I think that many enthusiasts might be put off by the thought of a foreign land that may be rife with dengue fever, malaria and a host of other tropical horrors, and consequently wouldn't go. I can only say that if somewhere in the vast universe, a list of potential health cowards exists, trust me, my name appears at the very top. After agreeing to go with Wally and Chester I soon realized that I was about to take an enormous health risk for the sake of a few dog-eared plants that have probably been in cultivation for decades. With no concern for the long distance charges, I called the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and asked them what I might do to protect myself. They replied by sending me nine pages of material (Document #220160) that in summary recommended that travelers should take appropriate malaria prevention measures, take steps to prevent insect bites, and should be aware of the fact that transmission of typhoid fever, cholera, hepatitis, and the ever-popular traveler's diarrhea, are all the result of eating or drinking contaminated food or water. My fears transcended mild concern.
For the next several weeks I prepared for every contingency. Armed with the material from the CDC, I had my doctor start me on Chloroquine, a malaria preventative. I bought long-sleeved shirts and tropical-weight extra long pants as well as waterproof socks and boots. I treated all of my purchases with Permithrin, a long-lasting insect repellent for use on clothing. Another acquisition was a large hat with pull-down mosquito netting. Additionally, I had a pair of work gloves so that at any given time I could be completely covered and therefore impervious to the attack of flying or crawling predators. I easily supplied the biggest belly laugh when I modeled my gear for Chester and Wally. Let them laugh.. .I was ready!
Having made all necessary preparations, Wally and I left Miami on July 22nd, 1996 and arrived in Panama three hours later in the middle of a torrential rain storm. Chester arrived from Costa Rica the following day. Just four minutes from the very modern airport at Tocumen (twenty miles from Panama City) is the equally modern Hotel Continental where we established our base of operations. The staff for the most part, spoke English. We rented a brand new four wheel drive Mitsubishi that had every bell and whistle; a built in compass, a gyroscope, and an altimeter The back seat had its own air conditioner and map lights. Let the games begin!
Early the next morning (it was still very dark) we headed for Colon, a bustling center of commerce on the Atlantic coast. The road was good and we covered the sixty miles in good time. Near Colon we crossed the canal at Gatun and entered an area that was under the control of the U.S. Army. We traveled miles through virgin forest and saw an abundance of plant life.. .but no bromeliads. Retracing our steps we made our way back to the Pacific coast and to Cerra Azul, a mountain formerly known as Cerra Jefe. Here we saw our first plants; Guzmania sprucei, G. circinnata, G. filiorum, a nice form of Tillandsia anceps, Catopsis micrantha and Racinaea spiculosa.
It had been raining but as soon as we left the mountain, of course, it stopped. By the time we returned to the hotel it was dark. That night at dinner I discovered why Chester never gets Montezuma's Revenge. Whereas I take a daily antibiotic (just in case), Chester travels with small cans of hot Mexican peppers that he eats with most meals. Apparently the peppers fend off all transmittable evils as well as most human beings.
The next morning we drove to Panama City, across the spectacular Bridge of the Americas, and up the Pan American Highway. Our destination was Trinidad de Cerra. I'm sure that you've seen signs regarding railroad crossings and their associated barriers. Well, we didn't see any of these, but we did cross a section of road that went across the middle of an airport runway. Think about the possibilities.
About two hours later we reached the side road leading to our mountain destination. Less than six miles later we discovered why the occasional travelers were either walking or on horseback. Our nicely paved road changed from a solid surface with medium-sized potholes to a less stable surface filled with horrible craters large enough to be named. The road bed now consisted of an orange clay-like substance that had an adhesive quality akin to Elmer's Glue. Scattered throughout the ooze were boulders of varying sizes. Every few hundred yards or so there was evidence of a mud slide that further deteriorated the road. Chester however, proved equal to the challenge and we slowly proceeded, constantly gaining altitude. When we reached the highest point we came to a farm that was situated at the very base of our quest. Chester somehow convinced the farmer not only to allow us access to his property but to guide us to a large rock face that held promise of potential treasures. For the next exhausting hour we struggled up the Panamanian version of an advanced Stairmaster. Just a few minutes later a very difficult climb became an impossible task and reluctantly admitting defeat, we opted to move on to friendlier territory. With his characteristic devil-may-care driving and a somewhat cavalier attitude, Chester got us down the mountain road and back to the main highway.
I don't want to seem to be dwelling on food but the dining room at our hotel offered one-half of a roasted chicken as the house specialty. I imagine that it is the top profit item on the menu. Their chef has devised a way to cut and slice the chicken so that two things occur One, it is done in a manner that defies detection as to exactly what part of the bird you are eating. Secondly, it is cut so cleverly that they manage to obtain four orders from one chicken. At any rate it was tender and tasty and we had a pleasant meal, although I was a trifle unnerved when a bat flew into the dining room and disappeared into a nearby alcove. Needless to say, since our room had no screens, the windows remained shut.
For the next couple of days we headed in the general direction of Panama City making detours to investigate every side road that led in a northerly direction. As stated earlier I had some slight reservations about this trip relating to potential health hazards. Now, a new and infinitely more serious cause for alarm filled me with trepidation. On one particular mountain road while driving downhill we rounded a curve that came dangerously close, in my estimation, to a raging river. Chester and Wally actually debated the pros and cons of attempting to forge the torrent before common sense took hold and it was decided to turn back. Unfortunately the road was too narrow for turning and the necessity of backing up became the next challenge. At this point the road was of that perfect consistency that denied any traction and merely allowed us to sink deeper and deeper into the morass of clay and mud. The tires spun faster and faster as the once pristine mountain air became fouled by the noxious fumes of burnt rubber combined with the palpable smell of fear emanating from your scribe. It was only after many failed attempts and the strategic placement of some fairly large rocks that we were able, inch by inch, to move to a more solid surface.
Then it got worse. The clutch went out. Some might say I panicked. I confess that the thought of being light years distant from Mr. Goodwrench did induce a new high on my personal terror meter. Wally and Chester reacted to this new catastrophe by calmly walking into the forest to seek new treasures while I waited by the car praying for divine intervention. Fifteen or twenty minutes later the two reappeared, Wally proudly clutching a handsome Aechmea dactylina and Chester sporting a "I know something you don't know" smirk. We got into the car and just as suddenly as the clutch went out it came back. I later discovered that the mud, while wet, allowed the fly wheel to spin merrily around without engaging the clutch but as soon as it dried, it operated properly. Do you think that Chester could possibly have known about that?
After investigating the last of the mountain roads and seeing the same plants previously noted, we headed for our base, the Hotel Continental. Our biggest concern now involved returning the vehicle to the rental agency. It was fortuitous that two men with pails and sponges just happened to be in the parking lot and agreed to wash it for $5.00. Even after their efforts it was obvious that the car had indeed been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. The agent, after a casual inspection, said that an additional fee of $50.00 would take care of cleaning the upholstery. Chester, switching between indignation and charm, managed to negotiate a more acceptable fee of $10.00
The next day Wally and I caught an early flight to Miami while Chester returned to Costa Rica. As for my health related preparations, except for a few birds and the bat, nada, nothing, zero, zilch, not a creature was stirring. About my dream, perhaps somewhere down the road I'll have another opportunity. But for now it remains just that, a dream.
This article appeared in BSI Journal Vol.47 #1
also see: Bromeliads in Habitat - Panama and Adventures of a Novice: Part I