Thursday, February 01, 2007

Originally uploaded by SusanSilverman.

These were our accommodations at Punta Caracol. I wouldn't mind relaxing on one of those lounges right now!
Have a look inside an aqua-lodge. If you click on the photograph you will be able to see the rest of our Panama pictures.


February 1, 2007
Between the bitter cold, long dark evenings, snow and ice, Long Island in January can be a real drag. We’re not into winter sports, so it’s a perfect time to escape to a tropical paradise. We haven’t been to Panama in over ten years, so it was time for another visit. David made the arrangements and I must say, he really planned this one well. The first part of the vacation was adventure part and after that it was pure rest and relaxation.

We departed from JFK, had a connecting flight in Miami and arrived in Panama City in the evening. Our first night was at The Country Inn and Suites by the Panama Canal. The hotel location is fantastic especially with a room over looking the Panama Canal, but the rooms are not very clean. However, the rooms are so inexpensive that it was easy to overlook this flaw. We woke up very early to catch our flight to Bocas del Toro. The plan was to have breakfast at in Bocas del Toro and wait for Henry, the proprietor to meet us there. Henry arrived on time and introduced us to one of the staff members who took us by boat to La Loma Butterfly Farm and Jungle Lodge.

When we got to La Loma I knew we were someplace very special. We were greeted by Margaret and the La Loma staff and felt right at home. There are only three guest ranchos and one lodge for dining. It was a five minute uphill walk to get to our private rancho but well worth it for the view, besides I really need the exercise! The rancho is made from naturally fallen trees and sustainable harvested lumber. The furniture was crafted from local materials and is absolutely beautiful. It was so peaceful to sleep under a thatched roof listening to the sounds of the tree frogs and hearing the rain. Every day at dusk we relaxed in a hammock as we watched parrots fly to their trees for their evening roost.

All the meals at La Loma were delicious. Henry baked bread and we had different breads at each meal. My favorite was the chocolate bread made from the coco beans that he harvested, roasted, and grounded into coco powder. Margaret did the cooking and is a talented and creative chef. She spent some time living in India and learned how to make the most delicious curries. I can’t begin to describe the amazing homemade desserts that were made from local fruits and coco beans. I would go back again tomorrow just for the food!

The dining room is cozy and very comfortable with hammocks and a loft upstairs with two daybeds. We loved relaxing and reading in the hammocks as we smelled the delicious aromas from the kitchen. One evening as I was on the hammock, and enjoying the sounds and scents of the jungle I came face to face with a creature walking on the wooden railing of the dining lodge. It had a cute face but when I looked its long tail I jumped off the hammock and announced that there was a wood rat on the pole. My husband, who is very familiar with my mouse and rat phobia told me it was my imagination but that didn’t hold since the creature came right back in view of everybody. That creature happened to be a possum and was resident along with the rest of his family. Once I knew that, my fear was gone and I welcomed Mr. and Mrs. Possum and family to keep me company. Henry and Margaret weren’t too happy with this family since they were getting very bold and going after the fruits on the counter. These possums were in the market for bananas.

Possums weren’t the only residents at La Loma. The 23 hectares are home to red tree frogs, tropical birds, monkeys, leaf cutting ants, lizards and rainforest creatures. They also have chickens and goats which will hopefully produce eggs and milk when they get older. I can’t forget their dog, Goose. Henry told us that they decided to get chickens because Goose went after chickens at their neighbor’s property and they had to pay for each chicken. Goose isn’t bothering the chickens at La Loma but is known to stray to the neighbor’s chickens so that approach hasn’t worked.

Margaret and Henry have a butterfly farm and export pupa to Europe and the United States. I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that they do not supply butterflies to the dry specimen market or for special events such as weddings. Their philosophy is to use the jungle’s resources in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way. Henry and his staff were happy to give us guided tours about the various butterfly species and how they grow.

Our first adventure trip was with Luis to Coral Key. On our way through the mangroves Luis harvested some fresh oysters which David said were delicious. David and I might be considered to be “scuba snobs” since most of our coral reef adventures take place under water, but we snorkeled in Coral Key and it was breathtaking. The coral colors were so beautiful and we saw many small colorful fish. It was more spectacular than many dives we’ve experienced over the years. David grows orchids in our greenhouse at home and spends hours trying to get the right temperature and humidity to keep these flowers happy. Orchids were in trees at the deserted beaches and thriving. I think he’s seriously considering taking his hobby to a location much further south. No argument from me! You wouldn’t have to twist my arm to get me to live in the tropics during the winter season.

Our second adventure trip is one that will remain planted in my memory for years to come. Chappy took us on a river tour where we saw a crocodile and sloths. I’ve been to the Amazon and saw sloths (perisoso) high up in trees but never could see their adorable faces and claws. We saw two and three toed sloths. One made his way down from a tree and if I wanted to I could have touched him. I knew sloths were the slowest moving mammals on earth but it was really something to watch them in action. Now I have a model when I try to practice walking meditation or tai chi.

Our boat excursion was in route to the bat cave. I was really excited about going into a bat cave, and have fond memories of my online project, Stellaluna’s Friends. I couldn’t wait to see Stellaluna and her friends but had second thoughts when we got to the cave. To tell you the truth, I was terrified! We were given yellow hard hats to wear, which was a good thing was considering the fact that I bumped my head on a stalactite. The cave was totally dark, slippery rocks, waist deep water, neck deep water further in (which I didn’t do) and bats galore! The people who went there the following day encountered a tarantula in the cave. If that happened when I was there it would have certainly put me over the edge. I wanted to turn back the minute we entered because I was afraid falling, and my imagination went wild with the thought of vampire bats! Little did I know then that Panama is one of five countries in there world where there are no rabies. I also wasn’t thinking about how vampire bats only drink when the person is asleep, which I had no intention of doing.

There were two guides, David, myself and three other people on this cave trip. I wanted to turn back the minute I set foot in the cave but was outvoted by all so I had no choice but to venture forward. At one point we were told to turn our flashlights off in order to appreciate the total darkness. As a diver, I go on night dives and turn off my flashlight to experience the bioluminescence, but I felt uncomfortable and just put my hand over the light. I was in total darkness for about 3 seconds when I freaked out and announced that this whole experience was taking me out of my comfort zone. Monica, one of the other guests was very reassured me that I was doing fine and these kind of experiences tend to make us stronger. A few minutes later we were told that the water would be chest deep depending on our height. At that point, Monica, and her mother-in-law Linda decided to turn back. There was no argument from me. Monica’s husband, my macho husband and guide went further. It didn’t take long for them to turn back either. David told me that he was worried about me, right!

We saw a white bat. They think it’s an albino but aren’t sure. David took a picture of hundreds of roosting bats. There were a few that were flying around, back and forth. When I was working on Stellaluna’s Friends, we talked about bat myths and my daughter Rachel teased me about how bats fly in your hair and are really mice with wings. I couldn’t help but laugh!
So, I managed to live through the bat cave adventure, with just a few bruises when from sliding on rocks. I’m so happy that I did this. You may be wondering, if I had the opportunity, would I do it again? Sure, why not?

The next day was raining so we decided to relax and enjoy the La Loma environment. After breakfast we relaxed on our hammocks and Henry brought some hot coco beans that he just roasted. Monica, Linda and I sat and shelled the beans as we talked and enjoyed each other’s company. We watched Henry grind the beans and had them in a yummy dessert for dinner.

For years I’ve been an advocate to save the rainforest and supported ecotourism by going to jungle lodges. As an elementary school teacher, I taught my students about the rainforest and the importance of its preservation. There was one sound that we heard while we were at La Loma that made us all very unhappy. Henry told us that they are in the second phase of building a retirement community, in the surrounding area and the sounds we are hearing are the trees that will be used for the new construction. If they go through with this development, and I pray that it fails, instead of seeing the bay from the rancho one would see a golf course. According to what we heard, the whole project was not planned well, it will have a terrible affect on the fauna and flora of the area and the local people will not benefit. This development can have such a negative impact on La Luma that Henry may have no choice but to sell the land. If this happens, it would be a terrible loss. Henry and Margaret are sensitive to the land; they use no chemicals, and hire local people who are treated with love and respect. Every time I think about the possibility of this horrible development I have a lump in my throat.

After three wonderful days at La Luma, it was time to say goodbye and begin the second part of our vacation in Panama. We returned to Bocas del Toro and were greeted by a staff member of Punta Caracol. We were driven to the dock where we boarded a boat to the Punta Caracol resort. This was a totally different experience than La Luma. Punta Caracol is located right off shore of Colon Island. There are eight two story wooden accommodations on stilts with thatched roofs. The first floor has a living room area with the bathroom and upstairs is the bedroom with an opening to let in the tropical breezes. They also have a dining room which is less casual than La Luma’s. Dining is a more intimate experience with tables for two or very small groups. Punta Caracol was much more expensive than La Luma and in my opinion; the food wasn’t nearly as good.

A nice surprise at Punta Caracol was the spotted eagle ray right outside our room in very shallow water. I thought he was in 4 inches of water but it was more like a foot of water. We spent our first day there reading, swimming and relaxing.

On our second day it rained all day and was very windy. In the morning we went on a boat ride and saw black-faced monkeys high up in trees. Our next stop was Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach). It was a lovely beach with an abundance of very pretty starfish. Although it was raining and windy, the water was warm but I decided not to swim because the thought of sitting in a wet bathing suit on the boat ride back wasn’t very appealing.

When we returned to Punta Caracol out clothing was totally drenched, so we went for a swim before drying off. We spent the afternoon in Bocas del Toro at an Internet cafĂ© checking email. It was David’s birthday and the chef at Punta Caracol made him a yummy vanilla birthday cake. Too bad it wasn’t a surprise, because the waiter went over to David during dinner and asked him which one of us had a birthday! It really didn’t matter, since after all our years of marriage he knows I always plan some kind of surprise when I remember his birthday!

On our third day at Punta Caracol we woke up early, had breakfast and headed back to Punta Caracol for an early flight back to Panama City.

It was very hot and sunny in Panama City and the first thing we did after checking into the Country Suites hotel was to relax and swim in their huge swimming pool. In the afternoon we went to the artesian craft market where they sell Wounan and Embera crafts, baskets, carved palm seeds, molas, and other souvenirs. David bought us two beautiful baskets and carving made from the seed of a palm tree. We love to bring back crafts from Indigenous people on our travels.

Our last experience was the Panama Canal. We went to the Canal Museum, toured some exhibits and watched a huge ship go through the locks at Miraflores. They have a 24 hour web cam where one can see the boats make their journeys on the Pacific.

Well, that's the end of my story. I can’t say that I look forward to the unpacking, facing an angry cat, doing laundry and the cold weather, but we have a trip in three weeks to Los Roques, Venezuela, so no complaints here. We will have wonderful memories of our trip to Panama and will hope and pray that the rainforest destruction will come to an end before it’s too late