An amazing journey through the heart of Panama
Three million years ago, the Isthmus of Panama emerged from the sea and changed the world forever. Not only did it divide an ocean and join two continents; it triggered one of the most important natural evolutionary events in Earth’s history. Today, this narrow land bridge in Central America is home to more species of birds and trees than in all of North America.
KAYAKING IN THE CANAL
“Don’t worry, there are actually no crocodiles because the ones that are there are peaceful,” our guide Enrique Ramirez jokes. “But if you fall into the water, I don’t want to know about it!”
We are in Lake Gatun, an artificial body of water that is part of the famous Panama Canal, where it is possible to kayak between inlets and islets full of monkeys, lizards, iguanas, sloths and, yes, crocodiles. To paddle through the Panama Canal is also a curious experience of sharing these serene waters with the huge cargo ships that cross this route daily. And so it is that there are canoes and ships, the smallest vessels next to the largest.
Fascinated by the massive ships we see, as well as the enigmatic sounds of the jungle, we paddle through forested nooks and crannies. We peer into the shadows of vegetation on the islands that dot our path. We then continue over the warm earth-colored waters, floating under the dreamlike skies whose clouds are in a near constant vertical progression.
HELI-RAFTING IN THE CHAGRES
“My passion is the jungle, and it has cost me a divorce,” says Javier Romero, owner and manager of the agency Adventures Panama. We are standing together next to three helicopters resting on an esplanade at Hacienda Alajuela, a lodge named after the lake on which it sits. “I’m going to give you life jackets before you get on the helicopter,” Javier continues. “But remember: they are not parachutes!”
After only a few minutes, we are flying over a vast expanse of virgin jungle that’s delineated by the course of the Chagres River, which serves as a guide for our pilot. “The Chagres defines Panama,” Javier tells me. The sight of several helicopters flying in formation over the jungle makes me think of Apocalypse Now, and I hum to Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as our particular valkyrie glides atop the dense canopy. It moves to the rhythm of each river bend before descending into the thick vegetation down below to the point where our boats await us. This, I think, is real heli-rafting!
“I’ve been exploring the area since I was young,” Javier tells me at the confluence of the Limpio and Chagres Rivers. “That’s why I’m the only one who offers this trip, since the infrastructure is quite complex.”
“We are surrounded by an untamed landscape and immersed in the surprising -and often-times disturbing- sounds of the rainforest: monkeys, birds and other unidentifiable animals that spark our collective imagination.”
It took our guides two days to get here. All of the necessary materials for the expedition, it seems, had to be carted in on horses through the jungle. “We are very far from civilization; it would take you a day to walk out of here,” Rigo, the agency’s local guide, tells me. “That is, assuming you could find your way.” As we prepare for our safety meeting, Javier adds that “the indigenous guides are our ambassadors, and also the ones who know the terrain best in case of emergency. We are in a very remote area, without any coverage, although we carry a satellite phone and are reachable at all times.”
The descent begins through the clean and noble waters of the Chagres. We are surrounded by an untamed landscape and immersed in the surprising (and often-times disturbing) sounds of the rainforest: monkeys, birds and other unidentifiable animals that spark our collective imagination. Over time, the sounds of the jungle fade into the growing roar of approaching rapids.
“You are going to feel the adrenaline now,” Rigo promises us as we brace for the first Class III rapid of the day. One, two, three… boom! A huge thunderclap erupts a few meters away. Within minutes, we are paddling through a fierce downpour. The scene is phantasmagoric; it’s surreal and magical. Gigantic raindrops hit the raft – and us – with great force as we admire the powerful lightning, which darts across the dark clouds up above. It’s exciting, scary and, well, a whole lot of fun! “We don’t sell this merely as rafting,” Rigo adds, “ but rather a full jungle expedition.”
IN THE HEART OF THE JUNGLE
“The indigenous people use the rivers as highways,” Javier tells me when we reach a sharp curve where a group of Emberas (with colorful loincloths and naked torsos) are waiting for us. On the riverbank lie several canoes, which we will use to travel onward to their village. “Sometimes, it’s more dangerous to travel by canoe than by raft,” Javier adds. And so it is.
Despite the experienced and skillful work of guides at both bow and stern, we bump into rocks on several occasions and even come close to capsizing. Yet, any fear is eclipsed by the beauty of the surrounding nature. The jungle is so pure we find ourselves ruminating on how unspoiled it is, as well as the slow pace of life of many of the people who inhabit it. “It’s mind-blowing,” my companion in the canoe shouts excitedly, enraptured as I am by the splendor around us.
“The jungle is so pure we find ourselves ruminating on how unspoiled it is, as well as the slow pace of life of many of the people who inhabit it.”
A group of children play on the shore, jumping down a natural mudslide. Other groups fish or swim. “Obviously, they are very adapted to life in the jungle,” Javier tells us before arriving at the village of Tusipono, where the community welcomes us with music and dancing. “When I started exploring the area, the locals took care of me,” Javier continues. “The indigenous community has developed a lot. There used to be one village with ten houses, and now there are already three villages with eighty houses. In fact, the chief of the reserve was a child when I started.”
A sign at the entrance to the village outlines several hiking trails that are ideal for observing the area’s flora and fauna. “Until 2007, the government made no effort to promote tourism,” Javier says. “Now, they have realized that ecotourism is also a development tool, but that it has to be in tandem with conservation.”
A WALK THROUGH THE CLOUDS
“What surprises me most about Panama is that there is always something new to discover,” says Annie Young, our Local Destination Expert in Panama, who has brought us to the Boquete Valley, in the Chirriquí region, to reveal some of its secrets. For example: this area is a sort of Napa Valley for coffee where some of the best beans in the world are grown, including the renowned Geisha variety, which is one of the most expensive on the global market.
It’s surprisingly cold and rainy here because this area boasts a microclimate that, although sometimes uncomfortable, is incredibly picturesque. Picture clouds colliding into the slopes of mountains that are dense with primary forest. Envision mystical vistas set against the backdrop of the Baru Volcano, which, at 3,475m, is the highest peak in Panama (and also the highest active volcano in southern Central America). Yet, the time has come to flex our muscles again, and for this, we have two options: suspension bridges and zip lines.
“There is a legend that says that, during the war with the Spanish conquistadors, the natives of the area hid their riches at the base of a waterfall,” says David, a local guide. “That’s why many of the waterfalls have large holes in their bases caused by treasure hunters.”
Boquete TreeTrek is an Eco Adventure Park located within the private forest reserve Rio Cristal, which lies in the middle of the Talamanca Mountains. It’s an ideal place to enjoy the biodiversity of Panama’s tropical rainforest from a different perspective. For starters, there is a circuit of six suspension bridges ranging from 70 to 135 meters-long and 10 to 75 meters above the forest floor.
Also in the area are six trails of differing lengths (from 185 to 1,500 meters). You can do them in the company of a guide who will turn them into an interpretative walk of medicinal plants, a tour of poisonous mushrooms or a sound journey through the noisy jungle. The most daring visitors shouldn’t hesitate to choose the zip lines as a means of discovery. There are 4.5 kilometers of cable divided into twelve sections, each of which lets you enjoy the forest canopy from up above.
“You are very lucky because we have seen many animals today,” the driver of the speedboat tells me. These include roseate spoonbills, howler monkeys, pelicans, dolphins and even a geriatric crocodile – all highlights of a late afternoon “Sunset Tour” through the labyrinthine web of mangroves in Boca Chica. Here on the Pacific coast, just a two-hour drive from the highlands, the temperature has risen considerably. Yet there is no escaping the lightning, thunder and tropical rains, which have soaked us once again.
When the showers dissipate, we marvel at a bucolic sunset of purple hues and pink cumulus clouds on the horizon. It makes us forget all about the humidity that has hugged our bodies all day. For a second, I’m tempted to reach for my camera. But aren’t there moments in life that are so special that it’s better not to take pictures?
“What to do if you wake up here, on a beach of black sand? Where would you walk to? How would you survive?”
Our Local Destination Experts have brought us to the Bocas del Mar hotel as a center of operations to discover the National Marine Park of the Gulf of Chiriqui. It boasts 14,740 protected hectares of coral reefs, mangroves and crystalline waters, plus about two-dozen islands and islets that serve as refuge for turtles, dolphins, sharks, thousands of tropical fish and, at certain times of the year, whales.
Onboard a small but sturdy fishing yacht, we are ready to enjoy the ambiance, swimming, diving and, of course, exploring the paradisaical landscapes in which we move. There are Robinson Crusoe-style deserted islands populated by coconut palms and iguanas. There are also much more glamorous islands with dazzling luxury hotels, including the resort of Isla Palenque.
In case I go missing someday, I’ll tell you this: Look for me in Panama.