On February 26, a case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Brazil. At the time, it was the first known case in Latin America, though now it looks like COVID-19 may have been creeping through Brazil as early as January. Over the next few days, in Guatemala and Costa Rica, backpacks were stowed at the bottom of buses that headed over a long bumpy road toward Panama. Flights from Los Angeles, New York, Mexico and Spain landed at Tocumen Airport in Panama City, disgorging carefree young travelers who congregated at hostels in the city’s old quarter. They introduced themselves to each other with warm hugs and shared stories of transcendent cacao ceremonies at Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, and DJ sets at the Envision Festival in Costa Rica the week before. They checked their email and Instagram accounts using the hostels’ Wi-Fi, but if warnings that a novel coronavirus from China was creeping closer turned up in their brief scrolling, they gave it little thought.
The next day, they piled onto buses with their new friends for the three-hour trip to Tribal Gathering, an intimate two-week festival held at the top of the northern curve of Panama’s isthmus, where the Caribbean breeze kisses the humid jungle. These modern hippies were drawn to this remote location not just to party but also to learn how to live in harmony with the earth, taught by dozens of indigenous tribal members who were flying in from as far away as Mali, New Zealand and Mongolia.
As they waited in line to get their wristbands, no one chatting up their new festival friends noticed as the first U.S. death from COVID-19 was announced. Cell phone service had been left behind miles down the road, and after they found or set up their tents, the attendees stashed their phones safely at the bottom of their luggage with relief. It cut them off from the world — and the news.
“It was amazing to experience this digital detox, to be present in the moment, and actually sit and talk to people with no phones around,” says Ramy Zeno, a Syrian-American from Los Angeles. “I’ve never felt such good energy from a place such as this one.”
The festival was somewhat disorganized, but nobody cared. In the morning, the day’s events — workshops on subjects such as boundary setting, sacred sexuality, and the neuroscience of music — were written on a whiteboard. It was a sunny and balmy 86 degrees, the perfect setting in which to sample a cornucopia of psychedelic plant medicines or float in the chlorophyllous green river. At night, the 800-odd attendees danced around the fire to music played by the indigenous leaders, or swam in the sparkling phosphorescent ocean.
The two-day stomach bug that moved through the festival was taken in a stride. That’s what happens in a developing country. You get sick. Things don’t happen according to schedule. A small price to pay for paradise. And anyway, the hard parts are where personal growth happens. “Tribal was such a vibe though,” says Jessanya, 24, from Brooklyn, who was doing a work exchange loading money onto digital wristbands that attendees used to pay for chai, bowls of fresh fruit, or pizza. (Several people I interviewed requested that their last name not be used.)
When the first week was over, the indigenous leaders went home as planned. On March 9, the day the festival took a breath between the sacred ceremonies and the oncoming beach rave, the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Panama, carried into the country by a woman from Spain. On March 10, when Tribal Gathering’s 24-hour psytrance stage opened, Panama’s first coronavirus death and seven more cases were reported. Panama was quickly becoming Central America’s hot spot.
“I rarely check the news (if ever), so I had no idea it was spreading outside of China!” Jessiah (not to be confused with her new festival friend Jessanya), a bubbly, blonde 33-year-old who was born and raised in Bermuda, told me via WhatsApp. She had quit her job working in human resources for an insurance company two and a half years ago to travel, and she was planning on heading home for the first time in May. When she paid for Wi-Fi, she was shocked to find out that her brother, who lives in Gibraltar, had picked up COVID-19 while traveling in Spain and London.
“But even then I wasn’t aware it was possibly in Panama or spreading this far and fast,” she says. “It wasn’t really until the end of the festival when they made the Wi-Fi free for everyone, half the festival started freaking out about possibly being quarantined and the other half was happy to be a part of the never-ending festival.”
Panama’s police force arrived, and confusion reigned. “Nobody really knew what was happening except that we were being quarantined,” Jessanya says. At first, the police said that anyone who had been in Panama for more than 14 days could leave, and they gave out bracelets with each person’s allowed date of departure written on it. A bunch of people got on a bus headed to Panama City, but the police down the road turned it back. A rumor went around that everyone would have to stay until the 21st, which nobody minded until the festival organizer got up on a stage and started barking orders at the attendees, harshing whatever blissful mellow was left over from the first week.
“I thought, mmmm, I don’t want to be here,” Jessiah says. “They kept changing the information every few hours. It was difficult to keep up, so I packed all my things and waited by the exit.” She managed to grab a taxi with a few other people, and made her escape, passing hundreds of people waiting in the hot sun for the buses that had been promised. Because the taxi had tinted windows, they weren’t stopped at police checkpoints like other cars full of gringos.
Festivalgoers who arrived in Panama City found their flights canceled, and many decided to hole up at hostels and turn to their respective embassies for help getting out of the country. But others wanted to stay in paradise. “I had a feeling this could be for a long time, and thought, where would I want to be stuck?” Jessiah says. Then she got a message from Iryna, a friend she had met at Tribal Gathering. There’s an eco-village right in Panama. Did she want to come? “Hell yes.”
“Our first plan was to rent a beach house in Punta Chame or elsewhere by the beach, but no Airbnb was taking reservations,” says Zeno, who was regrouping at the Selina hostel in Panama City. Then an employee told his group about the hostel’s outpost at Kalu Yala.
Kalu Yala is an eco-village located about one hour outside of Panama City in the jungle. After the 2008 financial crisis, Jimmy Stice, the son of an Atlanta real estate investment manager, turned what was going to be a high-end vacation condo community into an experimental sustainable town. Ten years later, it has an open-air hostel, restaurant, bar, coffee shop, organic farm and educational institute, which provides idealistic college students with a semester of hands-on learning. Kalu Yala was in between semesters, so Stice decided to post on social media that it could take up to 30 people, as long as they would commit to staying quarantined for two weeks once they arrived.
Groups of festival attendees rendezvoused, hired a driver and headed out. One group was stopped by the police and told to return to Panama City, but their driver executed a deft evasive maneuver by pulling into a gas station and offloading the group into a car with tinted windows that had pulled up at the neighboring pump. “We even left all our bags [in the original van] and trusted the process,” Jessiah says.
They made it to Kalu Yala’s base camp on March 19 and had their temperature taken. No other guests were there, but over the next few days they celebrated as more familiar faces from Tribal Gathering trickled in. On March 22, the same day that the airport officially shut down, Kalu Yala shut its gates to the world.
Well, metaphorically. There are no fences on the premises, and anyone with four-wheel drive can make the trip down the red clay road to the camp. But Panama was already taking increasingly draconian measures to stem the spread of the virus. Women and men were allowed out on alternate days to do essential shopping for two hours at a time based on the last number on their ID. People who broke health regulations and quarantines could be fined between $50 and $1,000 USD. Stice had to upgrade to a more expensive supply delivery service to avoid fines. He still only leaves camp once a week.
He also had to cut the salaries of his staff, as Kalu Yala was operating at a third of its capacity. The gringo staff mostly left the country, leaving only Panamanians and Venezuelans on the payroll. (Because of the ongoing political crisis in their home country, Venezuelans populate many service jobs across Latin America.)
There was no reason for anyone else to leave. After two weeks of monitoring, it was clear that COVID-19 had not been tracked into the jungle. And by now, those quarantined at Kalu Yala had fallen into a routine that is somehow both healthy and deliciously lazy. They awake naturally at sunrise to the sounds of birds and the crowing roosters. The breakfast horn blows at 8, followed by someone teaching one of three types of yoga. Free time is spent in a hammock journaling, meditating, checking in with family and friends, working in the co-working space, or hiking to the waterfall. After lunch, the schedule is packed with Spanish lessons, volunteering on the organic farm and sunbathing on a sandy bank of the river. The Tribal Gathering crew also entertains themselves with workshops like “be your own witch and wizard” and “Perception of reality from a spiritual point of view.” There’s a chess tournament, Ultimate Frisbee and volleyball. Several people joined Zeno for part of his Ramadan fast, and a young Canadian used her hand-poke tattoo kit to give everyone matching three-dot tattoos for $20 a pop.
At 6 p.m., dinner is laid out at a long table set with tropical flowers. The guests can choose between options ranging from vegan soup to barbecue. One day when I was texting with Jessiah, she told me that free gourmet ice cream (with vegan options!) had just arrived from Panama City. At night, there’s Ecstatic Dance around the fire, movie screenings and women’s circles. Almost everyone is nestled in their beds, under mosquito netting, by 10 p.m.
“I could easily stay for another month,” Aife Murphy, 29, from Ireland, tells me mid-May. “I’m getting more and more comfortable living in the jungle. I like my routine here, I feel like it’s a healthy one, physically and mentally. It’s the most consistent I’ve ever been in my life.” When quarantine lifts, she’s planning on visiting a friend in the city, spending a few days alone to process her experience, picking up some supplies, then coming right back for at least another month.
This may sound like the plot to the cult novel and movie The Beach, where a group of hot young things find their way to a secluded island utopia in Thailand, only to succumb to infighting and be run off the island by the neighboring violent cartel of marijuana growers. But Kalu Yala’s neighbors are just regular farmers who provide cheese and cassava root to the camp, not narcotraficantes. (Stice offered to put me in touch with the older Panamanian cattle ranchers who live next door and are paid by Kalu Yala to help in the kitchen and skillfully wield machetes against jungle overgrowth, but unfortunately they don’t have smartphones.) The group of 35 visitors and employees has been remarkably drama-free.
Zeno says that the only conflict he can remember was when someone was filming everything, including some private moments, with their phone. And, “Some people sharing conspiracy theory content on the Kalu Yala group chat, which others didn’t appreciate. That’s about it.”
“I feel very good working in this place. It’s become like a family here at Kalu Yala, amongst the people who are taking refuge in this place during the global pandemic,” Oneida Perdomo, a 47-year-old kitchen employee, tells me in Spanish in a WhatsApp voice note. She immigrated to Panama from Venezuela three years ago and has been working at Kalu Yala for two. (My husband, also Venezuelan, helped me translate.) “Even though there are people from other countries, they live and share and behave as if it were one race, one species, without distinctions or treating anyone with disdain.” As if to prove her point, the sounds of relaxed mealtime conversation and laughter softly float through the phone. Also, the low sound of what could be a mooing cow.
The biggest tension is what to do about employees who break quarantine to visit their family or friends. Stice says he had to “engage in some education” around how COVID-19 spreads. “The first month of this, people thought it was vacation,” he says, “and you would see pickup trucks with four generations in the back going to see their grandfather, who is at the highest risk.”
But he didn’t want to force employees to stay inside Kalu Yala, so after a weekend out, employees are asked to spend the next eight days sleeping in an isolated room, staying out of the kitchen, eating at their own table, and staying six feet away from everyone else. When Stice himself broke three health protocols to welcome a new chef from Panama City, several people reported him to the general manager and health committee lead, Zoe St. John, who also happens to be Stice’s girlfriend. Stice sounded grumpy about it, but conceded, “Everybody has to be on the same page or else this won’t work.”
“It’s pretty incredible that we all get along so well considering none of us really planned for this,” Jessiah says. Maybe not so remarkable, if you consider that everyone there is the kind of person who, when faced with a pandemic and the choice to either go home to what they know or place themselves in the hands of a stranger named Jimmy based only on the promise of eco-friendly living in the jungle, chose the latter.
“They came with a great headspace,” Stice says, sounding relieved that he’s not managing a typical group of entitled tourists. “I don’t think we could have had a better group of 20 people show up. Even when they complain, they’re pretty good at doing it nicely.”
“Nothing is much of a challenge when you’re floating along,” Jessanya agrees. “I mean we run out of chocolate as a snack and we have to wait until Tuesday for those things again, but it’s not that bad.” One of the campmates ordered flip-flops and waited for three weeks for them to arrive, and some were using onion skins to roll tobacco into cigarettes. For a while, Panama barred the sale of alcohol to reduce the risk of both domestic violence and large group gatherings. The lack of cold beer caused some strife, but the camp’s rum distillery is still operational.
There’s also the fauna: voracious mosquitos and ticks, sneaky scorpions, huge spiders, and snakes. Lorenzo Olivieri, an Italian who spends half of each year in Peru at his mystical experience center (“CHAKRUNA: The Orgasmic Way of Living”) got a bug bite that became infected, and he had to visit the nearest medical clinic. “The doctor needed to open the bite with medical scissors, to make clear that inside was not an insect,” he says. Luckily, there was no bug hiding in his skin, and antibiotics cleared up his infection.
For the past three months, as Americans have tried to muddle through conflicting advice and information, the masses of bored and anxious social media users have taken a strictly judgmental stance toward pretty much everyone who has managed to ride out the pandemic in relative comfort. And I understand the instinct to rage against a group of hippies cavorting in the jungle while one hour away hungry protestors take to the streets. But it’s hard to find anything wrong, exactly, with their choice to shelter in-country and socially distance themselves from others by miles, instead of flying back home in a sealed tube of air to, in the case of U.S. and Peru at least, soaring infections and unstable political situations. In this case, free of responsibilities does not necessarily mean irresponsible.
While many of us nervously paced inside our homes and gobbled up hour-by-hour COVID-19 news, they blissfully danced on the beach, then let the river of life deposit them here in a secluded and sun-dappled pocket of nature. They seemed to have learned something valuable from the indigenous representatives at Tribal Gathering.
On a more practical level, their $600 a month is also allowing Kalu Yala to continue to pay its employees.
“I want to make sure that it’s not left out in your reporting that I’m extremely grateful to Jimmy and Zoe and the other people who have worked here for the past two years,” Perdomo tells me. “I feel as if I’m at home.” I jokingly ask her if she’s being paid to talk well of her employer. “No no no no no,” she says. “Simply I’m very grateful because after I arrived in Panama, it’s been the place where they have received me with open arms even though they are foreigners, not Panamanians. They treat me well and value my work.”
Nonetheless, nothing good lasts forever, and two questions hover over the camp: When will Panama lift its restrictions on movement and reopen the airport? And how long can the foreign tourists stay at the camp — or how much longer will they want to? The rainy season officially starts in September, but several people I talked to said they were wary of living essentially outdoors in the summer season, when it dumps rain for a few hours every other day. In the course of my reporting, lightning struck the satellite internet equipment on the hill and service went out for three days before it could be replaced. The ban on commercial flights was just extended to July 22nd, but Panama has released a road map to reopening, and since June 1, Panama has lifted the quarantine and switched to a curfew.
Zeno, for one, decided to take the U.S. embassy’s offer of a humanitarian flight to Fort Lauderdale in early May, even though, as an event planner, he didn’t have any work waiting for him at home in Los Angeles. “It really wasn’t easy making the decision to leave, but I didn’t want to see everyone leave and go through the sadness of all those goodbyes, to slowly end up alone,” he says. “Plus, [I knew] it would be really nice to catch my Mom on Mother’s Day.”
Others, like Mark, a 47-year-old online yoga teacher from the U.K., have been happily doing their work from the jungle. Some, as long-term travelers, don’t have a home to go to and are floating on their savings and U.S. and European economic stimulus money. I ask Stice what will happen if they start running out of money.
“I’m leaning toward the ‘call your mom’ side,” he says. “We’re full on work-exchange spaces right now. We’re not going to become the magical cash-free commune of people’s dreams.” He’s got employees and internet bills to pay, and almost all of the guests have soft skills like spiritual coaching and blogging, rather than the kinds of things he could really use, like carpentry or masonry.
As it stands now, this really could go on for a year or more. Kalu Yala has deferred its summer and fall semesters. There are still some Tribal Gathering attendees and their friends sheltering in hotel rooms in Panama City who want to come to Kalu Yala. Stice doesn’t feel ready to accept newcomers yet, but he hopes that eventually Kalu Yala can pivot to in-country tourism where pods of friends or families who want to get out of the city can buy out a room and dining table and safely quarantine together outdoors.
“I have no reason to go,” Jessanya says. Her Brooklyn lease was up in June, and she’s moved into a treehouse room with a guy she met at Kalu Yala. “It’s stupid amazing. I ask myself, am I dreaming?”