The spring break we annually enjoy in the United States is substituted in Latin America for a week-long break with a historically more religious purpose: Semana Santa, or “Holy Week.” This is to commemorate the week of events, such as the Last Supper and Good Friday, leading up to the resurrection of Jesus that is celebrated on Easter Sunday. However, much like another Christian-based holiday in the States (Christmas), it seemed to me that the celebration is such that some – if not, most – people are more focused on the vacation time and the practice of traditional events rather than the sacred nature involved in the original intent of the holiday. Make no mistake, I enjoy vacation time and Easter eggs as much as the next exchange student, but this was just an observation I considered worth noting.
Our group of 6 began the week on Saturday at mid-day with a solid 16-hour bus ride from San Jose to Panama City that got us in at 5:30 am and in need of food and shelter. Thankfully we found both before too long and lazied our way into recovery before heading into Panama Viejo, a little town outside of the city that contains enough ruins to satisfy any appetite for history and a generally quaint environment complete with an impressive artisan venue and deliciously cheap fare. Following a much-needed siesta, we hit up downtown to get a look at the sunset and a bit of what the area had to offer. We were surprised and impressed to find that, in stark contrast to those found in Costa Rica, the city boasted coastline, skyscrapers and extensive highways that compared much to that of a Miami-type area. Monday found us in Albrook where ultra-consumerism reigns in the largest mall in Latin America. I mean this place was huge. After browsing about a quarter of the place in 4 hours, we moved on to one of my ultimate goals of the trip: The Panama Canal. If the sheer value in world trade and international relations provided by the canal isn’t impressive enough, just admiring the incredible engineering and Rhode Island-sized boats ought to take one’s breath away. Our student status made access to the movie and museum affordable enough, so after enjoying each we decided to head back to the mall-on-steroids in Albrook where one can purchase a 9-inch pizza for $2.00. Yeah.
Cracking dawn once again the next day, we bussed our way to David and Almirante en route to our final destination of Bocas del Toro, where we would the spend the rest of the 5 nights left of our trip. The island we stayed on consisted of our hostel, a restaurant, and beautiful beaches. That was it, and that was enough. We headed to the main island, Isla Colo’n, on Thursday to scope it out and make a supermarket run, but the $4 water taxi required for passage each way and the fact that the town wasn’t quite as hoppin as we expected was enough to keep us on our own island for the rest of the weekend. Friday we did take a 5-hour tour in which we got to see quite a few dolphins, peer over the side of our boat at some starfish, and soak up some snorkeling at the incredibly beautiful coral and diverse sea life at Caya Coral. All for $15! The rest of our days typically included waking up at the crack of noon to spend cloudy afternoons at the beach either relaxing, body surfing, playing soccer with some local kids, or exploring coastline from the popular Red Frog to the pristine Polo. If and when the shower turned on at 6pm (water conservation during the dry season), we would whip up some pasta, rice & beans, or more PB&J to carry us into our nights spent down at the hostel commons area. When just each other’s company wasn’t enough, there was ping pong, pool, life-size chezz, board games, a restaurant, foreigners from all over the world, and hammocks gallore to keep us occupied. An essentially stress-free week was capped off by a stress-(expensive?) trip back home due to having to wait on our boat taxi that arrived an hour late and scared us into thinking we would miss our bus in Changuinola. Nevertheless, in what had to have been an Easter miracle, we somehow made it in time and were off to San Jose in a bus that unfortunately offered as little leg room as it did air conditioning. When all is said and done, I think it is safe to say that my Semana Santa was, albeit unconventional, certainly “Pura Vida.”