Text and Photos Javier Pinzón
Metropolitan Natural Park covers 570 of the many hundreds of acres of forest surrounding Panama City. The transition from cement to greenery is drastic: below, the typically chaotic Friday-afternoon traffic; above, at the gazebo and under the shaded canopy, a different chaos, in which towering trees sway in the summer wind, opening their branches in the sun. Thousands of leaves drift downwards, just like in the northern autumn. The relaxing sound of footsteps on fallen leaves reminds us of one of the key stages of the lifecycle in this mystical forest surrounding the city.
Just like the people living in the buildings on the horizon, this greenery must also struggle daily to secure, not its daily bread or ration of gasoline, but instead sustenance that comes from soil and sunlight. These leaves, which remind me of autumn, are the raw material used by trees to shape the forest’s future food sources. With the arrival of the April rains, thousands of species of fungi, bacteria, and small insects –which will become scarce by the end of the winter– slowly break down the mat of leaves to form humus, nutrient-rich black soil.
The tangled web of underground roots works together with the leaves above, sweating in the sunlight and transferring the nutrients now available in the soil to the interior of each tree. The leaves, flowers, and fruits of these trees are full of nutrients and feed countless insects and other herbivores, which will then be eaten by mammals and birds, which are in turn hunted by eagles and snakes, whose remains will eventually return to the beginning of the cycle, to the mat of leaves and nutrients in the living soil that sustains the forest inhabitants.
The park, covering more than 570 acres, is a transition forest, transforming from a tropical rainforest to a dry tropical forest, both increasingly scarce in the region. These trees have adapted to survive receiving more than 20 inches of water during the eight months of the rainy season (April to December), and only 0-3.5 inches of rain in the remaining summer months.
The green giants also use the summer winds to flower and disperse their seeds, colonizing new territories. Smaller plants living in the undergrowth take advantage of this opportunity to grow, but when the tall trees drop their leaves and more light filters to the ground, the struggle for space is not far behind.
At the onset of the rains, flowers become fruit, creating a real feast for bats and agoutis. These animals, quite different from each other, unwittingly play an extremely important role in the life of the forest. After the banquet, thousands of gnawed fruit seeds are scattered and even buried throughout the forest; some will survive, grow, and transform into still more green giants, continuing to provide life and sustenance.
The war for light and the transfer of energy and nutrients is easily observed along any of the five paths in this young secondary forest. The trails are marked and offer interesting facts about the natural history of the forest’s protagonists: 284 plant species and 322 animal species.
The hike from the parking lot to the gazebo along Mono Tití (Squirrel Monkey) Trail takes you into the woods slowly, in the same way the forest took over these once-barren lands. Our first few steps reveal evidence of a military era, with concrete bunkers hidden beneath the green undergrowth. The landscape slowly unfurls, covered in different kinds of grasses, the first plants to colonize the impoverished, treeless soil where the sun is plentiful. As the trail narrows, other more exotic plants take over: heliconias, with their colorful hanging flowers that captivate hummingbirds, and the guarumo trees, with their hand-shaped leaves that attract sloths. Herbs and various shrubs fill out the undergrowth.
After a few more minutes of hiking, the landscape becomes thick with majestic trees, signaling a mature forest. The temperature is cooler because the struggle for light has closed the canopy. The amarillo tree is among the tallest; its winding roots grow up to 100 feet long. The summer winds and drought have caused the trees to shed their leaves so we can see how the branches are arranged to form horizontal levels.
Another majestic giant seen frequently throughout the Park is the cuipo tree, with its long, wide trunk that shoots straight up to the canopy, where finally, it flowers some 140 forty feet above the ground. This eye-catching tree heralds the arrival of summer, as it is one of the first to lose its leaves. Its large orange and red flowers resemble wings carried away on the wind.
A variety of other plants abound along the Sendero de los Caobos (Los Caobos Trail): epiphytes use a unique strategy in their quest for light and nutrients: they grow on other plants. High above, they have no problem finding light, but nutrients and water are more difficult to obtain, which is why they have developed concave leaves with which to accumulate the vital liquid. They also have special strategies for making good use of the water and organic compounds transported by wind and rain. The most famous epiphytes are perhaps orchids, 25% of the known species of which can be found in Panama.
When imagining the forest, there is no end to the creative possibilities, as creepers and vines join the small shrubs, tall trees, and epiphytes.
Vines are climbing plants that seek support on their journey towards the light, connecting the plant life above to that below. The larger the vines, the older the forest. Mono Tití (Squirrel Monkey) Trail has earned its name, as tiny jumping monkeys use vines to swing from tree to tree and climb down and spy on hikers.
Unlike vines, creepers or choking plants like strangler figs grow upside down, from above to below. This phenomenon occurs when monkeys and bats leave seeds high up in a tree, where they germinate, sending roots down in search of nutrients in the soil. Strangler figs grow rapidly and their roots spread out, fusing with and almost completely covering the tree that once served as a host. As the fig grows, it slowly covers the branches and leaves of its host tree, which ends up dying without causing the fig any ill effects.
Metropolitan Natural Park harbors countless stories of wildlife. All the animals and plants that live there are in one way or another interrelated. There is no room for individualism; the daily growth of a forest is team effort.
Because of the park’s location in the city, it serves as a classroom for those interested in learning how life evolves on the other side of the concrete, in the greenery that surrounds Panama City. Fungi, bacteria, plants, insects, reptiles, mammals, and birds all play a part in the forest and interact, seeking the same end: birth, growth, and reproduction. This might also be another way of summing up what goes on in the city down below, in the Friday afternoon traffic.