Victim Carolina Flores Hidalgo and Cullen Joseph Heater first crossed paths at the end of 2017 in a hostel in Panama City. Mr. Heater, a Peace Corps volunteer from Milton, Mass., was recuperating there after ankle surgery. Ms. Flores, who moved to Panama from her native Venezuela a year earlier, taught yoga at the hostel.
They caught a glimpse of each other, but did not speak until the end of Mr. Heater’s months-long recovery period, when they learned that they would both be attending a mutual friend’s concert.
After a night of drinking and dancing together, they decided to keep in touch, despite the difficulties Mr. Heater’s return to his Peace Corps community brought. He lived in Boca de Cuiria, a remote village with no electricity, in Coclé Province, about six hours and two river crossings from Panama City.
The two made plans to meet in January 2018 and, at the suggestion of a friend, visited Isla Taboga, in the Gulf of Panama.
“We fell in love with this island,” says Ms. Flores, 30. They have returned every year since that first visit.
Unlike many other tourists lazing on the popular beaches, Mr. Heater and Mrs. Flores chose to explore less-trodden corners of the island, where they discovered what became one of their favorite spots: Playa de las Piedras or “stone beach.”
“It’s all rocks, so no one ever goes there,” Mr Heater said. ‘But it’s beautiful because the tide is coming in and you can’t see the beach. And then the tide comes in and there are all these beautiful shells and rocks.”
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For the next year and a half, the couple traveled great distances to be with each other. The long journey between the Peace Corps community of Mr. Heater and Panama City was often a challenge. They depended on several buses, sometimes hitching a ride in the back of trucks and then walking a few miles from the road to the village.
“It’s been a theme in our relationship,” said Mr Heater, 32. “‘Go on this adventure with me.'”
Ms. Flores, who studied agronomy at the Universidad Central de Venezuela in El Limón, Maracay, is currently a self-employed yoga instructor. Mr. Heater, who holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from McGill University in Montreal, works remotely as a writer and editor at the Rainforest Foundation, which supports indigenous groups in Central and South America.
When his Peace Corps service ended in September 2019, Mr. Heater decided to stay in Panama to be with Ms. Flores. In January 2020, the couple moved into a small apartment in Panama City. An eight-month pandemic lockdown followed, during which the couple realized they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.
In August 2021, Mr. Heater proposed on their beloved stone beach on Taboga. They came upon a rare stretch of sand in the middle of the rugged coast.
“Hey, look what I found here,” Mr. Heater said to Mrs. Flores. It was customary for them to show each other colorful fragments, such as a graceful shell or beautiful rock, stirred up by the ebb tide. Mrs. Flores turned to find Mr. Heater on one knee with an uncut diamond ring in his hand.
The pair hoped to settle in the Boston area, but the plan involved complications. Mrs. Flores had been denied a tourist visa to the United States. The couple then decided to apply for a K-1 fiance visa, which would allow her to come to the United States and marry Mr. Heater within 90 days. It took two years for the visa to be approved.
“We have four weddings planned for four seasons,” Ms. Flores said with a laugh.
In March, Ms. Flores obtained the visa and over the next 40 days they planned their wedding.
The couple married on May 13 in the backyard of Mr. Heater’s childhood home in Milton, where they currently live until they find their own place in the Boston area. The wedding was officiated by Lisa Ward, a local Unitarian Universalist minister.
There were 42 guests, most of them family members. Ms. Flores’s parents were unable to attend, although many of her other close relatives did, including two of her three siblings. The ceremony was streamed live via Instagram in English and Spanish for friends and family outside the country.
“He really cares about other people,” Ms. Flores said of Mr. Heater. “He really wants to save the world.”
Mr Heater said he admires the passion Ms Flores brings to her career and her willingness to uproot her life in search of a new adventure. “She does it with a grace I could never manage,” he said.