This brief post addresses an interesting sighting in Panama but does not contain a bird list. One of the minor nuisances for foreigners living in Costa Rica is the need to leave the country every 90 days in order to get a visa renewal. We try to transform the nuisance into an enjoyable experience and have had some success. This week’s trip to Panama was a real delight and, although I was able to do very little birding, it did bring a memorable birding moment.
We decided to go to Panama this time, instead of Nicaragua, and we opted at the same time to drive in the car as far as Sixaola, instead of taking the bus. The advantage of the car is that it cuts very considerably the time needed to reach the Panamanian border. The disadvantages are the high cost of petrol and the need to leave the car and pay for parking for three days or more. Costa Rican laws make it very difficult just to nip over the border in your car and then nip back again. I understand that the Panamanians suffer the same inconvenience if they wish to drive into Costa Rica. This cuts down the traffic in private vehicles across the frontier and is perhaps an aid to reducing the trafficking in illegal drugs, but it seems a major barrier to free communication between the two countries. It must surely hinder the economic development of the border regions, since hardly anyone will want to drive to Limón or San José to pick up the necessary permiso.
At all events, our trip to Panama was a marvelous experience despite the hassles of the border crossing. I have described the trip to the border at Sixaola in a previous post.
We left the car with a family in Sixaola. Their house is on stilts, like many of the houses on both sides of the border here, because the rains bring heavy flooding quite regularly. The bridge at Sixaola is a rickety-looking affair that takes heavy trucks and foot passengers at the same time. If you were sick of the tropical heat, you could quite easily jump off the bridge into the Sixaola river, since there are no barriers on the sides. On a previous trip, I was able to spot a Greater yellowlegs and (perhaps) a Pectoral sandpiper on a sandbar in the river. No such luck this time.
We now had the freedom to decide what to see in Panama this time, and, although we were on the Caribbean side, we chose to take the bus down to David on the Pacific side and from there up to the famous mountain town of Boquete, near the Barú volcano. This is a great birding destination, but I was unable to take advantage this time.
The bus trip takes you along the Caribbean coast to Almirante and Chiriquí Grande through a lot of prime birding habitat. The population is primarily Ngöbe-Buclé, (see my previous post on Changuinola) with an added black population on the coast, and we were to find that the same indigenous group forms the basis of the population in Chiriquí (on the Pacific side) also. One striking difference is that the Ngöbe women tend to wear traditional dress in the David-Boquete area, while this was barely in evidence in the Caribbean area.
Unfortunately, it was already dark in David when we arrived, and so we had enjoyed a wonderful trip through the magnificent scenery of the mountains but could see nothing of the drive up to Boquete.
Despite all the tourist hype, I find it hard to recommend staying in the town of Boquete itself. It enjoys a picturesque location and an admirably cool climate (1100m altitude) at the foot of the mountains, but it has little in the way of Panamanian characteristics. It has many of the ‘chic’ restaurants and cutesy antique shops that can be found in any tourist town in the world, and it’s noisy, even at night.
We stayed in the inexpensive Hostal Mercedes and were happy with the basic accomodations, which included use of a kitchen. The owner, Ruben, is a native of Boquete. He is proud of the town and knowledgeable about his region and his country. Our stay was limited to one day spent walking up in the hills on the paved road. The further away from the town, the prettier it gets, and I finally managed to spot a couple of Silver-throated tanagers. Upscale property developments alternate with barracks-type accomodations for indigenous workers. On the downhill slope back to the town is where the Tropical mockingbird appeared, in the garden of one of the very nice houses that line the road. Ridgely & Gwynne‘s Birds of Panama suggests that this may be an escape. I don’t know. I do know that this species is now appearing regularly in Costa Rica, at least as far as the Central Valley. A chance meeting with Liz Jones, owner of the Bosque del Río Tigre Lodge, located in the Osa Peninsula, brought a pleasant conversation and some detailed recommendations for birding spots in Boquete. I will follow up on these at some future date.
Our second, and final night in Boquete was marred by ridiculously loud music played until 4.oo am with full authorization from the mayor. An uneventful return to Turrialba completed our trip, and the border authorities did not seem to mind that we had been absent from Costa Rica for only two days, instead of the required three.