Less than 20 hours after landing in country, I was already off and running on a new adventure with my friend Jack to learn about more tours to include on his booking site.  We set off across country, headed for the cloud forest in the Parque Nacional La Amistad, near the town of Las Nubes, Chiriqui.  This meant hopping a bus out of Panama City, headed for the country’s second largest city, David, the provincial capital of Chiriqui, 7 hours away.  It is worth pointing out that the drop off between the first largest city (Panama City) and the second largest is pretty significant.  Panama City metro area has a population of 1.2 million people, whereas David has a population of just under 150,000 people. Panama as a country is basically divided into Panama City, and everything else.

Chiriqui, Panama, Parque Amistad

Las Nubes

From David, we caught a little coaster bus and rode for another few hours into the mountains, headed for the town of Cerro Punta (“hill point”).  It is critical that foreigners  pronounce the name of this town carefully, since if you leave out the “n” by accident you are saying a certain rude word for a female dog. These types of pit falls are a common problem when transitioning to a new language, as Peace Corps Volunteers often learn when asking for a peine (comb) to brush their hair and they slip up and ask for a pene (male member) to brush their hair (needless to say host parents are pretty shocked and appalled by the weird grooming habits of Americans).  From Cerro PuNta, we took a taxi up the mountain to the town of Las Nubes (“the clouds”), where we would be spending the night.

 

The taxi ride was pretty amazing in its own right, as it began with just the two of us and the driver in his double cabin truck-taxi, and ended up with about 10 different passengers having cycled through during the course of the 15 minute ride.  This is because it was a collective taxi, which means that the driver will pick up as many passengers as he can fit who are going in the same direction.  This is a pretty foreign concept to North Americans, but it is a way of cutting down on fuel costs and is very common in Central America.  In our case, it led to an awesomely comical series of people getting in, Jack and I mashing ourselves up against the door of the back seat with our bags, relaxing momentarily when someone got out, then squeezing together again, all while our driver whipped it around tight turns up a mountain road at night.  It also explained why the taxi was a pick-up truck, as at one point a woman jumped in with us and her kids all piled in the bed of the truck.

 

Chiriqui, Las Nubes, Parque Nacional Amistad

Me (left) and Jack (right) on the back of a pickup

We got out and paid the driver about $1.50 total (you’ve got to love those collective taxis), and were let into the rooms where we would be spending the night.  The rooms are attached to the offices of the local woman-run cooperative.  The cooperative members rent out the rooms to travelers and run a local restaurant at the entrance to the nearby Parque Nacional La Amistad.  The cooperative, which has been operational for over 20 years, started with a group of women selling meals to hikers out of the guide post at the national park, and through years of hard work, it has flourished.

Breakfast at the lodge outside the Parque Nacional La Amistad Trailhead

It is easy to see why tourists enjoy coming up to La Amistad National Park.  The ride up takes you through terraced farms checkering the slopes of the hills and to the base of the mountains that are enveloped in a cloud forest.  The park itself boasts multiple hiking trails, including one to a great waterfall that you can swim in, as well as a ton of great flora and fauna, including “jaguars” (maybe mountain lions?).  I am admittedly skeptical of claims of big cats living in Central American hills – during my Peace Corps service in Honduras, I visited La Tigra National Park in Honduras, which many people told me was named for the resident orange, striped tigers that live there. Those types of tigers are not found in the Americas and needless to say, were absent from La Tigra Park.

 

We spent a lovely and productive morning chatting with the women who run the  cooperative and getting the details that we needed to set up a booking page for their tourist activities, then went for a brief hike on one of the shorter trails in the park.  It was a pretty amazing day of work, especially when compared to spending eight hours in front of a computer screen formatting word documents (though on reflection, that is probably why they paid me to do that, and I’m doing this for free).

Las Nubes, Chiriqui, Panama

Much better than sitting at a desk

Post Script:

Unfortunately about two weeks after our visit to this lovely community, it was devastated by a sudden flash flood that damaged much of the town and surrounding fields, washed away houses, and took lives. The restaurant that the cooperative had worked so long to establish, where we had met with the members was completely washed away, along with the house of the local Peace Corps volunteer who had helped us out in making our arrangements and had us over for dinner while we were there. She and others had to flee their homes in the storm and take shelter where they could until they could venture out the next day and make the three hour trek down to the next town to seek help. Our hearts and thoughts go out to the kind people of Las Nubes, who shared the beauty of their town with us.