Jungles of Panama


“Panama City is another kind of jungle” says my new friend Marilo, “maybe a more dangerous one”. I assume that she is referring to dangerous drivers and shootouts that sometimes occur in certain parts of the city.

I am staying with Marilo, manager of Centro El Tucan at Achiote, a small village on the border of one of Panama’s protected tropical forests – the San Lorenzo Protected Area.

Marilo with one of the visiting neighbour's children

Marilo with one of the visiting neighbour’s children

During my two week stay near the San Lorenzo Protected area, I like to visit it each morning. It is an easy 5km bike ride each way, often with lots of nature on the way – toucans, mantled howler monkeys, sloths and of course birds. Achiote Road that goes through the protected area is world famous as a must see place for bird lovers, with close to 400 species in the area.

Activity in hot humid Panama is best undertaken early in the morning or in the cool of the evening. The animals know this too. I am filled with quiet excitement at what I might see each day. Our Living Earth rarely lets me down. One day I see a red tailed squirrel with a bushy black and rust coloured ‘Basil Brush’ tail, much larger than the red squirrels we see in the UK. Three times it pops into view from the tree in front of me. It could be curious or perhaps it just want me to ‘bugger off!’ so it can get on with its day’s itinerary. See – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red-tailed_squirrel

Black-throated Mango hummingbird in nest

Black-throated Mango hummingbird in nest

I so love it when I see a hummingbird. I had never seen them before I came to Panama. They are the pollinators of the bird world. Buzzy wings and chirps make them easy to spot but difficult to photograph. But one day when I am watching one, I see it fly into its nest, a nest that is so small it barely accommodates the parent let alone any chicks.

I have to keep reminding myself that the jungles of Panama are not like the forests of New Zealand – benign places.

“If you are going to go off the paths you will need to wear rubber boots” says Marilo. She’s referring to the danger of snakes in particular. There are several poisonous species here, and one species, the fer de lance has the unpleasant habit of chasing down and biting people who disturb it. Or so I have read! Marilo tells me that, yes it is an aggressive and potentially deadly species, but it is not the fastest deadly snake in the jungle here. Hmm. I am relieved, by a very small degree. In her workshops, Marilo is keen to teach local people that there are good reasons not to kill snakes. “Snakes are a very important part of the ecosystem. They eat a lot of rodents. It is sad that so many are killed when they are seen”.

Centro El Tucan - educational centre and backpackers

Centro El Tucan – educational centre and backpackers

Marilo is passionate about all wildlife, and about birds in particular. As far as I can tell she loves all animals with a great passion, and with a deep sense of compassion.

Bron - Marilo's dog - is called Yoga Dog by his fans.

Marilo’s dog – is called Yoga Dog by his fans.

I have found a hero in Marilo. She is working here for the last year and a half as the volunteer Manager of Centro El Tucan, an educational facility for the community and also a youth hostel. I am here to help as a volunteer.

I have a pathway in the San Lorenzo Protected area that I follow each day. It was made by the Raptors Conservation Group that was set up by villagers in Achiote following the first of the conservation workshops that CEASPA held in the village. Centrol el Tucan is on the outskirts of the village close to the jungle. Each morning when I wake up, I hear the calls of Mantled Howler Monkeys as though they are just outside my window. At first I thought they were steer howling in the morning for their breakfast! Their voices are loud, deep and rasping. These large all-black monkeys, are present in Panama in healthy numbers, perhaps because it is their habit to stay high up in the trees where hunters cannot reach them. Or perhaps they just don’t taste good.

Early morning on the edge of Achiote

Early morning on the edge of Achiote

So what is it like in the jungle? There are similarities to walking though the podocarp forests of New Zealand. Tall trees, dense undergrowth – a tangle of green and birdsong. I love to see the toucans fly overhead, or spot them sitting high in a tree, given away by their characteristic ‘frog croaking’ calls. Seeing their brightly coloured beaks make me gasp every time. But oh dear! Marilo tells me they enjoy eating birds (parents and chicks) in their nests. A bit like our New Zealand possums, except that here, toucans have evolved to be part of the system and therefore will be unlikely to decimate bird populations in the same way they do in New Zealand.

In San Lorenzo, even now in the dry season, it rains a lot. I loves these downpours, cathartic thunderous dumps of rain, after which the birds and mammals emerge in a flurry of excited activity to enjoy the sun and insects. When I came from New Zealand, I brought a light rain jacket, rain trousers and a rain poncho. They sit in my pack unused. I copy the locals who just wait out the rain. It usually stops after about 10 minutes.

To be continued …



Sponi and me.

Sponi and me.

Later… my friend Sponi, a good friend who I have not see for 15 years has contacted me and now I am with her in the area of Lago Bayano, in eastern Panama. She and her husband have bought (or long leased) approximately 450ha of rainforest, with the purpose of protecting it. The climate here is different.

Tropical forest at Lago Bayano

Tropical forest at Lago Bayano

The dry season is actually dry. Where the rainforest is cut down, the earth cracks and the grass breaks beneath my feet. “We are having such a dry summer,” says Sponi. “We haven’t had any mandarins this year, and our oranges are much fewer than usual – and rain is not expected until June!” It is now only early February. A combination of El Nino and anthropogenically induced changing climate perhaps. I’m worried for Sponi who, with her family, is making a concerted effort to live off the land, growing traditional foodstuffs organically. She, her husband and their four children under 10 years will depend on the productivity of this land into the future.

Sponi and horse on our way off the property

Sponi and horse on our way off the property

When I was at Centro El Tucan, I thought I was living remotely. But it is nothing to what I experience at Sponi’s. Their homestead is a four hour walk from where the road becomes impassible to most vehicles (due to river crossings) and then disappears. Sponi loves this inaccessibility. “I would like it to be even harder to reach” she says. “Then there would be fewer hunters”. Sponi assures me that in this particular jungle there is every species present in this area, including the Jaguar. “You must not go far into the forest,” urges Morgan her husband. “Jaguars are reported to have the strongest bite of any animal” says Sponi.

I have a mini-daydream of me trying to outrun a Jaguar … I decide not to venture far.

But venture I must! I need my daily morning fix of Jungle Life! This forest is so much larger, that I actuality see less wildlife than I did at San Lorenzo. I assume the animals have somewhere to retreat to. I am also more nervous about going too far into the forest. Once I see a Red-Tailed Squirrel like the one I saw at San Lorenzo. Another time in the very early morning light, I am thrilled to see a black cat-like creature with a strong tail.

2016-01-07 08.04.52  As a matter of principle, I aspire to love all the creatures of the world, but obviously there are some creatures less loveable than others. Common at both San Lorenzo and Lago Bayano are aggressive looking skinny black and yellow spiders, about 1-2 inches long, they make hard-to-see webs across tracks. Eeks! After finding one of these big spiders crawling up my back, I have adopted the habit of waving a stick before me to break the webs as I walk along the track. “To get the spider off, I had to do a jiggly dance!” I exclaim to Sponi’s children, and demonstrate how this is done. The children get very excited by my realistic re-eneactment and have me repeat y jiggly dance about five times, joining in themselves. Later I am relieved to find out that these spiders do not bite humans. Still, I am sure my ‘flight’ instinct will kick in and I will do another frantic jiggly dance if this happens to me again!

There is also plenty of wildlife in and around the house. The house has a wee population of house bats. Their droppings look like mouse poo and would create guano if they were not cleaned away. I also see many types of lizard. One in particular, the Basilisk, can be seen on the tributaries of the beautiful swimming river that runs by the house. The Basilisk is also called the Jesus Christ Lizard for its habit of running over the surface of water!

Without any street lights for miles around, at night the sky is eye-achingly black, and the stars are bright and crisp. On the grass, tiny spurts of light spring over the grass. They belong to the eyes of spiders. Large toads about the size of a grapefruit, freeze in the light of my headtorch. It is especially important to watch out at night, in case you stand on a snake. Although I am constantly on the lookout for snakes, I am half disappointed that the only snake I have seen so far is a small dead one, dried out in the sun on the dirt road. To be continued …

MID FEBRUARY POSTSCRIPT –  Gentle rain arrived and continued off and on for several weeks. Phew!

Tropical forest being protected by Sponi and her husband at Lago Bayano

Tropical forest being protected by Sponi and her husband at Lago Bayano









To be continued …



2016-02-06 07.07.38After only a week at Lago Bayano, I have interviewed Sponi and created two radio shows that I am very keen to have aired. It has been fantastic to spend time with Sponi and her family and I have been overwhelmed by their generosity toward me. However land surveyors have come to the property so I take the opportunity to travel back to Panama City with them. It is a long walk of four hours in hot sun with my backpack up very very steep hills.

So here I am writing this blog in the concrete jungle of Panama City with the purpose of sending a couple of radio shows I have recorded on my little MP3 recorder to the Otago Access Radio station in Dunedin. For a concrete jungle it is impressive and contrasting. There are rising glossy sky scrapers, one shaped like a corkscrew – and there are dilapidated flats, crumbling in the heat and humidity, that house many of the people.

Panama Flag on top of Cerron Ancon

Panama Flag on top of Cerron Ancon

In addition to its obvious concrete jungle attributes, there is actually significant nature to be found in the city. Close to its centre, Panama City has a hill called Cerron Ancon. Covered in forest, it can be walked up in about 30 minutes to provide excellent views of the city and the waterfront. It is popular in the mornings with joggers and mountain bikers. At the top of the hill I find a poster that tells me that within Panama City’s boundary there are 15 species of mammal, 39 birds, and 9 reptiles. Panama City also has the Metropolitan Park. Today I visit it and see perhaps the most exciting thing I have seen yet! A Blue Crowned Motmot. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue-crowned_motmot (Check out that tail!!). Panama City is also the migratory route of raptors that pass over it in their millions during October/November. Yes – millions. I find it almost impossible to imagine. http://stri.si.edu/english/about_stri/headline_news/news/article.php?id=1879

Member of the guinea pig family - common at Cerron Ancon and the Metropolitan Park

The Central American Agouti – common at Cerron Ancon and the Metropolitan Park

The longer I am here the more I want to stay. To experience the full beauty of Panama, perhaps it is necessary to stay at least one year…



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Travel Post 1: Hitching

“Oh I wouldn’t want my daughter to hitch!” says Aileen, when she picks me up from Ashburton and takes me to Rolleston just south of Christchurch.

Photo of me (Maureen Howard) setting off to hitch from Dunedin to Auckland. Taken by housesitter Liv

Photo of me (Maureen Howard) setting off to hitch from Dunedin to Auckland. Taken by housesitter Liv

Welcome to my Sustainable (ish) Travel Blog. When I write this I am on Day 2 of my ‘big trip’ from New Zealand to Northern Ireland to visit my mum. I will continue with the radio show while I travel and I hope this blog will support my show. With each posting, I will focus on a different aspect of travel from a sustainability perspective.

At the moment I am on my way to Auckland travelling from Dunedin, and my hopes are to do it only by hitching. For the whole journey, from New Zealand to Northern Ireland, I hope to fly as little as possible, if at all – and instead to travel by lower carbon options – freighter travel, bus and train. And hitching. My decision to travel this way is part of a sustainability challenge I am setting myself, as well as the opportunity to have a midlife adventure. My aim is to travel via Central and North America. My route will be the ‘long way round’ as my friend James says – from Dunedin to Auckland, then by freighter from Auckland to Panama, then north to the US by bus or train, where I will go from Philadelphia to Antwerp in Belgium. From there I will take bus, train and boat trips to Northern Ireland.

Today’s posting is about hitching. Not the horrors which are mostly what we hear about – but the joys. And for me, hitching has largely been a joyful exercise, where I meet interesting people from a broad cross-section of society. I feel sad that hitching has received such a bad reputation. Little research has been done on hitching and its safety, but two studies reported in WikiTravel have found hitchers to be at ‘not disproportionately greater risk of crime’ than non-hitchers.

Earlier in 2015 I went to a talk where the speaker urged us to consider hitching a spiritual exercise. As I understood it, she meant that hitching requires trust. Trust in other people, trust in the universe that you will get to where you want to go, or even better trust that where you end up is the right place for you to be! Hitching is all about trust, and community, and I would be sad to see it disappear from New Zealand as it is a real indicator of the trust that exists between strangers in a community. And of course hitching is a very valid and sustainable mode of travel that in particular reduces the footprint of the person who picks up the hitcher! The Carbonzero website places a value of 0.07kg Co2 per person per kilometre, less than four times the carbon footprint of domestic air travel. However, as hitching involves getting a ride that is definitely going anyway, I prefer to think of it as carbon neutral for the hitcher and carbon offsetting for the driver!

There are also many other joys of hitching, and I discuss these at length with my guest Paul Armstrong in the Eco Living in Actionradio show that was aired on the 4th December.

As part of my big trip I intend to hitch where I consider it safe to do so. What practical advice can I give about hitching? Firstly find out what the hitching norms are for the country you want to hitch in. According to the WikiTravel site, hitching in New Zealand is classified as Occasional, Easy, and Legal. If you are inexperienced in the art of hitching, you might like to travel with another more experienced person at first. There are sites out there that discuss in detail ways in which you can improve your likelihood of getting a lift – such as wearing bright or light coloured clothing, smiling, making eye contact, and having a sign (or not) saying where you would like to go. You should also wait at a spot where traffic is travelling relatively slowly and can pull over safely. I usually only accept rides that are heading to main centres and I ask nicely if they will leave me off on the side of the town that is on the side closest to where I am travelling. This means that more of the traffic passing your way will be headed in your direction.

In my life I have hitched many times by myself and I have had no really serious issues. In fact the kinds of issues that I have had, I would also be likely to have in a non-hitching situation – getting lifts with drivers who have poor skills, who drive too fast, or who tailgate. Certainly, following your instincts is very important. As a hitcher it is essential to be able to say ‘No thankyou, I think I will wait until the next ride’ if you don’t like the look of the person who has stopped. Don’t feel beholden to getting into that car. There are nice ways of turning down a lift. You can think of your own favourite white lie.

If you do find yourself in a situation where you are feeling very uncomfortable, you should seek to get out of the car. For example, at the next main centre, you could tell them that you are going to be sick and can they pull over. Ideally keep all your important belongings with you so that you can easily take them with you.

Have fun! Hitching is not parasitical. Most of the people who give lifts are genuinely interested to have your company, and to help you get to where you want to go. Endeavour to be agreeable. You will have some great conversations.  I think it’s also a nice gesture, but certainly not expected, to give a small gift by way of thanks. For this trip, I have vegetable seed packets to hand out.

For more information about Hitching

My daughter outside the Len Lye Centre

My daughter outside the new Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth, that is showcasing his artworks.

Postscript – By the time I arrive in New Plymouth to visit with my daughter (before I head to Auckland), I have had eight lifts of which five were with women. The longest wait was one hour at Oamaru and the shortest was less than a minute out of Christchurch. To help me get to good hitch points, I got a ride with my friend Sue (who I was staying with) to the north side of Christchurch, and I also took a train trip out of Wellington to Waikanae.

Another postcript – arrived in Auckland with easy hitches. No waiting longer than 10 minutes. I even got a lift with a police officer who did not tell me off for hitching. Tomorrow I leave on the ship to Panama!

Maureen Howard is a Sustainability Educator and Facilitator, based in Dunedin. She is currently travelling from New Zealand to Northern Ireland to visit her mum and family. She plans to share her sustainability tips as she travels.