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“Look — a flying banana!”

My husband had not lost his mind. He was pointing at a toucan, and yes – with its huge bill a flash of yellow-green – it did indeed look like a flying banana.

As you may have guessed, we weren’t home in Toronto. We were in Panama City, capital of the Republic of Panama and a hub for commerce and shipping, located at the entrance of the Panama Canal.

Panama is also a hub for biodiversity, because of its tropical location and its geographic configuration as an isthmus between two seas, the Pacific in the south and the Caribbean in the north. Indeed, the word ‘Panama’ may stem from an indigenous word meaning ‘abundance’  — of trees, fish, butterflies, or potentially all three. One cannot be in Panama without noticing the incredible abundance of life that the country supports, even in the middle of its largest city.

Parque Natural Metropolitano

One incredible place to experience this abundance is Parque Natural Metropolitano. It’s one of the few tropical dry forests remaining on the Pacific coast and is part of a long ribbon of green along the eastern shore of the canal, including Camino de Cruces and Soberania National Parks.

What is incredible about Parque Metropolitano is that it brings the wildness of the tropical forest right into a city of over one million people. It is part of the canal’s watershed and provides the large quantities of water needed for the cities of Panama, Colon and Chorrera, as well as canal operations.

In the same way Panama is a bridge between North and South America, this natural park in the middle of a city is a bridge between the jungle and the urban jungle.

TRAIL MAP PARQUE METROPOLITANO. ALL PHOTOS: DEBBIE BUEHLER

TRAIL MAP PARQUE METROPOLITANO. ALL PHOTOS: DEBBIE BUEHLER

The only way to visit is to bring a picnic and spend the day: the park has several incredible hiking trails. One short trail is even accessible to wheelchairs and strollers!

And you can see the toucans on that one.

ACCESIBLE TRAIL PARQUE METROPOLITANO

ACCESSIBLE TRAIL PARQUE METROPOLITANO

We were thrilled to see wildlife within a few minutes of entering the forest.

BIG, BEAUTIFUL TROPICAL TREE

BIG, BEAUTIFUL TROPICAL TREE

An American Kestrel flew by us at the trailhead and a pair of Yellow-crowned Parrots passed overhead when we were just a few meters into the park. Soon after we found a group of Golden-collared Manakins at their lek in the undergrowth just off the trail.

Then came the monkeys. Yes, monkeys! We’d only been inside the forest for maybe 10 minutes when Ray grabbed my hand.

“There’s something up there,” he exclaimed pointing into the trees.

Indeed, there was a small crash and a squirrel-sized mammal came into view.

“It’s a monkey, Mami!”

In the trees just above us lurked a group of Geoffroy’s Tamarins. I suspect neither of us will forget that moment.

A little further along the trail leaf cutter ants delighted us. These incredible creatures are often seen carrying pieces of leaves several times their size. They do not eat these leaves, rather they take the leaves back to their nest were they use them to grow a fungus that serves as their food. They are the farmers of the ant world! Check it out — the ground is MOVING.

“It feels like we’re in a jungle in the middle of nowhere doesn’t it?” I asked Ray as we walked.

“Yeah, we even saw monkeys!”

“Well, we are in a tropical forest, but we are not in the middle of nowhere – look!”

As we rounded the bend, Panama City’s skyscrapers popped into view.

PANAMA CITY FROM PARQUE METROPOLITANO

Punta Culebra

Another jewel of a wild space in Panama City is the Punta Culebra Nature Center. Punta Culebra is an initiative of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, an open-air museum focusing on marine science education, conservation and interpretation of coastal environments.

MAP OF PUNTA CULEBRA

MAP OF PUNTA CULEBRA

Getting to Punta Culebra is half the fun because you have to drive along the Amador Causeway, three and half kilometres of breathtaking views of the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal.

VIEW FROM THE AMADOR CAUSWAY

AMADOR CAUSWAY

Although only one and a half hectares, Punta Culebra packs a big punch!

We walked a short trail.

DRY-FOREST TRAIL

DRY-FOREST TRAIL

We saw a Two-toed sloth.

CAN YOU SEE THE SLOTH?

SPOT THE SLOTH

We got up close and personal with a Green Iguana.

GREEN IGUANA

We learned about the beautiful marine life on both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts by visiting the gorgeous indoor aquaria.

INDOOR AQUARIA

INDOOR AQUARIA

And we got our hands dirty at numerous hands-on (!!) exhibits. So perfect for kids.

WHEN I SAY HANDS-ON, I MEAN IT

HANDS-ON!

Wild Cities Worldwide

As Bunch readers know, I have an obsession with wild spaces in big cities — so much so, that travelling with me means heading out to the wild spaces before museums or galleries.

I am not alone in my interest of biodiversity in cities. A wonderful source inspiration is the City and Biodiversity Outlook (CBO) project, the world’s first global analysis of how projected patterns of urban land expansion will impact biodiversity and crucial ecosystems.

Why are so many people interested in wild cities?

“In the year 2008 the world crossed a significant threshold, because for the first time more people lived in cities than in rural areas.” That’s Lawrence Leong, of the National Parks Board in Singapore, addressing the audience of World Cities Summit in 2012. We can no longer view cities as threats to biodiversity, he says — cities must be part of the solution.

Yes, the world’s biodiversity is collapsing and cities are part of the problem. But cities are not going away. In 1900 only 10% of the world’s population lived in cities. Today that percentage is over 50% and it is expected to keep rising.

Even more importantly, according to CBO, “more than 60% of the area projected to be urban in 2030 has yet to be built.”

So the challenge of making cities sustainable can no longer be a pet project for inner city cycling advocates, community gardeners, or even professional engineers and ecological restoration advocates. If we are going to survive as a species, the challenge of making cities sustainable has got to be everyone’s challenge.

Deborah M. Buehler is an ecologist, an editor and a writer. Follow her on Twitter and catch up here on Wild City.

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