San Cristobal in Pictures
Isla San Cristobol, Panama
Back in April, we spent a night an on the Isla San Cristobal, which is an island just south of Isla Colon in the Bocas Del Toro archipelago, Panama. Bocas del Toro is well known for being a tourism hot-spot, but San Cristobal, a short 20-minute boat ride away, is an island that is mainly overlooked by the majority of visitors who instead opt for the comforts of Isla Colon and the beauty of Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. San Cristobal is a small community consisting of wooden huts on raised stilts with thatched roofs, a one-room primary school with 21 desks, a large church and community center at the top of the hill overlooking the bay, one restaurant with food made from traditional ingredients, and small one-room basic stores (three of them, I believe) with artisan goods or general products. While the fathers are out fishing in dugout canoes or farming on the interior of the island during the day, mothers care for the home and young children, who can be found running around playing or studying in school. Neglected household pets, particularly dogs, lounge under huts or scavenge for food while livestock consisting of mainly chickens, goats, and pigs roam around the walkways between homes. It’s a community with a strong sense of family values and although a very slow process, a unification around developing its environmental sustainability, while maintaining its traditional character.
Transcribed directly from the ‘Informacion Turistica’ board in the community:
“In 1958, the community was founded by the men Camilo Jimenez, James Smith, and Manuel Smith. They arrived from the mainland from an area in the mountains called Red Stone. Because they worked far from home in the banana fields and wanted a place nearby where they could live and have their own land. The island they found was called Isla Cristobal. Before, the location of the community was called Coco Key, because it was full of coconuts. The name was changed to San Cristobal after Christopher Columbus when it was discovered that he once visited the island and after Santiago Smith one of the founders who was also the first teacher. At that time, there were only two houses in the community but as their families grew, the community began to grow also. In 1970 the first elementary school was paid for by the government and in 2005 they began the high school. In 2009, the government completed the Health Center, or rural hospital.
Today, San Cristobal is a community Ngobe which has about 800 people. Most people living here are live by traditional fishing and agricultural practices. They plant products such as cassava, bananas, dachin, otoe and nampl. Outside economic opportunities include the sale of lobster, construction, wood cutting and in some cases, work for foreigners living in the area. Most of the men work outside the home and not many economic opportunities exist for women in the community. Most women rarely leave community and are responsible for maintaining the household and childcare.
In 2005, women from two different groups of artisans in the community came together to form the tour group. The tourism project has brought very welcome support to families and gives women a valuable sense of success and self confidence. Another four communities located around the island are Valle Escondido, Bahia Grande, Bocatorito, and Aldana.”
Although I had the unique experience of visiting the community with a great friend who’s a Peace Corp volunteer that lived there for two years, tourism has been accepted, promoted, and welcomed by the community, but has yet to really flourish and be capitalized on. A fantastic resource for anyone looking for an authentic experience, like San Cristobal, would be Keteka – A community-based adventure travel guide that leverages the global Peace Corps Volunteer network to essentially bridge the gap between communities desiring tourism, but lacking the access to to those tourists, and the visitors looking for that authentic experience in a rural community off the backpacker trail.
The first question people ask when I got back home from extended trips is “What was your favorite part?” That’s not the easiest question to answer about a three week trip consisting of activities and sights that are at opposite ends of the spectrum – I find sitting on a beach drinking to be the opposite of intricately exploring a city and comparing the two is not apples-to-apples. They’re different activities that I specifically sought out because of that fact. But when people do ask my that question right now, the first thing I seem to talk about is my time in San Cris and how it was easily the most unique things I have ever experienced. I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the opportunity, but I would consider myself very lucky to experience something even close to that again.