Canopy Family | UVA Alumni Magazine: The Birdman of Panama


Bob Cullen, Fall 2003

When Raúl Arias de Para (MS Economics ’70) wants to show guests around his place, he puts on a floppy red bush hat that has faded to a soft pink. He cautions them to take a sock filled with powdered sulfur and swat it against their ankles to repel chiggers. He loads them into the back of a Toyota pickup truck with benches bolted to the cargo bed. The truck takes off along a dirt track into the jungle. In a moment, Arias de Para stops and points upward. There, in the branches of an overhanging tree a bird is preening. Its breast is a bright, neon red and its collar is a fluorescent green.

“Slaty-tailed trogon,” Arias de Para whispers. There is delight and a quiet passion in his voice.

Arias de Para is a man of several passions, but the one that consumes him presently is called the Canopy Tower Lodge. It’s a most unusual establishment, one that can be described in several ways. It’s a fifty-foot garbage can, painted aqua, topped by an enormous yellow soccer ball. It’s a great place to spot birds. It’s an experiment in a more gentle and enlightened form of tourism. It’s the fulfillment of a Biblical prophecy.

And it is the realization of the vision that has taken this genial, slender man in the pink bush hat down a long, strange road from Charlottesville to this outpost in Panama’s rain forest.

No place in the world offers the vista that Arias de Para’s lodge affords its guests every day at dawn. The sun comes up over the Pacific because of the way the Isthmus of Panama twists. The first light silhouettes rugged, tree-covered hills. The hollows are shrouded in mists. In the distance, howler monkeys bellow, establishing territory for the day. The first freighters can be seen plying their way through the Panama Canal; it is almost as if they are sailing through the rain forest itself. The Canopy Tower’s guests silently watch all of this from the observation deck, at treetop (or “canopy”) level, sipping coffee. They begin to spot birds.

Neither birds nor prophecies were on Arias’s mind when he left his native Panama for his higher education. He did his undergraduate work at St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia and got his master’s in economics at Virginia. (“It was the best graduate school I applied to,” he says.) Arias concentrated on international finance and wrote his thesis on Panama’s balance of payments.

When he returned from Charlottesville to Panama, Arias went into banking. But politics and activism were part of Arias’s heritage. His grandfather, Tomas Arias, was one of seven revolutionary leaders of 1903 who formed the country’s first ruling council when Panama (with the help of a U.S. Navy gunship) established its independence from Colombia. Arias went into politics, getting elected to Panama’s unicameral legislature in 1984 as a Christian Democrat, fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

Those were difficult years for Panama. The 1979 Carter-Torrijos treaties had begun a 20-year process of transferring the Panama Canal and the Canal Zone to Panamanian sovereignty. This was something Panamanians had long sought, and its achievement was supposed to usher in an era of prosperity.

But by the mid-1980s, the country was in the grip of a corrupt officer, Manuel Noriega. Arias de Para was part of the opposition to the Noriega regime. He wrote a book called Anatomy of a Fraud, exposing the corruption of Panama’s 1984 election. He gave interviews about Noriega’s crimes to journalists from other Latin American countries. He did this at some risk to himself. A few times he was detained by Noriega’s police, but he was never jailed. Noriega found it useful to maintain a democratic facade and part of that was honoring the principle of legislative immunity.

Arias quietly supported the American military intervention that ended Noriega’s rule in 1989 because he realized that the only way Noriega could be deposed was by a stronger force than his own. Then Arias helped de-militarize his country. The constitution was amended to abolish the army. Arias was an administrator in the effort to distribute the army’s assets to schools, orphanages and housing projects. He helped organize the new national police force.

His career in politics hit a roadblock in 1992, when a new Panamanian government split with the Christian Democrats. By that time, Arias had discovered a new passion “birding”. His wife, Denise, had persuaded him to take a novice’s course at the local Audubon Society. He was hooked, hooked by the beauty of the birds and the proximity to the natural world he felt when looking for them.

He was in a particularly favorable place for that to happen. Panama is, by virtue of its geography, a sort of bottleneck on the migration route of hundreds of avian species. Migrating birds travel over land. They ride updrafts of warm air, and they need places to roost at night and in rainy weather. When birds migrate from North America to South America or vice versa, they must crowd into sky over the narrow Isthmus of Panama and find food and shelter in its rain forests.

The extensive, unspoiled rain forests in Panama are in part an accidental American legacy. The Americans had control of a big swath of the country and they permitted little or no development in it. That was because the canal’s lock system uses enormous quantities of fresh water each time a ship passes through. An undeveloped rain forest soaks up precipitation during the Panamanian wet season and releases it gradually during the dry season. So conservation of the rain forest was helpful to canal operations.

Arias found that he could spot hundreds of different birds, many rare and colorful, in the forests within half an hour’s drive of Panama City. He began to sense that this sort of activity could make a critical difference in Panama’s future. With the Americans gone, Panama needed to diversify its economy. Its beaches, forests and tropical climate gave it great potential for tourism. Arias and other environmentalists wanted to develop this potential with small lodges catering to tourists who appreciated the country’s ecology, as opposed to big, mass-market hotels that trampled on the environment in the style of Mexico’s Cancun.

In 1996, Arias first saw what became the Canopy Tower Lodge. It was an American radar station, built in 1965 on a site called Semaphore Hill, a few miles from the canal. The Air Force stripped it hollow and abandoned it in 1996 as the American military got ready to leave Panama. When Arias first came upon it, the structure was a gray cylinder of corrugated metal, topped by an empty fiberglass sphere. The rain forest was rapidly encroaching.

He immediately saw the potential. Birders normally spend their time with necks craned, trying to spot birds treetops forty or fifty feet above them. From the upper reaches of the tower, they could observe birds close up and face to face.

Arias set about acquiring the rights to rebuild the radar tower as a lodge. It was not easy. The tower is in a national park called Soberanía (“Sovereignty”). He needed two years to persuade the government that he could build and run a lodge that would not damage the rain forest.

Permission in hand, Arias de Para spent about $350,000 remodeling. He built a dozen wedge-shaped guest rooms inside the corrugated metal cylinder. (The lodge sleeps a maximum of 19 people). At the top of the cylinder, he built a single, round room that serves as a sitting room and dining area. He cut windows all around to give the room a panoramic view of the rain forest. Then he painted everything in aqua, carmine red, and yellow, the colors of the keel-billed toucan, one of the more showy birds in the rain forest.

The result is a curious amalgam. The Canopy Tower reflects its Spartan, military origins in such elements as the metal staircases and the hatch that leads to the rooftop observation deck. But it’s also comfortable, verging on elegant. The food, served from a simple buffet and emphasizing Panamanian dishes, is delicious.

The guests, who are almost all birders, have two options for viewing wildlife. They can spend a quiet day on the observation deck. Arias de Para and his guests have recorded sightings of about 300 different species from the observation deck and the service road that connects the lodge to the trans-isthmian highway.

Alternatively, they can descend the interior steel staircase, get in the pickup truck, (dubbed, inevitably, the “birdmobile”) and travel the dirt roads built by the American military in the rain forest to service things like an oil pipeline that runs parallel to the canal. Sometimes, Arias or a guide will spot birds from the truck. More often, the guests get out of the truck and hike, with the guide spotting different species and helping the guests get a look through binoculars or a telescope.

In the evening, Arias often dines with his guests and he is happy to discuss the philosophy behind his lodge. “Eco-tourism for me is an instrument of conservation. It is not an end unto itself, but a means to reach an end, which is the conservation of forests,” he says.

“We opened in 1999. Initially, occupancy was low. In 2001, we were set for a good year, but we had a lot of cancellations after September 11. But the word was spreading. 2002 was a very good year. We had close to 100 percent occupancy in the peak season, from December through April,” he continues. Among the guests who have signed in are former President Jimmy Carter, Prince Hitachi of Japan, and Prince Albert of Monaco.

Arias hopes that the lodge’s success will demonstrate to Panamanian tourism officials the viability of the eco-tourism concept, demonstrating that the country can have both economic development and conservation.

If he is asked, Raúl will say that yes, he is aware that his lodge is a symbol of something larger. He knows, of course, the Biblical prophecy about the ultimate destiny of swords. He didn’t intend to help to fulfill it when he went out looking for a place for a lodge. But he is aware that his hotel can be seen as an enormous plowshare in the middle of the rain forest.

also by Bob Cullen:

Iraq and the Keel-Billed Toucan


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