Volcán Barú, Banana Farms, and Manatees

Posted: April 9, 2014

We only have about one month of the program left. As I reflect on the semester so far I think about the things that have made it so amazing. I think of the community we have formed here; one that is filled with laughter even when we are in our worst moods, friendships in spite of our differences, and enthusiasm despite our exhausting schedule. I think of the boat rides we take to get from place to place and how the cool ocean breeze never fails to rejuvenate me. I think of the Bocas del Toro community members who have shared their time and knowledge with us. And I think of our ever changing schedule, which brings a sense of excitement and unpredictability to our daily routine. One thing I enjoy most is the variety of activities we have had the chance to experience. These past two weeks are a prime example.

The last week of March was our mid-semester break. Most of us headed up to Boquete, a town in the mountains of mainland Panama. While we did not stay in one big group, most of us did similar things and spent our time hiking to waterfalls, visiting natural hot springs, touring coffee plantations, riding bicycles, and all-in-all enjoying the change in scenery and the cooler weather. It was beautiful there and we all appreciated the much needed break.

For me, a highlight of the trip was climbing to the summit of Volcán Barú, the highest point in Panama. We started late at night, with the goal of reaching the top by sunrise. The view from the peak was definitely worth the 13.5km trek up and 1800m elevation gain. From the top we could see across the entire country, from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. We reached the summit just in time to sit and relax as we watched the sun slowly inch up out of the horizon. It was spectacular to see the world slowly light up around the summit, especially with the satisfaction of knowing that I had just climbed to the highest point in the country.

Upon our return from break, we began the much anticipated directed research projects which we will be working on for the rest of the semester. We were separated into three groups each with a unique research topic: Sea Anemones and Habitat Use by Symbionts in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, The Effect of Matrix Quality and Insecurity on Butterfly Diversity in a Human-altered Tropical Landscape, and The Role of Community-Based Ecotourism in Promoting Socio-ecological Resilience in Bocas del Toro.

Amidst the start of DR, we continued having classes and this past weekend we had a field trip to Changuinola. It was a jam-packed, exciting weekend. As part of our Resource Management course, we visited two farms and it was interesting to see the differences in how they were run. The first we visited was Chiquita Banana Company, an industrialized farm that has massive fields planted exclusively with banana trees. Then we visited Finca Lozada, a family-run farm that utilizes agro-forestry techniques to produce mainly cacao and bananas. There, the land is managed to maintain some old growth forests and protect the environment while still using most of the land for agriculture.  Learning about how they run the farm was quite fascinating, but I think that most of us would admit that one of the best parts of the visit was sampling the chocolate that they produce.

Our final destination of the weekend was San San Pond Sak, a designated site on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance. This area is managed by AAMVECONA, an organization that works to protect and monitor the manatee and sea turtle populations. The organization has a manatee viewing platform and to our excitement a few manatees came while we were there to enjoy the leaves and plantains that were placed nearby for them to munch on. It was captivating to watch these huge creatures strain out of the water to feed. In the evening, between 7:30 pm and 2:30am, we went in groups to patrol the beach for nesting sea turtles. Unfortunately we did not see any, but it was still a great experience and we got a sense of the nightly routine of researchers there.