Panama Chronicles - Fortuna

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Hi all,

Iíve just returned from a wonderful week in the highlands of western Panama. Mike, Isis, Heidi (a researcher from England) and I headed out west to ďbaskĒ in the cool mountain air for a while. We stayed at the Fortuna Biological Research Station in cabins rented by the Smithsonian at the eastern end of the Talamanca mountain range. The elevation of the station is only about 1000m above sea level, but that kilometer of altitude made a big difference and the air was permanently fresh and spring like (a nice change from the hot and humid lowlands). To our surprise our cabins were fully stocked with electricity, hot water, and even a coffeemaker! When it got chilly at night the four of us were happy to sit around in the living room reading with hot coffee or tea.

Fortuna is located just a few kilometers from the continental divide, and as such it offered us glimpses of the flora and fauna of both the Pacific and the Atlantic slopes. For me the most striking thing about the Fortuna area was the huge swaths of untouched forest. I have been to the highlands before, but the views have always been vistas of fincas, cattle pastures and coffee plantations. Near Fortuna however (especially on the Atlantic slope), the cattle pastures and coffee plantations are missing, and there is nothing but forest as far as the eye can see. Looking over those mountains (some higher than 2000m) one can almost see the jaguars, pumas and Harpy Eagles that roam in the wilderness.

Fortuna offers not only both the Pacific and Atlantic slopes, but also a gradient of tropical forest ranging from highland wet, to highland dry, to humid lowland, as one hikes down from the mountains. Mike was an excellent guide for our trip and he took us to various mountain trails that we could never have found on our own. To give you a taste of what we saw; our first day we hiked 6 hours along a mountain river, first through second growth humid highland forest, and then into primary dry oak forest (which bore a striking resemblance the oak forests of the temperate zone). Our second day we hiked a ridiculously steep trail down the Atlantic slope through wet highland forest cloaked in moss, epiphytes and mist, down into humid lowland forest with huge buttressed trees the seemed to stretch to the sky like a living cathedral. On our forth day we decided to hike out to a deserted meteorological station on the Pacific slope. The day began with a twenty minute boat ride across human-man Lake Fortuna, which provides hydroelectricity for the region. The lake level was very low, so we had to hike for hours across the dried bottom of the lake from the place where our boat dropped us off. The landscape was a very eerie mixture of forested mountains in the distance, in sharp contrast to the blackened and rotting stumps of flooded out trees, which surrounded us like ghosts of the former forests. Along our hikes we saw a plethora of birds (twenty new species for me), including a Bare-necked Umbrella Bird, a pair of Ornate Hawk-Eagles, Emerald Toucanettes, Spangled-cheeked Tanagers, and Prong-billed Barbets to name only a few. We also saw Puma and Tapir tracks. What an unforgettable place!

In addition to meeting the flora and fauna of Fortuna, we also got to know a number of locals. Carlos and Alberto are friends of Mikeís who work for the Fortuna station. They and their families live nearby in the tiny town of Hornito and we had a homemade Sancocho (chicken soup) dinner with them on our last evening in the mountains. On our hikes we also met a few of the more isolated locals who have fincas (small farms) along the recently re-built highway between the cities of David and Changuinola. These fincas have tiny wood or tin houses built on stilts to avoid flooding from run-off during torrential rains. These small dwellings often support whole families! People living there grow bananas and plantains on small patches of cleared land, and raise chickens or perhaps a goat at subsistence levels. They are extremely poor and yet to me they seem very happy. Yes, my camera costs more than everything a whole family owns, but who am I to say that my way of life is better? They have enough to sustain themselves, they own their land, and they live independently. When I look into the faces of these people, I donít see poverty, I see self-sufficiency and peace, things that are often lacking from the eyes of the average city dweller.

Ciao,

Debbie

-- Anonymous, August 24, 2003


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