The flight was long; well, not the actual flight but the four hour transit in New York, three of which were taken up queuing for US security, immigration and custom procedures. Frustrating, tiring and seemingly pointless considering we were not even exiting the airport! Settled into our friendly, helpful, B&B we spent the first day exploring the contrasts of Panama City. Poverty mixed with overt affluence, the city is one of contrasts, half American, half Latino in nature.
Well, everyone has to see the Canal first, don’t they? And we were no exception. Our host, Richard, drove us to one of the great lock systems, where we duly watched a ship being raised a few metres, squeezed into the lock basin. Robert, pagan that he is, was more interested in the magnificent frigate birds and brown pelicans flying overhead (actually, if truth be known, so was I). There was very little sense of the enormous excavations and loss of life that had made the canal possible and we learnt about in the interpretation centre: I was expecting an awesome, gargantuan version of the Suez Canal and not a series of joined natural looking lakes. Concrete and the jungle had covered the scars removing the awe for us.
We gravitated to the old town. Once the most affluent part of the city, over the years it has fallen into decay and ruin: crime and violence led to the wealthy merchants and families fleeing. They left behind romantic colonial buildings, like an old film set, to crumble and disintegrate. Now part of a regeneration project, some are being restored to their former beauty, not by Panamanians but gringos from the States, Canada and the UK.
Not being city people, we soon flagged under the hot, hot temperature. Robert came up with suggestion that we visit the Metropolitan National Park, the only national park in Latin America that’s situated in a city. Slightly dubious as I was in my one and only dress and flip-flops, Robert assured me it wouldn’t be a problem, so we headed off to find it. The trails were unsurfaced and muddy – not suitable for dresses and flip-flops and half way up a hill on the longest trail the heavens opened in a tropical rainstorm that knocked blocks off any such rain we experienced in England last summer! Soaked to the skin by waterfalls with drops as large as grapes we squelched our way back through extraordinary, tantalizing rain forests we knew were secreting a million alien lives hidden from us in the noise and ferocity of the rain! But the drenching coupled with jet lag did not endear any of its extraordinariness to me. I was not a happy bunny!
Undaunted, yesterday we visited Soberania National Park, a vast area of rain forest half way across the isthmus. It is renowned for the staggering numbers and diversity of birds it holds: one of the best birding spots on the planet. Paradise for Robert. The forest is entirely unlike anything we have come across in our lives. Nothing like the jungles of the East I was brought up with or those of Africa that Robert is familiar with. Everything – trees, plants, birds, mammals, butterflies are new, exotic and totally unfamiliar. Toucans, trogons, motmots, tanagers, manakins and tiny, iridescent, lightning-fast hummingbirds, to name but a few of the birds we saw; vivid, vibrant and exotic. But for me the highlight was a troup of howler monkeys peacefully feeding off ripe figs gracefully and effortlessly using their long, dexterous prehensile tails as a fifth limb. Others slept and played in the forest right above our heads, while tiny babies explored their first ‘steps’ under the watchful eye of their mothers and dangled from slender branches, hooked into the canopy by their tails alone. The territorial howls and screams of neighbouring troups reverberated around us. And, as we walked back, I was excited to see a white-nosed coati cross the path. She looked like a long-legged, sleek, brown badger with her long banded tail held straight up above her back. Wondering why she appeared so tame as we approached, we became aware of her babies on the other side of the path. She was attempting to keep our attention away from her family.
Today we’re off to the islands in the north and if internet access is available I’ll keep you updated.