ON – THE – WATER

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Portobelo Fort.

Portobelo Fort.

A quiet beach for young families on holiday

By Ilene Little

Want to show the children and teenagers another side of Panama, away from noisy resorts and the car horns of Panama City? A day visit to the Caribbean side might be the ticket especially if it is to the private island of ScubaPanama.

You have to get from the Portobelo side mainland to the island by one of ScubaPanama’s boats. Cost of boat ride is $10.

I was pleasantly surprised to find this little-known, jewel of a beach on my trip out to Portobelo to visit with Rene Gomez, owner of ScubaPanama.

“It’s about a hectare of land,” said Gomez who is growing the island little by little through careful conservation, including the planting of palm trees. The island is protected from development by Portobelo National Park.

Mira and Tara Fels enjoy the private beach owned by ScubaPanama.

Mira and Tara Fels enjoy the private beach owned by ScubaPanama.

Portobelo is a history-rich destination that many want to visit while in Panama. Being able to combine an educational trip with a relaxing day for the family on a beach . . . and with water activities … that’s a plus!

ScubaPanama provides transportation for watersports guests to their location in Portobelo from Panama City – which includes access to the private island. The trip includes a short stop off to view Portobelo and the Bay.

The Spanish-built defensive fortification, now in ruins, was built to protect the entrance to Portobelo Bay, frequented by famous privateers and pirates.

The private beach scene:

You unload your picnic lunch and your kids, and make yourself comfortable on beach chairs and umbrellas provided to make it work for family fun. BYO towels and water. There is no hotel staff.

Rene Gomez on ScubaPanama’s private island.

Rene Gomez on ScubaPanama’s private island.

There is a caretaker, Felícito, on the island whose main job it is to keep the island free of any man-made debris, but he also watches belongings while you enjoy exploring.

The bayside beach is a white sandy, safe beach; nothing to hurt children’s feet. You can sit with your babies in beautifully clear water where you will see Pelicans swooping down to disturb schools of fish, sending currents of tiny, silver fish erupting less than a meter from shore.

Another nearby, private island provides a snorkel destination. Snorkel gear is available at the center.

“We will soon have available for island guests a number of boogie-board-like flotation devices with a porthole to view the coral and fishes without a mask and snorkel,” said Gomez.

It was on the rocky points on the ocean side of the islands, within feet of the breakers, where we found the most coral heads and fish. Several times I would see a single fish hovering just over my wrist and found myself not using that arm for swimming because I didn’t want to disturb it. It’s the same feeling you get when you find yourself not wanting to move from a chair when a cat is sleeping in your lap (or a baby).

Gomez said the small fish were seeking our protection from the bigger fish. Glad to help out, little fella.

If anyone knows the name of these fish, please let me know. They are about an inch long, flat with a grey or slightly blue marbled body outlined in gold, with a black-strip across the eyes. Tiny little 2-prong tail fins and little dorsal fins complete the anatomy.

Back at the Ranch:

Back on the mainland, at the ScubaPanama Center, is where the adventurers mix and mingle. Dive boats come and go, and sun-tanned guests and scuba-diving students gear up and take tests to complete their certification.

Sitting next to me at the patio café at day’s end, City Attorney for Yuma, Arizona, Richard Files and his family were celebrating with their son, Nick, who qualified that day for his diving certification under the expert training of instructor Andrés Díaz. “Nick is 12 years old and passed his written test in the high 80’s, bragged Files Senior. “Diaz is an expert teacher. And it cost less than half of what I would have paid to get us certified in San Diego.”

The overall verdict of ScubaPanama in Portobelo is of a small, intimate sports village where you’ll meet people from all countries with one thing in common – love of water sports and an appreciation of the Caribbean and nature.

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