Jungle, Discovery, Panama
â€śÂˇBienvenido a PanamĂˇ!â€ť The sign was fairly welcoming but it didn't change the fact that I was nervous. It was my first trip out of my home country, but I was well-traveled before this (well, on the research end of traveling that is). I had escaped into the discovery of distant locations. In other words, I was a world traveler that never left home -- and I hated it. But finally that was about to change. I was invited on a journey of self-discovery and adventure to the jungles of northern Panama with my roommate, who had a contact in the area.
I was getting that first stamp on my naked passport. It read â€śRepublica de Panamaâ€ť. A sorry attempt was made at landing the stamp within the first box. The the faded, upside-down seal fuzzily displayed my arrival date, sealed in inconsistent purple ink - perhaps sealing my fate for this trip, I wondered. I think I had built up the moment too much. There was no ceremony, no parade, no congratulations, just â€śNext!". I had finally arrived, with my Spanish (minimal) my English (not much better) and my destination (vaguely clear).
We were headed to the village of Achiote, nestled in the jungles just north of the province of ColĂłn, to stay for a week or so and help with whatever was needed and enjoy ourselves. Our only concrete job description was to fix a bird observation deck that had some â€śstructural integrity issues.â€ť Driving through Panama City, we headed for the Miraflores and Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal, which was necessary to cross to reach our destination. The drive through the city was a harrowing adventure all in itself. When I say driving I mean sitting in the back seat swerving my own imaginary steering wheel away from oncoming buses and suicidal dirt bikes. I was never in any real danger,although the Panamanian drivers seemed insane to me, lacking any usage of blinkers and ignoring traffic lights. Yet everything flowed in unison, in a seemingly haphazard cloud of exhaust, humidity, sweat, shouts and horn honks; everything all worked out in the end, as if it was choreographed that way. I was quickly learning to sit back and let the journey discover me.
I was thrilled to see the canal in person with the massive Panamax freighters filled with crates of cars and other international market items skirting though the concrete chambers with surgical precision (having mere feet of room on either side to maneuver). So lush was the landscape upon leaving the city, from a bustling city center to a sea of green as far as the eye could see. This was a country I knew so little about beyond Manuel Noriega and David Lee Rothâ€™s incessant shouting of the countryâ€™s name in song (granted he was singing about a car or a womanâ€¦who really knows, or cares...Sorry Mr. Roth.)
I felt like an explorer stumbling upon a lost paradise. The people of Achiote were more than welcoming and within a few hours I felt like part of their family, laughing and chatting in broken Spanish and English. Nightly routines of drinking at the cantina, making the toast of â€śchupa y olvidaâ€ť (which roughly means drink and forget) and the days of working hard in the heat and humidity, breaking drill bits ( â€śCĂłmo se dice drill en espanol DaniĂ©l?â€ť...â€ťUh, drill Mateo, drill.â€ť) and cursing in English while a small crowd of children and locals took a break from their work to have a good laugh at the frustrated gringos expense (I would have done the same).
We shared stories as best we could and I quickly learned what I had yearned for for so long in traveling and had found on my first adventure. That simple underlying bond of humanity that we all share no matter what the linguistic barriers, the cultural barriers, or social barriers; people want to be loved and in turn share their love with others. Whether sitting under the canopy of the restaurant being built around us, as the torrential rain poured over the entire lush jungle landscape (while we practiced our A B Cs with the niĂ±os), to lying awake in our friend DaniĂ©lâ€™s house listening to the distant roar of howler monkeys, excited by the recent rain, as bats flew around the ceiling over my bed, I knew I had found a way of life so much simpler and more fulfilling in so many respects when compared to my constant go, go, go back in the States.
It is a paradise in Achiote. A simple life with a simple single road running through the center; a school, a restaurant that we helped build (mostly watched) and birds everywhere. A piece of my heart is always in Achiote and I plan to go back and rekindle that love affair I have with the people and the place. Achiote and the dwindling number of places like it that struggle to continue an existence with an encroaching, ever-connected world around them, continue to live, what I see as serene and peaceful lives, only seeking happiness and security for themselves and those they love. They push on and adapt with new ways to co-exist in this shrinking globe we live on. Achiote works closely with American institutions like the Smithsonian and Colorado State University to promote ecotourism to the village, which has some of the best bird-watching in the world, as well as working with the Panamanian organization CEASPA.
My deepest hope is that Achiote stays as beautiful as it was when I first arrived and that every person is able to experience a place like it at least once in their lives. I think it was the nature conservationist John Muir that said â€śThe clearest way into the universe is through a forest wildernessâ€ť. Into the jungles of Panama just on the outskirts of an encroaching CĂłlon lies a piece of the very heart and soul of the universe: Achiote.
Travel tips: Enjoy yourself. And take your time. Although life goes at a slower pace in Achiote when you work it is hard work (if you are helping with projects they have). Pace yourself if you decide to go to the cantina (they can drink any American under the table). Just take in all the beauty Achiote has to offer.
Must see/do at this place: Besides just hiking around the trails in the village and meeting all the people. You have to have Felipe take you fishing in the jungle or go with some of the younger people (like Pime and Negra) and go swimming at the nearby beaches and catch cangrejos (crabs) on your way back from the beach (they just hang out in the street after it rains).
You should avoid here: There is nothing to avoid in the village itself. Although it is a small village there is plenty to do for the adventurous and the not-so-adventurous.