Conde Nast Traveler - Panama: Tropic of Desire

by Alan Weisman

Panama has temperate rain forests, great surf and beaches, and more birdlife than any other country in Central America. Now, Alan Weisman finds, it also has a newly elected administration that wants travelers to enjoy every bit of it.

The crumbling colonial jewel that is Panama City's Casco Viejo, the capital's old quarter, is gradually being resurrected. As my wife and I stroll the cobblestones, two bicycle-mounted Tourism Police appear alongside us. Clad in shorts, faultlessly polite, they offer their services on our first day in Panama. They take us to see the gold church altar that was saved when Morgan the Pirate sacked the city in 1671, and the market where Kuna Indians sell their elaborately appliquéed molas. They show us fishing docks and former dungeons. Finally, they proudly point to an impeccably restored three-story house whose curving pastel facade overlooks the Pacific.

Its architectural meld of Spanish balconies and French doors recalls the two European intrusions that reshaped this New World isthmus: the first by conquering it, the second by digging the canal that eventually sliced it in two. Yet a third foreign power, the United States, which financed the canal, instantly begat a new nation in 1903 by recognizing Panama's first ambassador. (Since he happened to head the company that Teddy Roosevelt favored for the digging, some minor concerns over his credentials—that he was self-appointed and actually French—were dismissed.) America's diplomatic blessing effectively severed the province of Panama from an uncooperative Colombia; a century later, I still hear Latin Americans decrying this galling act of gringo imperialism, but not Panamanians, whose grateful forebears had long tried to escape distant Bogotá's fitful rule.

This isn't to say there haven't been gripes about the United States: Panama's constitution was rigged to let our government meddle at its pleasure, and until 1999, the United States claimed the Canal Zone for itself—a ten-mile-wide, coast-to-coast affront to Panamanian sovereignty. Yet even that protracted embitterment brought advantages: jobs for thousands of locals, a dollar-based economy stronger than most in Latin America, and invaluable infrastructure that Panama eventually inherited.

Another beneficiary was the current occupant of this elegant house. In 1963, while still just a boy from this barrio, he was cast to sing in a Canal Zone production of West Side Story. Five years later, Rubén Blades reached New York, and salsa music has never been the same. Now, after four Grammys, twenty-six feature films, and a master's degree from Harvard Law School, he's given it all up and come home. Not only has stardom made his house a tourist attraction but Panama's new president, Martín Torrijos, has named him minister of tourism.

The day after his appointment, we meet in one of Panama City's ubiquitous banking skyscrapers to discuss why on earth he would take the job. Largely for the money, he explains. But he's not talking about the salary: To accept this post, he declined a movie role that would have paid him far more than he'll earn in the next five years. He's talking about money for his people: "Tourism is the fastest way to distribute wealth on a national level," he says. "It helps everyone, from cabdrivers to maids, managers, restaurateurs, and curio sellers. It's a chimney-free industry. There's nothing like it." 

Until recently, Panama's economy relied mainly on commerce: canal tolls, Colón's humongous duty-free zone, and banking laws lubricated to let international capital glide through. The U.S. military discouraged cruise ships from lingering in the canal, and Panamanian dictators General Omar Torrijos (the current president's father) and drug thug Manuel Noriega rarely bothered trying to impress tourists.

"We have an immense opportunity," Blades says. "Where else can you surf in both oceans, or see Atlantic and Pacific marine life in the same day? Twenty ornithologists go to Costa Rica, hoping to glimpse one quetzal bird. Here, one birder can see twenty: We have more quetzals in a few square miles than in all the rest of Central America."

He ticks off the new administration's plans: "adventure tourism, ecotourism, agrotourism, ethnotourism, therapeutic tourism with our mineral hot springs and medicinal plants…." The first task is to inventory the nation's natural and cultural treasures. Next, the government will screen investors and developers, foreign and local, for their willingness to cooperate with ANAM (Autoridad Nacional del Ambiente), Panama's environmental-protection authority. "Seriously, we want people to take advantage of what we have," he says, "but not at the cost of losing it to satisfy someone's short-term goals."

Beyond islands and highlands, fabulous flying creatures and exuberant folklore, Blades also aims to offer something extra to weary Americans seeking safe vacation refuges: "Unprecedented security. I want any traveler who enters Panama insured by the Ministry of Tourism against accident or assault, and guaranteed instant legal assistance should something unfortunate happen. Tourists should feel protected, not all alone."

Long accustomed to being a planetary crossroads with foreigners passing through, its politics now becalmed, and its new government committing star power, Panama appears ready for tourism to take off. Its best-known attractions thus far involve two Caribbean archipelagos: the beaches of Bocas del Toro and San Blas's vibrant Kuna culture. Blades loves both, but he also urges people to follow Balboa's example and discover the isthmus's Pacific side. "When Balboa went up that mountain and saw the Southern Sea for the first time, he realized, ¡Dios mío! This is a new world!"

Our first Pacific stop requires a twenty-minute flight from Albrook, the old Canal Zone airport, out to Las Islas Perlas: 220 green clumps speckling a turquoise sea. Our destination, San José, is a necklace of scalloped beaches ringing seventeen square miles of mostly intact tropical forest, except for some sites that, during World War II, the U.S. Army used for weapons testing. The island lay abandoned until one of Panama's newest luxury getaways, Hacienda del Mar, opened there in 2000—and almost immediately closed, when seven unexploded, rusting bombs containing mustard gas were discovered. Although American and Panamanian diplomats are still negotiating a final cleanup, after five months the bombs were declared safely quarantined, and hotel guests streamed back. 

As the Twin Otter's fat tires hit the gravel strip, several peccaries and some rare, dainty brocket deer scatter. I'm intrigued to learn from another passenger that since the resort opened, San José's oysters have been inexplicably reappearing. A jeep greets us; for a half-hour we share an old military road with iguanas, agoutis, and more deer. Then we climb a rise, stop, and someone hands us rum drinks. Hacienda is a forgivable misnomer for a place so intimate. There are just fourteen simple bungalows, poised around the rim of a narrow promontory. Each has a rear balcony suspended over the water, and opens onto a garden of hibiscus and night-blooming jasmine so intoxicating that rum seems redundant. Toucans and macaws nest in the palms, and tiny cinnamon song wrens, among the world's most melodious creatures, fill the gardenia bushes.

Disclaimer: Everyone has prejudices; one of mine regards luxury resorts. Too often, I find they lure people someplace beautiful only to insulate them from it. So my sculptor wife, Beckie Kravetz, is along to furnish perspective. Just recovering from months of maniacal preparation for a solo gallery show, she currently equates pampering with life support.

The cottages are of caña blanca, a local wood resembling bamboo, and we agree that the ambience is not so much luxurious as deeply comfortable: no TVs, although there's one in the bar, and monitors with DVDs can be rented; air-conditioning, but open shutters and the ceiling fan are more than sufficient and nicer. I'm initially shaken to find no broadband, no phones even, other than a seven-dollar-per-minute satellite link that dissuades all but emergency calls, but Beckie is thrilled. "Relax—remember?" The luxury part turns out to be the food, served on a raised deck that looks toward Panama's misted coast. The intervening waters, famously rich with fish and crustaceans, provide our menu, starting with dorado and tuna bathed in garlic, coconut, cashews, and saffron. We move on to grilled squid and prawns, and get wonderfully lost in mysterious coriander and rosemary sauces. A cold octopus snack is so tender that we summon Olga Obert, the manager's wife, to explain to us how Panamanians make miracles from mere mollusks. She laughs. The cook, she says, is Russian.

I've been to Russia. "No Russian eats remotely like this."

"Why do you think he's here?" 

The octopus, however, is her own inspiration, and we pass a delectable afternoon in the hacienda's kitchen as Olga shows us how garlic, cilantro, corn, and pimentos grown on-site conspire with white wine and olive oil to turn tentacles into ambrosia.

Mostly, we do blissfully little. We skip the boat ride to where the sea bottom plunges nearly two miles and guests hook giant black marlin. Nor do we take the night jeep safari along the maze of roads that American GIs hacked through the forest to nowhere special. Almost out of obligation—we're on a tropical island, after all—we kayak to nearby perfect beaches, which we have utterly to ourselves, and snorkel in the hacienda's volcanic cove, where we note that the grace of an octopus underwater is as pleasing as its flavor above. While Beckie stays to float in the artful slate pool, whose lip slopes gently like a pond's, I learn that pointless military roads make for fine mountain biking.

Most memorably, Hacienda del Mar dispels an unfair misconception about this country. We've come in summer, a meaningless word this close to the equator. In Panama, any season except the months from December through April is burdened with the adjective rainy. It rains, yes. But then it stops. An entirely gray day is rare in the tropics, and the reward at a downpour's end is nearly always a rainbow. As Olga's husband, François, sensibly observes, "In the dry season you lose the four midday hours anyway, when the sun's too hot for anything."

So we pass the best hours of all curled up with novels in recliners beneath our balcony's eaves, savoring stillness we might have missed but for the soothing rain.

Landing back at Albrook, we spend a night at yet another symbol of Panama's metamorphosis from strategic node of U.S. geopolitics to lush tourist destination: Canopy Tower Ecolodge & Nature Observatory, a former radar station poking up over the rain forest above the Panama Canal. It's been deftly transmuted into a vertical inn, a mecca for bird-watchers, who ascend its polygonal observation deck each dawn to gaze down at dazzling tanagers and motmots sailing among treetops hung with sloths and monkeys.

The surrounding jungle may be President Torrijos's first test: Can he reverse his predecessor's giveaway of these forests, which heretofore protected the canal's watershed? As developers mow them down, the watershed is in danger of silting. Later, as we drive toward the Azuero Peninsula through denuded central Panama, described as the country's heart and soul, we bear witness to how grim paradise gets with its trees gone.

By an ever-confusing twist, Panama's isthmus is oriented east to west, not north to south. To reach the peninsula's tip, we turn south off the Pan-American Highway onto a narrow road that leads through a string of red-tile-and-gingerbread towns. The first, Parita, is engulfed by the annual fiesta for its patron saint, Domingo de Guzmán. We wade through streets crammed with games of chance, riders on prancing paso fino horses, radiant girls clad in jeans and flowers, and seductive fried goodies. In the plaza adjoining the padlocked church, a delirious crowd watches men on foot taunt a Brahman bull to the strains of salsa brass. 

Every fiesta in Panama has its queen, and every queen has her pollera, a dress with embroidered lace skirt and flounced blouse that costs thousands of dollars. The best come from Los Santos province, where master seamstress Ildaura Saavedra de Espino has been sewing them since 1946. We find Ildaura in her wheelchair in the village of La Enea, tatting an intricate floral design for September's annual national festival of the mejorana, the five-string guitar that is Panama's national folk instrument. She's worked on it for six months.

"The fiesta's in Guararé," she tells us. "You should stay." Nearby Guararé and Las Tablas are both known for extravagant festivals. Admiring the towns' wooden houses, painted various tones of sea green and blue, we've wondered why all of Azuero's villages are a few miles in from the coast, especially since here the Pacific is hurricane free. Ildaura isn't sure. "Maybe because there's more money in cattle than in fishing."

Maybe, but in the next town, Pedasí, we learn from Dalila Vera, the proprietress of Dulce Yeli, a revered Azuero bakery, that previously ignored coastal properties are suddenly being snapped up—by foreigners. Over remarkable rum cake, she tells us that a French resort is under construction and that the arrival of Europeans has finally alerted locals that there's also money in Pacific sunsets and cavorting humpback whales. "Especially now with the airstrip."

We'd seen the big paved runway, incongruous until Dalila explains that outgoing president Mireya Moscoso is from here. Now that she's gone, her private airfield will be public. Rather than the daunting drive from Panama City, visitors will have the option of quick flights. "But first they need places to eat," she says. The region is so undeveloped that it has no restaurants yet, nor hotels apart from two modest inns in town.

That night, a Saturday, we arrive at La Playita Resort, the sole lodging on the coast: three stone cottages plus a campground at the end of a road that our rental car unaccountably survives. The owner, a Panamanian jockey who lives in Indiana, is slowly converting it from ranchito to resort. At this point, the humans and animals are neck and neck. We're awakened predawn by roosters, then an hour later by hammering on the door. I open; the hammer turns out to be the beak of an insistent turkey gobbler. On a nearby porch chair, a hen roosts with her brood. A sudden yelp draws me inside. Beckie's at the window, eyes locked with those of a six-foot emu. 

"I didn't see ostrich pictures in Birds of Panama."

"It's not an ostrich. That's the ostrich," I reply, pointing to the flightless monster beneath a tree laden with mangoes and orange-cheeked parrots. One of his South American cousins, a lesser rhea, runs by chasing a white-tailed fawn, which darts under a pigeon coop filled with doves.

The species balance shifts that morning as dozens of people arrive on foot, lugging beach baskets, boom boxes, and water toys, their bus from Las Tablas having fatally succumbed on the road. Soon, the volume of the salsa music and the temperature have soared. There's no air-conditioning, and the ceiling fan is too high to matter except to circling wasps. The only thing that's not hot is what's supposed to be: the bathwater.

Salsa sounds have smothered the lulling of the surf. Miserable, we shoo chickens from beneath a hammock and plop down to weigh our choices. Bail out? Spend all of Sunday driving on, praying we'll find an available room? Two hours pass. We're still here. In fact, a double hammock in the bougainvillea shade is pretty comfortable. It even feels good to sweat freely. I recall what a friend from the Cayman Islands once said about perspiration in the tropics: "First, you resist. Then, at some point, you look at each other and say, 'Let's continue.'"

Gradually, it's clear that salsa music is really distilled sunlight, sweet and hot. We follow it to the beach. Panamanian families greet us and offer beer. It's blessedly cold.

At dusk we drive west for twenty minutes past Venao, a popular surfing beach, to a place where four rivers meet the sea. We park at a mangrove swamp; the tide is out, so we remove our shoes and shuffle about a hundred feet through marvelous ooze to a waiting skiff. For fifty cents, we're ferried across to a deltaic pancake called Isla de Cañas. At a tiny thatched restaurant, we devour fried fish and rice cooked with black mangrove clams. When it's finally dark, a husky man named Homero Pérez, one of the island's five hundred residents, leads us down a path lit by a billion fireflies to a long beach.

At this juncture of the Americas, the heavens of both hemispheres are visible. The North Star skirts the horizon, winking through mangroves at the Southern Cross. Between them, like a silver rainbow, arcs the Milky Way. We follow it, and Homero, along the shore. "There's one," he says. Isla de Cañas is where olive ridley sea turtles clamber ashore to nest. Residents protect them in exchange for rights to collect a limited number in a designated harvest zone. We're too early for the fall arribada, when thousands of ridleys come to lay their eggs. Still, watching a lone hundred-pound mama turtle excavate and precisely sculpt a nest with her flippers, deposit one hundred–plus soft Ping-Pong ball–like eggs, lovingly obliterate every trace of the hole, and then crawl until the waves sweep her back out to sea is mesmerizing—one of the most moving sights we've ever witnessed. 

Returning to La Playita, we find the families have departed. The beach is ours alone. We drop our clothes, slip into the warm water—and discover we've entered the Milky Way itself. Phosphorescence sparkles around us, streaming from our hair and limbs. My wife is sheer starlight. I reach for her. Yes, let's continue.

Santos tells me that bajarequeis the Guaymíes Indian name for the feathery rain—more than mist, less than drizzle—bathing the sunlit forest. He's led me to a waterfall high above the village of Cerro Punta, on the Barýý volcano in northwest Panama's Chiriquí province, in search of what's called the most beautiful bird on earth: the resplendent quetzal (imagine a winged emerald with ruby underparts, dangling nearly three-foot tail feathers).

"Are there always rainbows—?"

"Shhh!" he whispers.

We'd barely made it here. Beckie and I arrived first in the town of Boquete—on the volcano's opposite slope, six miles west of Cerro Punta—via a footpath called the Quetzal Trail. The drive, however, takes two hours over a circuitous route. The last president had started to widen it for cars, but a national uproar over bulldozed ancient trees as well as the defection of her environmental minister scuttled both the project and her presidency. We'd come to see what has lately attracted an influx of American retirees. "Mountain vistas, seventy-degree temperatures, nice prices, minimal residency requirements," recited a Boquete real estate agent. "Let me show you."

I was prepared to be unimpressed: We'd heard of gated American communities here—which, to me, subverts the reason for living abroad. My scorn escalated after booking a hotel that turned out to be an American developer's faux hacienda, used for hosting prospective customers.

But Boquete's deep green valley is spacious enough for exclusive subdivisions to remain safely aloof, and thus avoidable. The cool air is tantalizing and smoke-free: Chiriquí's electricity is tapped from its white-water rivers. The unfenced properties we saw, profuse with flowering foliage, left us discussing why we don't live here.

The hotel we switched to convinced us at least to return. The Panamonte Inn & Spa, a grand wooden heirloom, dates to the canal's opening. Its floral curtains and framed engravings are the real thing, its rose and camellia gardens attest to decades of care. Dining here amid rich paneling, flanked by enormous stone fireplaces, is both dignified and worthy of its gourmet claims. That night our dreams reprised river trout broiled in olive oil and amazing pumpkin soup.

Then, the nightmare: As Beckie reached for her suitcase the next day, something in her lower back failed to follow. No river rafting for us. "Get me to—" she gasped. I already knew where. We drove around Barú and up the other side—through a quilted landscape of nearly vertical cabbage, beet, carrot, and onion patches—to Cerro Punta. At Hotel y Cabañas Los Quetzales, my wife limped straight for the palmetto-shaded mosaic Jacuzzi. In the meantime, I found nearby Finca Drácula, the world's largest orchid assemblage: 2,500 species, including several from its astonishing black namesake, the genus Dracula vampira. By the time I returned, Beckie had been helped into a wood-fired eucalyptus sauna and was now on the massage table, approaching a state of rapture.

The next day, however, Los Quetzales summoned a doctor, who confirmed a pinched nerve. "How am I going to see a quetzal now?" Beckie moaned. Supposedly we were moving from Los Quetzales' main lodge to one of its mountain cabins, half an hour up a four-wheel-drive road on the edge of two national parks: quetzal country. Instead, we'd be …

"Forget it!" My darling wife can be stubborn. She grilled the doctor. Los Quetzales' efficient staff were mobilized. Instead of down to a hospital, we went up to the rustic luxury of hewn wood, fireplaces upstairs and down, oil lamps, and tree-level balconies hung with nectar feeders. A chair of interlocked human arms gently bore her up to one.

As she settled into soft upholstery, hummingbirds of sizes and shades we North Americans can barely imagine—and with names to match—came to greet her: the violet sabrewing, the white-throated mountain-gem, the fiery-throated, the white-tailed emerald, the violet-tailed sylph, and one dubbed simply the magnificent. Friendly and fearless, they were actually taking sugar water right from Beckie's palm. Nearly as vivid in multicolored Guaymíes skirts were the curious daughters of Los Quetzales' guide, Santos, who lived just below. "Go find quetzals," said Beckie. "I'm quite content, thank you."

That night, the four-wheel-drive truck returned with our requests from Los Quetzales' excellent kitchen: salad from its garden, hot pizza, iced beer, and fresh-pressed orange juice with homemade bread for the morning. It was enough, my wife swore, to make her forget the pain, including the regretful twinge when she'd asked me if it was true about Panama: Did I really see twenty resplendent quetzales? 

No, I told her.

She understood how much this had meant to me. "I'm sorry, honey."

I shrugged. "Not the right season. There were only four." 

Published in February 2005.
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