A thieving monkey, pirate patrols and nature returning: extreme lockdown on a remote Panamanian island

Workers at jungle resort contend with strict lockdown rules

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On the tiny rainforest island of Solarte, off the Caribbean coast of Panama, owners and staff at a locked-down jungle lodge are playing out their quarantine days  dodging a puppy-stealing monkey, patrolling for pirates and witnessing the return of nature to otherwise busy waters.

Sitting pretty on the smallest of nine islands that make up the biodiverse Bocas del Toro archipelago, the popular Bambuda Lodge has its own coral reef, and a giant water slide drops from the bar's terrace right into the Caribbean

But the water is now off-limits and the 11 locked-down inhabitants are subject to Panama’s rigid lockdown laws, with strictly-limited time outside determined by factors such as gender and passport number.

Men and women are not allowed to leave the house on the same days of the week, making it extremely difficult for women to make a run for supplies to the archipelago’s larger islands as taxi boats have cut their services, and virtually all of Solarte’s private boat drivers are male.

Within swimming distance of the island is Bastimentos National Park island, but for supplies islanders must take a boat to Isla Colon, around 2km away. People are allowed out to run errands for one hour a day, three times a week, at a time which corresponds with the last digit of their passport number or ID card.

While native islanders working at the lodge were sent home under the lockdown laws - their jobs are secure once restrictions are liftes - the Canadian owners and live-in international staff now find themselves with no guests to cater to.

British chef Zoe McCutcheon is currently locked down at the lodge with her partner Renzo Mendelewicz, head chef at Bambuda's restaurant. Her passport number ends in eight, meaning she can leave the house at 8am for her one hour outside.

"In the lead-up to president Laurentino Cortizo locking down the country on March 24, the lodge went from fully booked, with 68 guests, to 19 guests in one day," she told The National."The numbers halved every day after that until there were no guests left."

Staff are on their guard for the island's kleptomaniac monkey. Courtesy Bambuda Lodge
Staff are on their guard for the island's kleptomaniac monkey. Courtesy Bambuda Lodge

The last guests left the lodge just in time to catch the last international flights out of Panama, on March 21st. By the time expatriate staff heard about the lockdown decision on social media, it was too late book a flight or catch the two boats and 12-hour bus journey to reach an international airport.

The locked-down lodge residents share their island home with a handful of expatriate international residents and the 200-strong Ngöbe Buglé indigenous fishing community, many of whom are now out of work and dependent on government supplies.

Panama has so far dodged the worst effects of Covid-19, registering only 8,783 cases and 252 deaths, with 6,021 recoveries. Although there have so far been no known cases of Covid-19 on the archipelago, islanders are not exempt from the strict lockdown rules of the mainland.

With a pool to keep the tropical heat at bay, and the lodge’s in-house chef on hand to cook evening meals, the locked-down staff may be reduced to doing the same jigsaws (each with five pieces missing) over and over again in a bid to keep boredom at bay, but  said they know they have it easy compared to many Panamanians.

The remaining camp staff pose for a selfie. Courtesy Bambuda Lodge
The remaining camp staff pose for a selfie. Courtesy Bambuda Lodge

Some government funds, along with aid in the form of food bags and supermarket vouchers, have been made available for Panamanians forced out of work by the lockdown, but their limited distribution has led to civil unrest in a nation where many remote and rural communities already battle with poverty.

“In some parts of Panama there are armed police in the streets trying to enforce the lockdown rules, there have been riots outside the city of David and some of the more remote families and indigenous tribes are relying heavily on help from volunteers and government food donations,” said Tom Oman, who lives on site with fellow Canadian co-owner Dan Adelman.

“We have it a lot easier here on the islands than the mainland and there’s been a real community spirit in terms of donations to help the remote indigenous families.

"There are collection and donation programmes in place on the main island, with citizens and some larger supermarkets donating food and medical supplies which is taken out on boats to the smaller islands and remote communities.”

Ms McCutcheon says the lodge’s inhabitants live “like a family”, sharing everything from communal meals to nocturnal ‘pirate watch’ security patrols. “We would usually have around 80 staff and guests here and that acts as a deterrent to any intruders, but with just a few of us left we might be more of a target.

“We split security patrol into three shifts, walking about with a flashlight every half hour to discourage any potential robbers coming through the jungle or by sea,” she said.

“Families are relying on government handouts...we are not expecting to fight anyone off, if they need the rice and canned beans badly enough to come rob us, they can have them.”

While she doesn’t expect to do battle with any actual pirates, the island’s sole monkey has been showing swashbuckling tendencies, even breaking into the lodge and attempting to run off with the lodge’s resident rescue cat, Mrs Rodriguez.

“The monkey is almost two feet tall when standing, and he can be genuinely frightening. This week he grabbed the cat by the legs while she was sleeping in the sun, but we managed to scare him off by making a lot of noise and throwing water and even unripe mangoes at him.”

“We think he is a released pet, and as the only monkey on the island he seems to be lonely. We have managed to save a baby sloth from him before, but he has been on a real rampage recently, repeatedly trying to break into one islander’s home and take her three-week-old puppies.”

The sloth, victim of an attempted kidnap by Bambuda's resident monkey. Courtesy Bambuda Lodge
The sloth, victim of an attempted kidnap by Bambuda's resident monkey. Courtesy Bambuda Lodge

Lockdown on the island has been challenging for its human inhabitants, but its famous biodiversity has reaped the benefits.

“There are no noisy boat parties or plastic trash floating in the sea, it is silent at night except for the sound of the jungle animals and insects and the monsoon rain. The wildlife has started to come back in droves, our bay is filling up with baby stingrays and sea urchins, thousands of baby fish and where we would normally see taxi boats zooming around we get daily appearances from dolphins swimming past instead.”

And while most of the lodge’s inhabitants haven’t left the grounds in close to two months, spirits are high.

“There’s nothing we can do to change the situation, we just try to keep our spirits up and wait for the rain to stop long enough to take a paddleboard into the bay and watch the dolphins and manta rays go past.”

On Wednesday the Panama government will begin a phased reopening of its economy, with industries such as industrial fishing allowed to resume activity in the first of six phases.

The hospitality and travel sectors are expected to be among the last to be allowed to reopen. No dates have been given for an easing of quarantine rules or for relaxing of the travel restrictions to and from Panama.