Beyond the Zone
As the United States prepares to hand over the canal, Panama’s wild wonders are ripe for discovery.
By Alex Markels
Outside Magazine, September 1999
Nowhere else on earth do the wonders of man and nature collide so abruptly as they do near the banks of the Panama Canal. From my perch atop a radar tower once used to track drug traffickers’ planes, I peer out over a lush rainforest canopy that flows across lumpy green mountains. Flocks of veridian parrots buzz the treetops and disappear over the Caribbean horizon to the north. Howler monkeys crash through the foliage below me. And during my visit, nearly a million migrating hawks have been dotting the skies as they fly south toward the Pacific. Stretched out along a 3.5-million-year-old land bridge, Panama is the ultimate ecological crossroads, a habitat for more than a thousand bird and animal species whose northern- and southernmost ranges overlap, with the result that a country one-fifth the size of California claims a greater variety of species than the entire United States.
At the same time, bisecting this S-shaped isthmus is a gargantuan ditch, the surreal scale of which only becomes clear as I spot the white bow of a 40,000-ton cruise ship that seems to float through the jungle. Mention Panama and it’s this marvel of engineering that first comes to mind. (The United States, which built the Canal between 1904 and 1914, will hand over control of the waterway to Panama at noon on December 31 of this year.) The second popular image of the country, which still dissuades most cruise-ship passengers from disembarking to explore, is that of a banana republic awash in drugs and ruled by pineapple-skinned dictators.
In fact, much has changed in the near-decade since the United States invaded Panama and extricated strongman Manuel Noriega from the scene. The second round of free elections was recently held, and in accordance with the Panama Canal Treaty, the United States is about to complete a two-decade-long process of turning over hundreds of square miles of primary rainforest and tropical beachfront. Already more than four million acres—about a quarter of the country—are protected, more parkland than in any other Central American country, including Costa Rica.
A chunk of this land is a green legacy of the Canal Zone. Most of 1,300 square miles surrounding the Canal is a forested, soil-preserving watershed; the locks depend on freshwater to operate. And large tracts of former U.S. military properties are nearly as undeveloped as they were when occupied almost a century ago.
The long-term U.S. presence has left other positive legacies, including perhaps the most modern road system in Central America, scores of remote airstrips, and a dollar-based, English-friendly economy. Panama is one of the world’s easiest countries for Americans to explore. You can even drink the water right out of the tap.
Unlike neighboring Costa Rica, however, Panama’s ecotourism industry is still in its infancy, and qualified guides are scarce. But there is no shortage of places worth exploring. If you’ve got a week to wander, consider the following itinerary: Fly into Panama City and stay at Rainforest Canopy Tower, a former radar installation that has been converted into a funky lodge for birders and Zone explorers. After a couple of days, puddlejump north to the Caribbean archipelago of Bocas del Toro for an interlude of Robinson Crusoe role-playing and snorkeling. Then drive up into the cloud-forested highlands around Boquete, where the whitewater rafting is superb. If you have time, also investigate the surfing along the Pacific’s Playa Santa Catalina; try deep-sea fishing off Bahía Piña; or trek in the primordial Darien jungle, home of the Emberá, one of Panama’s seven remaining indigenous tribes.
If you do decide to explore Panama, don’t expect deluxe accommodations—or the crowds of tourists who need that kind of hand-holding. Panama may be a country on the brink, with plans to make tourism the nation’s number-two industry in the new millennium, but for adventurous travelers the time to visit is now.
THE CANAL ZONEClose to congested Panama City and punctuated by less than picturesque military facilities, the Zone might not be your first choice when dreaming up a getaway. But come anyway: first, to take an obligatory tour on the Canal, the region’s most popular tourist attraction ($75 for a half-day; 507-228-4348). Stay a day or two to explore oddities like Barro Colorado, an island created when the Canal’s main reservoir was flooded; it’s the site of the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute. (Limited tours are available; call 507-227-6022 for information.)
The best place to bunk is the new Rainforest Canopy Tower, located on a hilltop overlooking 54,600-acre Soberanía National Park. Owner Raúl Arias de Para, the 52-year-old scion of one of Panama’s revolutionary founders, has meticulously transformed a windowless steel cylinder into an airy six-bedroom lodge with teak paneling and a canary-yellow and aquamarine paint job inspired by toucan colors.
The Tower affords unparalleled views of the surrounding forest—more than 250 bird species have been spotted from the deck—but you’ll want to climb down occasionally to explore on foot. It’s worth hiring a guide for at least part of your wanderings to point out well-hidden wildlife and navigate overgrown trails. A reformed poacher named Segundo Jimenez leads Tower guests on twice-daily hikes to nearby sites, including the 400-year-old Las Cruces Trail, once used to transport Inca gold to Caribbean ports.
Or call Hernán Araúz, who’s generally acknowledged to be Panama’s most swashbuckling guide. Son of an anthropologist and a cartographer, 38-year-old Araúz looks more than the part: beard, barrel chest, army fatigues, and an ever-present Colt revolver. (“To ward off the white-lipped peccaries,” he explains. “They are very aggressive.”) In flawless English, he’ll regale you with tales of his dozen Darien crossings—including one about his encounter with a tribe known for getting drunk on the fermented contents of monkeys’ stomachs.
Araúz, who works for the tourism branch of Ancon, Panama’s top private conservation group, can take you anywhere in the country, schedule permitting. Nearby trips include a 45-minute drive north to Fort Sherman, a 32,000-acre, densely jungled former U.S. military base that’s home to sixteenth-century Fort San Lorenzo. Even closer is Pipeline Road, a nine-mile-long, Canal-paralleling track that’s surrounded by one of the world’s most renowned birding meccas: In the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, this area consistently ranks among the top three spots in the Americas. During a hike here last winter, Araúz pointed out not only a slaty-tailed trogon, toucans, and black-cheeked woodpeckers, but also a nest of tiny arboreal ants, a handful of which he crushed and rubbed into his arm. “Mosquito repellent,” he declared.
ISTHMUS TIMEMapping your course between two oceans and two continents
When to Go: Panama’s dry season starts in December and lasts through April, but it’s not the only time to visit. Temperatures remain fairly constant all year, with lows in the midseventies and highs in the low nineties. Pacific regions get far less rain than Caribbean areas, where downpours threaten year-round but rarely last long. Panama is thankfully out of the hurricane track that devastated Central America last year. The best advice: Pack a breathable rain jacket and waterproof shoes and go whenever you can.
Getting There: You can fly nonstop to Panama from Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, and Miami for fares starting at $500 round-trip. From Panama City, the country’s four commercial airlines offer affordable domestic flights; round-trip to Bocas del Toro, for example, costs less than $100.
Lodging: The Canal Zone’s Rainforest Canopy Tower is well worth the splurge ($145 per person, including three meals and two nature tours; 507-264-5720). In Bocas del Toro, Cocomo-on-the-Sea boasts terraces with hammocks (doubles, $45, including breakfast; 507-757-9259). Within the highlands’ La Amistad park, Cabañas los Quetzales charges $100 for kitchen-equipped chalets that sleep five to 14 guests; just down the road, in the village of Guadalupe, high-ceilinged, airy doubles at Hotel los Quetzales (507-771-2182) cost $40.
Outfitters: Panama’s premier tour operator, Ancon Expeditions (888-888-4106), employs excellent nature guides, including Hernán Araúz, who specializes in Darien treks. Rates range from $50 to $100 per person per day, depending on the activity. Bocas Water Sports (507-757-9541) charges $35 for one-tank dives. Chiriquí River Rafting (507-720-1505) offers one-day whitewater trips for $90 per person; starting in November, Nantahala Outdoor Center will run nine-day kayak trips (about $1,400 per person; 888-662-1662).
Readings: David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas (Simon & Schuster, $17) is an absorbing account of the canal’s construction. Take along the Lonely Planet Panama Guide, by Scott Doggett (Lonely Planet, $17), and A Guide to the Birds of Panama, by Robert Ridgely and John Gwynne Jr. (Princeton University Press, $40). —A.M.
BOCAS DEL TORO
Hundreds of green sea turtles keep a secret from the tourists who flock to Costa Rica’s Tortuguero beaches each summer to see them nest. On their way north, the turtles migrate through Bocas del Toro, a luscious collection of 68 Caribbean islands that offer deserted beaches as well as snorkeling among dolphins, eagle rays, soft corals, and shallow volcanic tunnels.
Dubbed Veraguas, or Greenwaters, by Columbus, Bocas is now surrounded by a huge banana-growing belt. The ethnic mix of workers is so diverse that the archipelago has adopted its own hybrid language, called Guari-Guari, a mélange of Spanish, English, and at least two indigenous dialects. The laid-back Caribbean style of life here is evident in the use of the word tranquilo—the locals’ invariable response when asked how it’s going—and in the languid pace of the water taxis that provide the primary means of transportation. For a few bucks, a taxi will drop you on an empty beach like those on Cayos Zapatillas, where you can stretch out on white sand under a coconut palm all day.
Or you can kick back, as I did, on the veranda of one of the clapboard guest houses on stilts in Isla Colón’s hot spot, Bocas del Toro town, where plantation workers drink rum and dance to reggae bands like the Bastimentos Beach Boys. With a three-stringed bassist and a thumb-strumming guitar player, the ragtag but rhythmically impeccable quartet played an impromptu session at my hotel one night while I gorged on lobster-and-crab seviche and rondon, a seafood potluck–style stew.
Bocas fishermen also traditionally hunt green sea turtles for meat, but Ancon has been working to change attitudes and recently helped secure protection for 14 miles of nesting beaches (and 32,000 acres of reefs and mangrove forests) on Isla Bastimentos and nearby islands. For divers and snorkelers underwater conditions are excellent (except right after rainstorms, when silty river flow cuts visibility). If you’re certified, head out with Bocas Water Sports to Cayo Crawl, the Garden, or Hospital Point, a 50-foot wall off Cayo Nancy. Snorkelers can hire water taxis to ferry them out to the reefs.
Despite the convenience of a 55-minute plane flight from Panama City, Bocas gets only a trickle of foreign travelers. That’s starting to change, however, and Europeans and Americans have begun scooping up beachfront lots for as little as $2,000 an acre. Development in these paradisiacal islands is inevitable, but for the foreseeable future, unpolished Bocas remains slow, peaceful, and nothing near a resort.
When Panamanians want to escape the lowland swelter they head for the Chiriquí highlands surrounding 11,340-foot Volcán Barú on the Costa Rican border. If you reach the highlands via the stomach-churning three-hour bus ride from Bocas del Toro over the Cordillera Central, you can celebrate your safe arrival in Panama’s “Little Switzerland” with fresh-grown coffee and strawberries—and rejuvenating hikes though shady cloud forests.
Ever aware of nearby Costa Rica’s booming tourism business, Chiriquí guides are fond of pointing out the inverse relationship between tourists and quetzals, the green-tailed Holy Grail of birders. Sure enough, my quetzal-free tromps along Costa Rica’s populous trails contrast sharply with a single hike on Barú’s slopes, where my guide showed me four in less than an hour. (The best local hike is Sendero los Quetzales, a five-mile trail that crisscrosses the Río Caldera as it encircles the volcano.)
Or try your luck hanging out near a bird feeder on the deck of a chalet at Carlos Alfaro’s Cabañas los Quetzales, just down the road from the trailhead near the hamlet of Guadalupe. Perched at the edge of La Amistad International Park, a million-acre reserve that straddles the Costa Rican border, Alfaro’s oasis sits among flower-lined paths and stream-fed pools stocked with huge rainbow trout. Alfaro serves them up with organic vegetables grown in his garden at Hotel los Quetzales, a ten-room lodge he recently opened in Guadalupe.
At the eastern end of Sendero los Quetzales lies the high-valley town of Boquete, where many of Panama’s gentry—and a growing number of expatriates—have built sprawling retreats and coffee plantations. From here you can climb Barú, Panama’s gusty high point; on a clear day you can see the island-flecked waters of both the Caribbean and the Pacific.
Without a doubt, though, the Chiriquí’s greatest thrill is the recently introduced diversion of whitewater rafting. A reassuringly safety-conscious local company, Chiriquí River Rafting, offers day trips along the Río Chiriquí or the Chiriquí Viejo, both of which have highly respectable Class III-IV rapids, especially during the May-to-December rainy season. And starting this November, North Carolina–based Nantahala Outdoor Center will colead multiday trips, including some possible first kayak descents.
As more veteran adventure outfits like NOC set up outposts in Panama’s backcountry, the options are going to multiply. What better way to celebrate the new century, in any case, than with a freewheeling tour of a country that’s been a U.S. military and economic asset for much of the century—a country, it turns out, that most of us civilians never knew at all?
Alex Markels is based in Minturn, Colorado, and travels frequently in Latin America.
The Great Escape
Remote Coiba Island is one tropical paradise you probably don’t want to get stranded on
Forty miles off the southern tip of Panama’s Pacific Coast lies perhaps the most eloquent proof that the country still offers unorthodox adventures for audacious travelers. Coiba Island is home to virgin jungle, the eastern Pacific’s second-largest coral reef, Panama’s last cluster of scarlet macaws—and approximately 850 convicted murderers, rapists, and thieves.
Though Coiba and its surrounding waters were declared a national park in 1991, the 300-square-mile island’s more traditional purpose, since 1919, has been to provide a home for an unfenced penal colony. These days, about ten “model” prisoners work at the park ranger’s station. A few are murderers who have earned the trust of their guards—so much so that they’re even allowed to lead tourists on snorkeling trips to nearby coves. (Just ask, and they’ll tell you stories of escape attempts and the years when Noriega and his cronies vacationed in some of the beachfront thatch huts now inhabited by prisoners.)
To the great relief of the handful of tourists who now make the trip, the best diving and snorkeling happens offshore, amid a half-dozen tiny outlying islands. Thanks to the nearby Humboldt current, divers are almost guaranteed to see very large underwater creatures: manta rays as well as white-tipped hammerhead, and tiger sharks. (During the June-to-August migration season, you may also see orcas and humpback whales.) The purple coral ledges off Isla Jicarón drop 120 feet and draw huge schools of amberjack, snapper, and grouper. And Isla Montuoso offers the chance not only to see marlin and other billfish in the water, but also to loll on some of the most secluded beaches in the country.
Currently, the only regularly scheduled trips to Coiba are aboard the luxurious confines of Coiba Explorer’s 115-foot yacht. Aimed at scuba fanatics, the weeklong tours run $2,500 per person and include unlimited diving, meals, and round-trip transport from Panama City. (Call 800-733-4742 for reservations.) Ancon Expeditions can arrange more reasonably priced, four-day group tours (about $530 per person, including meals, lodging, guides, and round-trip transport from Santiago). Since you’ll be bedding down in the inmate-staffed ranger station, you might want to request veteran guide Hernán Araúz—and his trusty Colt revolver. —A.M.
© 1999, Outside magazine