Visiting the pastoral Center in Santa Fé de Darien

As intern at EcoCircuitos I have developed a strong interest in helping the local communities in Panama and to find ways to support these communities through tourism, which EcoCircuitos has been doing since it was founded. Therefore I was very glad to get the chance to visit a fairly remote community to look into the possibility to organize a volunteer tourism program.

The pastoral Center of Santa Fé de Darien provides community outreach and support to 28 communities in the area. The population consists of mostly rural settlements of Creole, Mestizo and Indigenous people who each have distinct cultures. The center aims to teach people a more harmonious way of life, to coexist peacefully with each other and the environment. The buildings of the complex are sustainably run with solar power and rainwater, and provide space for the communities to meet, or have workshops.

Additionally they have an organic farm, a piece of rainforest land, and support a women’s initiative which grows medicinal herbs and processes these into various lotions, soaps and teas.

As I arrive it is already quite late, there is a specialist in beekeeping that needs to be talked to, things to be set up, and the sun sets early, so I decide to wait for the next day to start exploring the place. And that day starts early, people are up at six, and by seven we are having breakfast. This is about the time that rural reality manifests itself: An injured piglet is brought down from the farm and somehow I end up assisting in its emergency surgery, which the farm workers perform on the porch by the kitchen door. Not quite how I had expected to start the day, but there I am, minding the little animal while the people from the center are off looking for milk bottles and antibiotics. Every once in a while somebody comes by, to visit, to work, to find someone to talk to… As an obvious foreigner I get to answer a lot of questions, no, I am not with the Peace Corps, yes, I am from very far away, from Germany (that is in Europe), I am just visiting, I work in the city… Everybody seems quite happy to see a visitor, to get to know a bit about where I come from. It is an attitude that I keep encountering during my time in Darien, it makes me feel very welcome here.

Finally, piglet being taken care of, I am surprised that it is still early, just about 9.30 in the morning, and we have ample time to explore the farm before lunch. The farm is completely organic, several goats and cows produce milk, which gets made into cheese, chickens roam the grounds, and a fish pond is experiencing a small crisis in the form of a newly resident caiman. Then, of course, there is the pig with its piglets (minus the one in intensive care in the house) and a variety of vegetables and fruits. We pick some cucumbers for lunch, look at cocoa plants and coffee trees and check up on the compost, and all too soon it is time to eat. Lunch is a simple, but delicious Panamanian staple: Chicken, rice and beans, accompanied by the fresh cucumbers and some avocado from the tree behind the house.

During the afternoon I explore another project of the Center: the medicinal plant farming and processing initiative. Here, a group of local women grow different herbs and shrubs with medical properties, process them into salves, soaps and teas and then sell them. It is a great example of a way to live sustainably and do make a living without destruction of the rainforest in an area where slash-and-burn agriculture and logging are the main sources of income.

It is a very peaceful place. The sisters of the mission teach cooperation, respect and conscious interaction with nature by example, without preaching. It is a place of reflection, a place to learn how to live in harmony with both nature and its human population. Everybody who has that interest is welcome here, independent of their color, culture or religion.

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Internship in Panama – an unforgettable experience

Hello,

Allow me to introduce myself: My name is Meret, I am from Germany and I study tourism in the Netherlands. If you follow this blog, you have probably read some of my posts here. I am doing an internship with EcoCircuitos here in Panama City, and would like to share my experiences with you:

I had always been sure I wanted to do my internship abroad, preferably far away, in a place where I would not usually go. It took me quite a while to find a placement, my university considers it part of the learning process that we find our internships ourselves. Finally I came across EcoCircuitos, and it was quickly agreed that I could do my internship here.

So, on January 21st I went, off to a different world, Panama. I did not  know much about the country, there was a canal there, rainforests, that was all I knew. The last weeks before I left I was apprehensive, almost hoped they would call and cancel. What on earth was I doing, going to this place I did not know anything about, I did not even speak much Spanish! But I went, and discovered the country was not at all like the images my guidebook had evoked. It is a fascinating country, Panama. Panama City is often called “the Dubai of Latin America” due to its modern skyline, its rapid development.  Busy, but quite safe if you know which areas to stay out of. Finding an apartment, getting a phone, taking the bus all worked pretty much the same as back home, no great culture shock there. The rest of the country is mostly stunningly diverse nature. Beaches, Rainforest, Mountains, Plains: Name it, you will find it here. And working in tourism gave me the perfect chance to learn about all of it and explore it extensively.

But, to get to the point of things: My internship. EcoCircuitos is a Panamanian-owned inbound tour operator focusing on luxury and sustainable travel. My main focus of work, as it turned out, was to be marketing, especially on social media. My favorite task from the beginning was writing articles for this blog, which I do about twice per week. Another thing I learned to love was managing the new Pinterest account.

I got asked to participate in a marketing campaign, asking hotels to sign up for a program that would result in our company representing them strongly on trade fairs. I prepared trade fairs, WTM Latin America and ITB Berlin, contacted people to meet us there, arranging appointments, following up afterwards. We were preparing to launch a new website, so every hotel, every tour we offer needed to be described, to be illustrated with appropriate pictures, a lot of writing went into that as well…

I went along on tours, saw how the different guides handled the different clients and and learned a great deal about Panama that way. Currently, I am working to establish connections with community support programs in the country, to see how our clients and we can contribute to their work.

Many of these projects I was asked to do. Some of them I wanted to do. I learned early on in my internship that I had to ask for things, show I wanted work, and to make sure it was noticed what I was doing. I got into quite a few arguments with my boss, but we also had many times when we came up with great ideas together. She challenged me, to do more, to do better, it was not always easy, but certainly worth it. I learned a lot, not only about tourism, but about being clear about my needs. I feel far more confident about my future now, about my skills, my ability to work in this line of business.

On the weekends, I travel. I explore Panama and every weekend I am again astonished how versatile this country is. Every place I visit is so different from the places I have visited before, but all of them are amazingly beautiful. The people are friendly, in many places they are still happy to meet a foreigner, curious to find out what I am doing there. And the country was easy to figure out, there is a great public transport system all over the country, public spaces have internet, the city is modern and has everything I could ever need (Even German restaurants in case I feel I need a touch of home). Sometimes I am amazed to realize how familiar this country feels, after only four months, at other times I end up being astonished that time went by so quickly, and there is still so much I have not seen…

My time in Panama is almost over, in four weeks I will finish my internship. I faced challenges, found myself outside my comfort zone quite a few times, and found amazing things happening there. I did learn a lot about my profession here, but I learned more about myself, about my world. Sitting here, writing this while watching an Iguana climb through the trees in front of the office window, I feel how lucky I am to have had the chance to do this.

By Meret Schueschke

Learn more about internships at EcoCircuitos here

The petroglyphs of El Valle de Anton

I recently had the opportunity to join an EcoCircuitos day tour to El Valle de Anton. El Valle, as the locals simply call it, lies in the crater of a former volcano (while it is officially classified as “dormant” it has not been active for several thousand years), and enjoys the wonderful combination of a refreshing climate and incredibly fertile soil. The valley is indeed a green paradise, full of flowers, trees and flourishing gardens. The picturesque little town is a place where children ride bicycles along the roads and little restaurants offer shady patios overgrown with vines. The famous town market, which nowadays sells souvenirs as well as the original selection of colorful fruit and vegetables, is the place to admire the area’s agricultural bounty.

But we had come for something else; we were headed for a hill right behind the town, to get a glimpse of an ancient mystery: The petroglyphs of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the valley.

At the beginning of the path we met with a local guide, sixteen year old Tony, who told us he had been guiding visitors to the painted rocks since he was eight, and claimed to know the story of the stones better than anyone else in the village.

It was just a short climb until we saw the overhanging rock looming up before us, carved with intricate lines and symbols. It appears that scientists nowadays do not know enough about the people who made these carvings to be sure what they meant to say, but it is generally accepted that this particular rock displays a map of the area, which was created around the time the first Spanish explorers arrived on the shores of Panama.

Anthony turned out to know this map as well as he had claimed to: whith perfect confidence, he picked out various mountains in the area, waterfalls, and explained a number of the other symbols on the rock. Some were astonishingly clear, one was a very clear picture of a person holding a spear or arrow, some others appeared more mysterious. “Some of these are keys,” explained Anthony, “they open the secret caves of the Indians, but nobody knows where they are anymore.”

The last thing he showed us was one feature of the map that represented a second painted stone, further up the mountain. We left Anthony to turn back then, and continued up the mountain, through the forest, in search of the second rock, the “stone of the toads”.

It was a nice hike, the incline was rather steep, the path rocky, but the breeze was cool and the forest full of birds and flowers. We passed a waterfall, startled a few butterflies, and then, around a bend, we found it: A flat rock on the ground just above a deep gorge, carved with intricate designs. Now without our petroglyph expert, we could only wonder what this rock was trying to tell us, but we could easily enough pick out some animal images: Lizards, or maybe frogs, so clear it was hard to imagine that they had been there for over 500 years…

We continued up the mountain then, speculating about who might have been the people who carved these rocks, enjoying the climb and the lush nature around us and got rewarded with a sweeping view of the valley and its surrounding mountains.

 

By Meret Schueschke

If you would like to visit El Valle and the Petroglyphs, find more information on our homepage or email us at info@ecocircuitos.com

Exploration on Isla Bastimentos

By Meret Schueschke

A short boat ride away from bustling Bocas Town with its multiple bars, restaurants and  souvenir shops, Bastimentos Island is a nearly untouched Caribbean retreat. With less than 1 500 inhabitants, and no access to cars on the island (there are no roads there) this is one of those places that do not seem to have changed much through the times.

A substantial part of the Island and the waters surrounding it form the Bastimentos National Marine Park, a marine nature reserve. Encompassing coral reefs and sandy beaches, as well as a sizable chunk of rainforest, the reserve provides shelter for a variety of wildlife. The animal the Island is most famous for is a species of poison dart frog: the tiny red amphibians with their black spots can be found only here, and are numerous enough to have given their name to one of the most popular beaches on the island: Red Frog Beach, which is located inside the National Park. Accessible by boat only, this beach is a wonderful sunbathing and surfing spot. It was from here that I set out on a little forest adventure: The trail to the town of Old Bank.

This trail, roughly three kilometers in length, runs along the northern coast of Bastimentos, and is, as I was about to discover, not exactly a walk in the park, but definitely worth doing.

I walked along the beach for a while, until a painted sign pointed me to a small path in the forest, and began my adventure. At first it was relatively easy going. The trail was narrow, but easy enough to find, and every step led me to a new discovery.

The forest was full of the sounds of birds and insects, lizards scuttled around in the undergrowth, and I could still hear the crashing of the waves on the nearby beach. Now and again, the path returned to sandy strips of beach, meandered through coconut tree groves or passed across rocky outcrops before another reliable little sign pointed me back into the forest.

After a while, I started to feel like a true explorer, discovering a completely foreign place, almost expecting pirates or the Spanish explorers of days long gone to pop out from underneath the trees. I kept stopping to look at the fascinating little things along the path: tiny red frogs, bits of broken coral, and my personal favorite: colorful hermit crabs inhabiting empty shells. Now and again I went to cool off my feet in the waves breaking on white sand (and got thoroughly soaked several times, but in the warm weather this was a welcome refreshment).

After a while, the trail started getting muddier, and harder to walk, but being all caught up in discovering this exotic forest, I only took serious notice of this when one of my sandals got stuck in a mud hole. Fortunately the next bit of beach where I could get cleaned up was not too far away, and from that point on I just went barefoot when the mud became too persistent.

And then, suddenly, I found myself on a long stretch of white sand beach again, a new sign informed me that I was almost at the end of the trail: I had arrived at Wizard Beach. Another twenty minutes through the forest brought me to the town of Old Bank. Brightly painted houses, children playing in the streets, fruit vendors selling coconuts down by the docks: This was the Caribbean as I had always imagined it. I realized then I had spent almost four hours in the forest, I was muddy, tired and hungry, but I had had the chance to experience an amazing place, and to discover yet another facet of the ever-changing beautiful country of Panama.

If you would like to visit Bastimentos Island f or stay at one of the fantastic lodges on the island of Bocas del Toro such as Eclypse de Mar with its cabins  built over the water, across the bay from Old Bank, La Loma Lodge in the Jungle, Tranquilo Bay on the Southern tip of the Island, or Al Natural near the indigenous settlement of Salt Cree you can contact our office for details and itineraries at Info@ecocircuitos.com or calling our Panama office at +507 3151488

Transiting the Panama Canal

By Franziska Beyer

When I was just starting my internship at EcoCircuitos, they already offered me the opportunity to participate on my first tour.  As the Panama Canal Transit is one of the tours that you can impossibly miss if you visit this wonderful little country, it was like a dream coming true when they asked me to take part.

The EcoCircuitos team was preparing all things carefully, expecting 12 tourists from Australia for the tour on the boat through the canal, starting from Calzada Amador.

While the sun was rising we left the base, I was swept off my feet when slowly we were able to see the amazing skyline of Panama City.

Every boat that passes the canal needs a captain that is authorized to maneuver through the canal; I noticed a mystic atmosphere when our tourists were welcoming him on our boat.

The Panama Canal is a 77km long passageway connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean via the Caribbean Sea, opened in 1914. Thinking about the fact that the construction of the canal took such a long time and people from different countries were working on this difficult project I got more and more excited when we started passing through the Bridge of the Americas. I felt so small in our boat gazing at a big container ship accompanying our boat all along the pass trough the canal.

Taking millions of photos when passing the first locks, the Miraflores Locks, to save this unbelievable and unique moment, I got even more nervous when I realized that I had the chance to live this moment once again passing the Pedro Miguel Locks.

I breathed deeply to prepare for this second marvelous moment.

Leaving the boat at Gamboa I felt like on top of the world because of having accomplished one of my dreams.

Our fantastic tour continued until we reached Fort San Lorenzo that was attacked in 1670 by buccaneer Henry Morgan leaving it in ruins. Henry Morgan invaded Panama City using San Lorenzo as his base; visiting this beautiful place you can almost smell Morgan and his crew. In 1980 UNESCO declared San Lorenzo as a World Heritage and EcoCircuitos completed this incredible tour with a luxurious picnic at this amazing place.

So far this tour with EcoCircuitos was my highlight visiting one of my favorite countries, the lovely and marvelous Republic of Panama.

Ready to visit the Panama Canal yourself? Find more information on our Website  

My Stay In Panama

By Antoine Oudot – French Intern

Antoine Oudot exploring Panama

It is a little bit hard to describe my Panamenian internship with Ecocircuitos. This is a amazing country, small, but with the richest flora and fauna I have ever seen.

When I arrived there I did not know anything about Central America and this country. As so many French people, I only knew the famous Panama canal. Moreover, my Spanish was not so good. When I arrived there I was of course stressed. But Panamenians were pleased to welcome me. They have a very good sense of hospitality. Then, my adaptation into the company was easy. Annie was glad to welcome me in EcoCircuitos and the staff shows me everything.

A week later, I started to discover the magical country. My first trip was to the Azuero Peninsula. I fell in love with the area. I have visited Chitré, Las Tablas famous for the Carnival, and finally Isla Iguana (for me it’s my paradise on earth).

I had the opportunity to visit, and discover Panama. I explore to the highlands on the western side of Panama and the beautiful and picturesque town of Boquete . The town of Boquete is very famous for the quality of life and I can say: Of course life there, is sweet!

I have visited Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean side and taste the gastronomy of this side of the country… spicy.  I have hike the Soberania national Park, f the jungle between the Caribbean and the Pacific side.

Thanks to my internship, I have met beautiful local communities that has  showed me their way of life, I have learn a lot about their connection with nature and why is important to preserve the tropical forests.  I learn about the biodiversity of Panama and the efforts for preserving the land and cultures as the Kuna people.

During my internship I lived in Panama for more than 4 months in the city of Panama.   The city, shows us the evolution of the country by the different neigbourhoods: From the Casco Viejo, with the colonial area, to the new CDB. Finally I was suprised to discover that the capital is a melting pot,where you’ll meet people coming from all over the world and that’s what it makes the capital so attractive, in an enthusiastic atmosphere!

But what would be Panama without the famous canal. It was very interesting to discover all the engineering, and the process, to build this waterway.

What I will remember all my life are the mammals, especially the monkeys and the toucans. I’ve never seen them before in own environment!

Thanks to EcoCircuitos & their team I won’t forget this unique experience in this great country:  Panama!