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Parque Natural Metropolitano: A Green Sanctuary in the Heart of the City

Between its urban center and interoceanic canal, Panama City has a healthy, sizeable, and unique pocket of tropical dry forest. In fact, it’s the only tropical forest to serve as a public recreational park for a metropolitan area. Panorama de las Américas visits this singular attraction where city tourists can experience a brief, but incredibly intense, encounter with nature.

By: Juan Abelardo Carles
Photos: Carlos Eduardo Gómez Velásquez

 

Autumn in Panama is beautiful! Anyone who heard me say that would surely laugh. Like any country in the world’s tropical zones, there are no marked seasons in Panama. In fact, there are only two seasons, which somewhat blur together in their duration and intensity: the rainy season, from April to December, and the dry season, from January to March. Where then, does this thick crunchy carpet of brown, red, and orange hues that we walk along come from?

“The park protects one of the last examples of the Central American Pacific tropical dry forest in the country. One of the characteristics of this habitat is that many of the trees lose their leaves during the dry season,” explains Dionora Víquez, the park’s general manager, who welcomes us. So, in one way, we aren’t so wrong when we compare the environment to a fall landscape, but that’s where the comparison ends. The heat and humidity quickly remind us that we’re not in a temperate zone.

Rather than noticing similarities, let’s talk about singularities as we walk. Although we can look up and see the fresh green of leaves being regenerated by the trees, the distant sounds of engines and speakers infiltrate the mesh of leaves like ghostly voices. Suddenly, a red devil (urban transportation characteristic of Panama) appears through the thicket, fast and fleeting, like a hallucination.

The Metropolitan Natural Park, which covers slightly over 573 acres, is just twenty minutes north of downtown Panama, in the middle of the blurred border that once demarcated the metropolis of the old Panama Canal Zone. This zone was administered by the United States until the end of the 20th century. Park officials say it is the only tropical forest serving as a recreational public park for a metropolitan area. Little by little, the colorful natural area is being encroached upon by avenues, housing developments, and shopping malls, but it is fairly successful in resisting the pressure to develop; this is thanks in part to its creators, including Jorge Illueca, former president of the country who died in 2012, who gave the park strong legal protection.

The legal status is just one detail that highlights how important the preservation of this space is to both Panamanians and visitors to the capital. In addition to its administrative offices, the park has multi-purpose rooms for conventions, parties, and workshops. Of course, the key to organizing activities in this type of environment is incorporating nature. The park offers several unique trails that cater to the needs of a variety of levels of hikers.

The newest trail, named after Dorothy Williams, was designed for people with special needs. It’s shorter than the other park trails, and it has signs written in Braille and sensory aids like carved wooden bird beaks, so that the blind can identify birds according to the type of food they eat. Isabella, a tour group member, closes her eyes and passes her hand over a carved toucan beak, while the others discuss which trail to take. In the background, the singing of what appears to be an army of choroteca birds (Turdus grayi) accompanies us. These birds, with their dirty brown plumage, are known for their simple, monotone singing almost all year long. But at the end of the dry season, when they enter their mating season, each bird appears to be possessed by the spirit of a lyrical song, developing the strength and coloratura of an opera diva.

We decide to take the Caobos Trail, one of the six trails in the park, named in honor of the majestic, tropical Swietenia macrophylla tree, which can be seen along the trail. As a result of the desirability of its fine wood, this tree has disappeared in most parts of the country. It’s quite easy to see some of the 227 species of birds reported in the park along this trail. Each circuit varies in difficulty and time, but they all have their charms. We begin our ascent on a gravel road that leads us into the rainforest.

Our minds can’t assimilate everything we encounter in such a mystical place until we arrive at a small clearing where the sun illuminates what appears to be the entrance of the forest. Two tall trees stand parallel to each other on each side of the path. They appear as guardians protecting the forest and we are unsure if we should ask for permission to continue. A light breeze, so slight and yet ever so welcome during the dry season, answers our doubts, whispering for us to continue.

At the highest point of the trail we stop to look at the center of Panama City. The proximity of the city to such a wild natural forest has always been one of the Metropolitan Natural Park’s greatest attractions. We spill out on to the El Roble Trail that borders one of the two nurseries in the park’s borders. The park has many outbuildings from the time when it was used as a military training area during the U.S. administration of the Panama Canal; “El Castillo,” where the first jet engines for fighter aircraft were supposedly tested, is one of these buildings. The patronage of the park can restore and re-use existing installations to generate revenue, but it cannot build new structures.

On the El Roble Trail, named for its gigantic oak tree, we notice a sloth taking a nap on a tree branch, like much of the wildlife does during midday hours in the tropics. Those who want to observe animals in the park should go at sunrise or sunset. The Trail of the Momótides, which is short and flat, is especially good for wildlife sighting. Along the trail it’s possible to observe beautiful examples of the momot, a bird common to the dry forest, which is every bit as colorful as the resplendent quetzal seen in the western part of the country.

The previous paths are relatively easy, but there are other, steeper ones, which can be attractive to the avid hiker. The La Cienaguita Trail, for example, was the first one established in the park in 1987. From the park’s administrative offices we take the Caobos Trail to the security post close to El Castillo. We then climb northeast via a medium-grade incline that leads us to the Cerro Gordo lookout. We continue in silence, listening to the furtive noises of the animals living in the undergrowth, hidden and attentive to the intruders who interrupt their narcosis of sun, humidity, and sap.

At the Cerro Gordo lookout you can see part of Panama City, as well as some of the oldest U.S. army installations in the country. In the middle of this indomitable, powerful greenery, the distant spires of Panamanian skyscrapers appear fragile and brittle. We ask ourselves how long those tall, proud buildings will last once humans no longer care for them. How will they withstand the asphyxiating embrace of roots, the thrust of branches, and the covering of creeping vines?

The interesting thing is that now, instead of threatening the nearby city, the Metropolitan Natural Park is protecting it. Scientific studies by the University of Panama show that this green lung absorbs almost 30% of the air pollution produced by nearby human activity. During the rainy season, the park also serves as a cushion for the swelling of the Curundú River, which, instead of emptying out towards the urbanized regions of the southeast, fans out among the park’s wooded planes.

Returning to our hike, another of the park’s trails, the Mono Tití Road, converges at the Cerro Gordo lookout. This trail, along with La Cienaguita, constitutes the longest, most intense of the park’s circuits, full of opportunities. The Los Trinos lookout is at the trail’s halfway point. Its natural configuration let’s us see the distinct, occupied “floors” in the dry forest. As its name, “trills,” indicates, it’s one of the best spots in the park for hearing and seeing the great winged population, both native and migratory.

We have just begun our descent along the Mono Tití Road when our guide announces one last park attraction: the research crane. It’s true, in the middle of the forest stands a crane, the type used for raising building materials to the highest floors of a building. No need for panic; no intruding skyscraper has been able to make inroads into this green sanctuary. Instead, the crane serves to protect the park by allowing scientific researchers, mainly from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), to monitor the forest’s tree dwelling inhabitants.

So our exploration of the intricacies of the Metropolitan Natural Park comes to an end; we are full of happiness, but also soaked in sweat. Returning to civilization from other natural parks in the country or other places in the world would require an airplane, canoe, or ATV with hours of drudgery on muddy roads; here all we have to do is get into our car and drive ten minutes.

For those who dream of being in the middle of the most isolated jungle, but run terrified at the sight of the first frog that sticks to their leg; for those who imagine hiking the steepest trails, but who can’t take sleeping in a hammock stretched between two trees, I suppose this is the perfect experience; highly recommended for both lovers of nature and laymen.

For additional information on rates, schedules, and recommendations for Panama’s Metropolitan Natural Park, please visit the website www.parquemetropolitano.org