Views of Panama

Into the Mountains of Jurutungo

Panama is better known for its beaches and coasts, but the province of Chiriquí has a mountainous region that captivates visitors with its bracing climate and landscapes like that surrounding the Jurutungo community on the border of the La Amistad International Park.

By:  Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

During his more than forty years as a Panamanian folk singer, Osvaldo Ayala has sung some of the most heartfelt classics of Isthmus pindín (native Panamanian rhythms), those songs that turn the country into a mosaic of people dancing cheek to cheek.

One of the songs performed by the “Scorpion of Paritilla” ―alluding to his hometown― is “Beaches, Breezes, and the Sea” (by famed Colombian composer Rafael Campo Miranda), the chorus of which says, roughly: “Beaches, breezes, and the sea are the loveliest things about my country; my tropical country is a very happy place.”

This is certainly true of Panama, which sits in the planet’s tropical zone and can therefore boast sublime beaches, cooling salt breezes, and the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south, but here I have to indulge in a little more flag-waving and say that, despite the words of this catchy tune, Panama is much more than that.

Some 250 miles west of Panama City lies Chiriquí, one of the country’s ten provinces and one of two that share a border with Costa Rica. Travelers must cross more than half of the country to reach Chiriquí. It is an 8-hour bus journey that carries tourists past small towns, meadows, savannahs, mountains, and even a wind farm built alongside the Inter-American Highway. This is the long way, of course, since it takes only forty-five minutes to fly to Chiriquí.

History tells us that the original inhabitants of these lands called the area “Chiriqui” or “Cherique” ―meaning Valley of the Moon― and a large part of this territory was subsequently akin to a “banana republic,” dependent on the United Fruit Company. Like most of the country, Chiriquí has coasts and beaches, but the mountains comprise one of the loveliest parts; their deep green mantle is planted with every imaginable kind of fruit, vegetable, and tuber: oranges, plums, gooseberries, lettuce, beets, carrots, spice bushes, potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries, and more.

This zone includes the Renacimiento District and its district capital, Río Sereno, which is also a border post. Some short forty minutes from the center of town lies the community of Jurutungo, whose odd-sounding name is also a Puerto Rican word meaning “distant.” In fact, the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language lists the Puerto Rican term as meaning “a place that is far away or difficult to reach.” Jurutungo certainly lives up to its name.

Traveling from Panama City to Chiriquí already entails an eight-hour road trip, and continuing on to Jurutungo adds another four hours of winding mountain roads, but the splendid panoramas do much to compensate. As the car rolls to a stop in front of the La Amistad Eco-Lodge, visitors may well consider the Puerto Rican meaning of the name quite appropriate. Dear reader, I must admit that Jurutungo really is the far side of nowhere.

An Introductory Afternoon

The La Amistad Eco-Lodge is a responsible tourism project organized by a group of local residents who are concerned about conservation in the International Friendship Park (PILA), an area spreading over more than 77,000 square miles, and classified as a Bi-national Biosphere Reserve. Shared by Panama and Costa Rica, the park has been named a World Heritage Site.

The lodge stands at the end of a gravel road and is built almost entirely of wood. This last detail is significant, not only because the material gives the place a warm look, but because it is the work of Félix Pittí: bricklayer, carpenter, tourist guide, and farmer. “I do a little of everything. I won’t starve,” he says with a smile.

Pittí is a friendly-faced man who likes jokes, the sounds of the forest, and the meals prepared by his life-long companion. Accustomed to these high-altitude tropics, he is impervious to temperatures of 59 F ―compared to the 88 F I left in Panama City― and the sodden and muddy 90-degree slopes he navigates as easily as if he were strolling along a sidewalk.

Our arrival kicked off a short tour of the surroundings as we followed the road that runs alongside the river. Mexican elms, encino oaks, and mountain cypresses knit their branches into a yellow and brown tangle overhead, and the trunks play host to mosses, lichens, and ferns of all sizes and bizarre shapes.

We spotted a fallen branch covered with a cushion of spongy orange fungi; another branch likewise sports fungi, but pale green and flower-shaped. A few steps further on, a clearing presented us with the spectacular sight of a vortex of butterflies flitting about at different speeds ―some slowly, others frenetically― in an apparently aimless to-and-fro that nonetheless produced a delightfully variegated patchwork.

We warmed up a bit and began the climb to Piedra Bruja, which is merely one rock balanced on another in a dangerously precarious position. Pittí told us that over the years, humans and machines alike have tried to move the rock, but it has not budged so much as an inch. The round trip to Piedra Bruja can be done in no more than an hour and a half, although the walk is a bit steep. Fortunately, the trail is graveled, making the ascent fairly easy.

Back at the lodge, a fiesta for the palate awaited. Three sticks and some small bits of wood sufficed to build a cooking fire, over which pork ribs were roasting. We greeted the evening feeling full and satisfied. The night got even better as the otherworldly gleam of the stars spread across the sky, arching over the glow of human habitation in the distance. Pittí pointed out that the largest pool of light is the Costa Rican city of Coto Brus.

The Road to the Monumento

The day dawned to the cries of howler monkeys. With the air still heavy with mist, the monkeys’ cries reverberated in the green density, while larks and nightingales sang near the lodge.

We hoped to climb Mt. Pando to the Monumento, a border marker that separates Panama and Costa Rica on one side and the provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro on the other.

As often as they can, Chiriquí natives boast that they can lay claim to the country’s tallest “skyscraper,” the sarcasm in the remark underlined by the growing skyline of tall buildings in Panama City. Chiriquí is indeed home to the Barú Volcano (11,401 feet), but the tallest mountains are located in Bocas del Toro.

Mt. Fábrega heads the list at 11,073 feet; Mt. Pando, the site of the Monumento, sits in fifth place, at 8,156 feet.

According to Pittí, the La Amistad Eco-Lodge sits nearly 5,000 feet above sea level, so the ascent to Pando involves climbing more than 3,000 feet in one day. The trek began easily enough, in a pickup truck that takes us to the farm where Pittí grows strawberries, tomatoes, and bell peppers, among other crops. We planned to visit the farm and taste the organically-grown strawberries, but we were also passing time because of the weather: the morning had turned gray and rain from the north, unusual in August, was falling in the mountains.

We got back on track after the showers passed. We parked the vehicle near the edge of PILA and set out on an ochre-colored trail that squished under our feet thanks to the amount of organic matter in the soil; it soon narrowed and grew rocky. As we climbed, it became clear that humans were not the only ones using the trail: the wet ground was marked with hoof prints, and Pittí confirmed that cows graze inside the park. Their presence is not only contrary to the spirit of a protected area, but they damage the ecotourism trails. Our boots sunk into the muck, and the increasing altitude made it even harder to pick up our feet. The cries of someone driving the animals reached our ears, and we had to step off the trail in self-defense.

Cattle are not the only threat here; there is a long tradition of coffee-growing in the Chiriquí highlands, and one of the most sought-after coffees in the world is in fact grown here, but the plantations in the Jurutungo area continue to expand, bringing with them logging and reduced biodiversity.

Nonetheless, the problems facing PILA have not yet robbed it of any of its beauty: lianas drape from the trees, and the panoramas of mosses, lichens, and fungi repeat in an infinite series of harmonious tones. The forest creates fairy-tale plays of light and shadow, and the trunks appear to be engraved with the faces of humans, gnomes, and animals.

Birds of all sizes and colors hop and twitter here and there, although the quetzal chooses to remain out of sight. Everything is beautiful and exciting, but the 7500-foot altitude weighed heavily on your lowland author, whose legs refused to obey and whose head was about to explode. Pittí patiently explained: “I’m not going to lie to you —we still have quite a ways to go. We’re heading up there, where you see that cloud floating by, and the road gets even worse.”

Curiously, this provoked a realization that I absolutely could not make it. I think I only made it back (another hour and a half) with the help of fairies and sprites.


How to Get There

Copa Airlines offers two forty-five minute flights per day to the city of David in Chiriquí, west of Panama City. In Chiriquí you can rent a car or take a bus (Río Sereno route) from the Transport Terminal. You can meet Félix Pittí at the Senafront (Border Control) post in Santa Clara. For further information, call 6518 6118 (Félix Pittí) or 6541 3215 (Cledis Pittí).


Where to Stay

The La Amistad Eco-Lodge rents single- or multi-bed rooms for twelve dollars per person. There is a kitchen and meals can also be ordered.