Lose Your Heart to Panama’s Beauty
D. M. Buehler. 2003. Lose your heart to Panama’s Beauty. The Toronto Star. October 4, 2003.
It is said that the word Panama stems from in an indigenous word meaning “the abundance of fish”, or “the abundance of butterflies”, or even “the abundance of a certain species of tree” – for me Panama simply means “abundance”.
I got my first peek at Panama’s “abundance” as my plane descended through a thick layer of cumulus clouds in May of 2000. As we broke through the clouds, an expanse of tropical forest was visible through a thick curtain of humidity. I would later discover that Panama’s forests harbor more species than any New World country north of Columbia, species that include jaguars and harpy eagles! The forest gave way to kilometers of mangroves and mudflats as the plane arched over the Pacific coast. This coastal habitat east of Panama City supports hundreds of thousands of shorebirds every year. Below the plane the ocean was dotted with hundreds of boats waiting to enter the famous Panama Canal, and in the distance I could see the Canal itself, a golden ribbon flanked by green mountains. As we circled back east, the skyscrapers of Panama’s capital city gleamed in the setting sun. In stark contrast to the glass towers, the ruins of the old city gave me a hint of Panama’s rich colonial history, a past rich in Peruvian gold, gold that was carried across the Isthmus to the Caribbean Sea by Spanish conquistadors, and often intercepted by pirates. In only a few minutes I had glimpsed a few of the wonders that Panama, a tiny country only about 2.5 times the size of Vancouver Island, has to offer.
Since I first landed in Panama, I have spent almost two years living and working in this beautiful country. My experience has been that of both a tourist and a local due to my status as “casada con panameño” – married to a Panamanian. I met my husband quite literally in the jungle where we were both working as Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute scientists. Our first date is a stunning example of what can be seen in a single day in Panama.
The date began with an excursion to Campana National Park, located 60 kilometers west of Panama City, in the foothills of the western mountains. After exiting the Inter-American highway, we drove up the mountain on a dirt road as far as the car would take us (this definitely required 4 wheel drive). The trail to the summit, over 1000 meters in altitude, cut through a beautiful patch of cloud forest. I felt is if I were walking in an enchanted and moss covered forest that one reads about as a child, brimming with a myriad of exotic birds and plants. The view from the top was exhilarating. We could see miles of foothills to the west, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Black Vultures, American Swallow-tailed Kites and even a White Hawk rode the thermals around us, soaring by at eye level. It rained hard on us during the hike down and we arrived at the car caked in mud. For me the morning was like having permission to be a kid again, to get absolutely covered in dirt, to play, and to wonder at life like a child.
After the hike we drove down the mountain and to my astonishment within forty-five minutes we were at the beach! The Pacific beaches in Panama are interesting because in some places the sand is full of iron and it is black. It is absolutely beautiful to look at (picture ground coal covered in silver sparkles) but you definitely need sandals to walk across! That afternoon we swam, lounged and watched flocks of Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds go by. I was in absolute awe as I watched these huge birds, with wingspans of six feet, skim over the waves. They have pelicans in Panama like we have Canada geese in Toronto! After the beach we drove back to Panama City and danced until the wee hours of the morning in one of Panama City’s many nightclubs. When I talk about this first date, most people understand why I married the guy, and almost two years later at the wedding, many commented that my heart had been stolen not just my husband, but by the country itself. They were right.
Since that fateful first date I have seen more wonders in Panama than have most Panamanians. I have marveled at the magnificent blue green tail of a male Resplendent Quetzal in mountain forest 2500m up, and then swam in clear Caribbean waters only 80 km away in awe of hundreds of iridescent tropical fish. I have wandered through indigenous Kuna villages where huts can be constructed in a day (many of them with TV antennas jutting through the thatch roofs), property is passed along from mother to daughter, and all Kuna government decisions are made lying in hammocks! Panama has even opened my eyes to a few cultural issues at home. Dating a Panamanian taught me the trials of bringing a foreign boyfriend home to meet the folks, when we were faced with a year long battle with Canadian immigration to obtain a simple visitor’s visa! But on the bright side, Panama (and Canadian immigration) meant that I was married at sunset, on a beach by the Pacific, to a man I know I love since we had to fight hard to be together. Our wedding rings are made from titanium to symbolize strength, and engraved with the inscription “Love without borders”; our battles have made us stronger.
For me Panama means an abundance of everything, sights, sounds, smells and feelings. It is forested mountains, white sand beaches, gleaming skyscrapers, and people whose smiles can melt your heart. Panama is a place that gets inside your soul, a place that must be experienced.