Wild in Panama

Amidst deserted islands, rainforests, and tropical jungles, George Rush discovers another side of Central America.

Beverly Hills, East Hampton, and St. Barth's are among the natural habitats of Scriptor rumusculus, otherwise known as the gossip columnist. As a member of this controversial swarm, I follow Ben and J. Lo, Dolce and Gabbana, Paris and Nicky as they migrate from one scandal to another. Most of my hours are spent talking on a cell phone or plying sources over lunch at Nobu in downtown Manhattan. It's an entertaining, eye-opening occupation, but when the time comes for me to go on vacation, I take off for the remotest regions of the earth: the salt flats in Senegal's Saloum River delta, the backwaters of the Amazon—anywhere as long as it's as far away from civilization as possible.

This year's getaway posed particular trouble: I had planned to explore the jungles and beaches of Costa Rica, but while researching the trip I began to hear disturbing reports of overcrowded eco-resorts and, even worse, sightings of Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon. I needed a rainforest that was less fabulous.

And then I discovered Panama. The thin synapse between North and South America with its five million acres of nature preserves has untamed wilderness like nowhere else on the planet: The elusive spectacled bear and the poison dart frog are among the 232 terrestrial mammal, 143 amphibian, and 214 reptile species (just to name a few categories) that live in its jungle interior. In fact, the country is a virtual airport lounge for every bird shuttling between continents. At last count, 946 feathered species have been spotted—more than in America and Canada combined.

Along with this biodiversity, Panama has human diversity. Having chronicled the kinship rituals of Hollywood tribes like the Douglases and the Baldwins, I like to meet a country's first people (particularly if they've never heard of the Douglases or the Baldwins). There is something about spending time in communities with different customs and ancient traditions that washes away a year's worth of encounters with ill-behaved celebrities and angry publicists. When I looked into Central America, I discovered that indigenous cultures have all but disappeared from Costa Rica, but Indians make up about six percent of Panama's 3.1 million people.

Knowing that some tribes still live deep in the country's remote rainforests, I wanted to find a way to visit them. Panama has world-class beaches, excellent fishing, surfing, and rafting, and its cities are connected by some of Central America's best roads. Many residents speak English, and the U.S. dollar is the national currency. Arranging a trip, I thought, shouldn't be any trouble at all. But, after evicting the last Americans from the canal zone in 1999, the Panamanians have had a tough time wooing them back as tourists. Many familiar names in luxury travel don't even have itineraries in the country. "We're keeping an eye on Panama," Cari Gray of Butterfield & Robinson told me. "There needs to be more development at the high end."

Eventually I found Lost World Adventures, based in Decatur, Georgia. It offers no fewer than ten trips to Panama, among them an itinerary called Native Trail. The company's British-born owner, Andrew Gilchrist, has arranged with ANCON, Panama's foremost private conservation group, for travelers to visit five indigenous communities in four of the country's provinces. The trip, he told me, usually took ten days. I had seven. "Not a problem," he said. "We'll trim a little on each end." In this era of bespoke travel, Gilchrist, it appeared, was the tailor of Panama.

From 3,000 feet, I could see skyscrapers glistening like jagged quartz. Was this really Panama City or had I boarded the wrong plane, one direct to Miami? A superhighway shot me downtown to the cosmopolitan core of Central America's financial hub. Along the treelined boulevards, there are the embassies and consulates of more than 50 countries. Culinary diplomats from Japan, Italy, France, China, and Lebanon have all opened restaurants in the bustling city center. A new crop of boutique hotels now offer the same bedsheet thread count and attentive service as the poshest New York or London retreats. Walking around downtown, it is easy to forget you're in Panama—that is, until you come across a street vendor selling fried plantains or a diablo rojo (red devil) drives by. These colorful buses are decorated with lights and spray-painted with scenes of the Alps or flame-throwing superheroes. When the drivers honk the horn (which they do often) it sounds La Cucaracha or the theme from The Godfather.

One could easily while away days exploring Panama City, but I was determined to mingle with a less urban crowd. Darién, the first stop on my expedition, is Panama's easternmost, largest, and least-populated province. Its southern sections have some of the world's most pristine tracks of rainforest: it is possible to hike for a week without crossing a single road. The area is also home to the Emberá and Wounaan peoples, native American tribes that migrated from Colombia centuries ago. I had heard that some of the 14,000 members live in isolated jungle communities, much as they had before Columbus arrived.

The capital of Darién province is the town of La Palma (population 4,000), which sits on a peninsula in the Golfo de San Miguel, the blue body of water that explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa spotted from the Serranía de Majé mountain range on September 26, 1513, when he claimed the Pacific Ocean for Spain. The flight from Panama City to La Palma took 45 minutes and I was met in the tiny airport by my guide, a thin man in his fifties named Mario Bernal. "We have to catch the tide, otherwise we'll be here for hours." he said, escorting me quickly down La Palma's one street and into a fiberglass skiff. Gunning the outboard, we began to bounce across the gulf. Overhead, a flock of white ibises turned the sky into an Escher drawing.

An hour later, we pulled up on a black-sand beach at the ANCON field station at Punta Patiño Lodge. Along with lobbying the government and launching public awareness campaigns, this conservation group uses tourist dollars to buy land to protect it from logging. Their reserve in Darién stretches for 65,000 acres—much of it is first-growth rainforest. Bernal, who worked as a park ranger for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute before joining ANCON, began pointing out exotic wildlife as soon as we stepped on shore. There was a thuggish-looking gang of vultures, a flirtatious Fatima butterfly, and a fast-growing tree known locally as the "naked Indian." Ten gaily painted cabins nestled in a garden of bougainvillea and heliconia sat on top of a bluff. I plunked my luggage down in one of these simple shacks, which are furnished with two single beds, a table, and a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Hardly the lap of luxury, but a cool shower of collected rainwater felt fabulous.

Our adventure began the next morning when Bernal pointed the skiff toward an Emberá village on nearby Río Mogue. The mouth of the river was swollen and clogged with branches from a thunderstorm the night before and we picked our way carefully through its swift current. On either side of us there was a dense wall of trees wrapped in vines. After 30 minutes, we came upon a group of Emberá standing on the bank of the river—a welcoming party, it turned out. The men were dressed in long loincloths, called guayuco, and nothing else. The women were bare-chested and wore patterned skirts and silver jewelry. Everyone's skin was decorated with painted tattoos made with the indigo juice of the jagua fruit.

The village leader, fifty-eight-year-old Emiliano Caesamo, stepped forward and gave us a warm welcome and a smiling little girl took my hand and led me down a forest trail. We reached her village, where about 350 people live in open-sided huts built on stilts about 500 yards from the river, and climbed a notched log into the council house. A small crowd joined us and Caesamo asked everyone to sit and then put a flute to his lips. The haunting notes sounded a bit like music from the Andes. When he finished, Caesamo told me the song instructed his people to "never lose your language, never lose the Emberá way."

This advice may be increasingly difficult for the villagers to follow. The Panamanian government is considering cutting through the Darién forest to construct what would be the final section of the Pan-American Highway, which runs from Alaska to Chile. Caesamo worries that the Emberá way of life won't stand a chance against the inevitable invasion of loggers, ranchers, and farmers that a major road would bring. "We are a people without education. When someone with education comes, we follow them," he said. The village already has significant contact with the outside world. Tourists such as myself, as well as government agents and various missionary organizations pay frequent visits. Despite the primitive surroundings, there were signs of Western culture everywhere, including people yakking it up in a bamboo phone booth. At night families gather around a generator-powered TV. One woman told me that some of her evangelized sisters didn't greet us at the river because they now believe it's wrong for the women in the tribe to show their breasts.

At Caesamo's request, several women rose to perform traditional dances. Forming a line, they demonstrated first the "buzzard" and then the "serpent." It made me think of all the people before me who had searched out the Emberá, in particular a North American adventurer named Richard Marsh who's mentioned in James Howe's book on Panama's Kuna tribe, A People Who Would Not Kneel (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998). Marsh, who came to the Darién in 1924 in a misguided quest to find a mythical tribe of white-skinned Indians, decided to show the Emberá a few steps from back home when he visited one of their villages. Stripping down to a towel, he pulled out a Victrola: "I started hopping and jumping and whirling to the jazz music," Marsh wrote in his diary. The Emberá, he observed, were "amused."

After two days in Darien, I flew to Panama's westernmost province, Bocas del Toro, which borders Costa Rica. Columbus stopped here on his fourth and final voyage in 1502. Its Caribbean coast is dotted with 68 gorgeous, lightly developed islands that are so wild-looking that they have become favorites among location scouts for Survivor spinoff shows around the world. Four types of sea turtles nest on the region's many deserted beaches and a rare multicolored breed of poison dart frog lives in the thickly forested interior.

My guide for this section of the trip was Benicio Wilson, a jubilant, husky man in his late 20s who speaks English, Spanish, and a bit of Gauri-Gauri, a Creole stew that combines both of those languages and Jamaican and Barbadian phrases. He met me in the capital city, also called Bocas del Toro, and when I told him that I was interested in visiting native tribes, I once again found myself being whisked into an open launch—this time a narrow dugout canoe with an outboard motor.

Along with idyllic coastal islands, Bocas del Toro has Parque Internacional La Amistad, a protected watershed on the mainland that stretches across 479,000 acres of Panama and Costa Rica. A staggering number of species live in its 12 different "life zones," including jaguar, boa constrictors the width of fire hydrants, and the very rare harpy eagle (adult females reach 18 pounds and have a wingspan of eight feet). Three Indian tribes, the Bribri, the Ngöbe-Buglé (formerly known as Guaymís), and the Teribe (or Naso), also call the Amistad area home. We headed up Río Teribe towards the park in hopes of meeting the only officially recognized monarch in the Americas, Tito Santana, king of the Teribe. After about an hour, we reached a small village. Once again, children ran out to greet us, but this time they wore blue school uniforms. We sat and chatted with the teacher while the kids played baseball and pulled snacks out of Pokémon lunch boxes. Santana, it turned out, was not in town that day, but one of the villagers gave me his e-mail address. A sudden thunderstorm broke up the game and sent the kids scurrying indoors. It couldn't have been a sweeter scene, but part of me was slightly disappointed. I still hoped—perhaps naively so—that I would have an encounter with a people who had not been touched by modern society.

It's a short flight from Bocas del Toro to the Archipiélago de San Blás, a necklace of almost 400 islands on Panama's northeast Caribbean coast. All are under the control of the Kuna Indians, but only about ten percent of the islands—many of which are no bigger than a putting green—are inhabited. I was met at the airport on Achutupu (which has since closed; visitors now fly into Ailigandí) by Yari De La Ossa, an attractive young Kuna woman who runs the Dolphin Island Lodge on nearby Uaguitupu. It's a quick ride over in an open boat and it only took me a few minutes to settle into one of the resort's nine thatched-roof huts. I threw open the doors, looked out at the glassy sea ten feet off my back porch, and immediately decided that I was overdue for some snorkeling. De La Ossa called a boatman and we sped off to a nearby coral reef. Drifting through the underworld, as green and relaxing as an apple martini, I gazed at a bashful anemone and rubbernecked at passing schools of parrotfish and angelfish.

With about 70,000 members, the Kuna are Panama's second-largest and best-organized tribe. They originally lived throughout Darién, but because of conflicts with the Spanish they gradually migrated to the San Blás islands, where they were able to live in relative autonomy. In the early 20th century, the Panamanian government attempted to take control of the Kuna's land and met strong resistance. In 1925, the tribe staged a successful rebellion and won nation-within-a-nation status, which remains in effect today.

Signs of the Kuna's pride in heritage were everywhere as I walked down the unpaved streets of Ailigandí, a densely populated island where portraits of Kuna revolutionary leaders decorate the town hall. Women adorned their faces with a black line that ran from their foreheads to the tip of their noses. Many wore bands of beads around their ankles and wrists and short-sleeved blouses with molas, a colorful reverse-appliqué textile, which the Kuna have made for centuries.

I stopped by a school that teaches girls to stitch molas and boys to carve calabashes. There I found one of the "white Indians" that adventurer Richard Marsh had been looking for—that is, an albino boy. The Kuna have the highest incidence of albinism in the world. In 1924, Marsh dressed up a few albino Kuna in Western clothes and took them on a tour of the United States. They may have been an oddity in New York, but the Kuna regard albinos as gifted "children of the moon," and many of them become community leaders.

Along with traditional outfits, I also saw kids in baggy jeans, a young man with rouged cheeks and earrings, and lots of people—young and old—playing basketball. As in my TriBeCa, New York, neighborhood, Kuna teenagers in the San Blás worship NBA players, and many have names like Barkley, Iverson, and Magic.

There are only a few simple hotels in the San Blás (the tribe is so protective of its sovereignty that it is reluctant to take on outside business partners). One of the main industries here is coconuts, and the islands produce around 30 million a year. Despite the fact that the crops are grown and harvested by many independent farmers, the chiefs won't allow growers to undercut one another, so each coconut sold by the Kuna costs the same amount.

The tribal elders worry constantly about cultural encroachment. Miguel Lopez, the 78-year-old sahila, or chief, of Ailigandí, told me that he rued the arrival of the washing machine "because now the women don't go down to shore together to talk." Placido Garcia, an elderly nele, or healer, on the island of Achutupu, showed me baskets of fragrant leaves that he prescribes to his patients. He still has plenty of customers, he said, but "all of my colleagues are my age. And I don't have an apprentice."

Local wags call the custom-keepers in the San Blás the "Kuna Taliban," but nobody argues that the tribe's politically astute leaders have created a model for native people around the globe. By the time I'd reached the San Blás, I'd given up on the asinine idea of finding a culture untainted by the modern world. In the Kuna, I'd found something better: a people who take what they like from the wagas (foreigners) without letting these same people completely overrun their traditions.

On my last night—after a perfect lobster dinner at the Dolphin Island Lodge—Yari De La Ossa invited me to her 30th birthday party. We all gathered in a dirt-floor, thatched-roof shelter without walls. The women wore dressy evening molas, and the men sported trucker caps. They served chips and Old Milwaukee beer. Yari's brother, who was proud of his music collection, slipped an Eminem CD into his boom box. It wasn't what I would have put on, but the Kuna wanted to see me dance. So I took a few steps, trying to remember how Slim Shady looked in the video. I'm sure I looked as ridiculous as the explorer Richard Marsh spinning around his Victrola in front of the Emberá back in 1924. But the Kuna were amused.

A Canal Runs Through It

Though it was built 90 years ago, the Panama Canal remains one of mankind's most impressive feats of engineering. It took 30 years and cost the lives of some 25,000 workers to dig 25 miles of channel, build three massive locks, and dam up the Chagres River. Today, ships make over 14,000 transits through the 51-mile network of locks and lakes. Tolls, based on a boat's measurements and cargo volume, must be paid in cash. (A cruise liner set the record in 2003, paying nearly $218,000.) The canal is a major source of income for Panama—during its last fiscal year it posted revenue of $800 million. Canal aficionados can take a Panama Jones cruise ($164, 888-726-2621) that makes the full passage from Panama City to Colón over ten long hours. Along the way, the boat passes by jungle islands (such as the one pictured below) inhabited by gregarious monkeys and through all three locks, as well as the famous Gaillard Cut, the nine-mile section of the canal that was dug through the highest elevations. I prefer the quick thrill, a chartered helicopter from a company called Helipan Corporation ($650 per hour for up to four people; 507-315-0452). The hourlong flight gives you a stunning heart-in-your-mouth overview of the parade of ships and the jungle corridor that lies between the Caribbean and the Pacific.

Panama: Land of Plenty

The toughest part about planning a trip to Panama is deciding what type of vacation to take: Do you picture yourself lounging on a beach or going eye to eye with a howler monkey in the jungle canopy? How about a little bit of both?

IN PANAMA CITY The 206-room MIRAMAR INTERCONTINENTAL PANAMA ($200-$600; 507-214-1000) and 361-room CAESAR PARK PANAMA ($135-$675; 507-270-0477) are favorites of visiting international bankers. Newer boutique hotels include THE BRISTOL ($165-$450; 507-265-7844) and HOTEL DEVILLE ($155-$325; 507-206-3100).

FOR BEACH LOVERS The Pearl Islands have long been a retreat for affluent Panama City dwellers (it's a 15-minute flight by small plane). The Shah of Iran preferred Isla Contadora, but the best place to head now is the privately owned Isla San José, where guests at the HACIENDA DEL MAR's 12 luxurious bungalows have a tropical jungle and 37 beaches to themselves ($330-$475; 866-433-5627; haciendadelmar.net). In Bocas del Toro, the four stylish cabanas of AL NATURAL RESORT are set on a secluded beach and surrounded by the lush Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park ($95-$120 per person; 507-623-2217; www.bocas.com/alnatura.htm). Visitors to the San Blás islands should consider the ever so simple but elegant DOLPHIN ISLAND LODGE on Uaguitupu ($100 per person; 507-225-8435; www.dolphinlodge.com) or the similarly bucolic SAPIBENEGA "THE KUNA LODGE" on Isla Iskardup (1 $80-$90 per person; 507-225-8819).

INTO THE WILDS LOS QUETZALES lodge and spa in Chiriqui province offers the choice of ten guestrooms in the town of Guadalupe or four much-requested mountainside chalets, built at canopy level deep in Parque Internacional La Amistad ($55-$135 per night; 507-771-2291; www.losquetzales.com). Set atop a hill in the Parque Nacional Soberanía forest is the five-level CANOPY TOWER, a former U.S. radar installation that has 12 guestrooms. Audubon magazine calls it one of the top ten eco-lodges in the world ($130-$200 per person; 507-264-5220; www.canopytower.com). A two-hour drive southeast from Panama City in Coclé province, the POSADA DEL CERRO LA VIEJA offers views of the rolling mountainous rainforest. Among the 15 guestrooms, Chichibalí 2 is said to be a favorite of President Mireya Moscoso (1 $110-$120 per night; 507-983-8900; www.posadaecologica.com).

THE NEW MAN AND THE SEA In Darién province, the TROPIC STAR LODGE, built by a Texas oilman in 1961, is the hotel on Bahia Piña from which many a world deep-sea fishing record has been set. If you don't fish, there are beaches and acres of forest to explore. Reservations must be made a year in advance ($3,395-$4,695 per person per week, reduced rates available for nonfishing guests; 800-682-3424; www.tropicstar.com).

TOUR OPERATORS LOST WORLD ADVENTURES is an excellent American outfitter for cultural and adventure tours ($1,700-$3,000 per person for one- to two-week trips; 800-999-0558). It works closely with Panama's premier eco-tour company, ANCON EXPEDITIONS (507-269-9415). For a more pampered experience, contact either PANAMA LUXURY VACATIONS(800-247-1351) or PANAMA TRAVEL EXPERTS (877-836-5300).

RECOMMENDED READING For information on historical sites or planning whitewater rafting, deep-sea fishing, and other adventures, Lonely Planet Panama (Lonely Planet Publications, 2001) is the definitive Baedeker. The Path Between the Seas, by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster, 1978), tells, in fascinating detail, the story of the construction of the Panama Canal. A People Who Would Not Kneel, by James Howe (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), is an account of the Kuna tribe's struggle for independence.

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