Monday, June 16, 2008

Sendero de los Quetzales

Yesterday I took a long hike through the cloudforest, a 12-kilometer mostly uphill trek between Boquete and Cerro Punta. The Sendero de los Quetzales, or Quetzal Trail, was the first trail made by the indigenous inhabitants of this region and was used to facilitate trade between these two towns. It runs along one side of the Baru volcano (the only active volcano out of 64 in Panama – one of its three craters is active). It’s also supposed to be a place where one has a good chance of seeing the quetzal bird. According to our guide Alvaro, this bird is one of the most beautiful in the world.

The area was beautiful, with all kinds of mushrooms, ferns, plants and flowers growing alongside the trail. The thick forest surrounded us with vines, ferns and trees, some new growth, others remants from the primal forest. As we walked, the sound of various bird calls rang through the silence and we breathed in the scent of decomposition and fresh moss.

I’m sure the forest contained all kinds of treasures. Most unfortunately, our guide didn’t seem to be familiar with them at all. He clearly wasn’t an avid birder and didn’t even know how to use the binoculars someone lent him. So while he pointed out a few things to us, I know we passed by a lot of the forest’s secrets. And we didn’t see a quetzal, though we heard their calls.

I think such hikes are best done with an indigenous person, or at least someone who lives near to the forest. Those people are more likely to rely upon nature and to be familiar with its intricacies. We passed several men along the way who were carrying homemade bamboo poles (probably taken from the forest) and were on their way to fish. I’m sure they lived in harmony with the environment. When I asked if they’d seen any quetzals along the way, they said yes, four. I wished the tour organizers would have hired one of them instead of the relatively well-to-do town dweller who was our guide.

The trail was fairly difficult. Much of it was uphill. And while there were stairs in some places, they weren’t in very good conditions. Some had rotted out, requiring large steps upward. That, plus the gain in elevation, eventually became very tiring. Just as we reached the halfway point, at 2200 meters, I began to wheeze.

Luckily, some rest, some juice, and the guide slowing down the pace helped. I felt a light pounding in my head, which I associate with altitude, but it wasn’t too bad and felt better during the rest of the way.

A beautiful view greeted us at the end – bushes flush with white flowers with purple-shaded centers, which Alvaro said were called novios (or couples). Their scent perfumed the air. Up upon a hill stood a statue of a virgin. And we could look out over the agricultural valley and down into the town of Cerro Punta.

The start of the hike wasn’t too far from Boquete. And we only hiked 12 kilometers. So both the other woman on the tour and I were surprised when the return trip was well over an hour, through the town of David. Apparently, because of the national park, there is no direct road. The need for the trail to facilitate trade became much more apparent.

Coming down from the mountain, we passed a bunch of stands selling strawberries, which grow here year round. I bought a dish of strawberries with cream (a very sweet sticky cream) for a dollars, as well as strawberry bread, homemade granola, and from a neighboring vegetable stand, plump orange carrots and top-like magenta beets. They were also selling a variety of fresh honey and jams made from the various local fruits, including tomatoes.

I was so exhausted in the evening, both from the hike and from the fact that River has been waking up repeatedly at night that I didn’t do much besides care for River, go to bed, then get up throughout the night to feed him. The family took care of him while I was gone. When I returned, he was grinning and they were enchanted with him. They are babysitting today as well, for the first time giving me the chance to get some work done and stroll through the town.

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