Cerro Gaital - Valle Anton - Panama. A. F.
Among the myriad green tones was a sudden burst of colour, as the iridescent blue of a pair of huge butterflies crossed the small open space in the humid rainforest. It was such a compelling sight that I didn’t even try to reach for the camera and capture the moment; I just watched with childlike awe as the shimmering moths crossed the stream in front of me, their broad wings reflecting the shards of light falling between the trees.
These were blue morpho butterfly moths, among the largest butterflies in the world, with a staggering 15 to 20 centimetre wingspan. Watching their erratic flight in a tropical rainforest is the type of experience that makes eco-tourism so captivating. Yet I hadn’t been travelling for days into the savage, uncharted territory of a lost world. In fact I’d been hiking for less than 20 minutes from a small guest lodge, after enjoying a sound night’s sleep in a comfortable room and having tucked into a hearty breakfast. Possible because I was in Panama, which has probably the most accessible rainforests.
Panama, the isthmus that connects North and South America, is a narrow land bridge connecting the vast continents, with two of the world’s greatest oceans either side; so it is little wonder that this small nation is one of the most bio diverse on the planet. It is one of nature’s great crossroads, home to thousands of species of plants, including rare trees and orchids, and diverse animal species on land and in the sea.
Tourism, especially eco-tourism is exploiting this phenomenon, and it seems just in time, as Panama, like much of the tropics, has suffered its fair share of deforestation for commercial gain. Now in the new millennium, many people pay more to see trees alive than they do for hardwood terrace furniture in the garden centre back home, so across the country eco-lodges are emerging to cater for the new wave of conscious visitors.
Panama has managed to protect large swathes of its territory including the vast Darien National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site to the south of the country. It is home not only to iconic endangered species such as jaguars and pumas, but also to some of the remaining indigenous people of Panama. To the north are the Bocas del Toro, where the greens of the rainforest touch the aquamarines of the Caribbean.
Yet one doesn’t have to travel far to get a flavour of this outstanding nature. In less than an hour’s drive from Panama City international airport one can be enjoying a privileged view among the canopy of the rain forest, watching monkeys, sloths and birdlife. Or within a few hours, one can be up in the Valle de Anton, a six kilometre wide verdant valley within an ancient volcanic crater, its jagged mountain edges now protected rain and cloud forests. It was here that I stayed for a few days in the quiet village and took hikes up into the forest and watched giant tropical ants march across the forest floor and tiny sparkling hummingbirds agilely manoeuvre for nectar, and caught glimpses of those shimmering butterflies appearing and disappearing through the dappled sunlight.