Panama: Change and Discovery
by Lorry Heverly
A lone Embera Indian paddles his narrow dugout canoe toward the bank of the Chagres River. My ride has arrived. He's wearing a knee-length loincloth secured with a leather string around his waist. Two strands of small beads drape his chest, neck to under the arm, forming a mighty X. When he turns to pull the dugout on the bank so I can board more easily, I try not to stare when I notice his naked posterior.
Images of the Past
Up river lies the village of Para Peru, home of one of Panama's oldest indigenous tribes, the Embera. One look and I feel like I've been sucked into a scene straight out of National Geographic. Dogs bark, and children have a ball playing in the river. Young girls cluster together, whispering hand-covered secrets; a gentle breeze sweeps the sarongs draped around the hips of onlooking, bare-breasted women. The only other traveler on this trip is a young U.S. serviceman, one of few who ever leaves the Zone to see a bit of the country. It dawns on him that he definitely isn't in Kansas anymore, and he turns a sunburned shade of red.
From the remote rainforest villages to the bustling port cities of Panama, a significant change is about to take place. On January 1, 2000, the Panama Canal and 80,000 surrounding acres used for the Canal's defense will be officially handed over by the United States to the Panamanian government.
A Promising Future
Twenty-first-century plans for the country highlight its ecotourism potential, in hopes of luring visitors to its pristine jungles, mountains and beaches, while maintaining the delicate balance of nature. Innovative tourism ventures for lands surrounding the Canal are also in the works. Over the next five years, over $1 billion will be spent on projects including a port facility for cruise ships and redevelopment of the historic waterfront in Colon, a rainforest resort in Gamboa, and restoration of the Panama Railroad, allowing an ocean-to-ocean journey by rail.
But here, in the cradle of the rainforest, time seems to stand still. With the entire village watching, I try to make a somewhat presentable exit from the dugout canoe. The kids and dogs race ahead and crazed chickens squawk and scatter on the well-worn path to the village. The rainforest cocoons a collection of thatched-roof, stilted huts.
Honey, Could You Pick up Some Fish on Your Way Home?
In fact, the Embera live much as they did 500 years ago, when Columbus became the first European to discovered the region. Men of the village still fish, hunt and grow crops. To supplement their income, they welcome visitors and sell wood carvings, spears, necklaces and intricately carved tagua (ivory-nut) seeds.
Women cook, tend to the village, and as part of an age-old tradition, paint their bodies in geometric designs with a dye from the fruit of the jagua plant. Black-blue lines decorate faces from the lips to the back of the ears, while intricate patterns also appear on the neck, arms, breasts or stomach.
OK, so when in Rome (or Panama)... I point to a pattern I like, and Francesca, a tribal woman, paints it on my foot. Later, I find that this whimsical bonding with the women was semi-permanent and wouldn't come off for ten days.
The men participate in their own rituals. At the edge of the rainforest, they shout excitedly and motion for us to join them. A good-size red-and-black striped coral snake is carried out of the rainforest on a tree branch. The chief grabs this poisonous, angry serpent by the tail, then offers it in my direction, thinking I might like a closer look or maybe want to touch it. No thanks. However, they are thrilled when I capture this Kodak moment on film.
Nearby, women huddle in the cooking hut, frying plantains. They exhibit their own brand of bravery as hissing-hot grease splatters everywhere around their unprotected bodies.
Along the shores of the Chagras River, in this place somehow forgotten by time, music plays an important part. The men gather drums, and the chief, playing a bamboo flute, leads the tribe in an otherworldly tune. With their long dark hair dancing in the wind, the women sway to the rhythm of the drums, lost in the moment.
A Rainforest Ride
Panama affords other adventures as well. Inside an extinct volcano in Anton Valley (about two hours from Panama City), I stood on a platform 100 feet above the rainforest floor and a raging river. Thick steel cables crossed the tree-top canopy, similar to rigging used by rainforest researchers and scientists (or Sean Connery in the movie Medicine Man).
Wearing my harness (a cross between the gear of spelunkers and rappelers with a confusing mass of hooks and ropes), I've hiked past waterfalls, awesome orchids and over leaf cutter ants, to the sounds of feathered friends, finally reaching the first rainforest platform. Now I'm stranded.
I'm exploring the Panamanian rainforest with local guides from The Canopy Adventure, but they don't speak much English. "Sit in the harness and keep your right gloved-hand behind the pulley with the rollers. Squeeze the cable to slow down," my friend Ian translates. "If you put your hand in front you'll run over it and it will hurt . . . too much."
Me Tarzan, Me Not Look Down
Raul, my guide, expertly hooks me up to the cable. Getting the universal thumbs-up from him, I launch off the platform, flying like Tarzan through the rainforest canopy. Thick tree top foliage whizzes by like a video on fast forward. This bird's-eye view really puts things into perspective; that is, as long I keep my sights on the horizon and don't look down.
Travelers can also delve into Soberania National Park, one of Panama's premier bird watching regions."One of my nature guides is a former poacher," confesses Raul Arias, owner of the six-room lodge, Canopy Tower, located in the preserve. "Who else knows the rainforest better?"
The hotel occupies a surrealistic building topped with a 30-foot dome resembling a soccer ball for giants and posted for "U.S. Military Personnel Only." It's the former Semaphore Hill radar tower, built by the U.S. Air Force to monitor drug smuggling planes from South America. Under the enterprising Arias, it has been transformed into a full-service lodge for tourists--just one example of how Panama will make use of former U.S. lands.
A Bird's-Eye View
Here at the world's strangest nature observatory tower, guests have a special place to hang binoculars--just outside their tree-top-view showers. This comes in handy should a flock of migratory birds or Panama's national bird, the colorful toucan, decide to make an appearance. This 360-degree panorama of the forest canopy offers a wealth of sightings, with over 225 species of birds in the area.
Other fauna abound. A tropical coati, a raccoon-like creature with a long nose and tail, runs across the trail. Arias explains that the military personnel working at the radar tower fed the little critters, who still hang around for a free handout. My former poacher/guide has sharp eyes and points out birds and wildlife I can't see, even with binoculars.
Panama is clearly a land of adaptability. The only ones currently scanning the skies at a former military installation are birders. Reformed poachers lead nature tours, and ugly towers are transformed into rooms with canopy views. Travelers can fly through the rainforest canopy and find places on Earth where time stands still.
Like Cinderella, Panama's dreams live on well past midnight on January 1, 2000, when the glass slipper is placed on the other foot.
Panama Discovery Tours specializes in both packaged and customized tours to Panama, which can include trekking, whitewater rafting, visiting Indian villages and The Canopy Adventure, plus other adventure options. The 11-day Tour of the Millennium highlights a historic Panama Canal transit, hotel accommodations and soft adventure tours beginning at $1,380 per person, double occupancy. For details, call 888-PANAMA-1; Website: www.panamacanal.com; E-mail: email@example.com
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Panama.":