HIGHLANDS OF CHIRIQUI . . .WHERE NATURE UNFOLDS
The Panama Canal Review -- November 1968
You get into your automobile at 8
o'clock in the morning, when the tropical sun and humidity already permit the air.
You drive through the city amid its early morning bustle and noises -horns, vendors'
babble- and all the varying sounds of a metropolis awake for another day of
activity. Gears grind, tires squeal, and traffic cops' tempers rise faster than the
sun. You start and stop, veer and wind, and eventually find yourself on the
outskirts of town, heaving a sigh of relief. The city is wonderful, but -- intense
Then, as you start to travel westward on the winding Inter-American Highway, the city retreats behind the car and the countryside unfolds in what you imagine will be an endless series of rolling hills, studded with the sensuous vegetation of the tropics. After all, this is Panama- land of huge, tropical game fish, of intense sunlight filtered through thick hazes of humidity and swaying palmeras that might have inspired the 'cumbia,' so closely do they mimic its rhythms. This is the tropics; the very rain here is a musical instrument.
But, if you travel far enough, and not very far at that, you will find yourself in a few hours climbing- climbing farther and faster than you realize, because the hills are gently curved and rise subtly- ascending to an elevation of 3,800 feet. As you get about midway to that elevation, you notice the countryside undergo a change- the trees grow straighter, truckloads of vegetable-produce and other cool-climate crops pass by you, and the tightness in your ears suddenly tells you Panama is more than the tropics.
Then, one final turn around the midsection of a mountain, and the gently proof is unfolded to you like the flower it is -Boquete- a little town which marks the memory forever. It opens up at the curve like a petal and though it were a deadly jungle flower you would risk its
But no worry of that. Rather, Boquete has more subtle weapons. You spend a few days there in one of its small hotels or pensiones, sleeping to the natural narcotic of its musical streams (they are everywhere), eating as though you had a new stomach (and eating well and inexpensively), and wondering -what happened to the tropics? But- there is more. Boquete is just nature's elegant introduction. Beyond it, on the other side and farther up the mountain, an encore awaits you. Ascending a road which now is no longer quite so gently and where the word "town" loses meaning, you enter a mountain forest almost primeval in its beauty, cut through by a single main road and studded with a house here and there -or is a Swiss chalet- and other unlikely sights appear, such as miniature cattle drives, an occasional vegetable farm, and a "town" that resembles the one-street community of the Old American West.
This is Cerro Punta, an extinct volcanic crater and lake bed which rises and falls across a 10-mile stretch and is a cool 6,300 feet above sea level. Slightly down the mountain from the rolling surface of Cerro Punta whose rich, black topsoil is 20-feet deep in some places, are the "communities" (usually of one or two houses, cabins or chalets) of Bambito, El Volcan and the llanos. The combination of these areas, only a short drive from Boquete or David, is like the innermost depths of a primitive forest. Few tourists are in evidence.
The local people are friendly, vigorous, and the pioneers among them literally brought on their backs to the are much of whatever is there. They could switch to mules only after a road was built. The road opened the way for new people and enabled the beginning of the tiny community of Cerro Punta itself, but the original majesty of the land is virtually unchanged from what it has been for centuries- an untouched region of sheer-faced mountains and valleys that spin round and round in a dizzy series of sights. The streams of Boquete lull, those around Cerro Punta roar; they are near-rivers whose rapids crash upon gigantic rocks and fling a challenge at the fishermen who would dare cross. Not many do. Thus, in a mere 7 hours, over a brief 300 ,miles, a non-tropical wilderness is reached -from 'palmeras' to Panama pines, from tropical city to cool high-country- in less than a day. The mean temperature is now 65, instead of 85, and in the evening two blankets feel good as the thermometer sinks to a chilling 50 degrees. The place is still Panama, but the 'cumbia's' sensual beat now seems far off in the tropical distance; at Cerro Punta one imagines Strauss in the wind, and the thunder of the streams could have been written by Beethoven. But mountains moving men is rarely as impressive as the reverse. At Boquete-Cerro Punta, men have challenged a few. Around Boquete, coffee grows straight up the side of a mountain -or at least at so sharp an incline your neck hurts as you tilt your head back trying to see the peak of the planted rows. Flowers, all kinds of flowers, appear in strangely wonderful places -on the faces of concave hills, between rocks in streams, and along the sidewalks of the most humble residence. In Cerro Punta, the dirt roads endlessly twist the imagination in what it must have been like to cut through this maze the first time -when they even had to turn the pack animals back, the bush was so thick.
The men who helped uncover this paradise are varied. the first of them number less than a dozen, and those who followed now represent, per capita, the broadest cross-section of national origins found in all of Panama. Boquete, for example, has 31 ethnic groups in its population of 13,000, with 50 percent of these first generation. They include Ecuadorian and Egyptian, Cuban and Canadian, German and Jew, Eastern and Western European, American, and of course, Panamanian, besides many others. Apart from native-born residents, most of the other ethnic groups have become Panamanian citizens.
At sparsely settle Cerro Punta, there also are Indians. When Glenn Lewis, Curt Hemmerling and a handfull of others came to the area in the 1920's, the only inhabitants were four Indian families. During that decade and the one following, other newcomers arrived, and the names Shannon, Martinz, and others were added to the list of patriarchs. They know the area to the square inch, and their love for it is wedded to a tacit pride in having overcome it.
. . . . Trout fishing in Cerro Punta is without par; they can still be taken two on a line. (Again, the Lewis touch; he flew the first trout eggs into Cerro Punta on ice from the States.) Hunting includes bandtail pigeons and tapir, and for those willing to go farther back in the bush -puma, ocelot, jaguar, and deer. As to farming, crops in Cerro Punta are non-tropical; all temperate zone crops which do not require frost will thrive there, and they are cash crops.
October 20, 1998