Panama

Hi All,
One silver lining of underemployment is having large chunks of time to fill with travels. Seeing little snow on the horizon in this curiously mild VT winter, I flew down to Panama for 3 weeks to visit my buddy Jason in Panama. He is currently serving as a US Peace Corps volunteer in organic agriculture, and you can follow his blog here. Apologies in advance for the photo resolution, which is less than my usual standard on this blog. Due to the circumstances of our trip, most photos were taken on a phone or a bad point-and-shoot. Still, one would have to work very hard to make Panama look ugly.
More narrative about the trip to come. Enjoy!


Panama protests my arrival
Hours before embarking, the indigenous communities began widespread protests and demonstrations causing the blockage of the Pan-American Highway, the only conduit for east-west transportation across the country. Everyone seemed to be in support of these protests (except the government) despite their inconvenience on trade and tourism, as they were calling for the halt of illegal strip-mining and hydro-electric projects proposed for these autonomous tribal lands. In any case, I wound up in-country in the middle of all these protests (quite literally, as this photo indicates), making it very difficult to make predictable travel arrangements for the rest of the journey. Not only were roads closed, but the news was full of burning tires, tear gas clouds, and police vs protester standoffs.


No protests on the beach!
The first real destination of our trip was Las Lajas, a town an hour south of the ground zero of the protests. Fortunately things cleared up for a couple of days to allow us to get through, and we were delivered to this relaxing pacific locale. Not much to do here but swim a bit, play chess on the beach, and watch pelicans on the surf. What a difficult life. We spent a couple days here, then went up to Jason's site.

In site
After an hour long bus ride,  a 30-minute open-air-truck-taxi, and a 2 1/2 hour steep hike up a long-abandoned dirt road and trail network, the jungle opened up into a half-acre clearing that is home to Jason and his neighbors. Most of the dozen or so folks that live around him are one big family unit, all related in some way to the slightly senile grandma and grandpa. These folks are part of the Ngabe-Bugle tribe, one of 5 groups indigenous to Panama. All the women are excellent seamstresses, and wear these handmade, colorful dresses. This woman was nice enough to add some fancy decorations to one of my dress shirts!
Life was pretty mellow here. The excitement of the day was the newly-carved seat for the pit toilet. When there is no harvesting to be done, folks mainly sit around the hammocks drinking cacao tea and listening to the radio. Jason taught some of the men to play chess, and I had the pleasure of playing several games against them. At various points throughout the day, someone would make a big pot of rice and beans for everyone to share, then we would resume drinking tea. We spent a while gathering leaves and litter to mulch Jason's vegetable garden, and one of the kids came along with a large machete to help us chop down the vegetation. 


View from a high point on the hike out of Jason's site. We spent 4 or 5 nights there, then headed on to our next destination.


We spent one indulgent night on Boca Brava, an island with a mid-priced hostel with fruity island drinks, monkeys howling in the woods, and lovely sunrises and sunsets over the lagoons. Not much to report on here.
Our next stop was Boquete, a high-elevation touristy town known for its fabulous coffee and striking mountains.



While in Boquete, we toured an organic coffee plantation that made the world-renowned Gesha coffee, which sells for around $180/lb. Favored with high elevation, lots of precipitation, cool temperatures, and volcanic soils, the coffee grown in this region has a tart and fruity flavor that needs no cream or sugar. Above is a selection of freshly-dried beans that were light-, medium-, and dark-roasted for us. The cooky owner of this small farm kept appearing over our shoulders, pouring us coffee from a full french press.

 
The highlight of our trip was certainly the hike up Volcan Baru. At 11,398 ft, it is Panama's highest point, and on a clear morning the Atlantic and Pacific oceans can both be easily seen from the peak. We began our 17-mile hike at midnight, and arrived just in time for dawn at the summit. Hummingbirds and butterflies joined us the entire hike down, as the trail weaved through farms, pastures, and cloud forest.






 
Cerro Punta, our last big destination, is on the opposite site of Volcan Baru from Boquete,  and we could have hiked between the two towns on a famous little trail had we been prepared for it. Instead, we took a 3 or 4 hour bus ride to reach this end-of-the-road town, which is known for its fresh strawberries and ubiquitous flowers. The town's agriculture is precariously situated on steep slopes, and creative contouring and irrigation ditches seems to reduce the inevitable erosion risk from catastrophic to worrisome. Even though the watershed was surely not in the best shape thanks to these questionable farming practices, it was sure a gorgeous looking town!

The only thing more beautiful than the town of Cerro Punta was its rainforests.  We spent two mornings hiking deep into the cloud forests in search of the Resplendent Quetzal, which did not disappoint, and we were also rewarded with waterfalls, dramatic vistas, and 1,500 year old trees.

Comments

  1. Beautiful pictures, Sean! I bet it was fantastic to see Jason. Wish I could have been there! By the way, I'll be in Vermont for the weekend in a few weeks...

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