Saturday, November 17, 2007

Clouds hanging low on Volcán Barú

At 2,000 meters above sea level, the air was cool. I had put on my long sleeved shirt made of thick cotton to ward off the wind and drizzle. A pleasant hint of wood smoke lingered in the damp air. The volcano above us, Barú, was covered in such thick fog that we couldn’t see the summit. The lush cloud forest on the slopes looked dark in the fading light of the day.
We were in Guadalupe on the slopes of Volcán Barú in western Panama. On the coastal plains where we had started this morning the weather had been hot and humid, as we think it should be in the tropics just 9 degrees north of the equator. The temperature had dropped constantly with elevation as we climbed up the narrow but well paved road towards the mountain range that forms the backbone of the narrow Central American country. The tiny Toyota Yaris we had rented in David, the provincial capital of Chiriquí in the western part of the country, took the curves snugly but at the steep slopes I wished for a stick shift as the automatic slowly gathered torque from the small engine. My wife, Yoko, searched for music from the radio and settled for a station that played brisk polka-influenced dance music complete with accordions.
We were heading towards the Los Quetzales Preserve, an eco-vacation location established already in 1976 inside the Volcán Barú National Park. Panama is one of the better-kept secrets when it comes to ecological conservation and ecotourism, decidedly overshadowed by its neighbor, Costa Rica, which has established a reputation as the ecologically sound nation in the tropics. Panama falls into the same geographical zone and offers similar natural sites. Both countries recognize the value of unspoiled nature in attracting tourists and their dollars. Both also have about one-fifth of their land surface under protected area status. The main difference is the number of tourists: while Costa Rica is the largest recipient of tourist flows in Central America, Panama is still quite tranquil, known mainly for its canal. As a result, it is said that in Costa Rica twenty tourists try to catch a glimpse of one quetzal, the famous long-tailed and colorful bird, while in Panama one tourist can see twenty quetzals. Panama holds the unofficial world record: 350 birds seen in one single day! We did not harbor any hopes of seeing any on this November trip, as one can observe quetzals mostly during the nesting season from January to May. Our purpose was just to familiarize ourselves with the area and to enjoy fresh mountain air – not perhaps the first thought associated with this tropical country!

A few days earlier we had been sitting in an outdoors café in Panama City’s Isla Flamenco with Petra Kollmansberger, a German woman with a long engagement with Panama’s tourist industry. There had been a damp wind from the Pacific Ocean bringing with it the sounds of powerful thunder. A flock of black birds had gathered in the trees in front of our café making a racket.
“It’s hard to get the government to make decisions and therefore they miss opportunities. Two big international travel magazines wanted to cover Panama but the government took two months to review the proposals. Needless to say, the deals fell through,” said Petra exasperated.
“The Tourism Authority is still in its beginnings and materials available for tourists and promotion are very limited,” she continued. This was about to change as the new government had appointed Ruben Blades, the renowned salsa star and Harvard educated lawyer as the new Minister of Tourism.
For two years Petra had tried to promote Panama in Germany with scant results. Yet, she had fallen in love with the country. The friendly blond German had found the relaxed lifestyle and the rich nature attractive. She was the one to recommend that we visit Los Quetzales. The privately owned 350-hectare area has been under protected status since 1968 and is one of the prime eco-vacation destinations in the country.

As the road ascended, we saw many large haciendas. Cattle rummaged the pastures and handsome horses stepped proudly with riders on their backs. Large houses stood on hillocks overlooking the meadows. The upper plateau had an unreal air. Dropped there suddenly it would be hard to guess one was in tropical Central America. The open meadows were dominated by red-hued grass and splattered with rocks and large boulders. The dominant tree was a tall standing species of pine. The grayness of the day together with the subdued greens and reds on the ground created an eerie atmosphere.
After a couple of hours of driving we entered the village of Cerro Punta in between the mountains. The small single-story houses with corrugated iron roofs betrayed the lack of wealth in the area. But the fronts of the houses were painted cheerfully green, yellow, white. All windows appeared shuttered, probably against the cold and damp. Apart from small-scale agriculture, tourism was the only growth industry bringing income to the populace.
We finally reached the community of Guadalupe, with a population of only 1,200 people. The town is located 1,975 meters above sea level on the edge of the Volcán Barú National Park. It was still only mid-afternoon but the sky was dark the sun having vanished behind the mountains. The drizzle added to the coldness of the air. Who would have thought that we would actually be freezing in the tropics?
We found Los Quetzales lodge in a remarkably beautiful spot shielded by steep mountainsides and parked behind the white stucco and wood main building. I found the reception closed; they didn’t expect many guests during the rainy season. I climbed the wooden stairs to the second floor and entered what looked like a lounge and a dining hall. After a short while my calls were answered and a sweet-looking young woman wearing jeans and a baseball cap appeared. She confirmed that this was indeed off-season and the place had plenty of space for us to stay. Feeling expansive, I selected one of the five suites located in a three-story building across a large open courtyard. The place had rustic beauty with cedar walls and, best of all, a well-designed fireplace in the corner of the living room. Live fire was indeed a great idea to warm our chilled bodies and Yoko started immediately piling in the wood.
The lodge also contained a spa intended to bring hikers and adventure tourists back to life after a day in the cloud forest. The spa was located on the far edge of the compound in a thicket of coniferous trees. The lighting was low and there was a pleasant musty odor of damp wood. There was an excellent sauna heated with fragrant firewood by a young woman from the village who also doubled as the masseuse. The stove in the corner of the sauna emitted a strong hiss when water was poured on it and produced a thick steam as the heat penetrated our bodies. While we were in the sauna, the village woman and her friend had prepared the adjacent room for massage. For the next two hours Yoko and I lay silently next to each other receiving an excellent massage as soothing music played in the background. The room was getting cold but the skillful hands applying aromatic oils to our muscles ensured that we remained warm.
Feeling totally relaxed and thoroughly warm in the cold night, we spent the rest of the evening in the second floor lounge where I had originally found our hostess. The fireplace was lit and we ordered some red wine to warm up our interiors. The girl with the baseball cap had tied an apron around her waist and offered to serve us a hot sopa de vegetales laced liberally with garlic. It tasted gorgeous, as did the homemade pizza that followed. We enjoyed the stillness of the evening in the cozy room. Needless to say, we slept soundly like quetzals in their nests that night, having first warmed ours with the fireplace.

The morning sun shone bright through our windows. It was still chilly but the rain was gone and we could see the mountains behind the village bathing in light. The fresh early morning air filled our lungs with the scents of forest and dewy meadows. A brown horse was eating its morning hay in the yard in perfect harmony with a flock of chubby ducks. We crossed the yard for a hearty breakfast in the dining room: a variety of fresh fruits – papaya, pineapple, watermelon and honeydew – with soft white cheese, toast, jam and strong café con leche that filled our senses. In the bright daylight the room looked different and we noticed the gaily-colored wooden quetzals decorating the wall.
It was a Saturday and the village of Guadalupe had come alive. Small pickup trucks were cruising the road apparently transporting people to social functions in the area. I counted as many as seven men perched precariously on the open flatbed of a small pickup. Families of Guaymi indians dressed in good clothes for the weekend – the men in slacks and western style shirts, womenfolk in long gowns of turquoise and blue decorated with red and yellow – ambled down the road. Most of them would be small farmers in the Guadalupe area.
Cultivated fields reached halfway up the steep slopes protected from erosion by the thick vegetation cover and sufficient rainfall throughout the year. The upper reaches and ridges were covered with mixed forests, reflecting different shades of green, all darker than the geometrically patterned fields where potatoes, carrots and other roots and tubers were grown. Although we were in the tropics, these were important food crops at this elevation, while maize is grown on the flat valley floors.

It was time for us to continue our trip, so we packed up and headed down the same road we had used arriving here. The previous government, famous for its corruption and beholdenness to big business interests, had promoted the construction of a road from Guadalupe to Boquete further east. This road would have considerably reduced travel time between the two towns but would have cut straight through the National Park. The ecological damage could have been devastating, as the impacts of roads go far beyond the immediate area that is deforested and leveled off when they are constructed. By removing protective vegetation and topsoil the hydrological conditions are modified, which especially in hilly areas can cause increased surface runoff and erosion. Wild animals also require adequate territorial integrity to roam, find food and mate. Perhaps most importantly, roads open up access to humans deeper into the pristine areas, which inevitably leads to increased pressures. Luckily, the elections earlier in 2004 had removed the government from office and replaced it with one led by the environmentally minded President Martín Torrijos. So, at least for now, the plans to build the road had been put on a hold.
On this clear day large tracts of agricultural land became visible in valleys once we started to descend. There were many pickups on the road loaded with potatoes, onions and plantains. The roadside was lined with stalls selling locally produced vegetables.
The growing tourist industry was also visible in the area. In Bambito next to Cerro Punta stood a huge modern spa hotel with manicured lawns. The village also boasted an aquaculture enterprise growing trout for the tourists to enjoy in the hotels and to fish in the ponds. We stopped at Nueva Suiza, or New Switzerland, a development with vaguely Alpine style chalets for rent. It appeared deserted but, then again, this was the off-season.
Passing through numerous small towns we headed towards the coast reaching the Carretera Panamericana at the town of Concepción. Here on the coastal plain the weather was sunny and the temperature much higher than in the hills. We rolled down the windows and sped east on the highway, which at this point was smooth and wide. At the David junction, we again turned north towards the highlands. This area was developing into a favorite retirement destination for many Europeans and North Americans. Beautiful houses were being erected along the roadside and there were numerous signs about properties for sale. This was understandable. Panama is a beautiful country with friendly people and a stable political and economic environment. Western Panama has one of the best living conditions in the country – perhaps anywhere – and is easily accessible by plane or by car from either Panama City or Costa Rica. One only has to hope that this boom will not lead to the development of mass tourism with its inevitable consequences on the local culture and nature. There is hope because those settling here seem to favor a quiet lifestyle in an unspoiled environment. Also, the country has a thriving urban economy based on banking, shipping and the famous canal. Tourism is icing on the cake and focusing on smaller scale ecotourism is a viable option.
Craving for lunch and a good cup of coffee, we stopped at random at a roadside restaurant that looked particularly tempting. It was named after its proprietress Doña Tere, a friendly woman of undetermined age. Smiling a broad smile with large gaps she indicated that we should select any table in the open-air patio covered with a corrugated iron roof. The chairs and tables were made of tree trunks and the eating area was separated from the outside by potted plants. I ordered pollo ahumedo, chicken that was grilled with a tangy sauce and served with rice, beans and a tasty potato-beet salad. Always a lover of soups, Yoko ventured for the traditional sancocho cooked with all and any parts of the chicken. While the soup was scrumptious, Yoko found many of the bird parts floating in it unidentifiable. This was lucky for the innocent looking white bitch that had approached us immediately upon the delivery of our dishes by Doña Tere. Apparently she knew to expect a share as she sat patiently next to us. The chicken entrails disappeared hurriedly into her stomach and what she didn’t want to devour right now she carried away and buried into the adjacent garden. What was left on the patio floor was quickly polished off by a trail of ants that carried chunks of chicken larger than themselves to their nest in one of the corner poles holding up the roof. They showed a remarkable sense of purpose and cooperation in dragging the tidbits to their home.
Ordering cups of strong local coffee whitened with condensed milk we had the opportunity to observe the other patrons. Judging from the clientele, Doña Tere had a reputation locally. There was a family with two small boys, both with shaved heads, and a remarkably fat man with his wife. A Chinese man was sitting alone looking sour. Panama has a fairly large Chinese population, mostly descendants of people brought in to build the canal a century ago. A somewhat tacky 4WD with darkened windows drove to the parking lot and a cool couple emerged from it. The middle-aged man wearing aviator shades was clearly a local playboy. He walked into the restaurant in self-confident steps, without a trace of smile on his stern face, the bulge of his stomach – a sign of indulgence and good times – drooping above his belt. He was followed by a girl in her twenties, on high heels and dressed in a tank top and so tight blue jeans that she would need grease to pull them on.
Back in the car, we drove to the township of Dolega finding western Panama’s best bookstore in its unlikely roadside location far removed from anything that resembled urbanization. We had read about the store, Bookmark, and had decided to visit it in search of rare books on Panama. Bookmark boasts a collection of over 8,000 mostly used English language books ranging from all matters local to tropical agriculture, history and the latest thrillers. After rummaging through the treasure trove and finding several books to purchase, we started to chat with Michael, the American owner. He had traveled in Panama and found it a good place to settle in. He had founded Bookmark some five years earlier and had since then lived a peaceful life amongst his books finding company from his customers. Life could be much worse, I thought.
It was time to head back to David to catch our flight to Ciudad de Panamá. Sharply at 3 p.m. there was a rumble of thunder and the skies opened with a torrential rainfall. During the rainy season you could set your watch by the afternoon showers. The rain would be over quickly but while it lasted it was best to turn on the headlights and slow down to a crawl, as the wipers couldn’t keep up with the streaming water.
By the time we reached the airport on the other side of the city of David, it was again sunny. I went to the car rental desk to return the keys and to present an official looking piece of paper that had been attached to the windshield some days ago when we had stopped at the center of David for shopping. It looked like a parking ticket but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why we would have been given one; we had parked in a clearly marked slot by one of the main streets and not stayed out for too long. The friendly young man at the counter looked at the ticket, made a call and after some minutes was able to confirm that it was indeed a fine for a parking violation. “Nobody understands the rules,” he said.
“Ah, well,” I thought, “we have to pay our dues – and it can’t be too much, can it?” Still, I could hardly believe my ears when the fellow said that he had to add the fine of $1 to my bill.
“I beg your pardon, did you really say one buck? Now, that’s reasonable.”
“Yes sir. I guess in your country you might have to pay even $5,” he said without a trace of irony in his voice.

The Aeroperlas flight was late. We had sat at the small airport for more than two hours when we finally saw the twin-engine Shorts SD approach, land and let out the twenty or so lucky passengers who were just arriving, most looking like returning home. But the wait, like virtually everything we had experienced in Chiriquí, had not been bad. Despite the increasing heat in the room, we felt absolutely no stress in the unhurried atmosphere. Like our fellow passengers, mostly Panamanians with only a handful of foreigners, we sat quietly reading and sipping savory coffee produced locally according to sustainable practices. Its aroma floated into our noses from the steaming cup. My deepest wish, as we walked across the tarmac towards the waiting plane in the darkening evening, was that the expansion of tourism that was needed for enhancing people’s livelihoods would be achieved without sacrificing the natural and cultural richness of this beautiful country.

© Juha Uitto 2004 [Published also on on May 12, 2006.]

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