By Raúl Arias de Para

“I’d say that the history of Canopy Camp, Panama begins many years ago when I was in primary school in Panama City and I heard the name Darién for the first time. Darién, the biggest of Panama’s 9 provinces, the one with the largest tracts of primary forests, the longest and widest rivers, the tallest trees; Darien, where the Spanish founded in 1510 the first settlement in the mainland of the New World and where Balboa discovered, 3 years later, el Mar del Sur (the Southern Sea), later called the Pacific Ocean.

It is in Darién where the great Pan-American Highway (also called Inter-American Highway) ends, unceremoniously, in the town of Yaviza, thereby interrupting the dream of uniting the Western Hemisphere from Alaska to Tierra de Fuego.  It is the least inhabited province of Panama, the least accessible, and the least known.  It is truly a land of extremes with a rich history and a still richer biodiversity.

In my childhood days, Darién was for me just a collection of interesting and fascinating facts, but facts nonetheless.  Then, probably in my teens, I learned that my paternal grandfather, Don Tomas Arias, had owned the fabled gold mines of Cana having purchased all stock of the bankrupt Darien Gold Mining Company in 1911.  Gold was first discovered in Darién in the 16th century by the Spanish.  The mine, known as “La Mina de Espíritu Santo” or “Holy Spirit Mine”, was located near the town of Santa Cruz de Cana, which now lies under the dense tangle of jungle vines and vegetation.  The Spaniards mined the area heavily, establishing the town and at one time filled the valley with 20,000 people, before abandoning the mine in 1728.  It lay untouched for over a century, until the Darien Gold Mining Co., Ltd. was established by the British and reopened the mine at Cana from the 1890s through 1907, and produced 4 tons of gold.  The British built a railway from the mine to Boca de Cupe, 20 kilometers away, to transport gold, supplies and men.  Today in the area of Cana, you can still find old mining shafts, locomotives and remnants of the intensive gold mining history, now claimed by the dense rainforest.  After a last attempt to exploit this area in the 1980s, Cana now lies buried in the heart of Darién.  Only an airstrip, ranger station and border control station are present today.”

Old machinery at the Cana Mine, Canopy Camp
Old machinery at the Cana Mine, photo by Diana Bradshaw
Old locomotive and machinery at the Cana Mine, Canopy Camp
Old locomotive and machinery at the Cana Mine, photo by Diana Bradshaw

“My grandfather operated the mine for about 15 years up until it was no longer profitable.  At this point, Darién acquired a personal meaning; it was now part of my family’s history.  In fact, my father had in his studio two wall clocks belonging to one of the steamships used by the Darien Gold Mining Company to ship the gold to Panama City and to bring supplies to the mine.  The steamship was called, appropriately enough, “Cana”.  I now have these clocks; one is in my house in El Valle and the other has returned to Darién and is in the library of the Canopy Camp, Panama.  In a way, this clock has returned home.

Sometimes when I am in the nature lodge at Canopy Camp, Panama, particularly at dawn or at dusk, the silence and solitude of the place makes me wonder and I think of my grandfather and father when they traveled to Darién in the early part of the last century. It must have been a great adventure to sail in a small steamship from Panama City, navigate to the Gulf of San Miguel, up the tidal straits of the Tuira and the Chucunaque rivers, the biggest rivers in Panama, to reach Boca de Cupe and then take the railroad to Cana.  The wildlife at the time must have been abundant: jaguars, harpies, tapirs, macaws—creatures that are now difficult to see must have been common then.”

Canopy Camp, Teak Plantation in 1990
Teak Plantation in 1990
Canopy Camp - Teak Plantation in 1995
Teak Plantation in 1995

In 1990, Raúl started a teak plantation in the province of Chiriqui, in western Panama.  Teak, a fast-growing & desirable wood for boat building, furniture, carving and floorings, is grown extensively in the Darién province and other areas of Latin America for exportation and economic growth.  The lumber is durable and has good water resistance.  Over the years, the 1-hectare teak plantation grew strong and in 2012, hosted many shade plants under its tall canopy. The teak was harvested in 2012, to be used in much of the construction of the nature lodge at Canopy Camp, Panama.  Each tent in our nature lodge has a beautiful teak floor, sourced from the local plantation.

After months of searching for the perfect piece of land in Darién, the Canopy Camp property was found. After the land purchase on September 22, 2011, construction of our nature lodge began in early 2012. Dozens of men and women worked day after day for almost 2 years to create the unique, comfortable tented nature lodge at Canopy Camp, Panama, located in the heart of one of the most remote areas of Central America.

Canopy Camp - After the land purchase on September 22, 2011
September 22, 2011, the day we bought the land. From Left to Right, Carlos Bethancourt, Senior Guide of the Canopy Family, Chilo Saez, seller, Beny Wilson, friend and well-known free lance birding guide, Chano Marin, seller, Daniel Arias Barakat (Raul's son), Raul, Nando Quiroz, Jerry and Linda Harrison, consultants of the Canopy Family.

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