6th Jun 2012 - 18th Jun 2012
Panama and spider monkeys
Our first view of Panama was from the taxi window as we cruised towards Panama City and what struck me the most, as a horizon filled with skyscrapers loomed ever closer with a pastille pink and orange sunset painting the sky behind it, was how modern it is.
The area of Panama Viejo is the original Panama city. It dates from the year 1519 and was the first colonial settlement on the western, (Pacific), side of the Isthmus that we now call Central America.
In 1671 the settlement was relocated a few kilometres south west to the area which became known as Casco Viejo after the infamous and extremely successful pirate, Sir Henry Morgan, razed the original town to the ground. Stupidly the Spanish forces left their fortified defences and met Captain Morgan and his merry band of pirates on open ground. He outwitted them completely, flanking them and virtually massacred the Spanish defenders. This was then followed by a bit of general pillaging and marauding and other such high jinks such as saying 'ARRR!' a lot. It is not known whether he had a parrot or an eye patch, but his moustache was an impressive enough deterrent for would be enemies.
In fact up until 1904 Casco Viejo was Panama City. Then came the enormous United States funded project of building the Panama Canal. The influx of workers, migrants and subsequent trade led to a gigantic population boom and thus rapid urban expansion which has created the large international city that it now is.
This historic old town was then an urban slum for decades, but now it is slowly being gentrified to restore it to something resembling it's former splendour. Not all of the buildings had been restored while we were there but for me these faded, neglected old edifices just added to the delectable charm of this wonderful place, that with it's many plazas and churches is full of echoes of it's colonial past under the iron rule of the Spaniards.
This is a wonderful town in the much cooler highlands in the north central province of Chiriqui and is surrounded by verdant hills and mountains that boast spectacular cloud and rain forest and the national parks of Volcan Baru where from the crater one can see both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts on a clear day and La Amistad, which is vast (407,000 hectares) and stretches from here well into south central Costa Rica.
After trekking along some of the local trails in search of the elusive Quetzal, we took a collectivo to a place called Caldera where there are three pools of hot water fed from the nearby Volcan Baru. They are situated next to a boulder strewn river and the water from this river is cold but oddly the sand at the bottom, (at the edges at least), is hot. After a couple of hours of sitting in these supposedly cleansing volcanic waters I dried and started to dress. I pulled on my boxer shorts, sat down on a rock and a female spider monkey came crashing through the trees, swung to the ground and ran across the grass with one arm held aloft as if to say
'Excuse me, I'm over here. Look here I come!'
'Oh my God she's going to attack' I thought!
But before I could react she climbed on to my lap and gave my tummy the warmest hug it has ever had.
After almost an hour of cuddles and pretend grooming by me my new lady friend refused to let go. It was like trying to remove a determined octopus. I prised free the hands but then she grabbed me with her feet so I let go of one hand and grabbed a foot and she gripped me with her prehensile tail by wrapping it around my neck. After a brief and comical struggle she let go and dropped to the grass to grab and eat a grasshopper, but as I bent down to pick up my rain jacket she climbed up my arm, on to my shoulders and wrapped herself around my head.
I've never had a monkey hat and snood before and I quite liked it, but it was, alas, time to leave. Emma was getting jealous of my new girlfriend by now and tried to lift her off but the monkey locked her fingers together under my chin and I had to shout 'Stop Emma, you're pulling my fucking head off!'
Needless to say she eventually got bored and leapt off while holding her own tail, which is quite impressive even for a monkey and tried to disappear with our bottle of mineral water.
I was probably about two years old when I could first open a two litre bottle of water and I definitely couldn't have opened one with my my left foot. In fact I still can't, and lord knows I have tried, (at least twice since this incident). And I'll tell you what, I definitely couldn't do it while holding said bottle with my tail and my other foot.
'I've under estimated this monkey' I thought 'she is clearly much cleverer and more agile than I am'.
To make matters worse it turned out that the monkey could understand more Spanish than me too! (Although in all fairness I can ask for a bottle of water in Swahili and can say 'cheers' in at least ten different languages).
Despite this I had to wonder if this three year old female spider monkey called Cheetah was superior in intelligence to an Englishman with a basic state education such as myself.