Thursday, March 28, 2013

Panama - Beyond the Canal Zone

In 1983, I helped mist-net birds in lowland tropical forests in central Panama. The study design involved netting birds for a dozen days or so in a row, followed by some down time. This afforded us days off to explore other parts of Panama, outside the Canal Zone. We took advantage, as the country is small but diverse, and in 1983 seemed just on the edge of a new era of exploitation and over-development. We wanted to see places before they were changed by population pressures and "progress."

Perhaps my favorite excursion was to the San Blas Islands with friend Peter and my sister, Amy. For $50 each we took a 6:00 am bumpy 30-minute flight from Panama City. The plane took off over the Pacific Ocean, circled around, crossed the Continental Divide, and landed at Cartig on the mainland, on the shores of the Caribbean. Only 30 minutes by plane to get from the Pacific to the Atlantic. After a brief stop, we took off from Cartig and flew a short distance to the small island of El Porvenir. 

The San Blas encompasses an archipelago of 378 islands, of which 49 or so are inhabited by the Kuna people. They are an autonomous native people that live on these islands and the nearby mainland as well as several other places in Panama. Back in 1983, the only way to reach the islands was by plane or by boat. Today, from what I read, a jeep road extends from Panama City to the Kuna mainland on the Caribbean and modern pictures show more tourists and less paradise.

Flying over one of the San Blas Islands in 1983
Luis, the owner of Hotel San Blas, met us at the landing on Porvenir. From there he motored us in a wooden dugout canoe, or cayuko, to the nearby island of Nula Nega.

Approaching the island of Nula Nega, our home for a few days in April 1983.
The San Blas Islands are covered in palm trees and edged by sandy beaches. A breeze blows constantly, the water is warm and blue, the air clear and sunny. It is paradise -- at least when we were there in 1983. At Hotel San Blas we each had our own thatched roof hut with a bed, shelves, kerosene lamp, and dirt floor. No electricity, no phone, no crowds. 

Hotel San Blas on Nula Nega
The Kuna welcomed us to their island and their community. The women seemed happy and fun-loving, laughing a lot, probably mostly at us. They are known for their molas: hand-stitched layers of colorful fabrics with designs of birds, crabs, fish and other geometric designs formed by cutting away parts of each layer. Women make these as part of their traditional clothing and many are made to sell to tourists. We bought a few. The traditional dress of a Kuna woman includes a colorful skirt, a blouse with a mola panel on the front and back, a red and yellow head scarf, and a gold nose ring.

A Kuna woman on the San Blas Islands
A Kuna girl with her pet keel-billed toucan
During our two-day stay, Luis took us by cayuko to Cartig on the mainland. We loafed in the hammock  at our "hotel," walked around the island in our bare feet, and snorkeled in the coral reefs. Back then the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute had a marine research site on one of the tiny islands nearby. We met up with them to snorkel since they knew the reefs well. We saw starfish, sea cucumbers, flounder, colorful fishes, sea fans and sea hairs, and a sting ray. We got sunburned. For lunch the first day they served us a huge spiny lobster caught in the off-shore waters.

Nula Nega Island views, San Blas Islands, 1983
Sunrise and sunset were beautiful -- I suppose day after day you'd tire of this simple paradise. But for two days it was wonderful, except for the food poisoning that we got the last day. It was a rough flight back. But that did not dampen our enthusiasm for the San Blas and the Kunas. From what I've read recently they are struggling with regulating tourism and protecting coral reefs, adjusting to sea level rise,  and addressing drug smuggling--even when we were there the waters around the San Blas were known as a passageway for Columbian drug smugglers. I wish the Kuna well as they were kind and welcoming to us.
We had a completely different but equally enjoyable experience spending six days in the highlands of western Panama, in the Chiriqui region. At that time, the Panama Audubon Society owned a cabin just below the town of Cerro Punta, which we rented for $20 a night. At 6,500 feet above sea level, Cerro Punta was refreshingly cool. We wore long-sleeved shirts in the evening and enjoyed an evening fire in the fireplace. We took a bus from Panama City to David--a 6 hour ride--and then another bus up to Cerro Punta. 

It was here--at the Audubon cabin--that we had the encounter with the sloth.
Cerro Punta is known for producing vegetables for sale elsewhere in Panama, for race horse farms, and to birders, for hosting a population of the extraordinarily beautiful quetzal. We hiked up to Cerro Punta from our cabin, in search of the resplendent quetzal. Along the way we stopped to see pastured animals and crop fields.
We arranged for a local Panamanian to take us up the hillside into wooded pastures and second growth forests, where he knew the location of a nesting pair of quetzals. And we saw the resplendent quetzal. It was here too, that we heard a three-wattled bellbird, which makes a unique, loud call. Check out this video of the bellbird.

A not so great picture of the quetzal that we saw in 1983;
you can just make out its long tail feathers and red belly
Quetzal habitat above Cerro Punta
We hiked even farther up into the highlands
with great views into the valley below and up the ridge line.
Our local guide, Jose Fernandez, and his younger brother,
hiking effortlessly at 7,000+ feet.
While in Panama, we made several other one-day excursions around the Canal Zone and twice we drove by car east into hill country that was being de-forested and burned and pastured. The roads were just beginning to penetrate the forests here in the communities of Cerro Azul and Cerro Jefe. It was my first experience with slash and burn agriculture. These pictures were taken thirty years ago. It makes my heart ache to think how much forest has been cleared since then, how much habitat lost, how many animals displaced.
Everywhere we went in Panama people were friendly. There was no hint of political unrest. Just people going about their daily lives, expanding into new areas of cleared forest, as local populations grew and grew. I wondered then and now, if this trend would ever end--here in Panama or elsewhere in the world as humans expand into and exploit more and more wild places.

Tomorrow I complete my retrospective of Panama, based on my five month stint there in 1983. 

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