It felt a little strange to sit and write of rainforest treks and sunny beaches while the last snow was melting outside the window in Sweden, which is why this post is over a month late. But here it is anyway – our last two weeks on the road…
Back to being backpackers again after disembarking from Tahina and ending two great weeks spent in the San Blas archipelago. After setting foot on mainland Panama we caught a bus from Colon across the whole country over to the Pacific side and Panama City – actually only a couple short hours away. Our first day in Panama City we went to the historical part of town, Casco Viejo. It has lots of colonial buildings, some were being renovated at the moment but many parts of the area feel quite rundown. We found a museum about the Panama Canal – it was mostly in Spanish but I picked up some things…for example over 22,000 workers died in the first attempt to build it, from yellow fever and malaria, before the French gave up and the US took over! Later in the afternoon when we were leaving a restaurant the waiter told us there was going to be a big protest outside and we better get out of the area – we had actually seen some police in riot gear walking around earlier… Unfortunately no taxi drivers knew our hostel or street though, and we had to walk around for another half an hour, asking five different cars, before we finally found one that would take us.
The next day we went to the Metropolitan national park – it is an area of forest enclosed on three sides by the capital city, but connecting to a series of protected areas all the way to the Caribbean on the north side creating a long wildlife corridor. Panama has been clever enough to protect the forest in the catchment area for their freshwater supply and canal (in Malaysian Borneo for example, once a new mega-dam is built they usually use the all new access-roads to log and destroy the forest in the catchment area, so the (taxpayer funded..) dam gets stilted up and useless in just a decade..). The first trail we walked was short – we could still hear the traffic – a second trail took us a little deeper into the forest. It looks like a mostly dry forest – open canopy and not too many epiphytes but an amazing tangle of lianas everywhere. We had fun watching the leaf-cutter ant super-highways on the ground – they have a dedicated class of bigger ants that clear the ant-trails, removing stones and twigs, so that the smaller ones can work on chopping up and carry the leafs around and down into their underground fungus plantations. Amazing non-stop workaholics. We saw another funny animal as well, Coati’s – the same long-nosed cuddly-looking raccoons we spotted all the way down in Argentina a couple months back. A viewpoint on a hill in the park had nice views over the forest, with the skyscrapers of the downtown city and the ocean visible further away.
We left Panama City for Boquete, figuring this would be our last chance to fit a couple of long uncomfortable bus rides in before we finish the trip! This one didn’t disappoint – the bus was probably about twice the age of the driver, a boy who looked only around 15. His driving was better than anticipated though, and the gear-box actually lasted most of the 7-8 hour trip, finally collapsing an hour outside the town of David around nightfall. It was dark by the time we got to David, after waiting by the roadside and switching to another bus, but luckily in David the buses to Boquete had still not stopped running for the day. Boquete is quite popular it seems – we walked around for quite a while with the big backpacks finding all hostels full (or closed for the night) – got stuck with an expensive hotel room for the first night in the end and hopped over to a nicer hostel in the morning. And of course by the time we had finally secured a place to sleep there were no places open to eat…we were lucky to find a small ice-cream parlor that still hadn’t closed. Any day that ends with strawberries and ice-cream for dinner is Ok in my book!
Boquete is a cute little mountain village, famous for coffee growing (and strawberries actually!) – it has become popular as a retirement location for Europeans and Americans during the last decade or so, and all the nice little German bakeries and cafe’s gave me a great chance to try to get my coffee drinking up to speed before visiting friends and family in Sweden… The first thing we did though was visit an animal rescue center a few kilometers walk outside town – they had adorable little Tamarind monkeys with babies and lots of colourful macaws and other birds but my favourite was a Margay cat. An amazingly beautiful jungle cat, quite similar to an Ocelot but more adopted to a life in the trees – jaguar pattern fur and about twice the size of a house cat. Most of the animals had previously been kept as pets, ending up here when owners couldn’t take care of them properly – many had stories of the horrific conditions they were found in on signs outside the cages, but occasionally they get rehabilitated enough to be released. Another amazing animal there was a Kinkajuo – a “cat-monkey”-like raccoon-family creature, sleepy-looking (nocturnal) and with a tail as long as the body and a tongue three times as long as the head!
The next morning in Boquete we started early to walk the Quetzal trail, a famous bird-watching trail in the cloud-forests of the Volcan Baru national park. We took a taxi from the hostel to be at the trail-head at 7am, at 1700 meters altitude. The cloud-forest was dense and dripping, covered in epiphytes – more and more the higher we got. The first few kilometers followed a 4×4 track, then the trail took off as a narrow path climbing higher up the slopes of the volcano – some parts were destroyed by landslides but it was quite easy to follow. The bird song in the early morning was amazing – we probably only saw 5-10 species (and we didn’t spot the famous Quetzal) but we must have heard a hundred different species sing during the first couple hours after sunrise. And the forest was stunning, mist drifting in and out as we reached the higher slopes at 2500 meters, trees covered in long beards of lichens and branches so heavy with bromeliads that they sometimes break off and fall to the ground. It started to rain a bit during the last couple of hours while we climbed down the hills on the other side of the mountain, and at the opposite trail-head we were lucky to find a bus waiting for a group of Americans we had met on the trail. We hitched a lift with them back to Boquete via the town of David, rounding the volcano on the south side to return (there are no roads on the north side, although an unpopular Panamanian politician once wanted to pave the famous trek through the cloud-forest national park, unintentionally giving birth to the country’s environmental movement!).
The day after the trek we took a tour to a coffee plantation, run by Casa Ruiz. The guide, who belonged to one of Panama’s indigenous groups, was very good and toured us by the plantation and processing plant and explained all the different steps the beans have to pass through before we finished with a tasting session (chocolatey, vinagery, or fishy…? – the experts can pick out some 150 different subtle flavours apparently). I was amazed how well the plantations are thought out – coffea arabica bushes need a bit of shade so there are lots of trees above, a mixed forest with lots of fruit trees to harvest from and places for birds to make nests – more birds means less insects so less need to spray. Some of the shading-plants had been chosen because they can absorb nitrogen from the air, meaning less need to fertilize. For roasting they burn the husks from the beans and some firewood from the trees (which are trimmed every year so they don’t shade the coffee too much) – the ash in turn is spread back on the farm as fertilizer. Very clever – nearly a closed system, and some of their farms were fully organic. At the moment they were planting a lot of a low-yield variety called Guessha (Geisha) which has won Panama a lot of best-coffee-in-the-world prices – it’s the second most expensive after Asian palm-civet coffee (where the beans have passed through the digestive tract of a civet – I was slightly tempted to try a 25 euro cup of it back in Hong Kong…). The guide also talked a little about how Boquete has changed since becoming a westerner retirement spot – few locals can afford land any more and some coffee plantations are actually disappearing as they get turned into gated housing estates… At the same time people are happy for the income of course, and several of his friends who had sold houses or land for hundreds of thousands of dollars had retired themselves afterwards (..although somewhere else in Panama where it is much cheaper!).
Back to Panama City again – no mishaps on the bus this time. We went out for a nice dinner in Casco Viejo with Frank and Karen from Tahina, and their new crew Lara and Jason. We had hoped to make it back to join the two-day Panama Canal transit originally, but in the end we didn’t have enough days (though if the the canal authorities had given them more than a one-minute notice of delaying them for a day extra we probably could have – we spotted them going through on the canal webcams at least though).
Our final excursion in Panama before catching a 2am flight to Miami was Pipeline Road in Soberania national park. It is another famous bird-watching location, only an hour from the city, and we set out to be there before 7am (making for a very long day with the flight out the same night). This location has the world record for maximum-bird-species-spotted-in-24-hours – an amazing 350! For a comparison in all of Europe there’s less than 1000. I can’t help to think though that if someone is still able to tell bird 347 from bird 348 after looking through a pair of binoculars for 24 hours straight it probably says nearly as much for the quality of Panamanian coffee as it does for the country’s astonishing biodiversity!
We first spent a while by the park headquarters, trying to take photos of all the different hummingbird species making rapid dashes back and forth to the sugar-water feeders hanging outside. Very fast – sometimes they take off from the shutter-release sound from the camera before it has even taken the photo! When I felt I had enough blurry tail-feathers on my memory card a guide from the park took us to a canopy tower nearby. This was the place to be to see birds – they had a powerful telescope mounted on a tripod up there and we saw several species of toucans, doves, birds of prey – and howler monkeys. After another short walk by a water hole, kingfishers and jacanas, we spotted several sloth and more howler monkeys before the guide sent us off to walk the pipeline road alone. It was past 10am now and it was starting to get very hot – fewer birds out and we spotted mostly leaf-cutter ants, and more howler monkeys. The forest was nice though, but not as pretty as the Soberania cloud-forests. Lowland forest is always a little less exiting to walk in, as most life is invisible high up in the canopy. The taxi back to Panama City picked us up at 2pm, and we spent our last Panama hours in a shopping center, starting to work on replacing those of the clothes in our backpacks that had to be thrown out after a year on the road (…nearly every item I own according to Edel, and especially the hat! – ..but I managed to hold on to a few! At the end of our last year-trip in Bangkok I gave a big bundle to a homeless guy on the street, but there is probably noone in Panama City who would wear my leave-behinds from this trip..).
We landed in Miami in the morning of March 28th. Our final flight home was in the evening of the 30th, and Edel had planned another big round of shopping. Coming from Panama City I actually found it pretty cold in Miami, which didn’t look good for heading back home to Sweden (which still had snow on the ground) two days later! We took a stroll on Miami beach in the morning since the hotel didn’t have our room ready until noon – the city reminded me a lot of the Grand Theft Auto Vice City computer game I played years ago – I recognized lots of things from the game and felt a slight urge to steal a golf cart to try and run over joggers on the beach with…and see if I could find a rocket launcher hidden by someone’s swimming pool! I should try to sleep more on flights… More insanity: Miami is quite possibly the trendiest place on earth – during our days there I saw several people actually bump into and falling over things because they refuse to stop wearing sunglasses after dark!
Then it was over – 356 days on the road. On the way back we nearly didn’t have a flight home from Miami as BA had chosen exactly this day as the culmination of their striking efforts…and a couple of weeks later I nearly didn’t have a flight from Sweden to Ireland due to eruptions of the unpredictable (and unpronounceable) Eyjafjallajökull. A sailboat is sounding better and better…