June 28, 2010
Panama is on the fast train to becoming one of the best new spots for eco-tourism, but you better go fast before it becomes overbuilt, overcrowded and extremely packed with tourists like Costa Rica. It’s already on its way there with major hotels and developers like Trump claiming their spots in downtown Panama City. Downtown in Panama City you already start to get the feeling of being in a major city with lots of noise, grime and infrastructure, but just a 10 minute cab ride from the heart of the city is Ancon Hill. Ancon Hill is known as an island of jungle in the middle of the city because it is literally a 654-foot hill in Panama City that is almost completely undeveloped and feels like being in the middle of the rain forest. The US military had bases on the hill and it was one of the last plots of land given back to Panama, which meant it was never fully developed. There are some homes on the lower part (including one of the president’s vacation homes) but for the most part it is jungle. There is one hotel nestled into the hill, a small B&B named La Estancia. The hotel is nothing fancy, but it is clean and simple and you couldn’t ask for a better location. As some of my readers already know I am deathly afraid of spiders and I was worried a little B&B in the forest could be overrun with them, but I am pleased to report not one spider sighting inside the hotel!
What really makes this area amazing is the abundance of flora and fauna that can be seen just looking outside your window. Every morning tamarin monkeys come to eat bananas left out by the hotel staff so you can watch them eat their breakfast as you eat yours. They are very friendly and even took a banana right from my dads hand! (Remember to be careful though, these are wild animals). It is a short 20 minute hike from the hotel up to the top of the hill and along the way we saw monkeys, toucans, frogs, butterflies, sloths and a ton of creepy crawly insects. Staying on Ancon Hill and getting to see beautiful animals like the Toucan, Poison Dart Frog and Blue Morpho Butterfly that are seriously threatened by human actions was an eye opening experience and marked the start of my series of photographing endangered and threatened species in their natural habitats. It was on this trip that I got the idea to go to the Arctic (and then spent the next 6 months convincing my dad that we should go).
I know some of you might worry about being outside the city center, but I promise it is not far at all. We went into town every night for dinner in taxis the hotel called for us and it would be 10 minutes door to door. Some of those taxi rides are actually my favorite stories from Panama. We had no problem ever getting into the city, but getting back to the hotel was always an adventure. Taxis would agree to take us there without a problem, but something strange happened every time. The first night our taxi stopped for gas at 2 different stations on the way there, a practice we later learned was normal in Panama. The second night our driver got a flat half way up the mountain and of course didn’t have a spare. This was actually kind of scary and the one draw back to staying somewhere a little more remote. We spoke no Spanish and could not communicate with the driver. After a 10 minute wait with no cars passing we were about to give up and trek down the pitch black mountain back to the city another cab came by and picked us up. The third night our cabdriver stopped and picked up a hooker. Yes you read that right…We were sitting in the back and a woman was on the side of the road dressed…well not dressed in much…and she yelled to him, he yelled back and she hopped right in the cab and they started giggling and whispering to each other. Our final cab reeked of gasoline so badly and the windows wouldn’t open I almost passed out by the end of it. As crazy as those stories are everyone who goes to Panama seems to have them and you can tell them proudly with a badge of honor!