Los cayucos are hand-carved wooden canoes that swiftly float across the sparkling light blue waters of the Caribbean near Panama in South America.
On this journey, they are a symbol of entering a new region that’s full of color, culture, and wonderful people. We’ll use cayucos again later as we canoe between islands of the San Blas Archipelago, passing over a sparkling coral reef and a rainbow of marine life just below the water’s surface.
It’s hard to believe this region is often overlooked. It’s warm beaches and turquoise waters offer some of the most beautiful views—as well as some of the best snorkeling opportunities (don’t worry, we’ll do that, too!) The people who live here are just as beautiful. The Kuna Indians surround themselves with a world of brightly colored textiles and beads, their colors so rich and deep you can hardly look away.
Because we’ll be immersed in a world of Spanish-speaking cultures, this journey offers an opportunity to practice some foreign language skills while also helping locals with their English skills. Aside from language, the cultural experience here is breath-taking: The traditional music and dances, cuisine, and time spent making molas (colorful woven textiles) offer a chance to step away from a world of television and the internet and realize how fascinating other cultures truly are. Halley Pearson took this trip to Panama several years ago, and the experience made her reflect on her life back home.
“Since we were staying in such a simple place, it made the tasks we did simple. The work we did was hard, but the framework of the construction was simple. We got so used to that lifestyle that, when we ventured back to the mainland, we were overwhelmed with the complexity of city life. The first thing I thought when I got home was, ‘I have so many clothes. Why do I have so many?’”
Twenty-one days just doesn’t seem long enough when we get there. But, over the course of those days, we’ll pack in as many memorable experiences as possible. Our community service efforts will help create a community garden for local residents, as well as a cafeteria that serves as a multi-purpose gathering space for meetings and celebrations, too. These efforts work in collaboration with MIT’s Zero Waste Project to help minimize the waste crisis in the area. By the end of the trip, we’ll have completed about 75 community service hours—and will have earned a Presidential Volunteer Service Award.
Aside from perspective-changing cultural experiences, there’s plenty of time for exploring here as well. We’ll be learning to surf at Playa de San Carlos, zip lining across a lush rainforest, sailing the turquoise waters in a 42-foot catamaran from Panama City to Toboga Island, visiting the Panama Canal and Chagres National Park, and snorkeling—just to name a few. At the end of each day, we’ll have that good tired feeling that comes from a day of fresh air and lots of sunshine.
July is fast-approaching, so now is the time to consider how to spend the summer. Yes, it could be another season of sleeping in or a summer job, but July could be a month of true, exciting adventure.