Jenss Family Travels: En Route to Paradise
Rainer Jenss and his family are wrapping up the final stops of their around-the-world journey, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.
Most travelers have probably heard the expression, “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” But this doesn’t always resonate with me when I’m in the throes of trying to get our family from one place to the next. It’s usually well after the fact that I realize the proverb’s true wisdom. Not knowing how we’d end up getting to our final destination of the trip – a remote hut on the island of Bastimentos off the coast of Bocas del Toro in Panama – I envisioned a journey that might just be as adventurous as the destination itself, and it was.
When I told a friend, Lynda Gerhardt that we were going to Panama, I was strongly advised to try to visit a wonderful eco-lodge she knew of in the highlands of Chiriqui Province. The owner of the Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa on the Panamanian side of the 407,000-hectare Parque Internacional La Amistad was a good friend of hers and I was guaranteed to have a fantastic experience in what she simply called a ‘magical place.’ (Having arranged our extraordinary visit to the Cheetah Conservation Center in Namibia back in February, Lynda had a pretty good track record with us.) Since we would be down on the Osa Peninsula in southeastern Costa Rica, where the Panamanian border was just a short ferry and taxi ride away, we decided to take the overland route to Bocas del Toro via the Los Quetzales Lodge–it would be a much cheaper and more interesting option than flying.
The wonderful thing about the Osa Peninsula is that it’s a throwback to the way life was in the country before mass tourism infiltrated many of its pristine forests and coastal towns. Similarly, I’ve heard that Panama’s oceans, mountains and jungles are still relatively undiscovered and less frequented by the eco-tourists that Costa Rica now attracts in droves. As we would learn, this makes for a much more bona fide natural experience, just the way we wanted it.
After the border crossing in Paso Canoas, we got a taxi driver to take us all the way up into the mountains to the end of the road where the lodge is located. Upon arrival, we met Carlos Alfaro, who had secured us one of his premiere cabins tucked deep inside the forest. Although it had no electricity, it did have a spacious bedroom that comfortably slept all four of us, plus hot-water bathrooms, and a fireplace for the chilly evenings with plenty of kerosene lanterns and flashlights. It also had a fully equipped kitchen, which we used to prepare breakfasts with the organic food and fruit they had stocked up for us. They even went so far as to cater freshly-prepared dinners that arrived each night after the sun set.
The biggest draw here, however, are the birds. Thanks to some strategically positioned feeders on the large canopy-level terraces, we were entertained for hours by the constant parade of hummingbirds buzzing around the cabin. It’s become somewhat of a family joke that I seem to have morphed into “a birder” on this trip. Although I do admit that I really enjoyed looking for different species and keeping a checklist, (an activity that started back in Africa), I’m not exactly ready to invest in my own birding scope just yet. And I certainly wasn’t the only one in the family drawn to the natural splendor of the surroundings. Thanks to some special attention from our personal local guide Jonathan, the boys even got into the act by keeping an alert eye out for the resplendent quetzal for which the lodge was named. He also told us to put sliced bananas out on the deck before dinner to attract some nocturnal wildlife to our cabin. Sure enough, the kids were treated to nightly visits from some resident kinkajous and cacomistles (ringtails), two indigenous mammals found in few other places.
Although Carol more than appreciated the area’s fauna, she was particularly interested in the flora. It turned out that one of Latin America’s finest and most extensive collections of orchids is right on the premises. The Finca Dracula Orchid Sanctuary houses over 2,200 rare and exotic species from all over the world. Admittedly, this was something that excited Carol a whole lot more than me, but I was still pretty blown away by some of the incredibly unique varieties I saw. One of them had a flower that literally looked like a monkey’s face (above) while another (a hybrid they created) resembled Dracula, hence its name.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The Los Quetzales Lodge also had what is possibly the worst road on the planet leading to its cabins. I’m sure there are several places that can make a legitimate claim to this title, but let’s put it this way, it was faster – much faster – to get to and from the lodge on horseback than by 4WD. No complaints from any of us though. It just made whatever transportation we needed more fun.
The transport getting to the last and final stop of our trip would be more challenging, involving a taxi, bus, ferry and dugout canoe (with motor). None of us whined about the four-hour ride through the winding mountain roads in a bus not much bigger than a minivan (with Latin music cranked up to maximum volume) because ultimately this gave us a more intimate way to experience Panama. But when a group of elementary school kids all neatly dressed in their uniforms squeezed their way onto the hot and crowded bus for a ride to their houses several miles up the coast, I realized that when it comes to traveling home, sometimes it is all about the destination.
Photos: Above, of cabin, by Carlos Alfaro; Below, of Monkey Face Orchid, by Rainer Jenss