Published: September 19th 2010July 6th 2009
I doubled over, gasping to catch my breath. The humidity of the Panamanian jungle pressed me down, sweat dripping from my face, back and legs. My wife's face contorted with worry as she watched. Barely ten minutes had slipped by since Chavelo Rodriguez, the hotel’s gardener and our hiking guide, said, "This is where the trail really gets steep," and I wasn't sure I could continue. The slippery rock we'd have to climb to continue our ascent of El Cerro la Vieja (the Old Hill) loomed directly above. Then I glanced down at the precipitous trail below me. I wasn't sure I could make it up, but I knew I couldn't go back down.
The pristine rainforest I loved so much had suddenly become an adversary. I pulled a bottle of water from my oversized backpack and chugged, gagging on the warm liquid. We rested for a moment, the wind whistling through the canopy that barely a sliver of sunlight could penetrate.
We had come to central Panamá’s Coclé Province to experience wild nature without giving up the comforts of home. Though my wife is a native Panamanian and we have traveled extensively throughout Panama, we were excited to
visit a true eco-resort for the first time. Cerro la Vieja Eco-Hotel & Spa offers the comforts of a spa in a tranquil mountain setting. But we were enticed by nature-related activities such as guided leisurely hikes in the rainforest, relaxing swims at a majestic waterfall, and the chance to tackle the “Old Hill.”
Even at peak season the prices here are low, but when we visited in the rainy season, the price was a true bargain. And it was the perfect escape because we knew we could expect almost complete solitude at the resort. This has never ceased to amaze me during 15 years of travel to Panamá: the country has emerged as one of the world’s top eco tourist destinations, but nobody seems to know.
Effortlessly, Chavelo catapulted himself on top of the rock, forcing us to trudge ahead. My wife, Liz, struggled to get her footing before his extended arm pulled her gracefully up. Then it was my turn as I found the strength to somehow pull myself up. Chavelo kept telling us it was just a little further, but we knew he was just cajoling us to make it to the top.
of where we were, we pushed some branches aside and emerged through a small opening in the lush foliage, nearly blinded by the brightness of the mid-day sun. We had finally reached the 1,250 foot summit. I imagined it was like poking your head through the open hatch of a submarine after several days under the sea.
The descent was sheer at times, and we had to maneuver down sideways and backwards, reaching for roots, tree trunks, branches, rocks, dirt - anything we could get our hands on to keep from sliding down. Seeing us struggling, Chavelo helped us each in turn, first carting my backpack and camera case down about 100 feet, then returning to help Liz, showing her where to place her feet and which roots were strong enough for support. It took us more than an hour to reach bottom, and I doubt we would have made it back to the resort in one piece without him.
Perched atop a verdant rolling hill surrounded by lush rainforest and a two and a half hour drive from Panamá City, Cerro la Vieja Eco-Hotel & Spa boasts jaw dropping views of nearby mountain peaks, lies in close
proximity to a pristine waterfall, and offers opportunities for guests to learn about and interact with the local community. In 1992 its owner, Don Alfonso Jaén, envisioned an eco-resort that adapted the natural beauty of Cerro la Vieja with environmental conservation efforts and the demand for authentic tourism in areas of great natural attraction and abundant wildlife. The resort is dedicated to reforesting the rainforest through regenerating native plants and vegetation. It also conducts rapprochement activities with local farming communities.
Everything about the Hacienda-style resort exudes a sense of tropical serenity. Neatly kept gardens and beautiful foliage with native plants and blooming flowers greet visitors as they approach the reception nook. Two wooden rocking chairs offer the best views peering down over the gardens with panoramic vistas of nearly perfectly triangular mountain peaks in the distance, one below the other. A cement path meanders down the gently sloping hill toward the cabin-like rooms between the manicured gardens dotted with bright yellow wildflowers. Lush green trees bloom household condiments such as cinnamon, pickles, and black pepper. Numerous types of birds chirped away soothingly, putting on a musical performance for the guests. And the thimble shaped Cerro la Vieja juts up
ominously from behind the spa, enticing guests to try to conquer it.
We rode in an oversize 4x4 Pick-up Truck to the head of the trail leading to the Tavida Fall. Facundo Clua, our gracious host and the hotel’s manager, explained how the snorkel-like apparatus sticking up on the right side of the hood is retrofitted to enable the truck to plow through the river that sometimes swells to flood levels during the rainy season. The engine is housed in an air-tight compartment so the snorkel actually allows it to breathe. That way the truck can submerge under water practically to the hood. For the resort’s employees, 99% percent of whom come from the surrounding communities and many of whom live on the other side of the river, that truck is their only way to work.
The employees of the resort were equally committed to preserving the environment. They separate the garbage by plastics, metal, and organic items. The plastics and metal are taken to be recycled. The organic material is buried at a compost site. Anything that cannot be recycled is burned. The hotel produces 90% of the food it uses - such as all types of
native tropical fruits, tomatoes, oranges, yucca, cheeses, and pixbae, which is a squash from a palm nut - and maintains its own organic farm in the sleepy town of Vaquilla, a 30-minute drive or nearly two-hour hike from the resort.
On the hike to the Távida Fall, we met Eliécer Martínez out in front of his traditional thatched roof home. Shirtless and barefooted, he engaged us in conversation as though we were long time friends, explaining in Spanish about the meaning of the Hieroglyphs in front of us. Laundry was hung on the lines, maybe drying in the humid air, maybe not. Chickens roamed aimlessly while a man yielding a machete hacked away at overgrown patches of grass. The constant clanging of metal on metal pierced the air - electricity was being installed on his property.
Eliécer caught our attention as he humbly recounted how, due to his daughters’ handicap, he must carry her on his shoulders all the way to school, a 40-minute hike to the next town of Chiguirí. Incredulously he has to cross the knee deep river, trek up the steep muddy slope with ankle twisting ruts, and keep from falling. He wasn’t complaining but
was simply making the point that life is not easy for him.
Walking back up the trail toward the waterfall, our guide commented on how “humilde” Eliécer and his family are. Humble is the respectful way to refer to poor people in Panamá.
We decided to spend our last night at the villa, which was the perfect ending to such a memorable trip. The cool rejuvenating water in the pool at the bottom of the Távida Fall was the perfect respite for our aching leg muscles. The “Old Hill” had put a hurting on us earlier in the day so it was nice to finally relax. I tilted my head backwards, attempting to look straight up at the source of the 105 foot cataract freefalling endlessly from a small opening within the dense rainforest high above. But my eyes were shutting automatically to protect themselves from the stinging white spray. Isaías, who lives there with his wife and young daughter attending to the villa and its guests, just stood there shivering. He was our lifeguard, our own personal butler, he did it all.
Enjoying the moment, I reflected on how genuinely humble and kind the locals were.
Chavelo was gracious and didn’t seem to mind having to do three times the work to make the hike easier for us. Facundo was like a long-time friend, always around and seemingly anticipating our every need. In a couple of hours he would pick us up for dinner and chauffeur us back to our villa afterwards. And what more could be said about the humility of Eliécer. He could have easily complained about such a difficult life, but didn’t.
We just made it under the protective thatched roof of the bohío when a storm approached and the skies opened up. There is nothing quite like the tranquility of a rain shower in the middle of the rainforest. The soft pitter patter sound of the raindrops was dwarfed by the roar of the Fall. And the jungle was still, as if frozen in time. I thought, where else in the world could we experience such hospitality while having a villa to ourselves with our own private waterfall? Of course the answer was obvious - only in Panamá.