Panama: The Bridge Between Two Continents (mostly) and the Connector of Oceans

It’s an extremely humbling thing to take control of your life by completely letting go of the details. We didn’t know each other three months ago. We didn’t have any idea how we would get from place to place. We didn’t know the foods we would put in our bodies or the people we would meet, but everyone in the Winterline program had at least one thing in common.

We want adventure. Actually, let’s rephrase that… we crave adventure. We need something in our lives that can completely change the direction of the paths we will take in our futures. Whether it was climbing a mountain in the tiniest community with no air conditioning, partying in Panama City for days on end, or just relaxing at the beach with a couple (but just a couple) margaritas on a rest day, we kept chasing after each day for new experiences. We valued our nights just as much as the days, either too excited for the next day to fall asleep or passing out, exhausted, in one of our many different beds. Sometimes it felt like we haven’t slept in years because of how hard we tried to learn about the new communities and cultures. After living in Panama for about a month with my best friends, I can confidently say that we found a consuming adventure, which marks the beginning of our expedition traveling the world with one another, through Winterline.  

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First, we traveled to the Panama Canal to learn the history of the beautiful country we were living in. We went through a museum of the canal’s building process and watched a documentary on its purpose.. After exploring the area for a bit, we were informed there was a ship passing through and had the opportunity to watch the locks in action as we enjoyed the wonderful weather and sipped on iced coffee. Pictured above is our field advisor, Jeff, watching how the water levels rose and fell while delivering the cargo ship on its way into the Pacific.

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El Cocal marks our first home. We were briefed shortly on the special drinking water and lack of service and air conditioning. After embarking on what felt like a lifetime of driving, we found our homes in this tiny, relatively unknown community. In pairs, we were welcomed into homes of community members for our home-stays and given a quick tour of the area. I walked 15 minutes every day to get to the meeting area for work and food. We interviewed locals, played futbol with the teenagers, and we even climbed a mountain. We spent nine days here and it was the best way to commence our travels of Panama. Pictured above are the children of El Cocal, who welcomed us into their homes with a traditional dance ceremony.

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At the end of our stay in El Cocal, we were reunited with Squad 2 for an educational experience at the farms outside the town. Here, we took a tour around the sugar cane farms, learned to squeeze juices with old fashioned machinery, and learned about natural building. The picture above shows us preparing the mud to build up the walls. To do so, we jumped around in the mud and slowly added straw to help strengthen the house. Everyone working with us was extremely excited to teach us very knowledgeable about their town’s history.

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Taking to the water, we jumped in some kayaks to paddle our way out to the Caribbean Sea. After a brief instruction, we made our way to the historic area of Portablo, Colon and learned about how pirates attacked the port during the Spanish Empire. When we were still, we could hear howling monkeys throughout the jungle and feel the sun shining down on us on from the clearest blue sky. We finished our journey on foot through the trees to the battle ground,where we could see the ocean go on forever into the horizon. Pictured above are Josie and Becky taking a little break on our very physically demanding, but rewarding, trip.

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Next, we headed inside to learn about creation with our hands and were introduced to the educational work of the FABLABS. They showed us how 3D printers worked, how to use heavy machinery, and told us to use our imaginations to build anything we could think of. Pictured above is our friend, Katie, learning how difficult it is to cut a straight line with a hand tool. This was a great way of being introduced to wood work and getting a taste of how hands-on we can be, whether we want to make a simple keychain or build furniture for our home.

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After our day in the FABLAB, we put our skills to the test as we built house 2.0 which is the idea of building houses with reused materials for a very low price. This project started in efforts to end homelessness around the world. We bolted together large pieces of wood that we had cut out in the labs and spend hours in the heat working on. Becky and Josie were nothing but smiles as they held up the large beams while others inserted g the foundation pieces to keep our house up! We learned so much about teamwork and communication as we put up this house.

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In the streets of Panama City (literally), we teamed up with an urban innovation team to try out an idea we had. After noticing how busy the streets were around a preschool, we realized there were no crosswalks, no signs, and no speed bumps. We wanted to improve the safety for children seeking an education, so we grabbed some paint brushes and tape to create a combination of the three missing features.. We themed four streets of the sea to remind drivers of the school across the street and to keep kids from wandering too far from the sidewalks. Above are the whales we designed being painted by our friends of Squad 2, while others worked on bubbles, starfish, and sharks. We wanted to bring attention and awareness to the fact that this was an area where young kids were learning and we did just that with the bright colored paints and designs of the cities newest crosswalks!

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Across the street from our crosswalks, we found ourselves in a small bakery known for their Venezuelan empanadas. We were taught how they were originally made, how they are made now, and how they are different from traditional Panamanian empanadas. We took turns making our own personal empanadas filled with our choice of beef, chicken, fish, and, in my case, cheese and beans (plenty of great vegetarian options in Central America). Pictured above is Jason demonstrating his new skill of shaping dough before it’s filled and fried to perfection. After trying all of their specialty condiments and eating way too many empanadas, we left the bakery feeling even more connected to the community of Panama City through food.

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After a long days work, we did one of our favorite things: pile into one of our tiny rooms and listen to the stories we all had to share. Coming from all different places, New York City to Colombia, California to Kansas, we loved hearing about where each other came from. After spending every day and night together for weeks, it truly felt like I had known my squad for years, yet I still am learning new things about everyone every day. Fitting so many people into our small but comfortable living spaces sometimes lead to us being way too loud for the hostel and having to hang out outside, but we all loved staying up all night just talking to each other. Hostel Amador was the perfect place for getting to know each other while watching movies, playing ping pong and playing with our pet goat, Luna. (Our friend, Brogan, really loved that goat).

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Another interesting workshop we did was stopping by a famous Panamanian rum distillery. Here, we sampled the beer and rum they made and walked through the ways different drinks were created. We toured the machinery, which had many different processes of creating various alcohol flavors. Pictured above is our field advisor, Jeff, explaining to Tyler how the rum is transported through pipes from machine to machine.

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Sneaking away to Casco Viejo, Lydia and I enjoyed one of the most amazing helpings of Carbonara we had ever had. The food culture of Panama was something we all enjoyed and deepened our appreciation for the new and inviting places we traveled to. Some of our favorites (besides the endless supply of carbonara) were rice and beans (of course), empanadas, the pizzas and (veggie) burgers delivered by Uber drivers at all hours of the night, the Colombian crepes, delicious coffee, gyros, and anything from Cafe Niko’s.

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We stayed in many places in our travels around Panama, from hotels and hostels, to home-stays, and even our transport bus with Eduardo, driving from city to city on the scariest roads with the most intense drivers I have ever experienced. We never stayed in the same place for more than two weeks but somehow we were accepted in every community with open arms. Everyone showed patience with our horrible (but improving) Spanish and our loud nights that kept everyone awake. We enjoyed time with the locals who made us way more food than we could eat and taught us about the most important values of their culture – family. That’s how Panama impacted me in ways I will never forget. My family. I started this 9-month long adventure as an individual with thirty-one other young travelers and five loving field advisors and somewhere along the way we went from strangers to family. We take care of each other, we have fun together, we sometimes cry and get upset but I know they always have my back. The fifteen amazing people in my squad showed me the importance of living fully and completely but will never let me forget where we all began.

Somewhere in Panama, we found a home. This home wasn’t just in the city or in El Cocal or any one specific place. It was carrying all of our stuff on our backs, in the rain and scorching heat, together, as a group. My family is my home and that is how Panama is still with us, forever.

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Senior Ornesto’s Farm


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The Gate which sits just outside the entrance to Senior Ornesto’s Farm | Photo By: Maria O’Neal

Senior Ornesto’s farm sits at the top of a steep gravel road just outside of Piedras Gordas in rural Cocle. The walk up is nothing different from what we have seen so far, flanked by thick tropical forest, a few stout and brightly colored houses appearing every now and then. Most houses are one story, made of cement and plaster, and have a few hammocks and community members always decorating their porch.

Senior Ornesto is waiting for us at the end of a dirt path at the crest of the hill. He sits at just above five foot three but is undoubtedly stronger than all of us put together. Winterline has partnered with an organization called ThinkImpact to cultivate social innovation in the Piedras Gordas community. As we’re all unskilled workers with very limited Spanish, labor is our best method of communication. The farmer my group will be working with is Senior Ornesto. He leads us up without words, and he’s trailed by around twelve dogs all ranging in color and size, as well as a few kittens. He invites us to sit on his porch, and starts speaking. He’s quiet but holds a heavy wisdom is his words. Through our translator Felix, begins to explain the history of his farm.

It’s been a work in progress for the past five years, starting with a few plants and expanding into one of the largest and most impressive natural farms in this part of Panama. It serves three main purposes, one unspoken. It is most obviously a source of much community food production, and is one of the main sources of tourism for the rural and very out-of-the-way town. What became more clear to us in the week to follow was that the farm serves as a huge inspiration to other community members to work with permaculture and natural farming. Another farmer we spoke to, Senior Ornecimo, has worked on his own farm for seven years, and says that Ornesto’s farm still far surpasses him in size, production, and creativity.

After the introduction, Senior Ornesto takes us into the center of the lower half of his farm. It’s split into two main sectors, with his home and animals sitting in the center. In addition to the array of dogs and cats we saw, Senior Ornesto has chickens, pigs, and ducks. They are mostly free range, and occasionally pecked at our shoes as we headed down the hill into the farm. It’s about a ten minute walk along a windy and muddy path.

We finally reach a gated area which separates into two paths, one leading to a natural gazebo made of canopy and several handcrafted wooden benches, and another which snakes deeper into tropical forest. It’s clear immediately to my group that this is not like any farm we have seen before. The land is not flat, clear, or organized. It’s impossible to separate natural growth from crops except for what’s been designated with signs, clearly put in for tourists like us.

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Senior Ornesto showing us how to measure an appropriate distance between coffee plants | Photo By: Maria O’Neal

Senior Ornesto takes us further into the dark while we take in as much as we can. Along the way he shouts out the names of plants as they appear. Banana trees, orange trees, coffee plants, cacao trees, and this is only a small section of his farm. As we walk, we begin to see how it works. New trees and plants have been integrated nearly seamlessly into existing forest, with a few sectors popping up here and there. Some open chicken coops, toolshed, and a fertilizer shack. After a brief tour of the farm, we’re instructed to come back the next day with questions and ideas.

We return the next day armed with curiosity. We’ve been sent to provide physical labor, but what we’ve truly come for is to learn. The farm is already incredibly impressive, but Senior Ornesto explains that he has far greater plans for it. We’ll be working on repairing trails and planting coffee sprouts, but he hopes that soon he’ll be building bunkhouses and bathrooms along the trails of the farm. When asked why, he describes his desire to make this a huge tourism hub in Piedras Gordas.

The farm will one day be able to house up to twenty people in the bunkhouses, enough for school and other groups to come stay for up to two weeks at a time. In addition to being able to explore and potentially work on the farm, Senior Ornesto wants to install a zipline on another sector of his land, and has a large boulder that he thinks tourists could use for climbing.

With so many things to do, Senior Ornesto will undoubtedly be bringing people into Piedras Gordas, but the dreams he has for the future of his farm all come back to one thing. Education. We ask why he wants so badly to bring new people in, and Senior Ornesto looks at us. He tells us that everything has has comes from the land, and because of that, everything he receives, he gives back. When he was first growing up in Piedras Gordas, he told us that all farmers cleared their land in order to farm. He felt the air become different from the lack of trees, and vowed never to cut down trees when he began to farm his own land. Now, he doesn’t cut down trees other than trimming branches, and he doesn’t import fertilizer. All fertilizer he makes himself using a composting toilet that a peace corps volunteer helped him install a few years back. In there, solid and liquid waste are separated, he mixes the solid waste with banana leaves and sawdust to make something better for the soil, and the urine becomes a natural pesticide.

He also shows us to his other source of fertilizer, his large compost bins. He recycles all of his food waste, paper, cardboard, and cartons back into the soil. While recycling is very difficult in this community, he fights back by reusing all plastic and glass containers. In a place where people have no choice but to burn their trash, these steps are monumental in building a more sustainable life. Senior Ornesto tells us that since he has made these practices public, community members are making their own composting bins, reusing their plastics, and clearing less land.

By bringing in tourists, Senior Ornesto believes that he will be able to not only show them the importance of natural building, permaculture, and sustainability, but prove that it is something anyone can do. Contrary to current belief, living an environmentally conscientious lifestyle does not have to be modern or expensive. Groups like us who come through his farm can see that it is achievable, and it is important.

Over the next two days, we will help build trails and plant crops, but we’ll take away new perspectives. It doesn’t seem like a fair trade for what we’ve learned and the generosity we’ve been shown. ThinkImpact sent us here to cultivate social innovation, but it feels more like this has something which has been cultivated within us.

Why You Should Sign Up for a Home Visit

We hope that to you, a gap year with Winterline sounds appealing. 9 months of traveling to 10 countries, learning new skills, meeting new people, seeing the world, re-energizing yourself for whatever waits upon your return? To many of you, it sounds like a dream come true, and it can be! But sometimes the hard part is getting your parents to see why it’s right for you. Our alum and former intern Anna wrote about how she got her parents on board. Luckily, Anna’s parents understood her reasoning, but it’s not always so easy. Which is why we want to help by talking to your parents ourselves.

Our Director of Outreach and Recruitment wrote about how excited she is to travel to some of your homes for a family visit, but we wanted to emphasize how uniquely beneficial these visits can be for you and your parents or guardians. We don’t want there to be any misunderstandings or unanswered questions about the Winterline gap year. And what better way to clear these up than to sit face-to-face with one of the staff who knows and embodies what our program stands for?

Caroline and Erica celebrating Holi at MUWCI | Photo By: Dini Vermaat
Caroline and Erica celebrating Holi at MUWCI | Photo by Dini Vermaat

Students, the first step is on you. Have a serious conversation with your parents about what taking a gap year means to you. Explain to them why you think this is the next right step for you, instead of college or work. Once you open this door, we can help you with the rest. Parents have their concerns about sending their children off around the world for 9 months; we understand that. So we want them to know that we’ve curated this program to be as safe, eye-opening, and fun as possible.

We can respond to the questions that you might not know the answers to: how our risk management and safety protocols work, what your tuition money goes to, or how we find our partners. We can tell them about the benefits of a gap year, in the educational, professional, and personal realms. We can show them the passionate faces behind the program and remind them that we truly care about making sure students and guardians alike benefit from a gap year. We can show them what makes Winterline special.

I’m Erica. I was a Field Advisor during the 2017-18 gap year program. Just like students, Field Advisors endure the highs and lows of the program: the excitement of new skills and the onset of homesickness, the moments of alone time and the feelings of togetherness, the elated feeling of scuba diving and the unfortunate feeling of eating a food that you probably shouldn’t have bought from a street vendor. We experience it all while making sure that students get the most out of their program by supporting them, having fun with them, and ensuring their safety.
Erica in Belize while a Field Advisor for Winterline.

The staff at Winterline are real people, just like you and your parents. We have a real interest in making sure that every single student ends up on their right track. So if for you, that track is a gap year, let’s make it happen. You can schedule a home visit with Erica by emailing and we’ll be in touch to figure out a date that works for all involved. Or if it’s better for you to do a video “home visit” we can do that too! Just let Erica know that is what you prefer.

Location Spotlight: Estes Park, Colorado

Blue Cohort having fun at Orientation | Photo by: Dini Vermaat

Our Gap Year program kicks off with orientation at YMCA of the Rockies located in Estes Park, Colorado. We begin our adventure by introducing students to Winterline while laying the foundation for the rest of the year.

It’s amazing that we get to learn and play in such a beautiful place. Surrounded on three sides by Rocky Mountain National Park, YMCA of the Rockies offers an environment inspired by nature where friends and family can grow closer together while enjoying the natural beauty of the world around them. During their stay in Estes Park our students participate in group discussion, games, and team building activities to strengthen their bond before they embark on their 9 month trip.

Green Cohort playing morning games
Anna and Lex during team-building
Green cohort working as a team
Elk hanging out at YMCA of the Rockies


Do you want to learn more about Estes Park and YMCA of the Rockies?
Check out our fast facts listed below.

  • YMCA of the Rockies has more than 860 acres of Colorado beauty.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park and Estes Park are home to around 3,000 elk.
  • The national park covers 415 square miles of wildflowers and mountain views.
  • The town of Estes Park is one of the highest-rated family destinations in the United States.
  • While staying at the YMCA our students have the opportunity to hike, roller skate, do yoga, observe wildlife, build campfires, and play miniature golf and other outdoor sports.
  • There are over 300 miles of trails to be hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park.
  • Elk, big horn sheep, marmots, squeaking pikas, and the iridescent broad-tailed hummingbird all find their home in Estes Park.
  • The national park is great for climbing with peaks ranging from 12,000-14,000 feet above sea level.
  • YMCA of the Rockies sits at an elevation of 8,010 feet.
  • Rocky Mountain National Park has more than 265,000 of acres ready to be explored.