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Trekking Around Panama

I was reminded again, as I sat there being bitten by a large variety of insects, that Panama is legendary for its enormous biodiversity, a sort of crush of species all around you. (Frank Gehry has signed on to create a Museum of Biodiversity on the Causeway in Panama City.) I would see more evidence of this up in Boquete, but even in areas as civilized as the Canal Zone, there were alligators and snakes and parrots and big old turtles. Birders of the world come to Panama, too—carrying water packs, binoculars, walking sticks, and well-worn notebooks, looking like exotic birds themselves, on the alert for never-before-seen species to mark down. Panama is one of the most important avian crossroads of the world: it is to birds what it is to humans, a great and necessary harbor.

We were exhausted when we finally got to Boquete, after the saga of the pothole and all the waiting, the heat, the expense of dollars. But, fortuitously, it's good to be exhausted in Boquete, because Boquete has the Panamonte, one of the oldest hotels in the country and certainly the most charming. It also has one of Panama's most forgiving climates. Boquete was first opened up in the 1840's. The Panamonte, a low-slung complex of ­butterfly-blue buildings set on green, lushly landscaped grounds, was founded by Joseph Wright, a Texan who left Panama City in the late 1800's because it was insalubrious and who ascended to Boquete by boat and oxcart. He hired five or six local girls to help him with the hotel, and his wife cooked. At that time, the Panamonte could count among its many intrepid guests Charles Lindbergh, the North Pole explorer Admiral Byrd, and Teddy Roosevelt, whose administration presided over the American phase of canal construction. The current owner's mother bought the property from Wright, and during her tenure the place was visited by the shah of Iran and Ingrid Bergman—not together.

One morning, early, I decided to hire Chago, a local birding guide, and he and I set out in search of the resplendent quetzal. The quetzal is elusive and magnificent, an iridescent-green cloud-forest dweller, with a long blue-green tail three times the length of its body, a feathery green head, and a bright red breast. I'd seen many pictures of this legendary bird in tourism guidebooks. Once before, on an earlier visit, I had gone out looking for it with a guide, only to be disappointed and handed a supposed quetzal feather in recompense for missing the bird itself. The feather, I was told, had fallen right there on the ground from a quetzal's tail. I remained skeptical and gave the souvenir away to a more committed and more bitterly disappointed birder. For years, I imagined that the resplendent quetzal existed only in myth and in travel agents' sales talk.

As Chago and I drove up into the clouds, I could hear the sound of rushing water all around us. White angels' trumpets and pink impatiens grow wild by the roadside (in the tropics, many annuals are perennials). Here and there, smoke rose up from the cooking fires of native migrant farmworker families. In a few minutes, we were above the clouds, yet still in them. The area of the forest where the theoretical quetzal breeds and lives is on a sprawling coffee finca and is a protected part of the national parks system. Onions are cultivated here, too, as well as potatoes, and there was a sharp, oniony smell in the moist morning air.

"This is not the season for the quetzal, but we shall see," Chago said. I began to feel a sinking sadness. Fallen oranges lay in the gully next to the main road. Chago guided me away from signs of civilization and into the forest through the thick foliage. Clouds moved over and past us, and light rains came and went. The sun barely dappled the underbrush.

"Ah, ah!" Chago said suddenly, listening and looking up. All along he had been making odd chirping noises that I found disturbing coming from a human. (I am not by nature a birder type.) Now something else was calling back. Chago started marching quickly through the brush in some new direction, and I tried to keep up. When I got to him, he turned and wheeled around again, paying me no attention, his eyes upward.

"There," he said, finally, gesturing to a high branch with his binoculars and handing them to me. And there it was, an incredible bird, as mythic in reality as it was in the imagination, although with somewhat shorter tail feathers. My quetzal.

Chago beamed with satisfaction. "He's immature," he said. Why did this not surprise me?

My quetzal sat on the high branch, preening for a minute or so, as if to please me with its presence, and then flew off.

Out of the forest and back in the Canal Zone, Panama's recent history and current development feel raw and immediate. At lunch at the Meliá Panama Canal hotel outside of Colón, I imagine Argentinean general Leopoldo Galtieri or Manuel Noriega getting their lunches in this same dining room, back when it was the mess of the School of the Americas. Both were students here. Today, the hotel's guests fish and kayak in Gatun Lake and visit the Zona Libre, a gigantic free-trade zone, the world's second largest after Hong Kong's. The Zona Libre is basically in Colón but is separated from the city by a high, thick wall and a checkpoint.

"I would not really advise guests to go into Colón," says assistant manager Maritza Lawson, who lives there. "It needs more security. A year ago, it was much worse, but we still need more police." The city is ruled by gangs. It is a beautiful wreck. A mule grazes in Parque Chino, near the bay, watching ships in the harbor waiting to transit the canal. Schoolgirls play ball in their uniforms. In small gardened oases behind high gates and walls with cameras and alarm systems live the people who work and trade in the Free Zone. "The planet is doomed," says K. C. Hardin, the American entrepreneur-slash-surfer, when we first enter this 900-plus-acre zone; it's a container-walled, warehouse-filled, overcrowded, parking-deprived, one-story-high slapdash shopping metropolis. We got out fast.

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