In the middle of March, my parents and
friends of ours, Steve and Shelley Fein, came to visit me in Panama.
It was my first real vacation since being in Panama,
and I really wanted to use it to get outside the Canal Zone,
and see some of the rest of the country. I convinced everyone that the
best plan would be to rent a car, and drive up the Inter-Americana,
stopping at various places along the way. And so, I dragged my
parents from one end of Panama to the other (well, not quite, as we didn’t make
it to the Darien)–I think they’ve forgiven me, now that all their chigger
bites have healed and they’ve found and removed the last of the ticks.
Our trip started with my parent missing a connection and arriving a day
late. This gave me a day in Panama City
to show Steve and Shelley around. We went to Casco Viejo–the old part of
the city–in the morning. Casco Viejo is a strange mix upscale, renovated
old buildings next to shells of old mansions that no longer have roofs, windows
or floors. It is the location of the president’s residence as well as a
large number of the city’s squatters. It also has spectacular views of Panama
I’d been telling everyone, via email, how amazing the passion fruit
ice-cream was at the restaurant called Crepes and Waffles. We tried to go
there for lunch, but it was closed. I didn’t hear the end of this for the
entire trip–although I did manage to get everyone addicted to passion fruit
We went out to BCI that night, and mom and dad joined us the next morning.
The timing couldn’t have been better because the guayacan had started flowering
the day before. Tabebuia guayacans flower synchronously following
the first rain of the rainy season. They dotted both sides of the canal,
and were absolutely beautiful. (but I don’t have any photos cause my dad
was supposed to send me his, and hasn’t yet).
We stayed on BCI for two days mostly just walking around. My monkeys
cooperated and put in an appearance. They were pretty funny, crashing
around right over our heads. Bert Leigh, my STRI advisor, invited us all
to dinner at his house in Gamboa, which was fun, and I think a good
illustration of an important aspect of my life on BCI.
We picked up our rental car in down town Panama City
(first time for all of us driving a SUV), and headed over the Bridge of the Americas
and up the Inter-Americana.
Our first stop was the Omar Torilljos National Park near El Cope, about a
2 hour drive from the City. After turning off the Interamericana, you drive
through some foothills. In El Cope, the paving stops, and the mountains
ahead of you become visible. The road slowly degenerates, until you get
to the town of Barrigon, right
outside the park. The visitors center for the park is in beautiful cloud
forest, and volunteers have recently put a lot of effort into upgrading the
trails (which are really more walks than hikes). If you have 4WD (and you
actually need 4WD for this!), you can drive past the visitors center to the
peak of one of the mountains where, on a clear day, you can see both the
Pacific and the Caribbean simultaneously. It
wasn’t a clear day for us, but there were these raptors that were feeding in a
fruit tree whose crown was at eyelevel with us. They would swoop in, grab
a fruit with their feet without stopping and fly off. With about 6 of
them taking turns dive bombing the tree, it was pretty impressive!
We stayed the night in Barrigon with the Navas family, who took us to their
farm in one of the towns inside the park the next morning. I think this
was the first place my parents started to question the wisdom of putting
themselves in my hands for this vacation. The Navas’ house was perfectly
comfortable, they were very nice, and the food was good, but it quickly became
clear thta several of the kids had been kicked out of their rooms to accommodate
The next morning, we headed back into the park, past hills full of wild growing
pink and white impatients (called novios, or boyfriends, in spanish), up the
incredibly steep hill to the look out point. The day before, we had
assumed the road ended there, but instead of stopping, the truck we were in
continued over the peak, and down the most washed-out dirt road I’d ever
seen. I think my mother was convinced she was going to die–and we hadn’t
even really started the adventure!
After 15 minutes more, the truck stopped and we got out and met our
horses. I think Santos Navas had looked at us all and decided that we
really weren’t up for the hike into La Ricca, so we got to go on horses!
He had apparently also decided that we weren’t really competent to be trusted
with our horses, so we were each led (in my case by a 7 year old boy), down the
mountains. It took about 2 hours, winding down the hills to get to La
We spent two days at Santos’ farm
in La Rica, going on hikes, and swimming in beautiful waterfalls.
I really liked our time in La Rica because it was such a completely different
part of Panama. Panama seems to
be divided into the Canal Zone, the beach, Kuna Yala,
and the center. I’d never seen “the center” and really enjoyed
getting to see one of the isolated farming towns that isn’t accessible by car
and doesn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing. We all enjoyed eating
traditional Panamanian food and talking to Santos,
who had a lot to say about how Panama
was changing. We also enjoyed the slow pace of breakfast at 7, hike, eat,
swim, siesta, eat dinner at 4, be in bed, asleep by 8.
Two of Santos’ grandchildren
After our visit to La Ricca, we headed out to Santa Catalina
on the Pacific coast. This is apparently one of the best places to surf
It is also the place you leave from to get out to Isla Coiba. Coiba is a
large island which has recently been designated a marine and terrestrial
national park. It used to be a penal colony where Panama’s
worst criminals were incarcerated. In recent years, the prison has been
completely shut down, and the ANAM ranger’s station is now the only inhabited
place on the island.
Coiba seems to represent Panama
in general faces as to how to develop tourism. The previous president,
Mireya Moscoso, favored opening it up to development and large hotels. The new
president, Martin Torilljos (son of the former president Omar Torilljos that
the first nation park we visited was named after. He died when his plane
crashed into Cerro Marta–a mountain in the park), seems to be reconsidering
the fate of Coiba. He was actually visiting while we were there. We
didn’t actually see him, but we saw his guards, their guns, and his helicopter
coming and going.
We spent our time in Coiba snorkeling (mom, dad and I) and diving (Steve and
Shelley). The Pacific side doesn’t have nice, colorful coral, but it
didn’t matter a bit. There were huge schools of fish, huge fish, lots of
rays and sharks, barracuda, and sea turtles. I also saw octopus and
spinner dolphins for the first time.
We also experienced the difference between simple but well built, and poorly
designed. La Rica, without electricity or plumbing, was well ventilated,
well planned, and entirely comfortable. The dorms on Coiba were
cinderblock with windows that wouldn’t open, and air-conditioning that didn’t
work. Between the heat and the sand flies, it was nearly impossible to
sleep, which meant that we were all awake to see:
After Coiba, we headed to the northern part of the country, to Chiriqui
province. It was amazing, turning at Concepcion
and heading inland and up, passing from brown pastures with Brahma cattle to
green, luxurious fields with Holsteins. The drive
to Cerro Punta was incredibly beautiful, in a completely different way than
anything we’d seen yet. It was heavily farmed, flowers grew everywhere,
and there were big rushing streams.
We stayed in cabin in one of the national parks in the area managed by the
hotel Los Quetzales. It had a wood stove (it actually got cold!!!), hot
water (finally), a kitchen, and an amazing patio with a view:
“Cloud Forest 2″
We saw lots of quetzales, which actually are as amazing as people say.
Very hard to get a decent photo, however, so I stopped trying. Almost as
much fun as the quetzales were the hummingbirds around the feeder at the
cabin. If you stood with your hands near the feeder, they would perch on
you while they ate. This is a video of me trying to keep form cracking up
long enough to get a hummingbird to perch on me.
By the time we got to Los Quetzales, we were very happy to be staying in the
same place for a few days. We hiked and saw some beautiful birds, but
also spent a lot of time reading, cooking good food and talking.
I was completely blown away by how beautiful the cloud forest. It looks
so completely different from the forest I work in. I could have happily
stayed for much longer.
Unfortunately, Los Quetzales was the end of our 3 week vacation. We drove
8 hours back to Panama City, disguised
the crack in the windshield we’d acquired along the way and finally made it to
Crepes and Waffles for dinner and passion fruit ice cream (I think the weeks of
thinking about it, craving it, made it so much better when we finally got it!).
I loved our vacation, and I don’t think I traumatized my parents too
badly. I’m amazed at how few tourists seems to come to Panama.
Pretty much everywhere we went, we were either the only tourists, or there were
only a few others. The national park system is stunning, but poorly
utilized. I’m really looking forward to visiting some of the other parks
that we didn’t get to on the trip later this summer!