By Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos Gómez
Sometimes, on my way to bed, I look out the window that overlooks my garden and breathe in the night. My nights smell of mint, incense, and delicious late afternoons. A few years ago I decided I wanted a green courtyard and planted a mango tree, around which I added ginger, spider plants, succulents, Mexican petunias, primroses, hibiscus, and a lemongrass bush for making tea. Ivy climbs one of the walls and myrtle and nightshade grace another.
This is where my soul breathes. I live in a country with just four million people, but half of them reside here in this city. There are skyscrapers and cars everywhere, and the din is even worse during rush hour.
But beautiful pockets of greenery abound in Panama City and, given their proximity to the city center, there’s really no excuse for not “escaping” into them. Each is an oasis in which you can connect with nature and expand your knowledge; as you wander down paths and past flowerbeds you can’t help wanting to know the name of this bush teeming with butterflies, or that flowering tree shining in the sunlight.
Summit is my childhood. A trip there meant driving down a road flanked by giant trees filled with chirping cicadas, taking in the view of ships passing through the Panama Canal, and the sudden appearance of a deer or an agouti.
Summit Municipal Park was created in 1923 as an experimental farm run by the United States Department of Agriculture; among the first trees planted were Haden mangos, milky sap plants —a source of rubber, and abaca, the fiber of which is used in making rope.
Legend has it that from these nurseries came the palm and other trees that still adorn the Panama Canal Administration Building, as well as the water lilies in the reflecting pools along either side of the railroad tracks.
Today, Summit is a botanical garden, a recreational park, and a wildlife reserve for animals injured along the highway and pets abandoned by owners no longer willing or able to care for them. Once recovered, the animals remain in the park, and this zoo area is a real favorite among children, with forty-two species of animals —145 animals in all— including twelve types of deer and four of the six monkey and feline species (jaguar, puma, tiger cat and ocelot) found in Panama.
Another favorite is the playground, always full of happy children enjoying a day outdoors on the swings and seesaws. Summit offers a number of hikes among bamboo trees, bromeliads, and ponds. Many of the trees are hundreds of years old, including the rubber trees (the tallest in the park) and the guachapalís.
The best part of a visit to Summit for “botanical purposes” is the chance to meander peacefully, discovering cycad or “fake” palm trees (survivors of the great cataclysm that killed the dinosaurs), valerian grass, and fée ferns, highly resistant to drought. You can also gaze up at the royal palms and mahogany trees or pause in front of the strange brown fruit that, from a distance, looks like a coconut and is known as the cannonball fruit. Those in the know say its flower has the fragrance of thirty perfumed women, but, when rotten, is like “being next to a corpse.”
Summit is also home to myriad arrowroot plants that carpet the forest floor and countless climbing philodendron. Moss turns fallen trees green, and there are anthurium, spectacular shampoo ginger flowers, and talipot palm trees —a native of Sri Lanka introduced by North Americans, which bloom only after fifty or sixty years and die immediately afterwards.
A Forest in the Middle of the City
Metropolitan Nature Park is an enormous green expanse inside the Panama City limits where you’ll often find people taking their morning exercise in the form of a walk, with traffic roaring in the distance.
Created in 1985, the park covers 573 acres and is one of the last refuges of the nearly extinct dry tropical rainforests of Central America’s Pacific coast. In this type of rainforest, trees lose many of their leaves during the dry season. This morning I choose Sendero El Roble from among the six well-marked trails. As its name suggests, El Roble features several amazing oak trees, but along the path there are also bay cedars, hawthorn cedars, cooperwoods, zingiberales, almond trees, wild cashew, royal palms, and the Panama tree, a national symbol. If you look closely —and a guide’s sharp eyes really help— you may see two and three-toed sloths preening, or sleeping on a bed of branches.
Several of the large trees in the park —some 100 to 130 feet tall— sink powerful prawn-shaped roots into the earth, which are not only marvelous to look at, but also help the tree stand firm. Next to these trees, we seem miniscule, which is exactly why they seem so amazing.
As we near the end of the trail a lookout point offers a view of the oldest part of the city: the Lottery building with the bay in the background, and several of the new skyscrapers along Balboa Avenue. It’s the perfect place for a panoramic photo of a privileged view of the sea from inside the forest!
A Seaside Garden
The transformation of the capital’s sea front esplanade began in 2007, after Balboa Avenue was widened to make way for more vehicles, parks, bridges, pedestrian paths, playgrounds, an amphitheater, a skateboard lane, and a place to taste local Panamanian food (Sabores de El Chorrillo), not to mention the controversial Marine Viaduct.
Today, the Cinta Costera is one of the city’s most popular places for exercising and relaxing with the family. But the gardens that were planted here and continue to grow deserve special mention.
What was once a huge sun-drenched plot has, over the years, developed many charming shady corners and irresistible patches of color.
At Mirador del Pacífico, for example, a gorgeous garden has grown up around the clock, featuring a star attraction —I hope the other plants will forgive me— the ylang-ylang trees. When the ylang-ylangs are in bloom, as they were during my visit, the perfume they release is of an incomparable sweetness. It makes you want to stand forever in the sea breeze, surrounded by the smell of flowers, and await the rain. Near the Mirador tennis courts, black-eyed susans and bougainvillea cling to buildings and offer up their pink and purple flowers, while their vines form a cool, green ceiling.
Which trees grow along the Cinta Coastal? A Panama tree at Plaza Anayansi reaches up some forty feet alongside durantas, dogbane, crêpe ginger, rushfoil, raffia palms, and other flowering trees such as the lignum-vitae and puff-pod.
Further on we come to a small Japanese garden with a Koi fishpond, home to papyri, schefflara, and ixora plants, which butterflies love. The main attraction here is the bonsai.
Near the Paitilla neighborhood stands a row of acacia trees, much appreciated for the shade they provide, the fanciful shapes into which they can be trimmed without damage, and the way their branches, when left to grow, dance in the wind like Medusa’s hair. In this part of the city there are also heliconias, traveler palms, oleanders, orange and pink poincianas, and the sea grapes that abound in inland coastal areas. But the big star here is a young mahogany tree, aware of his kingly status. Nearby stands a barrigon tree and several trumpet bushes covered in yellow flowers; a stand of oak trees surrounds the parking lot.
The viaduct area is the most difficult to maintain, given its exposure to the sun, limited soil, and the salt breeze, and yet you’ll still see ponytail palms, bougainvillea, agave plants, spider ivy, jasmine, hibiscus, bamboo, and spiderworts. The viaduct opens onto El Chorrillo, the Paseo de los Guayacanes, and Palmeral, with many different types of palm trees, such as the traveling palm, the carpentaria, the fan palm, the Chinese palm, the phoenix, and red, green, foxtail, and fishtail palms, among others. Along the final stretch of the Cinta there are bongo trees, barrigons, and Panama trees. They are still young but in a few years they will provide wonderfully shady groves in which to chat and wait for evening to fall.