A Fantastic Journey: Part 8

Boquete and Cerro Punta

By Louis Celerier

Early in the Morning we were picked up to be taken to the regional airport at Albrook for our flight to David. I had hoped to see the countryside from the air, but the plane flew at some 20,000 feet and above a cloud covering. Landing in David at 11:30 AM, Hans, our EcoCircuitos representative, met us at the airport and drove us to Boquete arriving there about 1:30 PM. Hans took us to a very nice small restaurant up the river Caldera from the town for a good lunch.
The restaurant sits right by the river and it was a most delightful setting. Boquete is located in the Western Highlands of Panama near the border with Costa Rica. Boquete and the Panamonte Hotel were we stayed are delicacies that must me savored slowly. Boquete, as some of you may know, is a narrow valley with the Rio Caldera running through the middle of it. Boquete means breach and that is exactly what it is, a breach in the mountains made by the river. With an
elevation of some 3300 feet, the place is pleasantly cool and can get surprisingly cold some times. There always seems to be an abundance of flowers in the area and coffee plantations are everywhere. Most of the coffee in Boquete is shade grown, that is the shrubs grow under taller trees. In the picking season one will see these shrubs full of red berry-­like fruit. The small fruit has a thin skin under which is the coffee bean covered with a very thin, but sweet, film. From lunch, we drove further up the river to see a small waterfall. Hans had been told that I wanted to see the Calderas River waterfall, but obviously he did not know where that was, because where he took us was just small fall from a small tributary to the main river. The falls I had wanted to see where inanother location, which I showed him in the book by William Friar, but he still did not know what I was talking about. So I was a bit disappointed, but not enough to be unhappy in that enchanting place.
That evening was very relaxing. We spent a little time at the large lounge/bar area which was beautiful with two large fire places. The fires were lit and with the cool wind blowing hard outside, it felt very good. The dinning room of the hotel was also very nice and classy. The five of us had an enjoyable dinner making real everything I had heard about the place. While the hotel proper is old, being originally built around 1928, it has been kept up very well and, undoubtedly, additions and changes have been made since making it very comfortable. Gene and I were housed in the main building with him having a corner room in the rear portion and I having a front room by the street close to the front desk. Both accommodations were very comfortable. Judith, Robin and Teresita were housed in a newer annex across the street by the river. Their rooms were very ample and nice very well decorated.
On our second day we were on our own for the morning. I went walking in search of flowers and sights to photograph while the other four walked a short distance to the town. As I walked up the Altolino road I came upon a bonanza of flowers. A place called “Mi Jardin, Su Jardin” (My Garden, Your Garden) represented some 6 acres of beautiful flowers of all kinds on a beautifully landscaped garden. And best of all, it was open to the public at no charge. After an hour and a half there, I went down towards the town to look for the others and tell them what I had found. I located them by the town square and told them. Then I milled a bit in the town and headed across the river, on an oldsuspension bridge, to walk back to the hotel by another road. Crossing the river again just above the hotel, I saw the ravages of the last floods, a couple of months ago: the river had all but washed off all the road, as you will see in the photo section. That afternoon Hans came by for us to take us to a coffee plantation. Little did we know what he hadin mind. We sort of expected a walk through a plantation for about an hour and then some more site-­seeing around the area. Instead, he took us where, not only do they grow coffee, but they also process it until it is shipped out in packets ready for the store shelf. Hans, being in love with coffee, gave us a 4-­1/2 hour recitation of the whole process from planting, through harvest, through roasting through tasting. I thought it would never end. I think an hour basic course with a little souvenir pamphlet would have done us much better because right now I can hardly remember what all he told us and I would have enjoyed having a little pamphlet telling me about it so I could use it as a reference. That night we decided to walk down to the town and eat at a restaurant the others had spotted during the morning. It was OK, but we all agreed that the food at the hotel was superior and made a point of that.

On Monday morning, after a wonderful breakfast with fresh everything, we piled up into Hans, SUV and headed down to David and then up to Cerro Punta. Our main objective were the mountains of Amistad National Park and most specifically, Las Nubes, a location in the clouds forest were we could take a two hour hike and then have a pic-­nic lunch Hans had brought.
The hike was wonderful. The vegetation is completely different from that which we saw at Barro Colorado Island. No howler monkeys this time, but some in the group spotted a Quetzal bird. There were many little streams throughout our trail and each more pretty than the other. Completing our hike, we went into the forest rangers house for bathroom facilities and then set up our pic-­nic in the porch of the facility. Coming down the road, we went into the Finca Dracula were one finds more than 1200 species of orchids. It is one of the most important collections in Latin America and I was overwhelmed with the quantity of flowers. It was at this Finca that we met with Sheila and Dennis, touring the Finca with them … that is to say that they visited the Finca and Sheila and I talked more than looked.
From the Finca, we went to Sheila’s house, which was very close by, and enjoyed a cup of coffee. Let me say at this point that the coffee in Panama is coffee! It is delicious and I, who likes coffee anyway, never passed a chance to drink some. Everywhere we went we found the coffee delicious. But back to Sheila, their house is nestled in the mountains of Cerro Punta with a nice little river flowing behind the property. It must be heaven living there. They do travel a lot by plane, a 4-­place Cessna, which they keep in a town nearby. After bidding our goodbyes, we headed back to David and Boquete. On the way down, we stopped for refreshments at a roadside stand getting a fresh fruit drink and buying some Panamanian candy to bring home. We got to the hotel at 6:00 PM rather tired, but found strength to have one last terrific dinner at the Panamonte Hotel. Then we had to bid goodbye to Judith, Robin and Teresita as Gene and I had to catch a very early plane the next day to Bocas del Toro, while the other three returned to Panama city. I loved our stay in Boquete and would have enjoyed a couple of more days there. Not only are there things to do near by, but the Panamonte is a great place to relax. And the weather was perfect.

 

Every week we publish part of Louis Celerier’s story of how he revisited the country where he grew up. Subscribe to this blog, or like us on Facebook, to make sure you do not miss any part of the story!

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A Fantastic Journey: Part 7

Canal Administration Building, Quarry Heights, Albrook & Clayton


Having returned to the city a day early, we decided to look around the old Zone a bit more, so we took a taxi for the morning. First we headed for the Administration Building as I wanted to show Gene the rotunda paintings. We had no trouble going in, but only to the rotunda. All other areas were off limits.
Once inside, I found the place as impressive as always. I tried to go to the terrace facing the El Prado, but succeeded only in setting off the alarm when I opened the door. Leaving the Building, we took Ancon Boulevard to Ancon finding it completely changed with all the wooden buildings gone. I was
disoriented until we got to the old clubhouse building, still in use, and headed towards “J” Street. We returned to Quarry Heights for a second visit entering from the Balboa Heights side. Taking a second view at the buildings that are being remodeled, we also stopped to see what we think is one of the buildings being converted to a hotel by Edgar McArthur and his partner. I keep looking at the places that were familiar to me once and realized that it is all losing its former charm and that I am being left with little connection to the whole place. This holds true for both the old Canal Zone area and Panama city.
We came down from Quarry Heights using Heights Road and headed for Albrook Field to a new El Rey Super Market at the gate of the old AF Base. I bought more film there and continued through the main base road making note of all the changes taking place on that old base also. The non-­com and officers family quarters are all being sold to individuals and, upon remodeling, few retain any similarity to military quarters.
Entering old Fort Clayton from the back entrance, we proceeded to the Base Headquarters Building where I worked for 18 months while in the Army. On the way there we passed the area where the old motor pool used to be, in the middle of the jungle, and where I walked so many guard duty hours on nights and week-­ends. There was, of course, no sign of the old motor pool. The Headquarters Building was locked up and not presently in used. But the memories flowed just the same. Then I looked down on the barracks where I was supposed to be housed, but where I never spent a night, and they look the same. From this vantage point I could also see where the infantry battalion was quartered. I think it was the 33rd, but I cannot remember. Driving by Officers Row my mind went further back in time recalling going there and the girls that lived there: Mary Ellen Kelly, Joyce Daily, Nancy Wells, Cecil Russell and the Morleys, to name a few.
That night I had dinner with one clan of relatives, my cousin Pachi DeSedas, his wife Shirley and his sister Graciela and all their offspring. There must have been 50 people in the house and food for 100. And what good food! That also brought on emotional memories of the good times we used to have as a family. My grandmother’s house, next to mine, was the meeting place and there was always something going on.
That night we made preparations to check out of the hotel the next morning as we were going to Boquete, Bocas del Toro and El Valle and would not be back    six days.

Every week we publish part of Louis Celrier’s story of how he revisited the country where he grew up. Subscribe to this blog, or like us on Facebook, to make sure you do not miss any part pf the story!

A Fantastic Journey: Part 6

Trip to San Carlos, Santa Clara and Posada del Cerro la Vieja

After a good night’s rest, our faithful EcoCircuitos came by for us at 9:00 AM to drive us to La Posada del Cerro La Vieja in the mountains above Penonome. The Posada is located 1500 feet above sea level near Chiguiri Arriba by the peak Cerro la Vieja. This is about 12 miles northwest of El Valle, as the crow flies. But it can only be reached by road from Penonome.
Leaving Panama, we crossed the Bridge of the Americas (I could see the old pilings from the ferry days) and, instead of taking the main highway, we took the older road so as to pass through Arraijan and Chorrera. Wow! Unrecognizable! So many buildings, houses and people. I could hardly tell were Arraijan started. Soon after we passed the old Marine barracks near the old Rodman Submarine Base the roadside became more and more densely populated until I could not tell exactly where the old police check point used to be.
I managed a quick view of the Caceres River, where there was once a nice waterfall about a mile from the road, and where, near by, there used to be a cantina, just off the road, owned by a retired American from the Zone. The short side road where the building used to be was still there, but no cantina. Next spot, which I almost missed completely, was the farm that my aunt Julia and her husband Charlie owned. All gone, of course. Before I knew it we were in Chorrera because there was hardly a break in buildings between Arraijan and Chorrera. That small town is now a large and very busy city. People, cars, taxis and buses all over the place. Incredible. Chorrera is a derivative of Chorro, meaning waterfall in this case, and the name of the town is in reference to the waterfall nearby, if it still is there.
After Chorrera, the old road merges with the new and, unfortunately, by-­passes Capira. But the road did go through Bejuco, as a four-­lane street, and passes by the old Army Air Corps landing strip just outside the town. Campana Hill is changed and I was unable to locate the little spring that came forth
from the side of the hill by the road. Deforestation has taken its toll. Coming to San Carlos, we entered the town to find a very pretty and very clean little community, such as were typical in Panama while I was growing up. Fortunately, some things have not changed much. I had not seen the town in some 65 years, since the highway by-­passed it back in the 1940s. I was glad I had decided to visit it. We walked down to the beach and found it very nice even though it was low tide. From the beach, we walked to a new hotel and restaurant called the Bay View, right on the beach.
The place is not a year old and was very pretty and clean. The restaurant-­bar was large and airy under a typical bohio with an open terrace for eating and chairs for relaxing, all very beautifully landscaped. For anyone loving the beach, this would certainly be a nice place in which to stay and also be in contact with the local townspeople. I find these types of accommodations so much more desirable than the sterile tourist traps where one is isolated from the local people.
After a refreshment of cold and fresh papaya juice, we went on to Santa Clara. The place is all built up so one does not have the old feeling of aloneness. In the old days one had to take everything one needed for a one-­day stay at the beach. Now, there are small bohios to get out of the sun and restaurants on or near the beach. We went to the place where I had always gone before and, after walking on the beach for a while, we had lunch at a restaurant right there. It was here that we met Edgar McArthur, nephew of the late Charles McArthur. He was there with his wife and children.
Leaving Santa Clara, we went on to Penonome to take the road up to the mountains and the Posada Del Cerro La Vieja in Chiguiri Arriba. But before doing that, I went shopping for a Montuno hat so as to protect my ears from the sun. They had gotten badly sunburned, hurting and peeling. But as you may know, these Panamanian hats come in one size: round and small . . . or so it seemed. Twenty-­one years ago, while in Panama, I failed to find one that would fit me and ended up with one that was really too small. This time I was more determined and, after going through several locations, I found only one hat that would fit me. Incredibly, I did find some that were too big! So, off we went up the mountain, arriving at the Posada at 3:00 PM.
The Posada (meaning Inn) is on top of a hill next to the much higher Cerro La Vieja (The Old Lady Mountain) and it is 1541 above sea level. The Posada consisted of two main buildings connected with a covered walk and several other buildings with bedrooms. The newest are two bungalows on the side of
the hill so that the top floors have two rooms each and the bottom have two additional rooms with more bedding and less luxury, as if for a whole family. The place is really beautiful and, with hammocks all over, one feels as if it would be an ideal place to relax after much hiking and site-­seeing. That is precisely what I had in mind doing most of the time there, although I did want to go visit the waterfall nearby and do a bit of hiking. However, although the place can be rather cool when the strong breezes are blowing, it can be as hot, or hotter, that the lowlands when the wind dies down. And so it happened that no breeze was blowing when we arrived there, nor the next day and it was HOT! There is no air-­conditioning in the place, except ceiling fans and that night it was very
uncomfortable. The bungalows are all opened on three sides with sliding glass doors and windows and mosquito screens. But even with all the windows opened and the ceiling fans working, it was hot.
The food at the Posada, though simple, was delicious. But the hotel car, on which I had relied to take us to the start of the trail to the waterfall, had gone to Penonome the next morning, so we were marooned in the hotel. Facing another hot night and not being able to accomplish one goal, I decided to call EcocCircuitos in Panama to explain the situation and convey to them our desire to return to the city that day, if at all possible. Within 30 minutes, they called back to tell us that they would have one of their vans pick us up by 1:00 PM. As promised, Roberto, the same guide that had taken us there the day before, showed up with his girlfriend. He had had the day off and was spending it with her when Ecocircuitos called him to come for us and he had taken off right away1
We checked out, but before leaving the area, we had Roberto drive us to the Cascada El Tavidal waterfall trail and we hiked to it, something I was glad we did as it was beautiful and worth the hard (for me) hike up and down the mountain. Of course, four little kids immediately appeared out of nowhere, to be our guides and to watch the car. The girl was 7, and the boys were 8, 9 and 10. The girl and the 8 years old boy stayed watching the car and the other two went with us. I asked the boy that was going to guard the car, “What will you do if a big, big, guy shows up and tries to steal the car?” “I will hit him,” he replied without hesitation. That was very comforting to us and we had no more worries as to the fate of the car while we were gone.
We got back to Panama city late that afternoon and checked into the Marbella Hotel again. Since we had previously spent 7 nights there, they welcomed us as long lost friends inquiring where we had been. There were about 30 young men and women hikers with huge backpack, and also front packs in some cases, checking in when we got there, but the hotel clerk took care of us first and we did appreciate that for we were quite tired by then. We had been gone only two days and one night, but we had covered a lot of territory. It was nice to sleep in an air-­conditioned room that night.

After a slight delay, we are back to the Mondays of publishing part of Louis Celerier’s mesmerizing tale of how he rediscovered the country of his childhood. Subscribe to this blog or follow us on Facebook to make sure not to miss anything! If you also have a story you would like to share with us, or if you are interested in taking a Fantastic Journey yourself, let us know in the comments or by email at marketing@ecocircuitos.com

A Fantastic Journey: Part 5

Barro Colorado Island

By Louie Celerier

Tuesday was another early starting day, 6:00 am to be exact, in order to get to Gamboa in time for the launch to Barro Colorado, the wildlife island refuge operated by the Smithsonian Institute in the middle of Gatun Lake. EcoCircuitos was, as always, right on time.
Barro Colorado is not for the casual tourist. This is a place for the study of insect, plant and animal life. Nevertheless, I wanted to go there and satisfy my curiosity about the place. I was fully rewarded, but the trip taxed my stamina. I had expected mild climbing and mostly even ground. This was not so. Much climbing and going steeply down was involved.
Arriving at the island around 8:30 am, we faced the first climb immediately. The dock was at the bottom of a very steep hill and the main building was quite a way up this hill. The steps I climbed rivaled anything in San Francisco, or so it seemed to me. Reaching the building with my lungs about to burst, I was faced with another set of stairs inside the building to go to the top floor. There, we were given complimentary coffee and, because they felt sorry for me, they let me have two delicious carimañolas left over from the staff breakfast, at no charge. After a short break, we were ushered to a conference room for a short lecture about what we were about to do and see. Some of it was above my comprehension, but several in the group were there to study and they really understood it all and could hardly wait to get started.
We left the building and immediately we were faced with a very steep climb into the forest. After climbing for a short, but difficult, time, we stopped because a group of howler monkeys had been spotted. They started howling when they saw us, but I don’t know who was making more noise, they with their howling, or I with my wheezing. The next series of climbs were more gradual and, because the naturalists in the group were involved in bird watching and plant admiration, I was able to rest a bit. Then, I broke from the group and climbed ahead until I came to a clearing with some crude benches. I picked the best of the lot and laid down to wait for the group. Thanks to this, I was fully refreshed when they caught up with me and I had no more trouble keeping up with the group from there on. Well, I lie a bit. The climbs were not as steep from there on and, after a while, we started to come down. Two and a half hours after starting our trek, we reached the main building again.
This time we were fed an excellent Panamanian lunch. After a short rest, we were again ushered into the conference room for a bit more information and to answer any questions we may have had. By then, our main subject of conversation were the many ticks and chiggers we had picked up during our hike. It  became a game to see who could spot ticks quicker running up our clothes. By 3:30 pm it was time to catch the staff boat taking workers getting off work back to the mainland at Gamboa.
EcoCircuitos met us at the dock and took us to the big and beautiful Gamboa resort for refreshments before heading back to our hotel. We ran into some classmates there and, as much as I try, I cannot remember who they were. Please forgive me and make allowances for old age. If you read this, please remind me who you were as the suspense is killing me.
While at the resort, we had a good, but short rain shower. Something they tell me is not uncommon for Gamboa, even in dry season as it was then. We left the resort driving a bit through what is left of the town of Gamboa and photographing a beautiful Guayacan tree in full yellow bloom. I kept thinking back how interesting it might have been to grow up in Gamboa, isolated from the rest of the world and with all that bountiful nature around. Not for the weak at heart, I bet. Kids that grew up there must have wonderful memories and tales to tell.
The remaining houses in Gamboa have been refurbished and look very good, as the photos will show. I guess the folks living there are still working for the dredging division, as I believe was the case in the past. Correct me if I am wrong. The place looked very clean and neat.
Finally, we headed for our hotel in the city under a misty rain, which cleared after leaving the Gamboa area. That night I dreamed about climbing stairs and mountains.

Every Monday we publish part of Louis Celerier’s mesmerizing tale of how he rediscovered the country of his childhood. Subscribe to this blog or follow us on Facebook to make sure not to miss anything! If you also have a story you would like to share with us, or if you are interested in taking a Fantastic Journey yourself, let us know in the comments or by email at marketing@ecocircuitos.com