The Floating Doctors Immersion Program is the perfect trip for small groups who are interested in experiencing a uniquely different culture, learning about the remote healthcare setting, and challenging themselves in ways that will transform them for life. Our program is structured around service and education, with a focus on global health and cultural competency. Although you’ll be participating in medical clinics where the primary language is Spanish, we don’t require that our immersion participants have any previous experience or language ability, just a can-do attitude, an adventurous spirit, and a desire to help out where needed.
Day 1 – The adventure begins!
Our staff will pick you up from Isla Colon, the main island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago, and take you back to our off-the-grid complex located on Isla San Cristobal. You’ll get a quick tour of the base before sitting down to dinner with the rest of the Floating Doctors team and the regular volunteers you’ll be spending the week with. After dinner there will be a presentation on cultural competency, where you’ll discuss how to have a meaningful and sustainable impact while working in a different culture.
Day 2 – Orientations and a community visit
Throughout the morning you’ll attend orientations on volunteer expectations, safety protocols, clinic and pharmacy procedures, and the weekly itinerary, which includes which community you’ll be visiting, expected travel times and conditions, etc. In the afternoon you’ll visit our neighbors, the indigenous community of Valle Escondido (Hidden Valley). Here you’ll take a tour of the village and meet some of the community members, giving you a better appreciation of the many health challenges these populations face. After the visit you’ll have a chance to meet with our Clinic Manager and Health Education Coordinator to discuss your role in the week’s clinics.
Day 3-4 – Clinic deployment
Clinic days can be long and exhausting, but the work is immeasurably rewarding. Depending on the age and skill set of our immersion trip participants, you might be directly involved in the clinic operations or you might spend more time delivering health education and playing with the children in the community. Either way, you can expect to learn firsthand what goes into running a remote healthcare clinic.
Day 5 – The nature preserve and beach time
In the morning you’ll head to the Dolphin Bay Nature Preserve, where you’ll learn about the diverse flora and fauna that make up the Panamanian ecosystem. With a bit of luck, you’ll get to see spider monkeys, poison dart frogs, sloths, or dolphins. In the afternoon you’ll head to a beautiful tropical beach. Think white sand, scattered palm trees, and clear waters. Today is all about having fun and enjoying yourself—you’ve earned it!
Day 6 – Organic cacao tour and the nursing home
The first half of the day will be spent touring an organic cacao farm in one of the indigenous communities we work in. Learn the process of harvesting cacao, from the seed to the chocolate bar, and sample cacao at each stage of the production process. You’ll also get to enjoy a traditional lunch and, of course, have the chance to buy all the chocolate you can afford. Afterward you’ll visit the local nursing home. Floating Doctors has a long history of involvement here, and the residents are always excited to spend time with our volunteers. You don’t need medical experience to listen to someone’s story or take a stroll around the gardens with them, and the smallest interactions can make a huge difference in the residents’ quality of life.
Day 7 – Our journey comes to an end…
On the last morning you’ll have a final breakfast on base before piling into the cayuco one last time to be taken back to Isla Colon. If you’re staying an extra day or two in Panama, we can recommend places to go and things to do, as well as reliable tour operators.
- Bathing suit
- T-shirts/Tank tops
- Long sleeve shirt (to wear in the evenings)
- Rain jacket/poncho
- Hat (for sun)
- Sandals (Tevas, Chacos, or Crocs work best)
- Quick-dry towel
- Body wash
- Face wash
- Oxybenzone-free sunscreen (reef-safe)
- Bug spray
- Feminine hygiene products
- Contacts and contact solution
- Personal medkit
- Razor and shaving cream
- Two photocopies of passport
- Screenshot/photocopy of airline tickets
- Travel insurance
- Wallet and money
- Journal and pen/pencil
- Ear plugs
- Reusable water bottle
Frequently Asked Questions
How is this program different from other Floating Doctors programs?
Our regular volunteer program is primarily intended for health professionals, though we also accept people with particular skills, such as journalists, carpenters, electricians, etc. While some of our volunteers come for only one or two weeks, the average stay is closer to a month, and some stay for multiple months. The Floating Doctors Immersion Program is a week-long program designed for groups of participants with no medical experience and little to no international experience. While Immersion Program participants do assist the regular volunteers with running the medical clinics, they also partake in several additional activities intended to introduce them to aspects of the local culture and environment.
How do I know if so-and-so dates are available?
You can find our clinical calendar here, which lists the communities we will be visiting during any given week, as well as any special programs or groups that are scheduled. Please note, we can only host one immersion group at a time. Our calendar is updated regularly, but please feel free to inquire about any dates you are interested in.
What is the minimum/maximum number of participants for an immersion trip?
We can only accept groups with a minimum of 10 participants and a maximum of 20 participants. Additionally, we require that underage participants be accompanied by an adult chaperone. So, we could host a group of 9-13 students with 1 adult chaperone or a group of 14-18 students with 2 adult chaperones.
I can’t find a group to go with, but I’m interested in the program. What can I do?
At this time, we don’t offer open enrollment; however, in the past, we have been able to connect individual participants with scheduled groups. First, we would have to see if the group is willing to accommodate an extra person. Second, you would have to see if your schedule aligns with the group’s schedule. If you are an individual interested in joining a group, please get in touch, and we will see what is possible.
How do I get there?
Participants are picked up and dropped off at Isla Colon, the main island in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama. The best way to get to the main island is to take a direct flight from Panama City to Bocas del Toro via the airline Air Panama (approximately 1 hour). In the past, flights have also been available from San Jose, Costa Rica (also approximately 1 hour), though with less consistency. Alternatively, a bus can be taken from Panama City to Almirante and then a boat taken from Almirante to Isla Colon (approximately 11 hours). Feel free to send us a message for any questions regarding travel.
What are the accommodations like?
Participants stay at the Floating Doctors base during their trip. The base is a fully equipped, off-the-grid complex on a largely undeveloped island in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro, Panama. Our water comes from rain catch and our energy comes from solar panels. The volunteer bunkhouse is where participants will stay. Each room has two bunk beds, furniture and lockers for storing clothing and valuables, power outlets, and wifi access. Each bed has a mosquito net and personal fan. There are two bathrooms on the base, one for men and one for women. Each bathroom has five toilet stalls and five shower stalls, as well as handwashing sinks, mirrors, and cubbies for toiletries. You can learn more about the FD base, as well as see several photos, here.
What is the food like?
Our kitchen team is proud to offer an internationally inspired menu. Breakfasts typically consist of eggs, seasonal fruits, and johnny cakes (a local bread made with coconut milk). Dinners include rice or noodles, a meat option, a veggie option, and a salad. On most days we have packed lunches (sandwiches and fruits).
What if I have dietary restrictions/food allergies?
We regularly accommodate volunteers with every kind of dietary requirement, whether it be gluten-free, vegan, or a specific allergy. Please include this information when signing up for our program so our kitchen team can prepare for your arrival. We also recommend bringing some of your favorite snacks from home just to be safe.
Is the water safe to drink?
In general, the tap water in Panama is not safe to drink. Since the water on our base is just rain catch, it is safe to drink; however, just to be sure, we have designated drinking taps that filter the water.
What is the weather like?
Panama has a tropical climate. The weather is hot and humid, usually in the 80s and 90s (Fahrenheit). It rains often here, and participants should always carry their valuables in waterproof bags.
What kind of clothing do I need to wear?
When we are visiting the indigenous communities, we will always have our shoulders to knees covered. A T-shirt and knee-length shorts work fine. We also provide medical scrubs to all participants during clinic deployments. On base the dress code is casual. Light, loose clothing that dries quickly is ideal. Closed-toed shoes are not necessary, though we do recommend bringing Crocs, Chacos, or Tevas. A rain jacket or poncho is essential. Don’t forget your bathing suit!
How much money should I bring?
All meals and activities are included in this program; however, participants might want to bring money for extra snacks, laundry, souvenirs, or pre/post-trip activities. The Panamanian currency is the US dollar, so participants coming from the US don’t have to worry about exchanging money. There is only one ATM in Bocas del Toro (on the main island, Isla Colon). On holidays and during the tourist season, it isn’t uncommon for the ATM to run out of money. For this reason we recommend that participants arrive to Bocas del Toro with all the money they plan on spending ($100, give or take, is a good amount).
Will there be a chance to do laundry?
We do not offer laundry services on our base, but we can recommend a place to do laundry on the main island. A single load costs around $5 and can be picked up the following day.
What if I don’t speak Spanish?
The official language of Panama is Spanish; however, Panama has a strong tourist industry, and Bocas del Toro is one of the most visited parts of the country, with thousands of English-speaking tourists arriving each year. Most people speak a little English. We can also recommend English-speaking transport services and tour operators. Our team is very diverse and many are fully bilingual (some are even trilingual or polyglots). You don’t have to speak any Spanish to join us, but hopefully you’ll be interested in learning a little!
Is Panama safe?
The US Department of State has issued a level 1 travel advisory for Panama. That being said, there have been incidents of petty theft occurring on Isla Colon, the main island in Bocas del Toro, especially among tourists walking alone late at night or engaging in illicit activities. A general rule of thumb is to stay in a group and avoid questionable situations. Our base is only accessible by boat. During the day there are always staff around, and at night we have a watchman keeping an eye out.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend the yellow fever vaccine nor acknowledge a known malaria risk in the areas we operate in. If you plan on traveling to other parts of the country, please consult their website for further information.
Resources For Educators
We welcome student groups and have designed a variety of resources to maximize the educational benefit of our program, including pre-trip and post-trip assignments. We also encourage regular debrief/reflection sessions throughout the trip and are happy to help facilitate these discussions. Please contact us to see what resources we have available and discuss how to get the most out of the program.