Lessons on Adaptation from Santa Catalina, Panama


Santa Catalina, Panama. Lessons on adaptation, soul searching and choosing happiness.

I spent 9 hours on 6 buses to get to Santa Catalina. It’s known for it’s surfing and it’s relaxed and disconnected beach town vibe, a vacation spot but in the most desolate of ways. Just to give you an idea of the place, there is zero reliable internet and only one bar. Many people come here to take day trips out to the amazing, nearby Cobia Island for diving and snorkeling. It all sounds amazing and lovely, but I was here for one particular if not peculiar reason and didn’t get what I was seeking, so I might be the only person who wanted out of Santa Catalina, asap.


The entire island of Cobia, Central America’s largest island, used to be a prison. This is what I wanted to tour. It is the largest island prison in history that once housed about 3,000 inmates including corrupt political leaders during a very important time in Panamanian history. It closed in 2004. It’s said to have always been haunted. Prisoners and guards alike have claimed ghost sighting and even taken their own lives from such unbearable hauntings and terrors contained within the islands choppy shores. With its concrete structures crumbling and being enveloped by the thick of the jungle, soon it will be all but a memory.

Call me crazy, everyone in town did, but that sounds pretty interesting. Visiting an abandoned, haunted prison isn’t meant to be fun, it’s about being in an unimaginable space and trying to imagine yourself in it, feeling the energy of a tortured, isolated world, questioning humanity and the human condition.

So like a scavenger on a hunt, I went asking person to person if someone could take me out there. With one name after another of someone who might oblige I sought out each individual one at time across the entire town. Every single one said no. Eventually I gave up.

I found myself hating everything about Santa Catalina. The food was terrible, my hostel was disgusting, the cost of everything was insane, the people around me were insufferable. I couldn’t get what I wanted and I couldn’t see past that. I became a prisoner of my expectations.

But since Santa Catalina wasn’t easy to get to or from for me, I was going to have to change my perspective. I was inspired by a tree growing sideways out of a mud wall. I was reminded we are in control of choice, the choice to see things from different angles, to choose the positive, to make things work for us.

It was up to me to adjust my way of thinking and adapt to my surroundings. It’s Santa Catalina and it’s beautiful so it wasn’t very difficult, but still the lesson is relevant; we get to choose how we want to experience something.


So instead of catching the next bus out of town, I embraced my chance to be alone, to get lost in thought and lost in the land. I let my feet dictate. I went off the cleared paths and followed the tug of tide that had so majestically unveiled a beautiful walkway of stones, like mother natures red carpet rolled out just for me, an invitation to explore from another perspective, promising great beauty if I just trusted.


Hours later I snapped out of a trance, like waking from a dream. Unsure of where or how I arrived I came to and realized I had stumbled out on private property, properly lost. I felt like I had accepted and completed a challenge and for a second I swear I heard the great ocean whisper, thanks for trusting see you later. In that same moment I crossed paths with my first human of that morning who quizzically wondered how I had gotten myself to where I was and then happily guiding me back to the beaten path.


My view shifted. Santa Catalina was peaceful, wondrous and calming. I moved to a lovely accommodation, found myself engaged in valuable conversation and no longer longing to leave. I found contentment in my present place, the space to clear my heart and mind, an opportunity to reconnect to myself and the earth and to recognize again what matters is what’s in front of us and to fully surrender and adapt to that.

The truth is you don’t always get what you want, we all know that. The key is to take a deep breath and do the best you can with what you’ve got.