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Financial Times: Bird watchers on a flight path to paradise

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James Wilson finds that the US withdrawal from Panama and the determination of an entrepreneur have been a boon to twitchers

Financial Times ; 27-Feb-1999; 961 words

ARCADIA

Do not be deterred by the unwelcoming message at the gate of the Canopy Tower, one of Panama's most intriguing lodgings.

"This is a US Military Defense Site," warns a sign. "It is illegal for persons not possessing a valid US-issued identification document to enter." Nor should tourists let the forbidding high wire fence come between them and a bed for the night.

For three decades the Canopy Tower was Semaphore Hill Long-Range Radar and Communications Link, built as part of the barrage of defences that the US threw up around the Panama Canal. Later its powerful radar was used to track drug traffickers' flights from South America.

In 1995, with the US winding down its presence in Panama, it was shut down. Rusting, windowless and stripped of its sensitive equipment, it had the proportions and beauty of a giant oil drum, topped off with a golf ball radar dome.

The only thing going for it was its location: hidden at the end of a mile-long road that twists through the forest to the highest point around. The tower rises to the height of the jungle canopy in a sea of uninterrupted green. For one Panamanian entrepreneur, Raul Arias de Para, it had the potential to be the perfect birdwatching platform.

Panama, the sliver of land joining two continents, has an enviable reputation among birdwatchers. Each Christmas members of the Audubon Society, the US birding and conservation organisation, go out for an annual survey.

Members in Panama have regularly topped the survey, spotting more than 300 species in a single day. A few miles from the Canopy Tower is the famous Pipeline Road through the jungle, perhaps the best place in the world to observe birds.

Arias de Para spent two years picking his way through negotiations and ended up with a swords-into-ploughshares concession to transform the Semaphore Hill radar tower into an ecotourism resort. On handover day, a sergeant turned up and thrust the keys to the place into Arias de Para's hand.

"It was a bit unceremonious," he recalls. "I was expecting a general or a captain and all we got was an NCO." Photographs of the event show the soldier grinning broadly; the place seemed a long way from a twitchers' sanctuary.

The new owner's first task was to find water. The staff who worked in shifts at the station had relied on rainwater and a tanker delivery. He bored deep into the hill. No luck. Then he heard of a retired US engineer who had bored a well for the US army 25 years ago on the same hillside.

Told which spot to try, Arias de Para struck water this time. But the original well remained a mystery until a former worker at Semaphore Hill turned up at the gate one day to see the changes. He remembered the well; the US, grown paranoid about the risk of enemies sneaking into the jungle and poisoning the water, had abandoned it and hidden all trace.

Arias de Para put a series of floors inside the tower to divide it up, added stairs, and sliced through the corrugated exterior with a blowtorch to put in panoramic windows.

On one floor he built six en suite bedrooms, and above them a lounge and kitchen. He brought in an interior designer from New York to come up with a colour scheme. He slung hammocks - woven in Colombia, the world's best - and stocked up the library with rainy day reference volumes.

As for the fibreglass, 9-metre high golf-ball dome, Arias de Para painted it yellow and surrounded it with wooden park seats, offering uninterrupted views across untamed acres of jungle.

Around the tower the birds soar and swoop, while coatis, members of the raccoon family, scrabble in the undergrowth at its base. The cries of howler monkeys drift over the treetops. From the roof, ships can be seen steaming through the Panama Canal where it carves through the continental divide. On the horizon, 20km and half an hour by car, the Bridge of the Americas arches over the Pacific entrance to the canal. Go 45km in the other direction and you reach the Caribbean.

In February the Canopy Tower opened for business with the first tour group of US birdwatchers. Leading them was ornithologist Robert Ridgely, author of the seminal Guide to the Birds of Panama.

In their week's stay, says Arias de Para, Ridgely spotted a black swift never seen before in this part of Panama. The only problem was the group's hours. "They wanted their breakfast prepared for 5am every day," says Arias de Para.

The canal zone, as a strategic site, has benefited from the US presence, being largely spared from deforestation and intrusion. This year the US leaves Panama completely and will turn over more than 25,000 hectares (9,650 sq miles) of land - much of it barely touched jungle - along with dozens of military installations.

But Panama has no armed forces of its own to fill them; they were abolished after the military ruler Manuel Antonio Noriega was overthrown by the 1989 US invasion. Arias de Para, once an opposition politician who was imprisoned twice under the Noriega regime, was later one of those charged with dismantling Noriega's troops.

So other ways are being examined of turning military sites into tourist centres. The notorious School of the Americas, a training camp for Latin America's military, is being converted into a hotel.

Arias de Para sees the Canopy Tower as a further fitting symbol of transformation. The list of bird species seen there - the plum-beous hawk, the crested guan, potoos both great and common, and puffbirds and manakins - has now reached more than 250.

Copyright © The Financial Times Limited

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