“Paradise on Earth." That’s what organisers of this year’s Tribal Gathering Festival in Panama labelled the festival that took place from February 29 to March 15, 2020.
With its alluring golden sandy beaches, majestic bays, rock pools and coral reefs, and a waterfall, no one could resist a holiday as picturesque as the one Tribal Gathering offered.
But, paradise soon turned into a nightmare when the festival went on lockdown.
Organisers told those who had been in Panama for less than 14 days that they could not leave due to Covid-19 fears.
Peter Grant, a Kitchen Manager at Tribal Gathering, told VICE: “When I got here, I did not even know what the coronavirus was. About two weeks later, some of the crew members arrived and said that they got tested for this thing called coronavirus. I thought nothing of it at the time. The festival was about to end, and they wanted to close the festival down. It was then I realised that something was happening,” he said.
When Covid-19 reached Panama by March 10th, it had lasting effects on the festival, resulting in the festival going into lockdown on March 15.
No one was allowed to leave the festival unless they met the quarantine requirements, which entailed being in the destination for more than 14 days and having a flight scheduled to return home.
Hannah Bates, the wellness area manager, said people were told that anyone who was in Panama for less than 14 days needed to remain on-site.
She said most of the indigenous people left by then. Management reassured those stranded that there will be food to last a week.
All seemed well for a while.
Many used the time to reconnect with themselves and others. One festival-goer said: "People are happy, people are fed. There's water. There are worst places to be in the world.”
People embraced their time in “paradise” with dancing and socialising.
Things took a left turn a few days later when military and police showed up at the venue to check the guests’ passports and conduct health tests. The bus that transported people to the airport was stopped by authorities, and some had their passports taken. As one festival-goer said, “The mood changed in terms of how serious it had become.”
Getting home soon became a mission - and with the rules allegedly changing often, people grew agitated. One festival-goer said: “At first it was like paradise, but when you are locked in, it's not like paradise anymore.”Another said: "I did not expect to get here and experience The Last Festival on Earth.”
Grant said that the lockdown was eventually lifted and people were allowed to leave. But, by this time, most flights out of Panama were cancelled, leaving some to rely on their embassies to take them home.
Those who were not able to get flights back home remain stranded, some at the festival and other in Panama.