Article Twelve – Panama
by Robert DeMayo
published in Hollis Times
Far South of us, down by the equator, lie vast tracks of primary rainforest. Hot, sticky jungles filled with insects and exotic bird calls. In this world jaguars and pumas still rule the night. Everybody’s heard of the Panama canal, but very few realize that the canal is actually responsible for saving vast stretches of nature.
The canal works by gradually raising, and then lowering, the level of the water so boats can pass over the isthmus of Panama. The only way this works is with a lot of water. Each time a boat passes through the canal 52 million gallons of water is used. For this reason the U.S. Government set aside hundreds of square miles of tropical rainforest that line the canal to be used as a watershed. With the canal being transferred to Panamanian control on Dec. 31st, all these protected areas are returning to Panama as well, and most of it is being turned into National Parks. Currently one quarter of the country is protected.
A short way from Panama city you can reach Soberanía National Park (23,000 hectares) and Chagres National Park (129,000 hectares). These parks contain some of the most unique animals in the world. Their habitat has been spared because of the canal. If a major highway had been constructed instead, most of the area would have been already developed. Today you can still find the endangered Harpy Eagle with its 7 ft. wingspan, or the Bushmaster, the world’s largest viper.
A great way to experience this area is to stay at the Canopy Tower. The Tower sits on a hill within Soberanía National Park and is run by owner, Raul Arias de Para. Raul rebuilt the tower after it was abandoned by the U.S. Army. The inside now houses comfortable rooms with hammocks, mosquito nets and cozy beds. The woodwork inside is all teak. There are twelve sides to the structure and each one has a large window. The top floor is the dining area, but there are also plenty of couches, hammocks and a good library. The roof is an observation platform that gives you a 360 degree view of the treetops and the surrounding area.
Before the sun even started to lighten the sky we would all gather on the roof to see what would show up. Panama’s unique location between North and South America is responsible for the incredible number of species that live there. There are over 1,000 bird and animal species living in Panama – that’s more than the entire United States. More than 250 bird species have been spotted from the tower alone.
On an average morning we would observe parrots, toucans, blue cotingas, short tailed hawks and much more. In the lazier hours of the afternoon I watched a two-toed sloth slowly move up a tree. He didn’t seem that slow from my vantage point in a hammock. Cool breezes and distant rolling thunder slow down even the most ambitious at the Canopy Tower. Sitting eye-level with the treetops, the jungle is alive with creaks, rustling leaves and other sounds. A thousand shades of green and one splash of bright blue.
From Canopy Tower you can take a short walk through the jungle to connect with the Cruces Trail. This is the trail the Spaniards used to carry the Inca Gold from the Pacific to the Caribbean. After the Spanish got their hands on the Inca Gold they needed to get it home. They could’ve gone south and tried their luck on Cape Horn, but they opted instead to cross the Isthmus of Panama. At one point Panama is only 50 odd miles wide and a large section of that could be navigated by boat on rivers.
What remained was a 15 mile stretch through dense primary rainforest. Although it wasn’t a long distance, this short crossing has claimed many lives. The Spaniards used mules to carry the Inca treasure through the crossing. At one point they were moving over 2,000 tons of silver a year on caravans of up to 1,000 mules. If the bandits didn’t get them, the jungle did – spiky poisonous trees and deadly snakes are common here – malaria also took its toll. Renegade slaves from Haiti also fought the Spanish out of desperation for food. The Spaniards laid down stones to help prevent the trail from washing away and even after 400 years they are still visible.
Although this section of Central America is almost 3.5 million years old, it is some of the newest land on Earth. You would never believe it if you walked through the primary rainforest. Although you don’t see a lot of animals in tropical jungles, its exciting to know you walk amongst tapirs, ocelots, prehensile-tailed porcupines, anteaters, armadillos, white-faced capuchins, tamarin and capybara. In the surrounding waters are manatee, crocodiles and cayman. Ancient vines and immense trees tower off into the canopy as you follow the old trail. The canopy is 90 feet above, but the emergent layer rises to 130 feet in places.
About half way through the hike it started to rain hard. We all put on whatever protection we had and kept going. For the next few hours the rain fell upon us with a vengeance – relentless and driving. It seemed unwilling to ease up.
The next thing I knew I was hiking through the most intense downpour I’ve ever experienced – and with the first low rumble of thunder the Howler Monkeys screamed in response. The louder the thunder – the louder they screamed until it seemed one and the same.
The Howler Monkey is only a few feet tall, but when they scream it sounds like they are about eight feet tall. I don’t know how many were actually up in the canopy, but it sounded like thousands.
Despite the rain, I threw back my hood and listened to their cries. It was powerful, primal and truly unforgettable. We eventually reached the end of the trail and were picked up by boat. Within a few days I was home again, but even now, when it rains really hard I can hear the Howlers screaming. It’s good to know that deep in that mysterious jungle that hidden link to the past is still alive and breathing.
© copyright 2000 Robert DeMayo
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