Connectivity in a Wireless Week: Week One at Kalu Yala

last year

First Day Views

Sweat drips down my face as I approach the Pacora River in the jungle of Panama. I lift my arm to wipe it away and involuntarily sigh in relief as my Chaco-clad feet stumble into the cool water.

After four miles of seemingly shade-less dirt road in the humid heat, I see a wooden sign above a walkway, reading “Kalu Yala.”

“Welcome to the Jungle,” by Guns N’ Roses plays from a speaker somewhere in Town Square and I find myself spinning as I take it all in. This is the first day, of my first week at Kalu Yala.


A classic Town Square view. // Photos by Jess Wiegandt

In one direction, the farm. In the other direction… “Let me show you where you all will be living,” Tara McLaughlin, President and Head of Academics for the Institute at Kalu Yala, says. I set up my hammock alongside several of my peers in the Grancho, which is a large two-level open-air structure designated as student living space this semester.

Getting Into the Jungle Groove

The first week here reminded me of orientation week in college, except if you fall asleep in any of the workshops, you just might miss crucial information on how to stay alive. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but hey, with all the foreign (to me) critters out here with stinging and biting potential, it’s a valid fear.


Of all the jungle creatures out here, Norbu (Tara’s dog) is definitely the most approachable.

Living in close community can pose challenges, which is why the machete-training workshop was held during orientation week. Not only are machetes extremely useful out here to keep the weeds under control, but wielding a jungle sword high and whisking it through the grass is a great outlet for stress.

Relationships Made to Last

Every night during the first week, all 17 of us piled into the top floor of the Grancho. Then, we sat in a circle, and asked questions for everyone to answer. It became an almost-event, “One Question A Night.” The first question posed was, “What is your greatest insecurity?” It was a kicker to start deep, but everyone committed and shared. Other nights found us asking about siblings and playing a spoonless version of Spoons, a popular card game.


Mira las montañas, Will!

The first week there was no access to Wi-Fi or charging stations. There isn’t any service in the valley, so all students were present for every moment. We learned to rely on one another quickly for laughter and general companionship. These strangers who hiked the dirt road to Kalu Yala with me quickly became my pillars for support and comfort.

This is Just the Beginning

Before flying into Panama, I knew I would be coming to an experience that would change my life, but I didn’t know how. After week one, I have found a new home in the world. I’ve found myself splashing in the river, improving my Spanish, exploring Panama City, harvesting Katuk, staring death in the face (okay, it was one scorpion sting, but those suckers can pack a punch), and developing a love for this small, sustainable town in the jungle.


A typical Casco Viejo scene in Panama City. Fellow Media student Ruby fits right in with that travel hat.

I can now only imagine what is yet to come. Each and every day there is a happiness in the valley worth celebrating. The healthy attitudes of those surrounding me has been the cause of constant joy and it is one worth experiencing. If you’re interested in studying and living in the jungle, apply today to the Kalu Yala Institute.