Real Travel feature

Howling with monkeys in Panama

(Written for Real Travel magazine, 2011.)

Panama is bursting with wildlife and natural beauty to rival neighbouring Costa Rica. You just have to know where to find it, as Ella Taylor discovers…

I never thought that the love of my life would be black, hairy and ready to grope men and women within seconds of meeting them. But then I’d never met Lisa before. The liveliest Howler Monkey of the family, she threw herself on top of the oldest man in our group as soon as she saw us, having cleared an assortment of bags and cameras faster than an Olympic hurdler, before chewing on his lip lovingly.

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Welcome kiss over, she turned to look around at the rest of us with a sheepish expression for a moment, taking in the sight of her brothers and sisters lying sedately on laps and in arms. After that brief pause she leapt up and ran around the circle of people, grabbing hold of any body parts, clothes or bags she liked the look of, goading her new friend into playing a game of rough and tumble like a four-year-old boy with his dad. The sight of her swinging on his arms as if they were tree branches and rolling on her back flirtatiously was irresistible, so I soon joined in with the game, tickling her tummy and messing up her hair. Having a girl join in with the boisterous game surprised and delighted her, so that once she was tired out it was me she came to, to drape herself around my neck for a siesta, hands resting on my chest and in my hair.

“The monkeys were crazy,” enthused Eric MacManus, from Seattle, USA, another person in my group who liked Lisa. “She was really entertaining to watch and you had to be on your toes because you never knew when she was going to be coming after you. I’d never been in close contact with monkeys before but they’re just like kids, very playful, they do what they want and don’t really understand or care if it’s a problem for anyone else. That’s part of what makes them cute.”

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Michelle Walker

Having tea with the rescued Howler Monkeys in the remote, lush gardens of Alouatta Lodge near David, Panama, was an experience that made my whole body smile. Steve and Michelle Walker set up the Lodge four years ago, after moving to Panama from Australia to pursue their landscaping careers in a different environment.

Their first Howler Monkey, named Yahoo after the characteristic noise of his species, was found abandoned and weak on the side of the road. He was brought into the carefully planted botanical gardens and cared for. More monkeys soon came, and while some of the more expensive plants suffered, the Walkers thrived. Gradually the wild local monkeys introduced themselves to the rescue family, and a couple of them have since joined the wild troop. They come back to visit their family, and the tourists who help to fund the Lodge’s survival, often.

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“Our time with visitors has been brilliant, all of over 750 up to now have been great,” Steve Walker said. “But we are amazed at how little most people know about the environment and the problems it’s facing, and how few understand how things are going wrong in countries like Panama.” The Walkers have had no help, financial or otherwise, from Panama’s authorities, and learned much of what they know about caring for monkeys on the job. This in stark contrast to neighbouring Costa Rica, which pours big bucks into environmental projects to protect its natural treasures – their major draw for tourism – each year.

Later a pot of tea was brought out for us visitors, but we had to share with the monkeys. While they liked it milkier than I do and drank out of a saucer rather than a cup, our differences ended there. During the tea break they were hand fed grapes, strawberries and bananas by my friends while I struggled to pour tea for the people without dropping the young monkey that had climbed up my back and was playing with my hair.

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Makinde Adeagbo from Kentucky, USA, was the most apprehensive person in my group of nine that day, but he said: “By the end, I think I experienced a calm anxiety around the monkeys. It took a little while, but I certainly appreciated getting that close to nature. It’s certainly an experience you don’t get every day.”

Sitting with hard-working locals on the bus back to the hostel, my white top forever stained with smeared monkey poo, I was immeasurably happy. It topped a trip that also saw me dance to Reggaeton and coo over leaping dolphins in Bocas del Toro, ford rivers on the Quetzal Trail in Boquete, swim on a nearly deserted beach in Santa Catalina and marvel at the Panama Canal.

Dolphin joy

The island of Bocas del Toro, a few miles south of the Panama-Costa Rica border, has a distinctly Caribbean atmosphere. Chocolate and coconut cake and rum-based cocktails were some of the first delights I experienced there, complimenting a soundtrack of Reggae rhythms infused with Spanish phrases and Latin American dance moves.

I’d been told that the people in Panama were very reserved, and that compared to the Costa Ricans they might even seem rude. Well one of the first Panamanians I met – Guillermo Smith, a speedboat captain who took us around the nearby bays and islands – chatted to us, threw the tiny wooden vessel over huge waves so that we bumped about in our seats and shrieked, invited us to his village and introduced us to his wife and kids within an hour of meeting us.

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When we motored into Dolphin Bay after all this, most of us were sceptical about whether we’d actually see a dolphin. Numerous tour companies in town listed it among the star attractions, but we wondered whether it would just be a pretty bay with one or two dolphins passing through sporadically.

However, after a couple of minutes a grey dorsal fin appeared. Then another, then another, until a mother, baby and other adult dolphins were jumping and playing in our boat’s wake and swimming alongside us. Another boat was just leaving the bay, so for a few precious minutes we had these creatures all to ourselves. Trying to photograph them mid-leap would have been a waste of time as non-wildlife photographers, so we simply watched, cooed and appreciated their elegance and playfulness.

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Dragging ourselves away from the dolphins we headed to Red Frog Beach, in the protected nature reserve of Isla Bastimentos. Mooring the boat by one of the reserve entrances, we wandered through the quiet jungle paths that led to the yellow sandy beach at a snail’s pace, our eyes darting between every reddish or moving object going, desperately searching for a glimpse of a shy Red Frog.

Despite an abundance of paths weaving past various wide-leafed plants and beneath damp trees, the tiny red amphibians – about the size of a 50p coin – went unspotted. Perhaps in a few years, Panama will emulate the success of neighbouring Costa Rica in the ecotourism market, or at least recruit guides for the nature reserves to help with wildlife spotting. Not knowing exactly what to look for, coupled with a snake phobia, meant that I didn’t stand much of a chance.

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However, Panama’s lack of ready-packaged nature tours for the mass tourist market appealed to many of the travellers in my group. “I actually liked Panama better than Costa Rica, but I think it depends on what you are looking for. Costa Rica is more developed, safer, and you can do things more easily than in Panama, but I sometimes felt like I was getting the canned tourist experience that thousands of other people get. In Panama, besides the Panama Canal, it felt like entire towns weren’t just set up to cater to me and other tourists,” said Eric.

“I wouldn’t say Panama is set up for easy tourism. If you want that, go to Costa Rica, but if you’re on a budget, want to experience more culture, and are willing to deal with a little more hassle getting around, and maybe a little lower safety and health standards, then Panama can be more fun.”

Ali Sheard, from Perth, Australia, also enjoyed the less tourist-driven feel of Panama, having travelled overland from Mexico City to Panama via Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. But, she said: “I guess escaping the tourism has come at a price, as they don’t really emphasise a lot of the jewels they have in Panama, such as the wildlife and the beautiful scenery in Boquete, which was definitely my favourite place in Panama.”

Fording practice

The natural glory of Boquete was something I came into close contact with by hiking along the Quetzal Trail. To get there we took a minibus 9kms from the town centre to Alto Quiel, at the edge of the Volcan Baru National Park, by speaking to one of the many young ticket boys at the bus stop and being ushered onto the nearest bus. This was typical of local bus travel in Panama – no set timetables that we could find, just a wait on the bus (usually a minivan) until it’s full enough to satisfy the driver, then go. From the bus stop it was a longer walk than we expected, along a road flanked by Christmas tree plantations, farms and paddocks, to the ranger station and the start of the trail. It was so long, in fact, that after walking for 15 minutes or so we wondered if we’d missed the start of the trail, and stopped to ask a local man for directions. The entrance and its big signs are actually impossible to miss, but we heard that many hikers have the same doubts as us.

The trail runs 9.6kms through shaded valleys and over hills, skirting the bottom of Volcan Baru itself. Along the way, clear rivers cross the path, usually with no bridges over them, so that rolling up our trousers and fording the river became the speciality of the day. At around 1,000 metres above sea level, the water was cold and refreshing but the farmland and hills were a rich racing green. “The beautiful landscapes of the highlands of Boquete are perfect for those keen on hiking and wildlife watching,” said Rich Ecob, from London, England.

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The elusive Resplendent Quetzal, the blue bird for which the trail was named, hid during our visit, but tour companies in town boasted that their guides will show you Quetzals, if they’re there to be seen. According to them, there’s a better chance of seeing them in the earlier hours of the day. Makinde and Eric set out at 2am on the day of my hike, to tackle the tough ascent of Volcan Baru, the highest point in Panama, in time for sunrise. “And I’ve gotta say, there’s nothing like seeing the sun rise above the clouds,” Makinde said. They went with an experienced guide, which they organised easily through the English-speaking staff at Hostal Boquete.

Those in the group that didn’t fancy hiking still got to experience the scenery enveloping Boquete, through a visit to a coffee plantation, where some of the best coffee in the world is produced. “What was really interesting about that place was that it was run by a retired American couple who actually treated their local workers way better than the Panamanian plantation owners,” recalled Ali. “Also, they grew and picked the coffee berries according to the moon cycles.”

Boquete itself makes a good base for activities, with cheap places to eat such as a self-service restaurant serving traditional Panamanian food – usually a simply marinated meat or fish with rice – and a cheap café frequented at breakfast-time by US expats, which served amazing pancakes, fruit salads, hash browns, eggs and more for pennies. The river through the town was fast and spectacular during our visit, and the few friends in my group who went white water rafting had a blast on grade 5 rapids.

Black sand and big ships

Our river fording experience came in handy when getting to our next hotel, in the small coastal town of Santa Catalina, as we had to wade through a knee-deep tidal river between the edge of town and the hotel, carrying our luggage. I found it a really exciting adventure, as did Eric, who pointed out: “You know you are in an isolated place when you have to get there at low tide in order to get to your hotel without getting soaked!”

Some of the group were worried by the river fording, and none of us enjoyed the slow service at the hotel restaurant (it took two hours for the last dinner in our group of 14 to arrive on the first night, and almost as long the next night) but the star attraction – a clean, private black sand beach just five metres from the door of our comfortable huts – won us all over.

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“The beaches in Santa Catalina are perfect for learning to surf, warm waters and consistent waves”, said Rich, who hired one of the hotel’s surfboards. Meanwhile, those of us after a more relaxing stay soaked up the quiet, palm-lined beaches and the Pacific sea and wandered the couple of miles into the town centre to avoid catching ‘island fever’.

Panama City was a big culture shock after the lazy pace of the coastal towns and the peace of the mountains, with skyscrapers, shopping malls and skyscrapers under construction towering over the waterfront, a huge out-of-town complex of nightclubs, the pretty but crime-riddled old town of Casco Viejo and of course the Panama Canal.

The Canal, and its museum recounting its history and future plans, was a highlight. It was created between 1904 and 1914 by the US, being built through the narrowest part of the Americas to open up shorter and safer trade routes. Tolls could reach hundreds of thousands of US dollars, going straight to the US. Since the Canal was handed back to Panama in 1999, it has become the country’s biggest source of income. Work is underway now to widen locks so that larger freight vessels may pass through, expanding this revenue stream for Panama City and securing its place as the richest city in Central America.

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The City’s furious pace of development and commercial centres seemed at odds with the other towns I’d visited, in much the same way that a Cotswold village might seem a world away from London’s Canary Wharf. Though the only wildlife I encountered was a few dogs, there was more to take away from Panama City than the Canal.

The club complex, Zona Viva, boasted spots to suit all musical tastes and budgets, all of them full of trendy locals and a sprinkling of tourists from Europe, North America and Australasia.

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Colonial Casco Viejo’s series of stone plazas and narrow lanes, and the view of the city from the top of Ancon Hill, were stunning. One night we sat outside a restaurant in one of the main plazas of Casco Viejo, and were serenaded by a grey-haired Latino with a Spanish acoustic guitar and a gentle voice. The combination of his relaxing song, delicious international food and crumbling walls of 17th century churches was nothing short of enchanting.

Getting there

Numerous airlines fly between Panama City and London, often via North or Latin American cities, including American Airlines (www.aa.com), Continental Airlines (www.continental.com), Copa Airlines (www.copaair.com), Delta (www.delta.com), KLM (www.klm.com), Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) and United Airlines (www.united.com) all fly from Panama City to Europe.

From Panama City, Ella flew with Copa Airlines, Panama’s international airline, to Miami, then connected to a Virgin Atlantic flight to London.

Getting around

Ella travelled around Panama on the Gap Adventures tour called the ‘Panama Experience’. This was a two-week tour that she combined with two others, taking her from Cancun to Panama City in seven weeks. (www.gapadventures.com) The Gap tour used public buses to get to and from Boquete, Santa Catalina and Panama City, and to Almirante, for the water taxi to Bocas del Toro. Within Panama City, taxis are a safe and affordable option.

Accommodation

Ella stayed at Hotel del Parque in Bocas del Toro (www.bocasdeltorohostels.com), Hostal Boquete in Boquete (www.hostalboquete.com), Oasis Surf Camp in Santa Catalina (www.oasissurfcamp.com) and Hotel Centroamericano in Panama City (www.hotelcentroamericano.com).

Monkeys at Alouatta Lodge

A visit to see the Howler Monkeys should be arranged in advance and costs US$15 per person, including lunch and pickup from David. Guests can also stay overnight, sleeping in weather and bug-proof hammocks under the stars, for $75 including food, drink, monkey hugs and nature walks (www.alouattalodge.com).

Bocas boat tour

The main street in Bocas del Toro is home to various tour operators and independent guides offering similar tours to one another. We negotiated a trip with Guillermo that took in Dolphin Bay, Red Frog Beach, Starfish Bay and Hospital Point. En-route we also stopped at his island village of San Cristobal.

Boquete tours

Boquete Outdoor Adventures, via Hostal Boquete, arranged the guided Volcan Baru hike, coffee plantation tour and white water rafting. Other activities, such as island-hopping, ziplining and riding, are also available (http://boqueteoutdooradventures.com).

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