by Sony Stark
Our vehicle skids to a stop at a traffic light in the heart of downtown Panama City, Panama. Through the window I see hundreds of expats congregating around Caesar Park Casino and free internet cafes.
In three days we'll meet an Embera tribe, visit the future site of the Rainforest Discovery Center and rehash Spanish history in Portobelo - activities only minutes away from the 10 x 50 mile stretch known as Panama's 'narrow waist'.
The World's Eighth Wonder
Our small white mini-van bumps from side-to-side along a poorly maintained concrete road. The driver swerves to avoid crater-size potholes and thick pockets of mud from an early morning deluge.
The road runs parallel with what's known as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Though we just left the city 25 minutes ago we're already in the heart of one of the country's greatest national parks, Soberania.
Teaming with wildlife, history and age-old trails, Panama is an eco-traveler's undiscovered paradise. By next year, tourism consultant Christopher Seek of Solimar International hopes to make Panama's ‘green growth’ an attraction as popular as the Canal. His goal is an ambitious and promising one.
Forty-eight thousand acres of protected rain forest once controlled by the U.S. military is now open for recreational and educational use. When the US relinquished claim to the canal in 1999 they left behind housing, hospitals, commissaries, infrastructures and most importantly - a philosophy of preserving biological diversity.
Seek and naturalists like Luis Paz and Beatriz Schmitt along with eco-adventure experts Skipper and Jill Berger are leading names in promoting sustainable tourism in Panama.
The van stops and we're shuffled onto a small tour boat for a day-long immersion with the Embera Community. The Embera are nostalgic people who have chosen to preserve their culture through tourism and selling famous handcrafts.
Consummate animal and birdwatcher Luis Paz is aboard to interpret their native language. His keen eyes and acute hearing also help pinpoint endemic species like terrestrial antbirds, wrens and finches. Some whistle melodious songs or haunting duets while others sound more like a repetitive alarm clock.
Paz deciphers the cacophony and sets our sights on our fine-feathered friends hidden in lush vegetation. It's an aggravating game of hide-and-seek in a dense tangle of vines. By the time I find the species and focus my camera the bird camouflages itself behind another palm.
In the distance the ominous bellows of a mantled howler monkey can be heard. Their growls and screams travel for miles in thick jungles.
The first Spanish settlers believed the noise emanated from a giant prehistoric monster roaming deep in the woods. Unlike the skittish whimpers of spider monkeys, howlers kept the Spanish from exploring parts of Panama for a long time until the source was discovered.
Our two-stroke engine cuts through the deep blue Chagres River passing a football-field size cargo vessel that could squash us like a bug if we were caught in its wake. Its modern girth squeezes through three locks, Miraflores, Gatún and Pedro Miguel on its way north to the Caribbean.
Meeting the Embera
Waiting on the shoreline is a pair of Embera tribe members dressed in loose loincloth. The Chagres National Park is a protected environment so we don a life-vest and inch our way into a motorized dug-out canoe.
Fifteen-foot long Cayucos canoes are essential to navigate the narrow passageways of the Chagres. It's a tippy journey forcing us through a blanket of dense mangroves and hearty water lilies. Quintessential canoe builders, the Embera once maintained the U.S. government's fleet of canoes when they controlled the Panama Canal.
When we arrive five small sinewy musicians are playing light-hearted beats from strange instruments made from turtle shells and tree bark.
The women are wearing beaded halter-tops that barely cover their chests complimented by colorful short skirts. There are five or six wide-eyed children frolicking on the bank.
Our guide, 27 years young with a daughter and wife, knows jungle warfare all too well. While trekking he describes survival techniques taught to American soldiers before they went overseas to fight in Vietnam. Many Embera kept wounded or stranded soldiers alive when they jumped into the jungles here.
The circling mosquitoes don’t bother our guide but they're notorious - so make sure your wearing bug repellant.
The sweltering tropical sun works up our appetites. Back where we started, several women are preparing dinner in thatch-roofed huts elevated 10 feet above ground. This protects them from preying animals, insects and the rain.
The Embera Community offers a rare glimpse into one of only seven surviving tribes left in Panama. Their vitality and resilience to change provides a vital link to Panama's past and the rainforest as a whole. For more information on visiting the Embera, contact Rogelio L. Nunez.
Kayaking Panama's History
By way of a short kayak trip across Portobelo Bay we're staggering our way through Panama's history the next day. Our tour guide’s momentum is no match for the heady climb that paralyzes the rest of us. Skip Berger absorbs the heat and humidity and empowers us to keep moving. He's given so many tours here that he can literally climb this hill blindfolded.
He and his wife were raised in Panama by parents who worked for the then-American controlled Panama Canal. But after the 1979 Torrijos-Carter Treaty was signed and the US relinquished control of the canal to the Panamanians, Skip and Jill refused to leave. They, like their parents and grandparents before them, call Panama home and are raising a fifth generation son here.
History and beauty surround us at the top of the battery lookout of Fort San Fernando. The city of Portobelo looms in the distance. Christopher Columbus discovered this area on his fourth voyage across the Atlantic from Spain. The aerial vistas of Panama's northern isthmus are breathtaking.
"Look to your left", points Berger, "that's where Columbus first met with the indigenous tribes".
The Customary Looting and Plundering
As the Indians lost to European aggression the city grew so prosperous that it tempted smugglers and infamous pirates. Four forts with walls of thick stone and armed with canon were built to protect it. Munitions depots and an impenetrable Custom House warded off invaders... but only for a short time.
Explorers enjoy anchoring their sailboats alongside the crumbling ruins and decaying cobblestone streets of Portobelo. It’s a sleepy little Caribbean fishing town unmarred by commercialism and yawn-some excesses.
The empty beach in the shadows of the Spanish stronghold tempts me to enjoy a plunge before heading back to Portobelo. The sparkling blue Caribbean is temperate as bath water and I wash away the sticky climb.
Says Berger, "Scuba diving and snorkeling for hidden treasure is another popular activity". Next time I'll make sure to bring my fins. For now, I leisurely float buoyant in the salty blue ocean.
A Miracle From Above
Berger goes on to explain how the Black Christ came to find its home in Portobelo. Hundreds of years ago, the black sculptural figure of Jesus Christ washed ashore during a terrible cholera epidemic. Two passing fishermen found the statue and prayed for an end to the suffering in town.
As a result every October 21st, the Feast Day of the Black Christ of Portobelo is celebrated with great adulation. Upwards of 40,000 devotees make the yearly pilgrimage to worship the purple-robed pontiff. Some even come crawling on all fours punishing themselves with scathing burns and bruises hoping for penance for heinous sins.
At eight o’clock, the statue depicting Christ carrying the cross is paraded out of the church on a platform borne by 80 men. It weighs a backbreaking ton and the procession takes hours to complete.
Not far from Portobelo is the beginning of a stone highway called the Royal Path or Camino de Cruces. Before the the Panama railroad or the canal, the Spanish laid a cobblestone road that ran 50 miles through juggles and predatory environments. Once wide enough for mule trains it now requires demanding bushwhacking to locate the original path. We explored only about 2 miles of it before retiring to our vehicle.
The Rainforest Discovery Center
By January 2007, the Tropical Rainforest Discovery Center at Pipeline Road within Soberania National Park will be open to visitors. This is where the Audubon Society has held its world record Christmas bird count record for 19 straight years so bring a set of binoculars!
Read more GoNOMAD stories about Panama
Like this on Facebook: