I complete a conference call, finish up a couple to-do’s, strap on my Keen sandals and grab my camera. Oscar’s white Suzuki van pulls up in front of our apartment, “Hello Friend!” emblazoned on the side. We greet him, pile in, head north towards the mountains.
The road winds, gains elevation, dogs mosey into the street, kids in school uniforms don’t look both ways before crossing. Ramshackle houses of the poor cluster not so far from large gated houses of the wealthy. We pass the baseball field, the large gymnasium, a couple super mercados, duly noted by S/M on the sign.
Fincas, farms of all sort, dot the hillsides, workers bend to harvest tomatoes, peppers, onions. At the bend, before a bridge, overlooking el rio, stands the abandoned castle the affluent Panamanian built for his amor. It is grey, brooding, haunting if not haunted.
Baja Mono is, if I have this right, a large publicly owned preserve above Boquete, entered through privately owned access points. It is cloud forest, the heavy mist and rain feeding an abundant, verdant flora. The indigenous gatekeeper collects tres Balboas per person, we pass a few houses, then more fields.
This trail is Pipeline, its namesake, carrying water for agriculture, extends into the wild lands ahead. It is covered in moss and perspiration, not out of place in its natural surroundings.
We cross small steel bridges with beams a few inches wide. We duck off the trail to meet massive trees hundreds of years old, vines descending from limbs a hundred feet above us. We pass an aguacate – a towering avocado tree barely recognizable as a distant cousin of the fruit laden Hass trees we left behind in Ojai.
Any tree on the trail may have a wealth of other species living on it. You know how your local garden center carries “air plants” which thrive on nothing more than a courteous spray from a squirt bottle? Those are everywhere in the cloud forest, massive ones adorning thick limbs, small ones tucked into the gentle elbow of an assenting tree.
The Resplendent Quetzal is no ordinary bird. It brings bird-watchers to tears, it culminates a career of bird-watching, there are those who could die happily after seeing its red breast and thick plumage. It’s song is honeyed, harmonic, with high and low frequencies, it echoes through the forest. It is the sound of a concert flautist playing a melody in her shower. We don’t see a Resplendent Quetzal – they nest in the highest of trees, in the center of its leafy growth. We hear them left, then right, then ahead.
The trail narrows, starts to climb, the steep mountains close in around us, still plants and trees cling to all but the sheerest of walls. We rock hop, water flows everywhere.
Pipeline crescendos in a glorious cathedral, the altar’s backdrop a massive waterfall. The water cascading down the walls of the enclosed canyon is blown out, white mist wetting the rocks in a wide arc below. Smaller waterfalls pour down through the forest that surrounds us, feeding the river that we paralleled on the way up.
The clouds roll over us, the mist becomes a light rain as we descend into Boquete.