Taboga is a small island in the Gulf of Panama near the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. It's a very clean island and a quiet place to visit on a small ship cruise through the Canal or on a day trip from Panama City.
You may be surprised to know that many cruise ships transit the Panama Canal but do not include a Panamanian port of call. However, the Republic of Panama is making efforts to attract tourists to this tropical nation, and the country can be a real bargain for Americans. When I was traveling to Panama a few weeks each year from 1993-1998 on business, I found the citizens to be friendly and the country and its history to be extremely fascinating.
I've been back to Panama several times since then on a cruise, most recently on a land/cruise tour with Grand Circle Cruise Line. This Grand Circle tour included three nights on the Discovery catamaran in the Panama Canal, and we spent a few hours on the island of Taboga.
Some cruise ships do stopover either in the San Blas Islands in the Caribbean or near Panama City at the Pacific end of the Canal. If you have a day in Panama and want to have a budget getaway, a trip to the Isle of Taboga about 12 miles from the capital city might be just what you need. Ferries leave the pier at the Amador Causeway two or three times a day, starting at about 8:30 am. The boat makes the 45-minute trip to Taboga for about $11 round trip. (Panama uses American paper currency--no exchange necessary.) This is a real bargain! On the way you get great views of Panama City on the other side of the causeway. In addition, you can get a close look at the many ships queued up waiting their turn to transit the Canal.
Taboga is a popular day trip from Panama City, so the boat may be crowded, especially on the weekends. I'll never forget one trip we made on a beautiful Saturday. The ferry was crowded, the music was loud, and everyone was dancing and enjoying their day off. I was with my co-workers, and we were about the only Americans on board. The locals encouraged us to join in the fun, and we had a great time during our boat ride.
Before you settle on the beach, you should explore the island. It won't take you long to see the "city"! The island is about 2.3 square miles (5.9 square kilometers). There is one small street, and a few paths. The "main street" takes you by a couple of open air bars, and gives you a chance to see how Taboga has earned its name, the island of flowers.
You might have an opportunity to meet some interesting people in these open air bars. Taboga is a popular port of call for sailboats waiting to transit the Canal. An American struck up a conversation with us in the bar at one of the hotels when he heard our accents. He had left California a few months before and had sailed down the coast of Mexico and Central America, stopping along the way. He was anxious to hear "news from home", and we spent some time talking with him. He told us some great stories of storms he had sailed through and life at sea.
There are some fascinating homes, an interesting old cemetery, and the beach is relatively clean and restful. You can walk the main street in about 10 minutes if you don't stop. If you feel energetic, you can wander the network of well maintained paths around the island, many of which are lined with a variety of orchids and other flowers. Depending on the time of year, you might see thousands of pelicans nesting on the back side of the island from the boat dock. It will take you about three or four hours to explore the island.
While touring the island, you can think about the historical role this small island has played. The famous Spanish explorer Vasco de Balboa discovered the island in the 16th century. One of the first settlers was Padre Hernando de Luque, dean of the Panama cathedral. He built a comfortable house on the island, and stayed there much of the time. Padre Luque is famous because he was the financier and mentor of Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of the Incas. Pizarro also had a house on Taboga, the remains of which are still on the island.
Another famous resident of Taboga was the famous French artist Paul Gauguin. He lived on the island in 1887 for a few months after working for a short time on the Panama Canal construction done by the French.
Taboga served as an important port for the North American and English fleets at the beginning of the twentieth century. It has also been a source of respite from the heat of the city and from epidemics. For such a small island, its past is quite flavorful. Now, most people enjoy swimming a little, sitting in the shade (or the sun), and savoring the peaceful Panama beach and the Gulf of Panama in the Pacific Ocean.