Panama Darien Trek Plus
January 18 - February 4, 2003
Bill Case, Binnie Chase, Peggy Rudis, and Chet Vincent.
Birds observed - 335
||Last year's Panama adventure whetted our appetites
for a return visit in 2003. The 14 day Darien trek would be
a birding experience in an area few people have a chance to
venture and something we very much wanted to do. We felt our
trip last year was rushed and therefore wanted to return to
investigate more of our favorite places. Before leaving on
our trek, we added a day of birding at Metro Park and two days
at Pipeline Road. We also felt this would help us acclimate
to the drastic temperature change. Boy were we right! We checked
with our guide, Hernan Arauz, before making final plans to
see if he thought we could handle the trek. He assured us we
could and was even brave enough to sign on to be our guide
again this year. He is Panama's Best. And so our adventure
January 18, 2003
Like migratory birds leaving our uncomfortable habitat with a
temperature of 12 degrees below zero, we arrived at our tropical
destination to find the temperature
in the 90s. We were met at the Tocumen National Airport and driven to The Executive
Hotel in Panama City.
January 19, 2003
After breakfast with Hernan, we headed to Metro Park in his
bright red, specially equipped Land Rover. Metro Park,
officially known as The Parque Natural Metropolitano, has
been protected since 1985. The park has 666 acres and is
the only natural undisturbed park in Latin America adjacent
to a capital city and has remained an undisturbed jungle
for over 80 years. Our first day of birding brought us
a total of 85 different bird species. I even had great
looks at the Crimson-crested Woodpecker that I had missed
the year before.
January 20-21, 2003
Today took us to Pipeline Road, a very famous Panama birding area. The pipeline
was built by the United States after World War II. The road services an unused
oil pipeline meant to provide an alternative means of getting oil if the
canal became disabled. The dirt road is seventeen miles long and crosses
prime tropical lowland forest that allow access into excellent birding areas.
We covered twelve miles of the road in two days. Hernan called in a Rufous
Mourner from deep within the jungle. We talked with a leading authority on
Kinkajous from the Smithsonian who was checking his traps on Pipeline Road.
He had just caught a female that he had tagged ten years earlier. She was
enjoying bananas while being observed.
and Hernan - Lunch along the Pipeline Road
January 22, 2003
We flew one hour to LaPalma where we were joined for the day by Pat and Brownell,
a couple from Maryland. We had left our extra luggage at Ancon's office and
were now carrying only 25 pounds of luggage and our day packs. All packs
plus food and supplies were loaded into boats at La Palma. We would travel
for many hours by boat to reach our destination of Patino. We stopped along
the way to visit two recently excavated forts where we were rewarded with
a great look at a Tayra (a large muscular weasel) as he scurried along the
walls of the fort. Bill got some great pictures. We scrambled back in the
boat and continued our journey to Patino. There is an 18 foot tide at Patino
and you guessed right, the tide was out when we arrived. We had to get out
and carry what we could to shore. The staff came to carry the heavy bags
and food while a large tractor pulling a trailer met us to carry everything
including us up to Punta Patino Field Station. The view from the station
was breathtaking. Our cottages were brightly painted in tropical colors.
Ours was purple with beautiful pink flowers surrounding it. We spent the
rest of the day birding the many trails of the Station. We had great looks
at a Laughing Falcon. Unfortunately we had to turn back when we were informed
there were Africanized Bees ahead. We spent the rest of the evening searching
for wildlife. We saw a family of Wild Short-earred Dogs and a Giant Frog
bigger than a softball. Pat and Brownell were not birders but loved nature
so they enjoyed the scenery from the patio.
January 23, 2003
We traveled to the Embera Indian village of Mogue. Using
rivers as roads is the norm in the jungle because it
is much easier and faster than hiking in the
jungle—as we were soon to learn the hard way. We were excited because
we would spend the night in the village and climb 2 3/4 miles to the site of
a Harpy Eagle nest.
This was our first of many hikes. All trails
in Panama go straight up.
on the start of the trail to the
Harpy Eagle's nest
to find the nest but no Eagle. An hour wait and finally
Peggy spotted a bird with a large wing span a long distance
away. She found it in the scope and Hernan called the young
Harpy to us. The wait and climb were well worth it. This
Harpy was about 8 months old. It was not the Eagle that
had been seen the week before so there must have been another
nest in the area. We spent a long time watching the young
Eagle and then returned to the village for a late lunch.
We had agreed to stay till dark if necessary to see the
and Peggy take a break while waiting for the Harpy Eagle
I was very glad we didn't have to return in
the dark as I had had enough trouble going up the trail in
the daylight. All the Embera homes are built 12' off the
ground. Our tents were on a platform 12' in the air. A log
with steps cut into it was the way up. Thank heavens no one
walked in their sleep. The Emberas showed us their crafts.
They make beautiful baskets, root carvings and jewelry. The
chief sang and played the flute. The young girls did tribal
dances. My favorite was the dance of the Hummingbird. The
village is traditional with the older men wearing their hair
in a dutchboy
cut. Their bodies are painted with a black vegetable dye much
like a tattoo. Hernan had his body painted as a jaguar. The dye
darkens and lasts about a week. The men wear brightly colored
loin cloths and the women go topless and wear colorful wrap skirts.
Western clothes seem to be worn by younger children. That evening
we ate by candle light.
January 24, 2003
We left the village early and traveled by boat back to La Palma
by way of Porto Quimba to pick up supplies, tents, Melanie (Hernan's
girlfriend) and Feidelino, his native name is Egwa, a Cuna Indian
educated in Oregon, USA. Feidelino, in his twenties, is a park
ranger at Metro Park. He and his two brothers have left their
village. One brother, a sister and his mother still live in the
village. Melanie is from Canada and speaks Spanish as if she
has always lived in Panama. Neither of them had been to El Real
or into Rancho Rio before.
Again we set out by boat for El Real. This time of year the river
beyond El Real is very low. We would have to hike the 7.2 miles
the next day to the base of Pirre Mountain. We birded and obtained
clearance from the Military Border Patrol Police to enter the area
leading to the base station. Since it was Saturday night, we joined
the Bilbrengue dance lessons being given to the young people of
the town. The older members teach the folk dances and songs to
the children. If only we could have gone with the rhythm like the
3 year old did. He just closed his eyes and danced till the music
January 25 - 27, 2003
The horses were loaded with food, our 25 pound packs etc. We ate
an early breakfast of fried bread and coin plantains and started
towards the mountain while it was still cool. The temperature
most of the way was in the 90s.
We stopped along the way to
buy live chickens and fresh fruit for juice. The chickens
were tied on the horses. Our passports were checked again
along the way. We were sure happy to see the buildings of
our camp site come into view. Coconuts were opened with machetes
and our cook quickly squeezed fresh Braho for us. The Braho
fruit is the size of a tangerine and tastes like a cross
between a tangerine and lemon. The chickens were tied to
roots to await their fate. Tents were set up and we
were given a choice of a cool swim in the river or a cold
The shower water was cold and came from the river. We had
showers every day but one on our trek. They were all cold.
We hung our wash, swam, birded every minute, ate huge meals
and never gained a pound.
at Pirre Station
Hernan told us about
a great 30' waterfall that we should see not far away. An
easy walk. Why did I believe
him? Much later wading waist deep, walking on sharp rocks
with the aid of Feidelino the falls came into view. The brave
in the group climbed the falls and slid down. We have pictures
to prove who did it
tries out the water slide
Chet becomes an aerialist
We went to sleep to the sounds of the Crested and Vermiculated-Screech
Owls calling. We heard an Ocelot but never saw one. We did observe
two Spiney Rats that were chased away from our supplies. During
our stay, villagers would walk the 7 miles to sell us baskets,
fruit and eggs.
January 28 - 29, 2003
We hated to leave this great birding spot but word had come that we were going
to be allowed to fly to Cana. We had to hike back to El Real to connect with
the charter plane Ancon had arranged to fly us to Cana.
|Our chances of getting
to Cana had looked grim for many days because of the kidnapping of a money
hungry adventure writer. He had hired guides to sneak him into a troubled
area so he could be kidnapped and have material for a new book. He spoiled
a lot of people's plans and hurt the tourist business in Panama. The local
people count on the tourist dollar to supply their needs. Ancon, the travel
company we used, had to change our plans every day because of the upset the
kidnapping caused. We
were finally heading for our dream spot, Cana. I wished I could
have captured the smile on Peggy's face. She had never flown
in a small plane before and was enjoying every minute. We could
see the trail we had just hiked and the rivers we had traveled
in a dump truck to the airstrip
We reached Cana Lodge at about 2 PM. Cool, clear
air greeted us as we stepped out of the plane. The 80s felt
wonderful. We were at 1600 feet above sea level. A hundred years
ago Cana was a gold mining town of 10,000 people. Now a rough
dining building, two staff houses and housing for birders with
five staff members live there. A building on the airstrip houses
Military police to protect the landing field. The staff met
us with wheelbarrows to take our gear to our rooms. We had electric
lights from dark till 8:30 PM, then candles. The stars were
with no lights for a hundred miles. Hernan put Saturn in the
Scope for us. The rings look flat this time of year. It was
an awesome experience.
The birds were fantastic here.
Sitting on the patio we could watch four different Macaw
species: Great Green,
Chestnut-Fronted, Blue-and-yellow and Red-and-green. Blue-headed
Parrots, Tanagers, and other birds were seen also. The trails
around the grounds never stopped producing new and exciting
birds. One great surprise was a Green Ibis
on a jungle trail in the mountains. Machinery Trail holds
birds plus relics of the old mining days. Steam engines,
and flatbeds have been hidden in the jungle for years. Live
dynamite is still in the 1905 tunnel. Every trail led to
different birds or more discoveries. The Seleganti Trail
leading to the
river produced Jaguar, Ocelot and Mergay tracks. At the river,
I had two life birds—the Connecticut and Mourning Warblers.
We met an old friend, the Northern Waterthrush. We were always
accompanied by a member of the Military Police. He happened
to be a very good bird spotter. On one of our trail walks
Peggy spotted a Spectaled Owl. Bill never left his room or
his cameras. He also got some great owl shots.
January 30, 2003
We climbed to 4300 feet on our way to 5500 feet to the Elfin Cloud
Forest of Pirre Mountain. We had to climb three mountains in
order to reach the top. The climb started level and we thought
this nice. After a short distance, the trail went straight up.
Five hours later, we reached the top. After the first steep part
Hernan said, "This is a small group. If anyone wants to
go back to camp we all go back." Peggy and I told him if
he, Chet and Bill wanted to reach 4300 feet by lunch go ahead.
We'd be there by supper. We all made it for lunch but it was
a very tough climb. Chet matched Hernan step for step. Our reward
was the Pirre Hummingbird. The view was magnificent at 4300 feet.
We camped overnight in a blanket of clouds that moved in soaking
us in the night while the temperature dropped to around 50 degrees.
January 31, 2003
The next morning we hiked up for two more hours until we reached 5550 feet. We
were now in a cloud without a view. During the night we heard a South American
Pygmy Owl. Hernan called it in but at 5" we couldn't find it. We walked
back to the Cloud Forest Camp, ate lunch and prepared to descend the mountain.
It took us three hours to return. We all made it back despite blisters, aching
knees and hundreds of bug bites.
February 1, 2003
After a good night's sleep we birded the Boca de Cupe Trail and
then packed up to head back to Panama City. No one wanted to
leave the quiet beauty of the cloud forest behind. Our plane
was late and we were forced to have lunch and keep birding. You
can bet we were not sad to have to stay a few more hours. The
King Vulture flew over, as well as the Ornate Hawk Eagle – more
birds for our list. Our flight back to Panama took us over the
town of El Real, over the mountain where the Harpy nest was,
over Patino, where we waded ashore a week ago, across the Gulf
of Panama and back to Panama City with hot showers.
February 2, 2003
Our last two days in Panama were mild in comparison to days before but just
as rewarding. Sundays in Panama are a day to head to the country and find
a swimming spot on your favorite river or lake. We joined the traffic and
headed out of town on the Pan American Highway for Logo Bayon. We traveled
on the lake in a 40 foot canoe hollowed from a log, crossing the lake to
a Cuna village. The Cunas are very attractive and shy people. They are known
for their beautiful Molas—a combination of appliqué, topped
with embroidery made to decorate their blouses. The Cuna girls marry at about
14 years of age. The girls receive an elementary education in the village
where teachers come in from Panama City. The boys, however, receive a high
school education. After our visit at the village we boated to Clear River
to swim and picnic.
A Cuna Mola
February 3, 2003
Our last day was spent on a Jungle boat tour of the islands in Gatun Lake. The
large ships using the Canal must pass through the lake on their way to the
Gatun Locks and the Caribbean Sea. We searched the islands for monkeys, sloths
and birds. Snail Kites were every where. Our last night and farewell dinner
was at the plush Gamboa Lodge. The resort cost over $30 million dollars to
develop. We said our farewells to Hernan. He has offered to be our guide again.
He has a long list of places he thinks we should visit. Ancon and its staff
couldn't have treated us better. They were constantly thinking of our safety
and we never felt afraid during our visit.
February 4, 2003
The Ancon van picked us up at 5:30 AM. Our fantastic trip had come
to an end. The question we asked each other was - Was the trip
worth it? Yes! Would we do it again? You bet. Please join us
when Bill gives his slide presentation on Panama. Check our calendar for dates.
Over Dutchess, March