Panama: Adventures Beyond the Canal
by ANDY ALPINE
The waves lapped on the shore in complete sync with the rocking of the hammock. Every four swings of the hammock was matched by one wave breaking on the shoreline.
Through my somnambulant state of mind I was beginning to appreciate where I was. An all-too-early flight from San Francisco, a 7 A.M. pick-up from the Cesar Park Hotel in Panama City and a three-hour difference in time zones had pretty much wiped me out. But now that I was on my porch at the Bananas Village Resort on Isla Grande, an island just off Panama’s Caribbean coast, I was becoming more alive with each hammock swing.
Over the next ten days I would spend a fair amount of time “suspended” in one form or another — from hammocks, scuba diving over fields of cabbage corals, walking through cloud forests almost two miles above sea level and “flying” along on a cable suspended 150 feet above a series of waterfalls.
There are several theories of how the name Panama originated, the preferred one being an Amerindian word meaning “the land of many fish.” On the three-minute ride from the mainland to Isla Grande, the aptness of this title was immediately apparent when my taxi-boat driver stopped his 15- foot skiff in the middle of the channel to reel in a fish that had gone after his bait. I then knew why he had been going so slowly — he had been trawling.
Back to the Mainland
After several days at Bananas enjoying the clear turquoise water and walks over the hills into the small fishing village, I returned to the mainland and visited the Canopy Hotel, located in a converted U.S. Air Force radar tower (of all places). Set in Soberania National Park, this unique yet comfortable hotel offers avid birdwatchers a chance to be at the top of the rainforest without climbing trees. Awakening at 6 A.M., I ascended to the upper levels of the tower where I had a 360-degree view of the forest coming alive while I sipped my morning coffee. The songs of birds such as the collared forest falcon, the rufous motmot and the slaty-tailed trogon were occasionally drowned out by the roars from the howler monkeys.
Once back in Panama City, a short one-hour flight brought me to the archipelago of Bocas del Toro located on the Caribbean near Panama’s border with Costa Rica. The beauty of this area had so impressed Christopher Columbus on his fourth visit to the New World in 1502 that he lent his name to the main island, Colon, as well as to Admiral’s Bay and the port of Almirante (Columbus had been an admiral).
“Bocas” still has the flavor of adventure and of being a frontier. The Caribbean style houses reflect the influence of the Jamaicans who came to the area in the 19th century to work in the banana plantations. Colon and the neighboring islands of Bastimentos and Carenero have beautiful beaches and thick jungle flora. But it was scuba diving that brought me to Bocas, which is known for its reefs with beautiful coral formations. On my first dive to “Big Bank” I was dazzled by the sight of purple brittle stars attached to various corals and sponges. The vivid contrast of the bright purple starfish against the reds, oranges, greens and browns of the reef was truly awesome.
A dive aptly named “Cabbage Patch” reminded me of a similarly named spot in Fiji, but here there was more fish life. I got to see a juvenile French Angel fish, with its distinctive yellow stripe, swimming with several adults. Our dive group was greeted by several toad fish, two juvenile drums, squid, two moray eels and an extremely large barracuda. What made the dive particularly enjoyable was the way we could circle the cabbage corals, with their large “leaves” swirling from each individual central core, as if we were on a merry-go-round. Each different depth revealed a different species of fish life.
I left Bocas del Toro for the Pacific side of Panama, flying to David then driving 25 miles up to the flower capital of the country, Boquete. I had been told that Boquete would be quite a contrast to the tropical coast, but the lush bougainvillea, impatiens and datura were more than I had imagined. Mostly a coffee-growing area, Boquete developed quickly after a railroad was constructed from the coast in the early 20th century. It still maintains an isolated charm, and a few nights at the famous Hotel Panamonte, built in 1928, provided an opportunity to appreciate the natural treasures that the “Valley of the Flowers” had to offer.
One morning, together with our guide, we took a four-wheel drive vehicle to the top of 11,490-foot Baru Volcano, affording views of both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. We were fortunate to have a clear morning that made the “rock and roll” dirt-track excursion up the mountain worth the adventure.
On the way down, our guide, Chago, took us to a site where he had seen a Resplendent quetzal several days earlier. This famous bird, symbol of Central America, has bright green feathers on most of its body and vivid red ones on its stomach. Two very long tail feathers give it striking elegance in flight. Quetzals are quite rare, making their home in wet tropical areas above 3,000 feet. We were definitely in luck and saw two male quetzals in two separate nests. The quetzal nests in the hollows of dead trees. As camouflage, the male positions himself in the nest so that his tail appears to be a bromeliad helping to protect the nest from the Emerald Toucan which eats the eggs.
Chago was able to coax both males out with female-quetzal-like sounds. At first the head appeared, and then the magnificent tail that was at least twice the length of the male’s body.
Later in the day we visited another area of the cloud forest, and again Chago was able to identify the sound of the Three-Wattled bellbird, so named because of three worm-like appendages coming from its beak. After almost a half-hour of following the sounds and Chago imitating its call, we were able to get a clear view of this magnificent bird. Luck was with us again when, nearby,
we saw another Resplendent quetzal actually flying from its nest to an adjacent tree where it preened itself. After seeing three of these rare, exquisite birds in one day we felt like giving Chago a well-deserved medal of honor.
After a day of being pampered (aromatherapy massage, gourmet food, and 18 holes of golf) at the five-star Coronado Hotel and Resort on the Pacific coast, I traveled to the town of El Valle de Anton to experience the Canopy Adventure. Situated at 3,000 feet in the center of an extinct volcanic crater almost three miles across (one of the largest in the Americas), the locale was breathtaking in its own right.
On a Pulley and a Prayer
The Adventure consists of “flying” through the forest canopy using cables, pulleys and a mountaineer’s harness. About 180 feet above the forest floor, I was still within the forest itself and able to see the orchids, vines and bromeliads and hear the sounds of the birds that appeared to be laughing at me as I slid past them. The Adventure entailed four long swoops from trees hundreds of feet apart. Twice the journey carried me over the Chorro El Macho waterfalls, where the rising mist cooled my nervously perspiring body. Did I scream? Yes, on the first section, but only to myself. Did I enjoy it? Yes, so much so that I wanted to hike back up through the jungle to the first tree and start all over again.
When I returned to the parking area my guide presented me with a “Certificate of Audacity” that announced to the world that I had completed the Cano-py Adventure and stated “Life Smiles on the Daring.” I was actually smiling from ear to ear.
Like most Americans, I knew of Panama only as the site of the Panama Canal. What I took home were images of white sand beaches, cloud forests, turquoise waters and some of the most friendly and open people I have had the pleasure to meet.
For more information on visiting Panama and participating in some of these adventures contact: Experience Panama Tours. Tel: 877-267-0566 or 305-261-4652; Fax: 305-261-6648. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www. experiencepanama.com
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under “Panama.”