Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Today I saw a Broadbill mot mot, and it was awesome!

The great thing about being in your 30s is that you (well at least I feel this way) can easily slip between the beer-chugging hostel scene and a nice hotel. I woke up on my sweat stained mattress in Carti, fully intending to stay another night (and perhaps get my own island) and I thought... I'M DONE. I have spent over half of this trip in hostels, and it has been fun. The easy company, spending $20 or less a night, it's a great thing. But once in awhile I need to be around a different crowd. I read about Canopy Tower a week ago in Lonely Planet, thinking I might check it out. Just an hour from Panama City, it's one of the best birdwatching spots in the world. Jimmy Carter, Martha Stewart, Angelina Jolie have all been here. It's been mentioned in National Geographic, Traveller magazine and a bunch of others. Not fancy, but in a fabulous setting in a tower in the forest.
I took a bus from Panama City, got off at an intersection and hiked up a hill for a mile or so thought the woods and came up to the green tower. Everyone said "you WALKED up the HILL?" because they all had taken a private taxi. This was a different crowd. I admired the amazing view from the roof and took a shower. This place has a feel of a scientific station, a hotel and a lounge. All the rooms open up to a big interior balcony and there is a library of nature books and birding magazines. The third floor is a lounge where you can sit on couches, lay in a hammock, eat, drink, read. I took the 3PM tour and was joined by Dianna and Eric, a couple from Bermuda, Rachel from England, Tony, an animal rehabilitation guy and pipers plover enthusiast and Larry, former cardiologist and hummingbird enthusiast. Our guide drove us out to an abandoned road in the forest. "better wear hiking boots and long pants!". When in fact it was just an easy stroll.. for me. Everyone had binoculars and I had to borrow some. Larry had the biggest camera I'd ever seen, he was a genuine bird paparazzi. His photos could be in National Geographic.
To me, all forest sounds kind of blur into one big soundtrack of random cheeps and chirps. Insects and birds sound similar to me. Not to these people! We heard another random chirp, and Tony or Larry would say "Oh, there's a flatbill over in that tree!" and we would all point our binoculars, and our guide would point a big telescope. Sure enough, a neon colored bird would be hiding in the leaves. Something I NEVER would have seen. Everyone busily jotted down the birds they saw in their own personal log books, and I happened to have my journal with me. This is what I saw:
Broadbill mot mot
Olivaceous flatbill
bi colored antbird
brown woodcreeper
white whiskered puffbird
flycather atilla
scarlet rumped cacique
along with a literal RIVER of army ants, a river of leafcutters, termites and frogs. It was also the best smelling rainforest I'd ever been to. It was great to be around people who care so much about birds, their enthusiasm was so contageous. When I got back, I laid in the hammock and checked out "birding" magazine. Did you know that there is a world series of birding? It takes place in May, lasts 24 hours, you stand in a 17 foot circle and have to identify as many birds as you can in 24 hours. Last year it took place in New Jersey. (New Jersey??). Kirtland's warbler made the cover, and there was a whole article of what to do when a preditor comes to eat your baby chickadees. Just like Jimmy Carter, I love this place and it was a great random spur of the moment decision.
We sat down to a nice dinner of wine, salad, beef, potatoes, etc, etc. It was fabulous. After dinner we looked at Larry's photos on his computer and all clapped when he was done showing us. I have to get up at 6AM to not miss the morning feeding outside the observation deck. It was fun to be a birder for a day! Tomorrow I might finally go to Isla Grande.

My night with the Kuna indians

The San Blas islands are some of Central America's most beautiful, but they are hard and expensive to get to. I decided to do it the last minute ghetto way, by taking a 4X4 (instead of flying) from a hostel in Panama City. The San Blas are completely run by Kuna indians, it's called the comarca kuna yala. They all live in villages of thatch huts with dirt floors and sleep in hammocks. A group of us were picked up at 5AM, then drove down three hours of bumpy, washed out roads. My knees were pretty much in my chest, we were squished in the truck. After a ride down a river in a canoe, then a half hour ride out in the ocean, we arrived at the most rustic place I'd ever seen. A cluster of junky bamboo huts - very much like the hilltribe villages in Thailand only much more crowded. There was a super ghetto hostel in the village of Carti, where we stayed upstairs in a dirty, hot bamboo house. The company was fun - three guys from Brooklyn, a girl from Canada, two finnish people and an irish couple. The package included a visit to the islands - we took another hour boat ride out into the ocean to the most picturesque island I've ever seen (pictured above) - isla pellican. And true to it's name, there were pellicans dive-bombing into the water for fish.
Along with the rustic accomodation was rustic food. Fish and rice (pictured above) - it wasn't too bad. The NYC guys had been there for three days, and ate fish and rice at every meal. We spent the entire day there, snorkeling, reading under the palm trees, swimming (we fed baby sharks our leftover fish - I was too scared to go out into the deep water where the sharks were, so I didn't see them!) After a perfect day, we went back to the hostel. I love camping, and rustic stuff, but this was too ghetto even for me. the mattresses were stained, and for a pillow I had a couch pillow. We were all so grossed out by the pillows that we had to put towels on them so they wouldn't touch our faces!
After a communal dinner and a couple of beers, we decided to go to the little kuna museum on the island. I learned that Kunas are a matriachal society, and they've battled with the Panamanians quite a bit (but the US helped them during the building of the canal) but they love foreigners. They also sleep in hammocks, get married in hammocks and give birth in hammocks. Really. They have their own religion - sort of like Chrisitanity (heaven and hell) but with a lot of mystcism thrown in, and a lot of hinting toward good and bad karma. It was interesting. Sort of like the hilltribe villages in thailand but a lot more ghetto and uncomfortable to visit.
I came back to Panama City today with the Brooklyn boys, and now I'm at a nerdy, expensive and super cool bird watching obervation-station hotel place. I had to take a bus and walk a half hour up a sweaty hill through the jungle to get here. I was completely soaked in sweat and everyone was sort of surprised that I walked from the highway. There are bird books everywhere, and the whole hotel is in a tower so there are killer views! I'm going on a tour in about 10 minutes (I think it's a bird tour) and supposedly we can see monkeys and more birds at dinner. It's so scientific and nerdy, my dad would love this place. well, I'm off to be a bird nerd... also check out the sloth pic I uploaded!

Monday, December 01, 2008

This is gonna be a short one...I'm in another panama city hostel and it's been a loooong day!
I think I've been a pretty good sport about all of this rain. I learned that this is the worst rain period Panama has had in over 30 years. Raining ALL over the country. I really was starting to like Boquete, but I was getting tired of being the gringa wandering around town in the orange plastic emergency poncho. After 2 amazing nights at the panamonte hotel (the place that cut me the great deal), I moved to a normal hostel on the river so that I could see some friendly non retiree faces and save some money. In the lobby, I looked a little glum and desperate so one of the owners (A nice guy from Gary, Indiana..the accent reminded me of home!) told me of a place that would cheer me up, an animal rescue center run by some British retirees on the outskirts of town. I hiked up a hill and out into the misty woods, and 30 minutes later found Paradise Gardens, where they rehabilitate neglected exotic animals in a beautiful setting. You can pet some of the animals, and learn their stories. Like the two scarlet maccaws that were confiscated from some drug dealers. And the two toucans, Bonnie and Clyde, who were found injured at the side of the road. And a wierd cat-otter mix that Ive never seen before. They even had a baby sloth, wrapped up in a blanket, that they would take out for you to pet. Im not the biggest animal lover you've ever met, but even I was amazed by this place and it completely cheered me up. Bonnie and Clyde, the toucans, were amazing. I asked if they ate fruit loops.. haha. Paradise Gardens gave the animals such nice areas to roam around in, way better than the spooky zoo in El Valle!
Today I flew to Panama City (it was cheap and I was lazy) to arrange a trip to the san blas. I'm going tomorrow at 5am, Im super excited!! look it up on the internet. I'm going to stay in a rustic cabin. rock on! I won't be able to blog for a few days because I'll be kickin it with the Kuna indians!