Continental shift

Big money brings with it changes and chafing as foreign investors dig into the isthmus

Panama Lizbeth Atenas Alvarado, 12, spent an afternoon with her family at Rio Dolega on the road to Boquete. (Essdras M. Suarez/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / March 30, 2008

ISLA PARIDA - In high-rising heat, Julio Eligio Bernal Jr. grabs a coconut and, with a few swift whacks on a stake in the sand, removes its husk. Bernal laughs and tosses it onto a pile of others, to wait.

He turns and climbs a steep hill to a huddle of huts. On the far side of one, a boy tosses a lime in the late-morning light. Three lobstermen, lean and lanky, beaten by sun and sea, idle on a shade-stroked platform.

It begins like this, things so strongly defined by tropical terrain. But even a brief encounter on this trip across Panama, long a place cut through quickly, finds foreigners and their money coming to stay.

Bernal, 66, sits in a plastic chair and talks about nearby plots where he once grew yucca and corn to supplement a steady catch of spiny lobster, oysters, and conch. When Isla Parida, 10 miles off Panama's Pacific coast, became part of a national park more than a decade ago, locals were told they could no longer plant crops. Bernal says he sold 100 of his acres to a US investor for a very small sum.

"Why should I keep the land, if I cannot take advantage of it?" he says.

Bernal, who has spent his life on Isla Parida, as his parents and grandparents did, says he learned too late to see land had such financial value. Now even this hillside, once property of his brother, belongs to an American. Bernal stays as a caretaker.

Passing through Panama, so much can seem permanent. Among the mangroves that separate Isla Parida from the mainland, a crocodile's snout ripples still water. Three snow-white egrets stand ankle deep in mud. A still-winged frigatebird arcs above.

After arriving at port in Pedregal, 30 minutes by boat from Isla Parida, Globe photographer Essdras Suarez and I switch to a rental car for the trip from the Pacific over the Continental Divide to the Caribbean Sea. The 70-mile drive can be made in a few hours. We will detour.

On the straight-shot avenues of David, Panama's second-largest city, banks, shops, restaurants, and bars stand stoic in dry heat. It is noontime, and sidewalks sleep. Only the evening before, roadside throngs cheered a victory parade for the national junior baseball championship team that converged on David's central square. Girls in orange on top of cars. Mothers and toddlers waving big balloon bats.

Essdras is from Panama, and on the road that climbs from David toward coffee-thick highlands, he slows on a bridge above the cool currents of Rio Dolega.

"That," Essdras says, "is a typical Panamanian scene."

On the rocks below, four generations of a family - a teacher, lawyer, and small-business owner among them - share a Saturday afternoon picnic of roast chicken and rice. A great-grandfather settles in the embrace of a tree trunk, while a girl strokes her grandmother's hair.

It is only 15 miles farther, a drive of not half an hour along the bobbing two lanes, to Boquete.

Panama's western highlands remained beyond the edge of development last century, when the United States built and operated the 48-mile canal that splits the country at its core. In the nine years since the canal came under local control, skyscrapers have spiked in Panama City, and upscale resorts have awakened sleepy beach towns an hour west of the capital. Venezuelans, Germans, Canadians, and Americans have bought in.

Tourism is an economic engine, with nearly $1.5 billion in annual revenue, more than is earned from tolls for the canal. The tourism ministry has launched a new campaign - "Panama - It will never leave you" - and blogs and newsletters parse the latest legal changes for foreign retirees looking to buy a place of their own.

Nowhere is the investment as intimate as in the lush foothills of Baru Volcano, where Americans retire in mass to Boquete.

By 8, night has fallen dark on the town. Huddles of workers wait on corners for buses and vans to carry them toward home. Shadowed signs on the edge promote Coldwell Banker, Banco Universal, Kohler sinks, and the Hacienda Los Molinos, which promises, in English, "A Fabulous Lifestyle in Boquete."

Largely obscured, too, are twists and turns of side streets that lead toward Valle Escondido, or Hidden Valley, a place secluded by design. Past a guarded gate, then up manicured lanes serving stucco homes and well-watered fairways, more than 100 people gather around an indoor pool for the Boquete Jazz Festival.

The emcee switches easily between Spanish and English. The Panamanian musicians are genuine, and the jazz is good. The collar-shirted crowd in rows of straight-backed chairs sits still.

Back near the town square, local men shoot pool. Tables cost 35 cents, a beer 60. At a restaurant, the owner serves roast chicken, rice, and fried plantains for a few dollars, and tallies the cost of catering to well-heeled outsiders.

Some locals have profited by trading generations of farmland for developers' money, and they celebrate new shops and services that have come to Boquete. The restaurant owner, a Panama City native with a business degree, talks of others - more than half, he estimates - pushed out by high prices. He resents that many American newcomers do not even try to learn the language that arrived centuries before them.

"They don't want to speak Spanish," the owner says. "Why? Why do I have to talk to them in English?"

Essdras and I drive the road east from Boquete and pass parked bulldozers, cleared hillsides, and billboards promising more. After 25 miles - the fields now climbing, two farmers sitting with floppy-eared cattle on a ridge - we join the paved lanes of Route 4 heading up and into the Cordillera, as the jungled mountain range is known.

After a 30-minute drive, a narrow lane on the left leads to a modest Smithsonian research station. Its single building is separated from the surrounding forest by a small yard.

Alberto Gonzalez, a caretaker who grew up farming tomatoes, beans, and coffee a few miles away, stops sweeping a porch and invites us inside to see two old trays. On each are dozens of insects - moths, beetles, flies - pinned in position. Gonzalez holds up a glass jar full of the coiled corpse of a poisonous snake with diamond designs on its back.

"Thank God I've never found anything like that in the woods," Gonzalez says. "Scorpions, but nothing like that."

The forest, some of the richest tropical mountain terrain left in North America, has been protected as the Fortuna Reserve for decades. Scientists and students, notebooks in hand, come to walk trails among seldom-seen jaguars.

Any such dangers, Gonzalez says, are nothing compared with pictures of progress he finds in the pages of glossy magazines.

"I see the destruction man can produce," Gonzalez says. "We have preserved things here."

We drive another half-hour, over the fog-socked pass of the Continental Divide, then stop. In an evening downpour at a roadside restaurant, we meet a 16-year-old named Alexander. He agrees to take us the next morning to El Guabo.

The trail is wide enough for three people, and still mud-slick hours after the rain has ended. Down, down, down, then comes a young man walking uphill. He is wearing blue slacks and a collared shirt and carries black dress shoes in his hand. Alexander was born and raised in El Guabo, and the two speak in the soft cadence of a local dialect of the Ngobe-Bugle Indians.

At a footbridge, a girl approaches carrying a machete. A grandmother follows her, an empty sack and a machete in hand.

The village, on the far side of the narrow suspension bridge, nestles at the confluence of valleys swathed in deep green. Fresh currents rise from Rio Guabo to break damp heat. White clouds sift sunlight.

El Guabo is only a mile or so from Route 4, and at the edge of the Comarca Ngobe-Bugle, a semi-autonomous region that is home to more than 100,000 Indians.

A few dozen of the 500 or so villagers trek uphill each day, then on to jobs, including work as landscapers at vacation homes and coffee-pickers in the fields around Boquete. They earn $1.50 for each 30-pound can.

Most villagers stay, though, venturing to fields thick with cilantro - that is what sells on the outside - or to trees heavy with bananas, mango, and guava, before returning to their community beneath thatch roofs.

A gray-haired woman in a hammock says she moved into El Guabo from a three hours' walk deeper into the hills so that her grandchildren could study. Across a flat clearing stands a half-finished schoolhouse. Three new cotton dresses, orange, yellow, and white, hang from the rafters above the grandmother.

Past plantain trees and a hut where a young mother tugs open her dress to nurse a child, a dozen members of a family linger on two platforms. A middle-aged man rises from a hammock. He wants someone to build a bridge across the chasm between traditional and modern life.

"We need shoes," he says. "That's what we need - we need support."

Rio Guabo's shallow currents rush just behind his hut. Government workers came with a machine to measure the river's flow, people in El Guabo say. Dam construction on a river 40 miles north is forcing villagers there to relocate. Government workers have not yet returned to Rio Guabo.

Back beneath the footbridge, three boys swim in a deep pool. A woman drops a sack on the bank and squats to scrub soiled clothes.

It takes Alexander, Essdras, and me less than an hour to reach the road, and air-conditioning, and to ride down into the Caribbean flats. Tractor trailers pull tanks of fuel from the port in Chiriqui Grande toward the mountains, and the Pacific beyond. Others haul Atlas beer toward hotels in the islands of Bocas del Toro, 10 miles into the Caribbean. Pineapple fields sprawl around stilted shacks in Punta Pena, and banana fields to the north, near Changuinola. Three times a week, container ships - Chiquita Italia is the name of one - arrive at port in Almirante to haul away fresh fruit.

In Chiriqui Grande, Alexander joins us for what we learn is his first meal in a restaurant. He pushes his fork through a plate of fried rice - Chinese restaurants are common - but stares toward a far wall, where a flat-screen television broadcasts HBO2. The midday movie is "Evolution," a seven-year-old sci-fi spoof starring David Duchovny.

It has been more than 500 years since Christopher Columbus sailed among the Bocas del Toro islands. One is still called Isla Bastimentos, or supplies, for the nourishment Columbus's crews found there. Another is called Cayo Carenero, or cleansing, to mark the spot where ship hulls were scrubbed.

Vacationers now seek restoration in stilted luxury bungalows set above the sea and backpacker lodges tucked in towns on Bastimentos, Isla Colon, and others nearby. Bastimentos is a hub for Panamanians with African roots, a community more connected to Caribbean culture.

By morning, outboard pangas stop at fuel docks before shuttling tourists in search of secluded beaches, or world-class surfing and sportfishing.

Our random route through the islands passes through Dolphin Bay, where a half dozen boats circle tightly as the dolphins' black backs break the surface. Next to mangroves on Isla San Cristobal, three boys with Indian features paddle in a dugout canoe. The youngest keeps watch onboard as the two others, harpoons in hand, swim among roots in search of red snapper. Air whistles softly from their snorkles.

Beyond Isla Colon, swells three and four feet high churn the approach to Isla Pajaros, also called Swan's Cay, or Bird Island. It is small and stark, cliffs and tufts of trees surrounded by surf that pounds holes through the island's core. Frigatebirds again soar high, wings bent in solid angles of boomerangs. Brown boobies snuggle against branches. White terns dart through gusts of sun and sea and back to chicks in trees.

Essdras and I, in a boat below, watch and wait, until the rock and toss become too much. There is little time to wonder where in the world the nesting birds came from, or what they will find when they go.

We have seen so many remote places redefined, as at Panama's edge, by distant influences. In Arctic Norway, we walked tundra thawing more quickly in a warming world. In Sudan's stretch of the Sahara, we slept near date palms as Chinese workers built a dam destined to flood villages on the Nile inhabited for millennia. On the border of Cambodia and Laos, we saw tourism and trade accelerating into a region where craggy Mekong River cataracts long dissuaded development.

Our boat turns and surfs from the Caribbean cliffs of Isla Pajaros back toward coastal calm. Ahead, though, black clouds break blue sky. Sheets of rain pound the surface of the sea.

We have seen this before, too: On the Mekong, we rode in an open boat and met a cloudburst that soaked us to the bone.

As Essdras and I pull a tarp over luggage and gear, the first cold Caribbean drops begin to hit.

"This," Essdras shouts, "is going to be just like Stung Treng."

We draw the tarp tight across our shoulders, and Essdras sighs a smile of resignation.

Tom Haines can be reached at

If You Go

Where to start

The journey following Route 4 from the Pacific Ocean over the Continental Divide to the Caribbean Sea can begin with the longer drive from Panama City (five to six hours on the Inter-American Highway from the capital to David, in the province of Chiriqui), or after a flight to David airport, home to international rental car outlets.

It is worth making the crossing over several days, as detours can include coastal islands and mountain jungle, the mainstream streets in David, the second-largest city, and indigenous communities in more remote areas. Wildlife can be a focus, as hiking around Baru Volcano, for example, can bring encounters with toucans, as can boat rides in the Bocas del Toro islands, with dolphins.

"National Geographic Traveler: Panama" offers excellent detailed information on the regions of the route, and a special focus on the crossing of the Cordillera, as the mountain range is called. Information on Chiriqui, the province on the Pacific side, and Bocas del Toro, the province on the Caribbean, can be found at these websites:

Where to stay

Hotel Castilla

Calle A Norte, David


A modern business hotel on the central square. A good base for seeing the city and venturing into the Pacific from Pedregal or Boca Chica ports. Double $45.

The Coffee Estate Inn



A longstanding favorite set in lush surrounds a mile-and-a-half from Boquete town center. Double $130.

Villa Marita



Perched above a bend in a narrow lane at the north side of Boquete. Offers tranquil views of coffee fields and seclusion of stand-alone cabins. Double cabin $60.


A cabin set a steep walk up a narrow trail at kilometer marker 67.5 on Route 4. If traveling through, take a chance and ask at the restaurant across the street. If available, the cabin provides an authentic evening amid the tropical trees. Rustic but comfortable conditions. $20 a night. No contact information available.

Hotel Caribbean View

Isla Bastimentos


A friendly hotel set above the water on the edge of Bastimentos town. Double $75.

Where to eat

Markets and roadside restaurants are plentiful along the route, and lack of planning can provide nice surprises, like crossing paths with the pineapple truck just before lunch. Two meals worth including, though, to begin and end the journey:

Restaurante Stella's Marina

At the port in Pedregal


Waterside seafood - sea bass ceviche and mahi-mahi with avocado sauce - served fresh and friendly. Lunch for two about $30.

Hotel Caribbean View Restaurant

(see above)

Go with the fish of the day, grilled, and a cold Atlas beer. If you are lucky, a quick tropical downpour will break the heat. Dinner for two $20.

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