Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Panama Rainforest

Panama's lush rainforest is a hidden treasure because tourism hasn't really exploded in the country. A third of the country is set aside as protected areas and national parks, and indigenous groups live on it with pretty much the same as they did hundreds of years ago. I visited an Embra Indian village next to the river which still maintains a traditional lifestyle (with no electricity or phone) and have not assimilated into Panamian society, so it was just like what you would imagine seeing in National Geographic magazine! Survivor filmed three seasons on Panama's Pearl Islands, which by the way have an interesting history. In 1513 the Spaniards discovered the islands inhabited with Indians who presented them with a gift basket of pearls. This only made them want to loot the island more so they killed off all the Indians and imported African slaves to harvest the pearls and their descendants now inhabit the islands. In 1979 the Shah of Iran retreated to the Pearl Islands. Today the islands are known for its beach resort and houses owned by the wealthy.  The Smithsonian operates Barro Colorado Island in Panama because it was untouched by modern civilization and many of the most important groundbreaking scientific and biological discoveries of the tropical animal and plant kingdom have come from their research here.


My visit to the rainforest was along the Chagres River.The day started off with lunch at this beautiful restaurant by the river (pictured above) which had a view of all the huge ships traveling to pass through Panama Canal. We took a small motorboat to the Embra village along the river. I carried my plastic rain poncho, plastic rain hair cover and umbrella with me everywhere I went in case of a sudden downpour that never came (can't get the hair wet! lol). With sunny blue skies didn't have a cloud in sight so I could feel the 96F temperature and was glad to be getting a breeze by traveling via motorboat taking the road less traveled yet with modern technology. lol Being in a small motorboat gave us the chance to see exotic wildlife up close and very personal! lol I saw baby crocodiles, the big ones were shy and dipped underwater as soon as anyone spotted them. I saw lots of birds, iguanas, sea turtles and various types of monkeys. Oh and did you know that Panama has a National Frog?! The Golden Frog.

We stopped our boat in a few spots for our boat operator to throw fruit into the trees hoping to attract a monkey, and in each case the monkeys jumped onto our boat to grab it! But they were shy and quickly ran away to eat the mango or grapes in the trees! However we encountered one cheeky monkey who ran all through the boat and jumped on my shoulder and made quite the threatening noise! I stayed pretty calm through this, but the woman next to me did the screaming for the both of us! lol He just moved around my shoulders like I was a tree. We were told not to laugh around monkeys because they saw that has a threatening noise and not to wear bright colors, well guess what our life vests were neon orange!  And the monkey took a bite out of my life vest! Fortunately he got bored and moved on eventually, since I couldn't see this happening to me I don't think I was afraid as everyone else on the boat who stared at me frozen with a frightened look on all of their faces. Someone told me she'll never forget me and my spontaneous encounter with a wild monkeyAs we were leaving the boat operator revved up the boat's engine and the monkeys thought that was some kind of call to them and responded in kind with a loud growl!


Next we visited the Embra village where the whole village came out to greet us! We were welcomed with song and music from local instruments, one including a turtle shell. They live in large one room huts built on stilts. The small village had a banana/plantain plantation which was the staple of their diet and a cash crop. The government of Panama does require them to send their children to school (in uniform). The women had long shiny black hair and traditionally do not cover their chests. The men wore just loin cloths or beaded short skirts and no one wore shoes. They covered their bodies with a natural black dye that repels insects.

musical instrument made out of turtle shell


Everyone in the village was very friendly! Once we all gathered around they performed a dance for us! Since hunting and agriculture is now restricted the Embera rely on selling their basket weaving and wood carvings to earn some money to barter with. Did you that Neil Armstrong and other astronauts trained in jungle survival skills with the Embera Indians!  In the event the spaceship made an emergency landing in a tropical jungle they would have survival skills. If you turn on a lantern at night in waters populated by crocodiles, you will see pairs of shiny red dots. These are the crocodiles' eyes which have a layer behind their retina, containing crystals that reflect light and make possible the night vision.

Back on land after our river tour, we visited a butterfly and orchid farm, and saw trees growing almonds, avocados, mango, and cashews. Actually just driving through Panama I saw so many blooming fruit trees! I did a night tour of the area around my hotel base in the rainforest and saw a sloth in the trees and a capybara (largest rodent in the world, a cross between a rat and a pig), the size of a dog. As we drove by the river the guide shined his strobe light onto the water and told us what was  glowing in the dark on the river -  crocodile eyes
capybara and sloth, both had babies with them but I didn't get a photo of them
Next we visited El Valle, a volcano crater village, did you know that Panama has three active volcanoes but no earthquakes unlike their neighbor Costa Rica, just tremors. There I visited a zoo (where we had a police escort) and saw parrots who greeted us with the word hola hoping for a treat, various colored peacocks, beautiful toucans which are only up in the treetops,  and the highlight was seeing all the big cats of the Panamian jungle - Jaguars, pumas, ocelots, jaguarundis and margays



Back at the hotel I enjoyed my private balcony and just kicked back in the hammock. In the morning I had the most amazing view of the sunrise!

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