Strange Paradise

Panama has pristine jungles, a nascent ecotourism industry—and the dark allure of a Graham Greene novel.
Gavriel Jecan/Corbis
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Video: "Panama's Brooding History"

Bill Donahue narrates a photo tour of Panama's jungles, wildlife, Cold War ruins, and odd national park-cum-penitentiary.

The birds, I learned later, were toucans. But as I made my way through the Panamanian jungle, their dry, echoing call—whoosh, whoosh, whoosh—sounded almost mechanical, which seemed fitting. Before me, on an open plain in the Galeta Island Protected Landscape, was a mesh of 100-foot-high wires used by the United States during the Cold War to monitor Soviet submarines.

“They used to have a phone that connected straight to the White House,” my guide, a Panamanian student, remarked somberly. “And there was an underground tunnel soldiers could use to escape right out into the ocean.”

Of course, neither the tunnel nor the phone ever existed. But they were lovely details, embodying the mystique of Panama today. As the nation vaults toward prosperity, with an 8 percent average annual GDP growth rate, it is still haunted by its past—by the seven-year rule of Manuel Noriega, and by nearly 100 years of American soldiers guarding the canal. Noriega and the GIs left behind mementos that collectively have the dark, exotic ambiance of a Graham Greene novel. They also left behind pristine jungles—the U.S. allowed no logging in the rainforest surrounding the canal, because the trees afforded cover from potential attacks—and a serious ecotourism industry is sprouting up. So I went south for a few days, bringing my flip-flops and snorkeling gear.

Thirty minutes outside Panama City is a former radar tower that the U.S. once used to monitor the canal. Lavishly renovated, the three-story cylinder is now the Canopy Tower hotel, a mecca for serious birders. From the roof, you can see parrots and parakeets swooping through the mist and the trees. Birdwatching’s high Brahmins—Jimmy Carter, Jimmy Buffett, Martha Stewart—have all stayed here.

When I visited, there was a group, eight strong, from a Texas-based tour company. I joined them in the open-air “Rainfomobile” for three hours of hushed observation. For 20 minutes, we stood by a swampy pond, trying to home in on a small fluttering piratic flycatcher in the brambles. “If you look up at that branch there,” the guide whispered, “and follow it to that little knob— ”

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The Canopy Tower hotel, a former U.S. radar installation, is surrounded by virgin rainforest and exotic wildlife.
Photo credits, clockwise from left: David Tipling/Alamy, Kevin Schaffer/Alamy, Paul A. Souders/Corbis

“I got it!” one man cried. “I got some butt!”

I found myself yearning for a grittier encounter with the country’s past, and thought I might find it on Coiba Island, 15 miles off Panama’s Pacific coast. A penitentiary since 1919, Coiba is now the centerpiece of a bounteous national park, Galápagos-like, with more than 20 endemic bird species. It is also still a prison, though with only a handful of inmates.

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Bill Donahue is a writer living in Portland, Oregon.

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