Photographing Wildlife in Playon Chico, Panama - International Living

Weather-worn canoes were beached along the shore. Local women dressed in the traditional garb of floral printed blouses scurried back and forth collecting the cargo from the plane. Across a nearby bridge I could see the town of Playon Chico where bamboo huts with grass-thatched roofs butted up against one another.

Playon Chico, the island where the tiny plane deposited us, was my first exposure to the San Blas Islands—an archipelago in the Caribbean off the coast of the Panama, and home of Guna Yala Indians. The Guna Yala are famous for their wildly colorful, hand-stitched clothes (molas) and intricate beadwork.

When a friend invited me to join her on this trip, I jumped at the opportunity for an adventure...and I knew I'd be able to make some money from the photos I would take there.

Strolling through the rustic village we were able to glimpse the daily activities of these folks; caring for the children, selling their intricate molas, preparing meals and doing laundry. I smiled and shot my way through the village, capturing the beautiful colors and patterns.

A short boat ride took us to the tiny Yandup Island, where we stayed at a family-owned lodge surrounded by crystal-clear water. Some of the lodge's small cabins hugged the craggy shoreline, but ours sat on stilts, resting right on top of the Caribbean Sea.

Swaying palm trees sheltered the cabins and fallen coconuts peppered the grass. I took a moment to capture the magic of this tranquil scene with my camera before the black clouds overhead unleashed a tropical downpour.

Retreating to our cabin, I sat on the porch, sipping wine, listening to the rain, and lazily snapping photos.

Early the next morning we took a trip to the mangrove swamps. Eerily prehistoric-looking trees concealed brilliantly colored macaws, parrots, and toucans. Howler monkeys scampered through the branches, and raccoons rushed through the underbrush. In the water the occasional snout of a caiman—think of a small alligator—could be seen.

Luckily, we were visiting in December, just as the fruit trees ripen. Snapping pictures of the wildlife was easy, as they stopped to feast on juicy fruit.

One of our guides dove into the water and surfaced with three massive starfish; one yellow, one red, and one orange. After I grabbed a quick snap, he returned them to the water and resurfaced with a black sea urchin the size of a dinner plate.

The next day we played a little Robinson Crusoe. A 30-minute boat ride took us to the pristine, deserted beaches of the Iguana Island Wildlife Refuge—a treasure trove for shell collectors, nature lovers, and snorkelers. We passed a lazy afternoon meandering through the palm trees, basking in the tropical sun, and snorkeling along the ridge of the reef.

When I returned home I was able to place my photos from this adventure in an exhibit. I sold four prints this way, which have paid off most of the trip.

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