Panama’s Wild Side: An Eco-traveler’s Paradise

An Undiscovered Paradise for the Eco-Traveler

By Sonja Stark
Senior Writer

Leaving Miraflores, Panama Canal. David Rich photo.
Leaving Miraflores, Panama Canal. David Rich photo.

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 ex-pats congregating around Caesar Park Casino and free internet cafes. We would soon be seeing the country’s wild side.

This modern metropolis of glass high-rises and political stability is the new favorite retirement destination for Americans. And unlike Florida, it rarely is hit by hurricanes.

But I’m not here to bivouac in upscale hotels or shop-till-I-drop like a wealthy foreigner. I’m at the ‘crossroads of America’ for an eco-tour of some of the most fascinating areas in the Panama Canal watershed.

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. website

Teaming with wildlife, history, and age-old trails, Panama is an eco-travelers 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 handicrafts.


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.

River turtles cluster on dead logs and two-toed sloths hang like bats in an open canopy. A staggering fact: Panama is home to more species of birds, bugs, and animals than all of North America.

Chagres River Trip

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.

The Panama Canal saves ships nearly 8,000 miles from traversing the Cape Horn route. Miraflores and Gatún both created artificial lakes when they were built – useful not just for transit but fishing, swimming, and boating.

Meeting the Embera

Waiting on the shoreline is a pair of Embera tribe members dressed in a 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 complemented by colorful short skirts. There are five or six wide-eyed children frolicking on the bank.

We’re escorted into a palapa or community hut for an introduction from the head tribe member. Hundreds of Emberas once thrived here, now only 54 remain – 22 children, 26 adults, and 6 seniors. Their primitive lifestyle of hunting and farming changed 10 years ago to protect the Rio Chagres so they turned to tourism for their salvation.

It’s a concept that hasn’t come easy for normally self-sufficient people. To help out, the women sell intricate carvings made from cocobolo wood and tagua or vegetable ivory. Their crafts are impossible to replicate by machine as it takes as long as a week to perfect.

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.

Healing Compounds

Certain trees’ limbs pump fresh water through their veins while others have medicinal qualities to cure ailments. Healing compounds can be found in nearly 70% of the plants in Panama. From toothaches to premenstrual cramps to childhood leukemia, modern medicine could learn a thing or two from indigenous tribes.

The circling mosquitoes don’t bother our guide but they’re notorious – so make sure you’re 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 the ground. This protects them from preying on animals, insects, and the rain.

The women prepare fresh tilapia with fried plantains on banana leaf plates. Delicious.

The day wraps up with a train dance performed with clapping hands and thumping feet. There’s a nurturing quality in my new friend’s movements and language and the smallest Embera clutches my hand to join in the celebration. We dance hand-in-hand for several heartfelt moments and I feel a little sorry when it’s time to go.

The Embera Community offers a rare glimpse into one of only seven surviving tribes left in Panama. Their vitality and resilience to change provide 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

We’re sucked back in time, somewhere between 1502 and 1515 when the Spanish Conquistadors befriended the Indian tribes who wore lavish breastplates, pearl earrings and gold ornaments – priceless jewelry that was highly sought after by the Spanish.

Like any good gold rush, it didn’t take long before the customary looting and plundering began. The precious cargo set sail for Spain in large wooden galleons marked for the King in Madrid.

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 cannons were built to protect them. Munitions depots and an impenetrable Custom House warded off invaders… but only for a short time.

The cruel English navy hero, Sir Francis Drake sacked the city in 1573 stealing fifteen tons of silver and 100,000 pounds of gold coins. Historians claim it was the commercial hub of the world then, much like New York, London, and Hong Kong are today.

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.

And though it might be challenging to find a hotel here, scant tourism means fewer crowds and a slower pace. Even Parrothead jet-setter Jimmy Buffet has docked his yacht here. Berger once took him and his musician friends on a tour of Panama including the kayaks. Locals might have heard the singer/songwriter strumming “Margaritaville” under the stars in the evening.

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 bathwater 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 buoyantly in the salty blue ocean.

A Miracle From Above

Before his son Joseph was born, a dubious Berger didn’t so much believe that praying to the Black Christ worked miracles. Every year he would join the annual pilgrimage on October 21 and walk nearly 20 miles from the outskirts of Colon to Portobelo.

Others walk from as far away as Panama City and beyond – a three-day journey. Once inside the church, facing the effigy, he’d stop short of asking for anything. Panama had always treated him lovingly – what possibly could he want?

Then it happened. He and his wife had been trying to conceive but to no avail, so he asked the Black Jesus of Portobelo for a miracle. Two months later Jill was pregnant and their first and only son was born seven months later. Fate? Timing? There’s no use in trying to convince Berger that it was anything but a blessing 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.

Miraculously, the plague lifted and lingered only in neighboring villages. Portobelo was safe from misery and hardship thanks to a statue they called Christo Negro.

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.

Followers with candles slide back and forth in a motion that resembles the lethargic rhythm of gentle ocean currents. A brass horn section at full volume adds to the hypnotic seductiveness of the march. In my opinion, Christo Negro’s facial features are kind and compassionate while others see fear and dread in his eyes. Regardless, the spiritual power that’s felt in his presence could change the attitude of the most hardened skeptic.

Not far from Portobelo is the beginning of a stone highway called the Royal Path or Camino de Cruces. Before 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

Environmentalist Beatrice Schmitt knows the importance of reclaiming footprints from the past. She’s currently working on building a canopy tower, footbridge, and learning center in the central canal ecotourism area. This is only one of twelve biological life zones.

On a tour of the area, Schmitt surprises us all by taste-testing a rotting cantaloupe to prove it’s edible and holding up a little leafcutter ant to hear it’s screech. A dizzying array of more than 2000 species of flowering plants and 350 species of birds thrive here.

Schmitt remains animated and energetic despite a sour, sloppy expedition through a muddy forest. I’m returning in January to see the fruits of her labor and further this memorable adventure… Remind me to bring my binoculars and insect repellent.

Rainforests carry a mystique and romance all their own and it’s hard to believe that anyone would rather spend their vacation in a casino than gamble at a shot of seeing an endangered anteater or a small-eared shrew. If backpacking takes its toll, hop aboard the luxury transcontinental train ride for plush seating, free drinks, and an unbelievable view of all 50 miles of Panama’s narrow ‘waistline.’

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