with tourism and is thus overrun with overbearing hoteliers and is overpriced (in addition, both bank machines in town went the way of Zimbabwe and were short on cash). The Caribbean's glory days seem over to me: the coral reefs were part beautiful, part wrecked. There were no big fish to be seen. It might not be a bad idea to pour sugar on Bocas and allow the ants to have their way.

I thought the Pacific coast's Santa Catalina was a surf slum. Almost everything in town was gooey with some sort of slime (maybe I was still recovering from Bocas). I did have a nice dive in Coiba, though.


Finally, I have reached a spot that exceeds all expectations. I am still out on the Pacific (oh the Pacific, my last great hope!), but near Pedasi. Howler monkeys wake me up at night and the electricity can come and go. I found a scorpion in the house last night. Not a lot of restaurants. The nearest Internet is 33 km away and is situated next to a rooster house.


Last Saturday, I was out in with a fisherman in a rainstorm searching for humpback whales. We came across two different mother calf pairs before the storm really set in (my big down moment came when the fisherman recounted that a Japanese boat recently came in and killed three humpback whales, including a baby). We tried to wait it out on Isla Iguana but snorkeling was impossible due to the abundant jellyfish that were stinging me out the wazoo and sunbathing obviously was out of the question.

But I know this bit of my trip will be worth it. Research agrees. In 1991, Hartig and his colleagues compared wilderness vacationers (i.e. backpackers, with lots of experience and high levels of fitness) with urban vacationers and a non-vacationing control group. Following their trip, the wilderness group showed a significant improvement in proof-reading performance, a task that is highly demanding of directed attention. By contrast, the other two groups, the urban vacationers and 'control', showed a pre-test-to-post-test decline.

Not surprisingly, the wilderness groups had the lowest overall happiness score at the post-test (I am covered in sand flea bites, hankering Indian food, and sunburned). However, Hartig et al. found that after 3 weeks, during a follow-up interview session, wilderness vacationers showed the highest levels of overall happiness, which is what I expect when I return to the urban lifestyle next week.

Reference: Hartig, T., Mang, M. Evans, G.W., 1991. Restorative effects of natural environment experiences. Environment & Behavior 23, 3-26.

Baby spyhopping humpback near Isla Iguana, Panama.

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As someone who's spent a bit of time in wilderness I would add that if you're having a crummy time, you might want to ask yourself if you're doing properly..That jellyfish burger's lookin' pretty tasty.

..and speakin' of panama ladies, how are they?

Sounds like heaven down there! Where do I sign up? :)

Goddamn Japanese whalers. Always ruining everything. The scum of the earth, those vermin are.

By Woody Tanaka (not verified) on 21 Sep 2009 #permalink

I was shocked at the reef conditions in the Caribbean coast off Costa Rica five years ago. I actually witnessed a guide for another company rip a piece off to show his clients. It is a shame to hear about Boca del Toros increase in popularity, it seemed off the map back in 2004.

The sadpanda soaked Jennifer is adorable. Your trip sounds terribly, horribly, absolutely wonderful.

The research into painful vacations contributing to lingering awesomeness seems to fit into that old chestnut "what doesn't kill ya makes ya stronger". Is it indicative of a pervasive masochism in our species, or do we just grow as people when we are challenged?

I had the good fortune to serve as a TA for a field course in Bocas a couple of years ago and came away equally saddened. Some Americans working at a bar told us it was the new Key West (surely not a good thing from a conservation perspective). This was most obvious in the airport where the walls were covered with promotions for new hotels and condos. We also had the same experience snorkling: some beautiful reefs, but no fish bigger than my little finger. Bummer. Good to hear you found adventure (albeit wet) elsewhere.

As one of your friends who recommended Bocas, I have to correct you that we did not recommend the town of Bocas, but a tiny little island off the way where we saw a total of 4 people in one week (and no hotels). So.... perhaps next time I should provide more details :). Glad you had a wonderful time despite the jellyfish nips and slimes.

By melissasue (not verified) on 23 Sep 2009 #permalink