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Journey Between The Seas
Shirley Linde

We had been going up river about an hour with jungle on each side when we heard a single drum announcing our arrival. In minutes we were at a landing where a dozen or so villagers stood to greet us. Four musicians played drums, maracas and flute and sang. When we got on shore, sarong-clad children looked up at us with big eyes, wordlessly took us by the hand and one by one led us down a dirt path. We were visiting a village of Embera Indians, one of the highlights of a voyage in a yacht of Panama Marine Adventurers.

The yacht, named Discovery, has lived up to its name, having created a voyage of discovery for travelers who want to know the real Panama and its people. Panamanians are as colorful as the wildlife, their music as flavorful as their native foods, a blend of African, Caribbean and Spanish with dash of Chinese and European. 

Discovery carries 24 passengers, Captain Rafael Munoz, 6 crew, and 2 naturalists. There are 8 queen and 4 twin cabins. The draft is shallow so the vessel can venture where few passenger vessels can, carrying clients in comfort into the shallow waters of Panama’s rivers and tributaries. There are two zodiacs, 8 kayaks, and snorkeling gear on board. The salon is the dining room and main gathering area.

Panama is just 9 degrees north of the equator, a thin strip of land that shapes the waist of the Americas.  The country offers access to many different cultures and worlds, all within reach of each other in just a few hours.  Mention Panama and most people think of the Panama Canal that draws ships and visitors from around the world. But there is more to see in Panama besides the Canal. From the Caribbean to the Pacific there are islands, rivers, jungle, forests, mountains, villages and towns that serve as supermarkets of vacation possibilities. Birders come here from around the world -- 950 species are found here, some residents and some winter migrants.  

We arrived in Panama City by Copa Airlines and overnighted at the Miramar InterContinental Hotel, a modern hotel with a view of the water and the city lights. The next day we met our guides and fellow travelers and toured Panama City. New Panama is a huge conglomeration of high-rise buildings, a mad dash toward over-development with speculation high-rise apartments obscuring the beautiful green mountain vistas, and more and more under construction. Every Panamanian we spoke to   hated the overdevelopment. 


Seeing Panama through Panamanian eyes is without a doubt the smartest way to know the country. After seeing the over-developed city, we toured Panama Viejo, "Old Panama”, and got to know our guides Ivan and Mau whose knowledge of the country was encyclopedic. They are naturalists keenly interested in the future of Panama. They took us to lunch at Rene' Café in the Old Town center called Plaza Catedral. The sea bass with a green garlic sauce and seasoned rice was excellent. We learned later that Rene' worked for years at a popular restaurant and just recently started this new venture. Be sure to put it on your list of places to go.

Later a 2-hour bus ride took us to the sleepy town of Portobelo. We boarded the Discovery anchored in the harbor. Portobelo, a secure harbor on the Caribbean side, was an important refuge for Spanish galleons. Silver ingots used to be in piles at the market when fairs were held for trading of silver and gold and other goods, and slaves were sold for use in Central and South America. Columbus sailed here in 1597 and lost one of his ships here, pirate Henry Morgan fought here, Sir Frances Drake died here. La Nuestra Senora de Atocha overloaded with silver sailed from here to her death. On the first night in Portabelo we were able to join the town in a rehearsal for Carnival. The entire town it appeared turned out with colorful costumes, dance, singing and conga drumming. This would continue weekly until Shrove Tuesday. The next day we toured the town in daylight, visiting the customs house museum and the Church of San Felipe with its Black Christ (tens of thousands of people come during holiday to honor it with a parade and conga dances) , and we explored the old fortifications and purchased crafts from local vendors.

That evening the yacht got underway and we cruised to the Chagres River, slowly moving into the river at dusk. The captain cut the engines and we could hear howler monkeys and the screech of parrots as the sun set and night fell. To stand on deck in the immensity of the river night with hundreds of night birds swooping to catch thousands of insects and the ship’s spotlight pinpointing the river shores was a new experience for all of us.

It was this Chagres River that was used by the conquistadors to move their gold across Panama from Peru and now supplies water to the Panama Canal for filling the locks. The next morning we explored the river by zodiac to the locks and saw toucans up close, and that afternoon we hiked to Fort San Lorenzo, built by the Spaniards in the 16th Century to defend their gold trail. On the trail we saw leaf-cutting ants parading across the path with bits of leaves held high and in a tree nearby watched a momma monkey moving from limb to limb with a baby on her back.

We cruised on to the Panama Canal where there were dozens and dozens of ships awaiting their turn to transit. Our little 24-passenger vessel went through the locks behind a giant cruise ship and was followed by a cargo ship. Panamanians have voted to modernize the canal and we saw that dredging and widening is already underway. Almost 100 years since its opening, the Canal is a mix of intricate modern technology mixed with the old -- a man in a rowboat still rows out and ties the lines from the ships to the little trains called “mules” on shore that guide them. A new lane will be dug and two new sets of locks built, making the Canal wider and deeper so that ships can transit that are now too big to get through, doubling the capacity for traffic. The new lane is expected to be completed by 2014.

On our Panama Canal transit we also spent time in Gatun Lake. When the area was dredged and flooded for the building of the Canal animals retreated to the mountains in the area, and those mountain tops are now islands in the lake with much wildlife. We visited the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute on Barro Colorado Island. The first research center in the new world, it was  begun here to study malaria and yellow fever.  Now the center also studies wildlife, environmental problems, and is working with the use of native plants in the treatment of disease.

The next day was our visit to the Embera Indians in the Darien Jungle. The Embera traditions and lifestyle are still maintained from some time B. C. (Before Columbus).  We were picked up at the Discovery after breakfast by a 16-passenger blue and yellow dugout long-boat, locally made from what must have been a huge tree trunk, and made our way up the Mogue River into the Darien. We all look for the harpy eagle, Panama’s national bird and king of the predators with a 6-7 foot wingspan, known to frequent this area.  At the thatched-hut village the Embera shared their music and dances with us and we were able to purchase cocobolo wood carvings and colorful baskets fashioned by their master crafters.  With one of our guides serving as translator, the village shaman discussed with me some of the plants used for headache, gastrointestinal problems and other conditions. Our founder, Bob, now is a physician who practices Traditional Chinese Medicine so we gather knowledge of herbal medicine wherever we go. The villaae shaman said that Panama MDs and other health practitioners often consult with the village shamans and refer patients to be treated with their herb formulas. Their herbal center is to be expanded this year and will serve as a resource for the Smithsonian and herbalists from other countries.  Our transportation was supplied by fishermen from a village called Happy Point which we visited also.

On our last day we swam at two beaches in the Pearl Islands, famous for its pearl oysters. Snorkelers viewed the remains of a submarine (Explorer) built in 1865 during the Civil War that later sunk here. On our way we were surrounded by spotted dolphins for more than half an hour, not just a few, but dozens, leaping in unison around our boat like a water ballet. I have never seen so many dolphins at one time. Later that afternoon we were anchored for snorkeling and kayaking off the ship when we saw many rays leaping and splashing in the water, a cleansing behavior said one of the naturalists.

Gamboa Rainforest Resort
There are several options to add land packages after the cruise.  With a naturalist guide you can explore more birding or other wildlife, you can take a language course, or you can check out one of several lodges in the rainforest. We chose to spend two days at Gamboa Rainforest Resort, located on a slope overlooking the Chagres River, enjoying the hammock on the balcony, dinner on the terrace, a boat excursion to see  a sloth and monkeys up close, a nature walk, and a rejuvenating massage in their spa. Interesting sidelight – Alan Shepard, John Glenn and other astronauts did jungle survival training here in 1963 with local Indian teachers.


                                                                                                                           -- Shirley Linde & Lloyd Webbe

Website Resources:
Panama Marine Adventures www.pmatours.net
Copa Air www.copaair.com
InterContinental Miramar Hotel www.miramarpanama.com
Gamboa Rainforest Hotel www.gamboaresort.com
Webbe www.safaris-by-design.com
Shirley Linde www.smallshipcruises.com

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