Last week, Will and I visited my friend and her husband in Panama City, Panama. It is still their dry season, and it was hot (90F every day). On our second day there, the four of us got up before 7, ate a quick breakfast of cheese on toast, and went to the ferry. We joined a long line of other travelers waiting to get our passports checked and load a small boat to the island of Taboga, 8 miles off the coast.
When the captain asked for English speakers, Will and I were the only ones who raised our hands, a sign that we were in for a true Panamanian adventure. (I do understand some Spanish, but when it comes to boat safety I wanted to make sure I understood all the important bits.) The bay was full of huge cargo ships, waiting for their turn to enter the canal. It took us 30 minutes to get to the small island, and as we approached I couldn’t believe one of my middle school Spanish phrases was useful: ¿Donde está la playa? (Where is the beach?) As the ferry approached, there was no visible sand. Once we docked, you could make out a small corner of beach a 10 minute walk away (which had been shielded by an even smaller island, which was closed off as a bird sanctuary).
We walked with everyone else along the narrow street (which doubled as a sidewalk), past small buildings and carts selling popsicles, many fried things, water, soda, and national beer for $1 a can. The beach was a small peninsula, maybe a total of 1/2 a mile long, that seemed incapable of holding the number of people on the ferry I came from (which was one of many to dock during the day). It was nothing like the huge expanses of protected sea shore in MA, that go on for miles and miles.
I was proven wrong, and as the tide went out the beach got bigger to accommodate arriving ferries. A few people had their own chairs or towels, but for the most part people rented both beach chairs and umbrellas from vendors for $5 apiece. This would get expensive if you went to the beach every weekend, but we certainly appreciated the convenience. Later on in the morning, the wind picked up and the umbrella vendors came around to put an additional stake in the ground in front of your umbrella, which they then looped a string already attached to your umbrella for this very purpose (genius!).
With our spots firmly established, Will and I took a walk back through the small town. The houses were built into the hillside, brightly colored, and very close together. The town square was headed by the second oldest church in the Western hemisphere, Iglesia de San Pedro. Directly in front of the church, in a small, irregularly shaped square, there was a basketball court (make use of the space you have!). We continued walking past the square until we came to a t, then took a left and decided to walk parallel to the way we came.
It was this turn that led us directly to Donde Pope Si Hay, which we had read about in our guidebook as “A simple concrete eatery serving fresh fish, cold green coconut water, and patacones (fried plantains); there is nothing mysterious about Pope beyond its name.” The name is indeed a mystery, as it roughly translates to “Where Pope is there,” but on the signs we saw there was not a picture of the Pope, but of Popeye the sailor man.
It was a good thing we went on our walk, because I have no idea if we would be able to find the spot otherwise. It is on the opposite side of town from the beach, not near other businesses, and there were no street signs. Compared to other structures near the beach, it was much more than a “simple concrete eatery,” with a small covered but open-air dining area containing six or maybe eight tables with white table clothes. Since it was just after 9AM we were not ready for breakfast, and returned to the beach with plans to walk back.
The menu was half a page, with the items they currently offered checked off. Most were fish offerings with different side options. Sadly they did not sell green coconut water any longer, but they did have piña coladas. We ordered the pescado (fish) for $7 and the pulpo creole (Creole octopus) for $9. Service was leisurely, and gave us time to observe the inner workings of the establishment. One younger man took orders of the patrons at the restaurant, answered the phone, and drove an interesting three-wheeled, covered, but open-aired vehicle that delivered food to the beach for an additional $2, or transported restaurant patrons back and forth for free. A woman ran the kitchen, maybe by herself, but we couldn’t see the whole room. The whole establishment could have easily fit within half of a basketball court.
Our dishes came alongside our piña coladas, which were mildly sweet and wonderfully refreshing. We each had our fish dish, alongside rice, a coleslaw-like salad, and twice-friend plantains called patacones (I later learned that I could have ordered coconut rice, but I am trying not to be consumed by this regret). I ate the fish, which was about 8 inches long, very lightly battered, and fried whole. The fish had a crisp exterior, with a mild, white, and flaky interior. Will had the Creole octopus, which was small pieces of octupus (tentacles thinner than a pinky), with onions and peppers in a mild, tomato based sauce. The octopus was meltingly tender, and perfectly complemented by the light sauce. There was a bottle of yellow hot sauce on the table, that was firey, but with a pleasing sweetness. It was especially great on the fish.
We ate slowly, pausing to take sips of our piña coladas to ease the fire from the hot sauce. The small portion of my brain not focused on enjoying the food was thinking: I am living out every fantasy I’ve ever had about eating island food, I am going to remember this forever, and also potentially spend forever trying to find this again, so maybe I should more to Taboga. We cleaned our plates and drained our drinks. I went up to the window to pay, and the man retrieved my change from a cookie tin that was living a second life as a cash register. We went to walk back to the beach, but the man motioned for us to get in his delivery vehicle. The narrow street became more crowded as we approached the beach.