Panama Panama City

Soberania National Park: the jungle that powers the Canal

We set out to Soberania National Park, a patch of rain forest that constitutes the foundation of the Panama Canal’s functioning.

Just as I cannot hold it in for another minute, we arrive at the Gamboa docks, in the heart of Soberania National Park. I exit the van and rush to the nearest bush. “Watch out for the snakes!”, I hear Josh shouting. But with my urethral sphincter yielding to the pressure of the upstream reservoir, I can only hope he’s just messing with me.

Relieved and unharmed, I rejoin the group as they engage on the collective insect repellent application that precedes every jungle tour. Besides Zeza and I, our motley bunch consists of two Swiss guys, one of them excessively protective of his heavy backpack, a Polish couple and an Aussie woman, whose swollen pink legs suggest she’s prime mosquito snack.

Josh, our guide, is a British expat in Panama. We await by the van as he speaks to a barefoot man a few meters away. The thick, humid air of the jungle is reluctant to enter my lungs, leaving behind a scent of wet soil, grass and, now, DEET on my nostrils.

Josh calls us to join him. He introduces us to Adrian, “the best boatman/wildlife spotter in Soberania National Park”, according to him. “He can spot a Geoffroy’s tamarin from 80m in the rain, with a patched eye and a topless Sofia Vergara trying to block his view”.

We get into Adrian’s boat, following the Chagres’ waters, as green as its surroundings, fast-flowing into the Canal a couple of hundred meters to our left.

The Monkey and the Eagle

The Canal is way wider than I expected it to be. The margins are stripped down from vegetation, and the water turns to a murky tone from the constant dredging of the riverbed. A cargo ship is sailing by smoothly, while dredgers and tow boats stand by at the maintenance harbour.

Container ship sailing through the Panama Canal on Soberania National Park
Container ship sailing through the Panama Canal

“By resorting to dams and locks to build the Canal”, Josh explained, “engineers made sure that all the water needed to run it is provided by the Chagres, or indirectly, by the rains. During dry periods, the daily vessel flow needs to be reduced to cope with the lowering water levels”. Basically, in Panama, money does fall from the sky.

Moments later, we’re in Gatún Lake. A massive body of water, artificially flooded by the Chagres dams. Here, the jungle is once again allowed to take over, extending its lush green hair strings to the water’s edge and turning the lake’s indented bays and islands into wildlife hot spots. Adrian shuts down the engine, and almost immediately we hear loud barks from above.

“Howler Monkeys”, Josh points up to the canopy of the tallest tree in sight. Agitated shadows move between branches, barking powerfully as a winged figure soars high above the trees. I almost fall overboard in hysteria thinking it’s a Harpy Eagle. But Josh doesn’t let me enjoy my delusion. “Harpies are rarely seen at Soberania National Park”, he says. “And they’re way larger than that Black Hawk-Eagle”.

A beautiful sight, nonetheless. So beautiful that the Swiss guy sees fit to properly register it, pulling out of his heavy backpack a magnificent camera with a forearm-long telescopic lens. Higher definition than real life.

Would the eagle feel ashamed of her crow’s feet if she knew this guy could get them on camera?

Eagle scanning the rain forest canopy for Howler Monkeys at Soberania National Park, Panama
Black Hawk-Eagle soaring above the rain forest canopy

“This Black Hawk-Eagle is unlikely to prey on fully grown Howlers”, Josh continues. “But it can still snatch their young. The barking is the monkeys’ way of urging the troop to hang low”. Outdated it may be, there’s no denying the effectiveness of their anti-aircraft defense.

The dry spell

Pumped by this strong start, we leave the Howlers to deal with their issues. But the stench of DEET emanating from the boat seems to repel more than just the mosquitoes. For two long hours, we pointlessly scan the tree layers and the waters for movement, sighting just a few birds and a couple of Jesus Christ Lizards, who refused to show us their walking on water abilities. Our promise to say 1 Our Father and 3 Hail Mary before bed wasn’t enough to convince them.

Finally, we come across a caiman. Or so I was told, since I could only catch the ripples on the water. Adrian, on the other hand, seems to have gotten a good glimpse of her. “A recent mother who’s nesting nearby”, he says. “Let’s head down to the nest, last week there were a dozen baby caimans there”. But we’re unlucky: no sign of neither the mother nor the babies. Unlike humans, reptile youngsters seem to be leaving their parents’ home earlier these days.

By the way, how does one recognize a specific caiman? Birthmarks? Eye color? I was always curious about how the zoologists on the wildlife documentaries catch a side glance of a leopard’s ass from 200m in the dark and go “Oh look, there’s Suzy! Long time no see”.

The winds are picking up, the clouds hanging low. Any minute now, St. Peter will transfer another divine donation to Panama’s account. And all that capital being deposited might compromise our mission, cutting it short at a point where we can only count a few howlers, an eagle, two lizards and the ripples after a submerging caiman. Josh often borrows the Swiss guy’s telescopic camera to zoom in on the canopy, with little success.

Still, the relative absence of wildlife does not diminish this experience in any way. If anything, it amplifies the remoteness of this eerie scenario, just a couple of hundred meters from the Panama Canal. Our idea of progress is so connected to the subjugation of Nature, that it’s almost impossible to conceive that the greatest feat of engineering of our species can depend on, and exist solely because of, something so primitive as a rain forest.

Motorboat sailing through the Chagres river, between dense rain forest in a cloudy day
Boating through the Soberania National Park

Tamarins and Capuchins

The first few drops of rain begin to fall in Soberania National Park. Although without the added difficulty of a topless Sofia Vergara on his sight, Adrian sort of lives up to his reputation and spots a Geoffroy’s Tamarin on a nearby island. After much effort, we finally find him, whistling at us from a safe distance.

Geoffroy's Tamarin peeking between tree branches at Soberanía National Park, Panama
Geoffroy’s Tamarin peeking between branches

More of a squirrel than a monkey, with a furry white chest and brown striped jacket, an angry gray face and a white mohawk. A pocket size Yeti with a punk-rock attitude. His whistling calls out the rest of his band, the Sex Whistles, to come chill with us.

Another boat arrives at Tamarin island, making it too crowded for the locals, most of which disappear into the vegetation. We too move on, hoping the rain, meager as it is, had brought our wildlife drought to an end. And almost instantly, we spot two White-headed capuchins.

Noisy, restless capuchins, throwing such a fuss I’d almost say they’re trying to get our attention. The other boat quickly catches up, and a middle aged couple at the bow waves something at the monkeys. As soon as they notice the peanuts, they come down like monkeys after peanuts. They chatter and laugh as the delicacies are thrown at them.

White headed Capuchin monkeys

The scene leaves Josh wavering. It’s on the monkeys’ best interest to remain wary of humans. Sadly, not everyone coming here just wants to interact. But even those who do, might happen to feed them unhealthier treats, like sweets or chips. On the other hand, he’s glad that the group is getting to watch a proper close-up of the capuchins after hours of fruitless scanning.

He lets it slide, but Zeza and I end up feeling slightly guilty of passively endorsing less proper behavior towards animals. I’m not glad to say this would not be the last time.

The capuchin episode tops off our wildlife sighting mission. Rain falls heavily now, the drops hitting the Chagres like clinking coins. Zeza and I chat with Josh while the boat makes way back to the Chagres and to a Wounaan Indian village. He’s actually Zimbabwean.

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