One thing I have learned in my time in Panama is that you can never really plan on anything 100%. Panamanians operate on a more relaxed time frame, and the quick errand you hoped to run in the morning can easily turn into an all day ordeal. Plans change, events are planned or cancelled last minute, and it’s just sort of the way things are. After a while, one begins to loosen up a bit, and just go with the flow, eager to see what exciting adventure awaits them!

That idea of going with the flow was certainly put into practice on my most recent trip to the town of Pueblo Nuevo on the edges of the lake, Lago Bayano. This is a top destination for adventure travelers looking to explore the Bayano Bat caves and get to know rural Panamanian culture by participating in an overnight experience. On my most recent trip with Keteka, I went not for exploration, but to simply meet with the new tourism committee president to update some information, and say a quick hi to the community… or so I thought.

My boyfriend decided to join me on the trip, to keep me company and also get out of the city for a day and breathe the fresh air of the Panamanian countryside. In an effort to avoid contracting a special boat just for us, I called the group president a few days before, to verify if any boats were already going in or out. “Of course!”, she informed me. “There’s a group coming to give vaccinations this Saturday. You can catch the 8 oclock boat with them.”

This seemed like a doable option so I didn’t think to ask much. I did wonder after the phone call if the people were going to Pueblo Nuevo to vaccinate humans or animals, but I figured either way they were nice enough to share their boat with me.

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Lago Bayano Boat Ride

As we made our way to the Bayano Bridge, the launching point for the boats heading out on the lake, I considered how lucky I was to live in a place where just a 2 hour escape from the city could lead me to such a beautiful destination. Lago Bayano seemed almost serene that morning, with cloudy skies overhead and little cayman sticking their heads out of the water to say hi. It was a truly peaceful moment.

Doralis, the tourism committee president, welcomed us into her home with open arms. If you can make it out to Pueblo Nuevo for an overnight, or even just a daytrip, I highly recommend having a meal in town. Doralis is a great cook! After our meeting, I asked about the return boat back to our car. She replied “Oh yes, you can get a ride out after the cows get vaccinated! Want to come help us cook?” Sure I thought. Watch a couple cows get their rabies shots and then go home, right?

It then became evident that we had unintentially signed ourselves up for a junta. In Panama, the word “junta” refers to a community work day, in which the men typically participate in a group task, while the women cook a lunch and prepare a refreshing drink for the men. We went over to the coral and were a little stunned by what we saw: around 80 cows and 5 sheep all waiting to be vaccinated, surrounded by about 5 local cowboys. Today the task was simple: wrestle all 85 animals to the ground one by one and hold them still so they could get vaccinated. It was going to be a long day.

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Our new friends for the day.

I quickly found my space among the women chopping garlic and peppers for the chicken soup while my boyfriend went off with the men to drink chicha (a corn drink) and watch the insanity begin. Our exhaustion from our early departure from the city was soon forgotten as what appeared to be a rodeo began. The cows put up a good fight but six hours and 3 servings of chicha later, all were successfully vaccinated. Men were dragged, kicked, and one cow even lept over the fence and had to be chased down. By the end, we weren’t sure if we wanted to go vegetarian, or get into the corral ourselves to try it out! The children were left to catch the sheep (which were much easier to wrangle than their beefy big brothers).

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The last few cows, waiting to be vaccinated.

As the group finished the last cow, the soup was served, just as the rain started to come down. There we shared laughter and stories with the community that we had just met, remembering which cow chase was our favorite and listening to stories from the antics of years passed. It made me wish that I too could be part of a community so unified and excited over such a seemingly simple event.

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Putting the finishing touches on the soup for the junta.

We rode back on the boat to the bridge again with smiles on our faces, and very pleased by the unexpected adventure that we were given on the backgroads of Panama. I hope I make it back for the next big event in Pueblo Nuevo and maybe, just maybe… I’ll try my luck at wrangling one of the little guys!

If you would like to visit Pueblo Nuevo and check out the Bat Caves of Lago Bayano, you can book your tour here with Keteka!