A Birding Trip to Panama
January 8 - 22, 2009
Composite Bird List Day by day bird list (long) Chuck and Jaye's Photos Kevin Groeneweg's Photos
What started out as a thank you present to my wife turned into a wonderful birding adventure for seven Kansas birdwatchers! So let me provide the impetus for this adventure. I had the opportunity to serve as a national officer for my professional association (NACAA - National Association of County Agricultural Agents) from 2004 to 2008. During one of the my trips early on for the association, I realized that birding spouse Jaye was going to end up sitting at home quite often while I made trips all over the country. In other words, I was going to owe her big time for all the support and encouragement to serve on the national board. Jaye has long wanted to go birding in Central America. She didn't care where, just some place with colorful exotic birds. So I started planning.
I fairly quickly narrowed the list down to Costa Rica, Belize or Panama. I was leaning towards Panama primarily on the size of their bird list, but also because EVERYONE else goes to Costa Rica and Belize. Late in 2007 I started quizzing good friend Max Thompson for his input on the subject. I had been looking at some of the more well known birding tour companies. Early in 2008 Max asked if I was serious about a birding trip. He had heard from friends of a small company in Panama that led birding tours, Advantage Tours Panama, owned by Guido Berguido who was also the main guide. I followed up on some of Max's information and knew at least one person who had led groups to Panama and used Guido and Advantage Tours. Max's next question was whether we could come up with 6 to 10 people that we could spend two weeks birding in Panama with. We sent out a few emails and quickly had an interested group assembled. Max contacted Guido about a tour in January 2009 and everything was set in motion.
Five of us were planning to travel to Panama on the 8th and spend one day on a partial Panama Canal transit. The other four would arrive on the 9th, and on the 10th we'd hit the birding full time. Plans were set, airline tickets bought and everyone started counting down the months, then weeks and finally days until we could escape the cold of a Kansas January for the warm temperatures of Panama. Unfortunately, fate was working against Max and a bad back forced Max and Bryon to cancel out at the last minute. I have no doubt that had Max and Bryon been able to accompany us, this incredible trip would have been twice as much fun. Therefore, because of all his efforts to help me get this set up, the entire trip is dedicated to Max Thompson!
Chuck and Jaye Otte met up with Barb Robins at Wichita Airport on January 8th. The flight to Atlanta and subsequent flight to Panama City were pleasant, uneventful and stress free. After collecting our luggage at Tocumen International Airport outside Panama City, and making our way through immigration and customs, we waited at the pre-arranged meeting area until Guido could make his way through the traffic. A short bus ride later and we were checking in at the Riande Hotel just a few miles from the airport.
The next morning, January 9th, we had breakfast, birded briefly around the hotel and were then driven through downtown Panama City to the port where we joined a charter group that bused halfway across the isthmus to Gamboa where we boarded a medium size passenger vessel and traversed the Panama Canal back through the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks to the Pacific Ocean. Our driver, Carlos, was there to meet us when our boat docked and we were driven back to the Riande for dinner and a leisurely evening. While we were enjoying the incredible views and history of the Panama Canal, Bob Gress, Jay Newton and Kevin and Laura Groeneweg were en route from Wichita, also being met at the airport by Guido and arriving late in the evening at the hotel.
The morning of the 10th began as most mornings would for the rest of the trip. Up around 5:30, breakfast at 6 and then out to go birding. Let me digress now for a few comments. When Max and I planned the trip, we told Guido that we did not need 5 star hotels. All we needed was clean accommodations and simple meals. Guido honored our requests which helped to keep the price for this trip very reasonable. Guido and his company were phenomenal! We can not heap enough praise on this gentleman and what he is trying to accomplish. He made use of quaint "Mom and Pop" establishments, encouraging the local entrepreneurs and showing them what eco-tourism could mean to them. As his company, Advantage Panama says, the difference is the local advantage. We wish Guido, Advantage Tours Panama and the entire country the best as they work to develop their eco-tourism reputation! Guido did a good job of matching the pace of the day to what we were comfortable with. His knowledge of Panamanian birds, history and culture is truly phenomenal and I am envious of his ability to recognize and recall so many bird songs so quickly. And he was accommodating of those who wanted to photograph as many of the incredible birds that we saw. In fact it soon became the goal of everyone to help Bob and Kevin get as many good photographs as possible!
So the morning of the 10th we started with the resident Bat Falcon in front of the hotel and we then loaded into the van and headed off for the nearby Cerro Azul and low to mid elevation mountain birding. We hiked a trail and were immediately immersed in the sounds of the jungles, the mouth dropping vegetation and the frustration of trying to find birds flying through, over or sitting tight in all that vegetation. We had a delightful lunch at the home of Guido's friends Claudia and Bill Ahrens where we watched, and photographed, many species of birds at their feeders. We birded around the hills some more in the afternoon before returning to the hotel Riande for relaxation and birding around the hotel grounds before dinner.
Sunday the 11th started early with a 4:30 a.m., meeting time so we could head across the isthmus to the Caribbean side of the country to bird at the world famous Achiote Road. The isthmus of Panama is at its narrowest where the canal crosses the country, approximately 40 miles. The road was adequate, but at times rough, but shortly after sunrise were on the outskirts of Colon and crossing the Panama Canal at the Gatun Locks. With the Caribbean Sea just a short sail away, we were greeted by Laughing Gulls, Magnificent Frigatebirds and Brown Pelicans. We skirted along the top of the Gatun Dam and then up the shore to Achiote Road. The morning was spent with some true lowland jungle birding. Trogons, toucans, antbirds, flycatchers, wrens, orioles, caciques, oropendolas and tanagers kept us scrambling as we struggled to learn the calls and habits of all these new species. We ate lunch in the town of Achiote, relaxing for a while before continuing on up the road for views of such things as Southern Lapwings and Wattled Jacanas. Then it was time to head back across the isthmus for Panama City. Another group dinner and then an evening spent repacking as we were limited on the amount of luggage we could take on the plane ride to the west end of the country.
Monday the 12th - We ate breakfast, checked out and loaded all of our luggage into the van. We drove straight to the downtown area of Panama City and Metropolitan Park. This is about the only major city that has a tropical rain forest park in its city limits. The first hour that we were there was phenomenal birding. Flycatchers, tanagers, warblers and hummingbirds kept us all jumping from lifer to lifer. As activity at the park slowed down, we headed on to the ocean which was at low tide. A large tidal change creates huge mudflats right off the downtown area. Numerous shorebirds and waders were found as well as the frigatebirds, pelicans and cormorants. A stop at a local police station turned up several good birds along the creek that runs behind the station. Jaye quipped up with, "that's an interesting looking bird" as we all got uncommonly good looks at a Gray-necked Wood-Rail. A little time spent sightseeing along the ocean and old Spanish ruins and it was time for lunch at a popular cafeteria. A short stop at a craft market for souvenirs, a stop along the causeway for the Mangrove Warbler subspecies of Yellow Warbler and we were on our way to the city airport.
Here we parted ways with half of our luggage and fantastic driver Carlos. We negotiated luggage and ticketing and then like at all airports, we waited to clear security and loaded into our airplane (which looked a lot like the airplane that crashed at Buffalo NY in February) and our 50 minute flight to David in western Panama. A question we were asking each other was soon answered as the clouds cleared and we could see the Pacific Ocean out one window of the plane and the Caribbean Sea out the other window. An uneventful flight, grab our luggage and load on our bus to start birding just a mile from the airport. It was here that we got our first Fork-tailed Flycatchers and the only House Sparrows we would see/hear on the entire trip (and no European Starlings at all for the entire trip!) We also were able to help Guido acquire a new bird for his Panama life list, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird! Back on the bus and we're headed down the Pan-American Highway to La Concepcion where we would turn north for Volcan. We arrived at the Dos Rios Hotel after dark, checked in to our rooms and retired to the dining room for dinner and to work on the day's list.
Tuesday the 13th - The target today was Resplendent Quetzal, a truly astounding bird if you are lucky enough to find a male in all his breeding plumage! We left Volcan and headed up to Cerro Punta and a preserve known as the Los Quetzals trail. This was up in the mountains, literally at the end of the road. We weren't out of the bus long until a small flock of female quetzals was discovered feeding in an avocado tree near the residence of yet more friends of Guido. And for the first time, out came the white plastic chairs. For the next several days these chairs would be our birding friends for those occasions when it was better birding to sit and wait for the birds to come to you. As we were scanning through the trees I saw a quetzal that looked like it had a longer tail. I'd heard Guido say something about an immature male so I asked him if that was it - about that time it moved and we could see that it was in fact an adult male. The birds were busy feeding and quite unconcerned with us and we were able to watch them for over an hour. Bob got some great photos as evidenced by the periodic utterances of "oh baby!" as he reviewed the photos. This became "the phrase" of the trip meaning that Bob had gotten some good shots. (Coming in a close second or perhaps even tying for first was Guido's infamous response to questions of, "Kinda, sorta, maybe..... not really".) There were plenty of other birds around this area including numerous hummingbirds. The Green Violet-ears were very numerous and noisy - the Volcano Hummingbird is endemic to this region and the Violet Sabrewings are HUGE. It was here that we also first found our little friend the Rufous-collared Sparrow. These would show up across quite a bit of the country and as it is a Zonotrichia sparrow, was very reminiscent of our Harris's and White-crowned Sparrows of Kansas!
This area that we spent the morning was about 6,500 feet in elevation and up placing it in parts of the cloud forests. The vegetation here is lush, the soil is all of volcanic origin so highly fertile and the clouds just keep drifting through causing moisture to drip off of everything, even when it isn't outright raining. With an abundance of hand labor, there is massive clearing of the forests and extensive agriculture, particularly what we would call truck gardening or vegetable gardening. They can literally grow things year round so fields were seen in all states of production from planting through to harvesting. Hillsides (mountainsides) in excess of 45 degree angles didn't seem to slow the workers or the agriculture down. I fear for the long term stability of farming in this manner.
After we had all "tired" of the quetzals, we headed up the trail and I do mean up. The temperature was in the low 60s and we made it a very leisurely morning, stopping often to relax in the white plastic chairs and wait for birds to come through. After a while we came out onto a slight plateau, that was being farmed of course, and more birds including Mountain (Robin) Thrush and a nice flyover by a Swallow-tailed Kite. Then back down the trail and into Cerro Punta for lunch at Los Quetzals Inn (we had pizza by the way) and birding around the inn. After lunch we headed on up the road a bit further to the Dracula Orchid Farm. This "garden" is rated as one of the top ten orchid farms in the world. The extensive orchid production facilities were off limits to visitors (but we could peer in at the thousands of orchids in production) but the extensive grounds were a Garden of Eden with plenty of bird feeders and hummingbird feeders. More photo opportunities for Bob and Kevin and a very leisurely and relaxing afternoon for us all. A Blue-throated Toucanet was certainly a highlight for everyone as were the Long-tailed Silky-flycatchers that we saw walking up to the farm. Back to Volcan and the hotel, a leisurely evening meal, and the list compilation fueled by a few cold Panamas! (There were four beers produced in the country, Panama, Atlas, Balboa and Soberana - these are listed in order of my preference of them. When given the choice, I'd almost always take Panama!)
Wednesday the 14th - The chef was late and so was breakfast, but we had a more leisurely day planned. We headed out to some of the lower elevation areas around Volcan, literally roadside birding like we do in Kansas. We ended up at property owned by a hydroelectric power company and had a leisurely morning of white plastic chair birding, which is not to say that we didn't see some great birds, highlighted for me by the Fiery-billed Aracari (a type of toucan). Back to the hotel for lunch and a little siesta, then off to the northwest of Volcan, back up into the mountains where we spent the rest of the afternoon birding in coffee plantations. Sometimes, the birding was very challenging by birds who would sing incessantly, but never show themselves or birds that were so incredibly brilliant that you couldn't miss them, but you could never get them very close to you. This afternoon a Turquoise Cotinga (or more than one) kept popping up in trees several hundred yards away. Distinctive through binoculars or spotting scope, but you always wished they'd be closer! Growing everywhere in Panama, especially in areas that had been disturbed, were cecropia trees. These native trees were early colonizers of disturbed jungle areas and were utilized by many species of wildlife. If we could find a cecropia tree in blossom or in fruit, there was bound to be a lot of bird activity around them. Such was the case this afternoon with cecropia trees in the coffee plantations. Easily a dozen species of tanagers, plus other species were found foraging in these wonderful trees this afternoon. Back to the hotel for supper and working on the day's list. The list compilation was interrupted this evening, however, by a very cooperative Tropical Screech Owl calling from the tree in front of the hotel. A fine way to finish the evening and we all headed off to our rooms!
Thursday the 15th - Another cool morning and a big day in store. Off to some private lakes near Volcan first thing. Heavy lush growth with calling wood-quail and tinamous. Of all the birds that we heard on the trip, I think the Great and Little Tinamous may have been our favorites! More hummingbirds and then back in the bus and back up the road, this time to La Amistead International Park. This is a wonderful area of preserved mountains and forests that is jointly managed by Panama and Costa Rica. As we headed up into the cloud forests, the rains begin and it rained constantly while we were at a small restaurant just inside the park boundary. We managed a few birds around the restaurant, enjoyed another good local meal and then headed back down to get to lower elevations and out of the rain. A quick stop by a bed and breakfast the caters to bird watchers gave us more opportunity to watch hummingbirds and tanagers.
A quick stop at the hotel to check out and load the bus and then back to David to check in at the airport and our flight back to Panama City. It was great to see Carlos again and get reunited with all of our luggage. We checked into a different hotel, quickly out to get dinner and then back to repack for the final leg of our journey into eastern Panama. Jaye and I were some of the first ones back down to the lobby for dinner. Guido rushed in to get us outside where a Barn Owl was perched in a tree across the road from the hotel!
Friday the 16th - Up and going with breakfast at the motel, then out into rush hour traffic and off to the famous Pipeline Road in Soberania National Park. This area hosts one of the highest Christmas Bird Count totals of anywhere in the world, often exceeding 200 species in 24 hours. I can see why! We walked one of the trails up to the visitors center getting good numbers of trogons, flycatchers and hummingbirds. But once we got to the visitor center the hummingbirds were the draw. The large viewing deck was adorned with many hummingbird feeders, bar stools to scoot up to the deck railing and free coffee to enjoy while nearly a dozen hummingbird species flitted about between the various feeders. Long-billed Hermits and White-necked Jacobins, both large hummingbirds, were undoubtedly my favorite. Raptors were well represented here as well with Snail Kite, Double-toothed Kite, Zone-tailed Hawk and Black Hawk-Eagle being added to the trip list here. A walk down to a lake also took us right under a very calm and approachable Vermiculated Screech-Owl. For lunch we stopped at some property that Guido is renovating in Gamboa (old military quarters) that will be a bed and breakfast type setting for Advantage Panama. It is nearing being complete enough that he can start having guests. He had hoped to have it done in time for us, but schedules are such a tentative thing in much of the world. But we enjoyed chicken, rice and beans and watching birds and agoutis out in the yard.
In the early afternoon, we had to drop Carlos off to get a replacement drivers license (he had misplaced his) so Guido drove us around the old French Quarter for sight seeing and more souvenir shopping. I finally had to do it - I broke down and bought a Panama hat - heck, it was only $12. The official currency of Panama is the Balboa and it is tied directly to the dollar, 1:1. We saw plenty of Panamanian coins, but all the paper money we saw was US money, even what we got out of the ATM machines. We picked up Carlos, with his replacement drivers license, and fought our way through rush hour traffic, with a stop at a very American quick shop (an Esso On the Run facility). We stopped back by the Riande Hotel near the airport to check the luggage we wouldn't need in the Darien. It was 5 p.m., the sun was getting low in the sky and we were headed west on the Pan-American Highway into eastern Panama. This stretch of highway varied in condition from very good to very bad. We stopped about 8 p.m. at yet another roadside open air restaurant where we had great food including fried plantains and huge bottles of Atlas. Our destination was the town of Torti. The little blue hotel would be our headquarters for the next two nights. It was small, but clean. Our half of the hotel had air conditioning and private bathrooms, small though they might be. But it was good to stretch out and the drone of the A/C blocked out the Friday night revelries that others talked about the next morning.
Saturday the 17th - A short walk down the street to the restaurant for an interesting breakfast of a beef or chicken stew like stuff plus fried corn bread. Guido had recently made the acquaintance of a Catholic priest in the area that is responsible for several hundred acres of forested region that they intend to keep forested for watershed protection - the San Francisco Forest Reserve. We were much further east now and into some different ecosystems and the bird life reflected that. New hummingbird species, new woodpecker species, new flycatchers, just lots of "new". We spent the morning here, then back to Torti for lunch and a siesta. I had to visit an agricultural supply store next to the hotel. Sort of a cross between a hardware store and a garden center. I could have purchased granular Furadan insecticide there in 3 pound cans. I don't think we've been able to get granular Furadan in the states for about 15 years now! About mid-afternoon we headed back to the forest reserve. Great looks at our first Jacamar and Guido and I had brief close looks at a Royal Flycatcher. It's crest was down, but still a very distinctive bird! More flycatchers including many very vocal Great-crested Flycatchers. You could close your eyes and imagine you were back in Kansas with the calling Great-crested Flycatchers. But then you'd realize that there were also territorial Long-billed Hermits calling on EVERYWHERE and then the Howler Monkeys would start up and you knew you weren't in Kansas any more! Back to the hotel for dinner but we had to bid good bye to Carlos. Guido had another group that had arrived from Tennessee the day before that caught up with us at Torti. The Tennessee group was organized by David Trently. David and I knew each other through BirdChat and then ran into each other in June 2007 on a boat trip off the coast of Maine where we were sorting through the terns trying to separate Common, Arctic and Roseates. Guido had told me that David was coming, but I think it was a surprise to David to see me there! Anyway after dinner it was back to working on the list and then off to bed.
Sunday the 18th - Today we left early again so we could get to the docks and catch the boat. You can only get the boat into and out of La Marea at high tide. The 2 to 3 hour boat ride was fascinating and we started again picking up different birds as we skirted along the mangrove swamps. It was so strange to see Whimbrels sitting in trees at high tide. We made a quick stop at a small town about half way along to stretch our legs and get a drink. We arrived in La Marea about noon, greeted by the women and children. This was a National Geographic moment if ever there was one, but it didn't take you very long to get used to the minimal amount of clothing that all the native Embera wore. The gathering hut and large lodging hut that Advantage Panama has built was on through the village and part way up the hillside. The Embera carried all our stuff up to the lodge and we rested at the gathering hut and had lunch there. Several hammocks were soon put to good use as we enjoyed a bit of a siesta. Guido has arrangements with the members of the tribe and they do the cooking and all the carrying of whatever needs to be carried. The Embera are very friendly and as interested in us as we are of them. We quickly got used to having small children wander though our lodging rooms or holding our hands as we walked about the village.
We did a little sightseeing around the village, visited with some of the locals and birded, of course. The Embera have their own language but all speak Spanish as that is what is taught in the school. It was "summer break" which runs from about December through March so school was not in session. The village was founded in 1930 and has about 150 residents. Many of the men and older boys were out in the fields several miles out. The lodging was very open air so the beds were equipped with mosquito nets. These were the first mosquitoes we encountered and were less than what we had expected, but bad enough that once the sun set, you wanted to be under the mosquito netting before it got too dark. Much of Panama is between 8 and 10 degrees north latitude, a classic equatorial tropical zone. The day length from winter to summer varies less than one hour. Days were about 12 hours long as were nights. Twilight is very short lived. Once the sun sets, it gets dark in a hurry. With no electricity and open windows in the lodging, you got a good nights sleep under the mosquito net (and hoped you hadn't drunk too much beer requiring numerous trips out from under the mosquito netting to the restroom - and yes, we had simple showers and flush toilets.) It seemed very odd to be going to be in bed before 7 p.m., but we had lots of time for conversation with each other!
Monday the 19th - This started the two days that we were both looking forward to and dreading all at the same time. The Harpy Eagle nest was about 3.5 miles due south of La Marea. But it was literally a rain forest jungle trail with lots of uphill action involved. Six hours later, all seven of us, sweating through all of our clothes arrived at the location where we had great looks at a monstrous four month old Harpy Eagle chick. Luckily, there were a couple of horses along that Jaye and Barb were able to ride for about 1/3 of the distance - it made the trek go much easier for them, but it was still a workout for all of us! I took periodic GPS fixes and figure it was about a five mile hike to make the 3.5 miles, as the Harpy Eagle flies. We rested and watched the nest for a couple of hours. One adult flew over but that would be the only look we'd have of the adults. But the looks of the chick were more than adequate to be impressed by the bird that's been called the most powerful raptor in the world. The chick was actively feeding, we all assumed it was monkey jerky!
The last 1/2 mile was down a very steep slope. We continued on down this slope, with an all too close encounter with a Bullet Ant nest, a little further to a nice level place by a stream where a camp had been made complete with tents. So we chose our tent with an air mattress that was going to be very cozy for two! We had chicken rice and beans for dinner. Bob sat on a log in the stream dangling his feet in the water, appearing to be living the life of Riley. My admiration for Bob grew immensely that day as he toted his camera with 400mm lens, flash unit and tripod through the jungle! Again, as the sun set we retreated to our tents - no beer tonight folks - to escape the mosquitoes. I spent the first couple hours sleeping fitfully on the floor of the tent, and then Jaye insisted that we figure out a way to both sleep on the air mattress. It took coordination and both rolling from one side to the other at the same time, but we got an amazing amount of sleep, probably because we were exhausted from the walk. The howler monkeys quieted soon after sunset and even the bizarre cascading frog calls quieted down pretty quickly and then it was just the many wild insect noises, including the one that sounded like a miniature cell phone! But even then we drifted off to sleep, in a tent, in the Panamanian rain forest jungle, where they have Jaguars, 30 miles from Columbia........
Tuesday the 20th - You don't really need an alarm clock in the rain forest. First of all, you aren't going to want to be out of the tent too early because the mosquitoes will "get ya". Secondly, at the first twilight, the Howler Monkeys will probably get started and if you can sleep through those, then you probably need the sleep anyway. Either that or your air mattress will have deflated enough that your butt is now hitting the hard ground beneath the tent! We all emerged from our tents about sunrise and the wrens were already calling from everywhere. Breakfast and even some coffee that was still fairly warm from the night before, then head back to the Harpy Eagle viewing location with close attention to getting through the Bullet Ant nest location. Again, we watched the Harpy Eagle chick but the adults were already up and gone. To call this four month old Harpy Eagle a chick almost sounds insulting. The only things that appeared juvenile about it was the coloration of the feathers and the fact that its tail feathers were still coming in. This bird already looked big and powerful!
We said goodbye to the Harpy Eagle and headed up what seemed like an 80 degree hill that had to be 12 miles high! We took our time knowing that once we got to the top, there was going to be mainly downhill the rest of the way. Waiting for us at the top of the hill was a Red-throated Caracara that at times looked amazingly like a barnyard chicken! We took our time heading back down the trail, birding as we went along and still marveling at the incredible diversity of primary rain forest jungle. When we reached the halfway point we stopped and rested, waiting for the Tennessee group to meet us, as well as lunch! I honestly don't think that member of the Tennessee group realized how they sounded when their first words on seeing us were, "Is that how we'll look tomorrow?" We all laughed because we knew they would!! Lunch was great as always, but then came the sad time when we had to bid farewell to Guido. He was turning around and heading back to the eagle nest with the Tennessee group and we would be accompanied the rest of our trip by Venicio "Beny" Wilson. Beny was another excellent guide with wonderful command of the Panamanian natural world.
The rest of the hike back to the village was casual, well except for those steep downhill sections with loose gravel on rock, so treacherous that mountain goat Gress even slipped once and at one point Jaye just sat down and slid down the trail on her butt. We arrived back at the village and we all looked forward to cleaning up, some less sweaty clothes and some time to relax. The corner of "the lodge" was roofless and open across the valley where La Marea is. Being up on the hillside you are literally looking over the tops of the trees. As we relaxed and the afternoon drifted on we found ourselves gathering here before dinner watching parrots and hoping for macaws. A pair of Great Green Macaws drifted by on the far side of the valley. The weather was obviously changing and clouds were drifting in. But the clouds broke and sunlight bathed the valley just in time for a pair of Blue and Yellow Macaws to fly by flashing in the bright sunlight. About all everyone could say was "oh my gosh!" Later on, during dinner, another pair flew right over the lodge less than 50 feet in the air. Truly spectacular birds!! Kevin and Laura made a run to the store and returned with beers for everyone, which we were regretting later in the evening as we had to crawl out from under the mosquito netting to make a visit to the restroom!
Wednesday the 21st - We awoke this morning not to howler monkeys, but Common Paruaques and Little Tinamous calling on the hillside or maybe directly under the lodge. After breakfast we packed up our suitcases and placed them all together where the Embera would haul them to the boat in time for departure. Beny took us birding around the village and along the river and we added several more species that we had heard but not seen, i.e. Black-tailed Trogon and we finally got a barbet, the Spot-crowned Barbet. About mid morning we gathered with some of the villagers and they told us the history of their village, the young ladies did some dances, even getting most of the Kansans involved in busting a few moves too (video of said Kansans can be acquired, or denied, with adequate amounts of cash!) As the dancing wound down we had the opportunity to purchase handmade items from the Embera ladies and I don't think anyone didn't try to drain their cash reserves! The tide was coming in so the boat was loaded with luggage and the villagers led us down the river a ways until they could decide where to put us in with our luggage. An accessible area was finally found and we loaded on, along with some of Advantage Panama staff members to head down river. This was a low high tide event so progress was slow with numerous employees having to get out to lighten the road and help push the boat through the shallows. But eventually we hit deeper water, about the same time that some rain squalls came along. A tarp was held up in front of the boat which helped break some of the rain but we were all still getting damp from rain blowing in on the sides. On the boat ride to the village we had calm winds, calm water and a lighter load and were making about 12 mph (according to my GPS unit). Going back today, we had wind issues and a much heavier load and were averaging only about 8 to 9 mph. No stopping today, it was direct on to Puerto Quimba to meet with our van and some extra riders at least part of the way. It was mid afternoon by now, so we had the opportunity to see a lot of the area that was in early morning dark on the trip in.
We stopped at Torti to let off some of our extra riders and then headed for Panama City. From Puerto Quimba to Panama City is about 120 miles. It took us about 4 hours! On the road from Panama City to Meteti (where we turned off the Pan American highway to go to Puerto Quimba) we had to go through about five police checkpoints. These are an effort to try to stem the flow of contraban of all kinds out of Columbia. Going in on Sunday, Guido had all of our names and passport numbers, etc. written down on papers that he would give to the police and explain where we were going. No real problems, just some delays. Coming back today, we had a different driver that obviously all the policeman knew. At every checkpoint they greeted each other by name, he told them who he had and where he was going and we were waved on through with no need for passports or names! Ahh, that local advantage! Not far from the hotel we stopped at the Panamanian version of a country western bar for dinner. We all enjoyed a nice beer and most of us had hamburgers, although they weren't quite like our Kansas hamburgers! After dinner it was back to Hotel Riande where we picked up our checked luggage and then off to our rooms for a real hot shower!
Thursday the 22nd - We were up early so we could eat breakfast and catch the shuttle to the airport at 6:30. We all stayed together as a group and check in went very smoothly as did our working through immigration. Now more sit around and wait. We worked some on the list and we all oohed and aahed over Bob's pictures that he was showing us on his little storage and viewing device. The flight from Panama to Atlanta was on time and smooth. We saw all sorts of small islands and coral reefs, we flew over Cuba (cool!), we flew over the Florida Keys and over the Everglades. Deplaning in Atlanta was somewhat surreal as inbound international flights are herded through a maze of controlled corridors to immigration. Immigration was quick and smooth, getting our luggage took a little while, but then through customs in about 15 seconds and rechecking the baggage. Several of our group then found the nearest ATM to replenish cash reserves, then on to an overpriced, but nice airport restaurant where we enjoyed our last group meal, and boring American beers! We touched down in Wichita on schedule to sunny skies and 60 degrees (much to everyone's delight as no one brought heavy coats! - But fear not, cold weather was even then inching into the state to make us all suffer for two weeks in the tropics.) We met at the luggage carousel to collect our suitcases, all sort of in a daze that we were all back, with all our luggage, and our adventure was already over. We gathered on the curb waiting for our rides still in our shirt sleeves and lightweight clothing. As we slowly drifted apart, going our different ways, we were still all bound, as we will be forever, by the truly wonderful adventure we had just shared. - Chuck, February 2009