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The idea of managing a hostel never occurred to me before the opportunity spontaneously presented itself to me in Santa Catalina but having been the recipient of countless different forms of hospitality over the last couple of years it immediately appealed to me.

I was directed to Blue Zone when I first arrived in the village and asked around for the cheapest place to camp. Once I’d organised to do my dive master training at Scuba Coiba, which required a commitment of six months, I started to look for a more permanent place to live but finding affordable accommodation in Santa Catalina is challenging and six weeks drifted away with my tent still on Blue Zone’s lawn. So when Ben, an ex-SWAT policeman from Memphis, Tennessee, who had been managing the hostel for the past year or so, and with whom I had whiled away hours in conversation over many fine meals, offered me the ‘job’ while he was visiting the States for a time span ranging somewhere between three months and forever I didn’t hesitate.

Blue Zone.

The view from my new abode. Luck would have it that it is the manager's house at Blue Zone that boasts the ocean view.

Daily life takes place outside on the verandah. Breakfast of coffee and oats amongst my shell collections.

Paco, who I inherit along with the house and job, quickly worms his way into my heart. He is a somewhat difficult dog, with a troubled history, who had spent most of his life tied up behind the house. He responds quite quickly to a new regime of long runs on the beach and a much less authoritarian mode of discipline and despite his bad reputation turns out to be something of a softie. He does, however, continue to be a menace to drunk aggressive men with machetes, other dogs and the neighbour's chickens.

Standing still for a while means the opportunity... watch things grow a little...

...and even starting to dream of planting an tropical orchard. These are guanabana seeds.

This is not a cat...

...but an malicious alien who has taken on the form of a cat in pursuit of her evil plan.


Blue Zone has what can be charitably referred to as absentee owners, living far away in the US, and the whole enterprise exists in a somewhat murky uncertain realm. Large parts of Panama – and almost all of it’s coastline – is untitled, making ownership of land a hotly contested issue in many places and there is an obligation with untitled property to put it to use in order to maintain rights of possession over it. When I took Blue Zone on, the owners of the past five or six years hadn’t been seen in Panama for over two years and had never spent a single night in Santa Catalina. The hostel was set up by a previous owner but it does not, at this point in time – if it in fact ever did – exist as a legal business entity. The land has been on the market ever since the current owners bought it and they had invested almost nothing in the hostel since buying it and certainly contributed nothing at all to the community of Santa Catalina.

All that would be of no real account if Blue Zone’s owners didn’t spend time and effort attending to a virtual Blue Zone constructed from old photos and optimistic spin and which exists more as a marketing tool for their real estate aspirations than as a reflection of what guests might hope to experience at the hostel. In this parallel universe Blue Zone is transformed into the Blue Zone Surf and Dive Hotel where guests can expect laundry service even though the hostel rarely boasts running water. Surf tours, horse riding expeditions, and dive excursions are magically organised for them in an establishment entirely without staff and every guest is met at the bus stop. The rooms are doubtless bigger and the light more flattering. There is never mud. And surely it is the hostel that has the ocean view and the surf beach is just minutes away.

It is into this unstable environment that I unwittingly strayed with my romantic notions of providing shelter to road weary travellers. Ben, just before he handed me the keys , asked, “Are you sure you really want to do this?” in a fashion that only later seemed meaningful. However, despite a relationship with the owners that largely proved to be both frustrating and dispiriting, managing what often functioned as a large communal household was in many ways a very satisfying experience and is a pastime I may get back to in the future under different circumstances more conducive to my own fantasies of ideal accommodation.

Traditionally Blue Zone is a surfer hang out - and surfing is one of the main reasons that people come to Santa Catalina. It was once one of only four or five accommodation opportunities in Santa Catalina and still has an enduring reputation amongst the surfer crowd.

And it does has plenty of charm. Life as everywhere revolves around the kitchen which is probably the best communal kitchen in Santa Catalina. By the time I left I had badgered the owners into finally replacing the barely functional stove and fridge...

...which I know the guests appreciated.

Santa Catalina is for all the development hype a remote rural village and extended electricity outages occur often and make for cosy candle lit evenings...

... and art work by torch light. Less romantic were the days on end without running water.

A doodle presented to me by a Blue Zone guest.

It rains between April and December in Panama. 'Summer' is January to March, which - given Panama is in the northern hemisphere - is, in reality, winter. Best not to pay too much heed to reality in these parts.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. DP | November 16, 2012 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    Hi Anna,
    GREAT BLOG! I am heading down to Santa Catalina in January for a few days. I hope that you are still there so i can say hello.
    Thanks and please keep it up!

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