The World and I: A Tower in the Treetops

The World and I: A Tower in the Treetops

By Nancy Hanna. Published in The World & I, February 1999.

A former U.S. military radar facility in the Panama Canal Zone is transformed into a unique wildlife observatory and lodge with an eye-level view of Panama’s rich wildlife.

Nancy Hanna, a freelance writer with twenty years of experience in Latin America, now resides in Panama. For information about Canopy Tower, visit the Web site or call (507) 264-5720.

Raúl Arias de Para picked me up at 4:45 A.M. at the McDonald’s on Via Espana in his 4-by-4. This is my second trip to Canopy Tower, a world-class wildlife observatory Raúl is inaugurating. Our objective this time is to be there before dawn to experience from the very first moments the procession of events that unfold in a new day in a tropical rain forest. Within minutes, we are cruising along Panama City’s new beltway into areas of what was formerly the U.S. Canal Zone.

Canopy Tower is Raúl’s pet project. A distinguished former Panamanian banker who is now an environmentalist and ecotourism businessman, he was twice imprisoned as a political opponent of the Noriega regime. After a daunting search and cutting through thickets of both American and Panamanian red tape, Raúl managed to find and receive permission to transform a U.S. military radar station into a nature lodge and observatory.

The rain forests of the former Panama Canal Zone where the lodge is located are overwhelmingly rich in biodiversity, but until recently they were off limits because they were part of the U.S. Canal Zone and used for military purposes. Since the signing of the Carter-Torrijos treaties in 1977, giving Panama full control of this territory by the year 2000, there has been a gradual return to Panama of the land in this ten- by forty-mile swath that cuts the country in half at its middle and runs ocean to ocean.

The Canal Zone has been a source of grievance for Panamanians from the beginning. So it is ironic that if it weren’t for the United States placing this territory off limits for the last ninety years, Panama would not now have this enormous treasure–the most accessible rain forest in the world. Most of the rain forest is now a national park, a wise decision on someone’s part, since the dense forest is necessary to maintain the level of rainfall required to operate the canal’s system of locks.

Moonlight observation

In just twenty minutes, we arrive at Soberania National Park and begin winding our way up the access road through a thick forest to Canopy Tower. We arrive in the dark and, binoculars in hand, climb the curving staircase of the world’s most unusual nature observatory tower. A stunning edifice, this bulbous tower, once a military radar station, sits upon one of the highest hills in the park. As I anticipate observing the glories of the creation from a site once used for warfare, the scriptural quote that men shall “beat their swords into plowshares” comes to mind.

Fortunately, it is not pitch dark. The stars are many, and serendipitously, we have chosen the night of a full moon. It looms large and majestic, shedding light over the terrain through scattered clouds. Now on the observation deck on top of the tower, we listen intently to the forest. In the predawn, there is only the chirping of crickets and the hooting of an owl.

Minutes later, dawn is heralded by one of the colorful sunrises typical in the tropics: first in intense colors of magenta, red, and orange, later in the softer hues of the same. The glorious sunrise plays out in the east, as the moon is still in full display in the west. I think to myself that if all I got to see today was this double celestial splendor, it would be enough.

But lo–with the sun’s rising nature begins its morning procession in the rain forest canopy. The canopy is the top of the trees in a forest, and while 50 percent of forest life takes place there, it is normally hard to observe. This former radar tower, however, puts the canopy squarely at eye-level for us. As birds begin to twitter, Raúl aims his mounted telescope, allowing us to view dozens of bird species and animals going about their morning business, unaware of our close observation.

Suddenly blood-curdling sounds pierce the air. It is howler monkeys, which are somehow biologically equipped to throw the most eerie howls about the forest. These chilling, unforgettable cries are bouncing between the surrounding hills. Raúl explains to me that this is how the monkeys, which are in rival troops, stake out their territory for the day.

On my first trip to the tower I observed a bevy of titi monkeys eating breakfast in the canopy and a sloth, dead asleep atop a high tree limb. Today the only mammals in sight are the tropical coati, something like a raccoon, feeding on bananas that Raúl’s staff put out on the ground below for them.

Birdwatcher’s paradise

Before my first trip to Canopy Tower, I confess, I would arrogantly dismiss bird watching as a boring activity. Now I am an enthusiastic convert, ooing and aahing as we spot and identify one fascinating species after another and ogle them with binoculars and telescope.

If birds are a primary indicator of biodiversity, then Panama takes the grand prize. This tiny isthmus has 936 species of birds–more than in the United States and Canada combined. In fact, until 1996 Panama held the Audubon Society’s world record for identifying the most species of birds in a single day–357 species were counted here in one 24-hour period!

The birds that can be observed so clearly from Canopy Tower are not your everyday birds. Exquisite small birds of fluorescent yellow, blue, and red flit about the top of flowering guayacan trees. We spot a pair of handsome toucans, Panama’s national bird, perched proudly together. This toucan is a large bird with an extraordinary mix of seven colors, including a long orange and magenta bill.

With the telescope, we can closely observe all manner of exotic birds at leisure in their natural habitat. We spot a baby Black-breasted Puffbird chirping. Maybe it is calling for its mother. A few minutes later, sure enough, the mother answers its call and is at its side.

One reason Panama is an exciting place for bird watchers is that so many of the migratory birds from the north pass through the narrow isthmus. I greet some familiar bird friends whose relatives I last saw in my backyard in New York. Among the wonders that can be observed here is the Arctic Tern, the marathoner of migratory birds, which travels from the Arctic to Antarctica!

Canopy Tower is one of five ecotourism pilot projects included in a tourism master plan being developed by Hana Ayala, a consultant to the Panamanian government and a former professor at the University of California at Irvine. The idea is to create a synergy between the lucrative tourist industry and developing nations that need to preserve their natural environment but don’t have the funds. Entrepreneurs given permission to develop tourism sites must sign agreements to preserve and enrich the lands they occupy. They are even asked to conduct environmental research on site.

For example, those who stay at Raúl’s lodge will have the opportunity, if they choose, to monitor bird migration in cooperation with researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Facility located here. This they do to keep track of the fate of migratory species.

Before descending the curving staircase, I take a moment to appreciate the unsurpassed 360-degree panoramic view the tower provides. I almost forgot that this is not just a rain forest but the canal zone! There below, a gigantic ship in the Panama Canal makes its way silently through the jungle. I observe trucks and caterpillars that look like so many Tonka trucks, busily widening the treacherous Galliard Cut, the largest and longest cut through a mountain in excavating the canal. In another direction, Panama City’s skyline on Panama Bay looks like the city of Oz.

Treetop quarters

On our way down, Raúl shows me the beautiful lodge bedrooms–each with a huge picture window with a spectacular view–set out in a circular pattern around the tower. While admiring the high teak doors I learn that they are from a teak plantation Raúl owns in western Panama. The dining room has huge windows with the same panoramic 360-degree view as the observatory deck. There is also a library with all the materials one needs to look up information on the surrounding wildlife and vegetation.

Canopy Tower is far more than a business venture for Raúl; it is a project born of his love for nature and of a creative, resourceful personality that found a way to share his love of nature with others. One of Raúl’s key beliefs is that man has an innate need to live in nature. In the last two years, he has spent countless hours alone on top of the tower, thinking and planning how to convert this abandoned radar station into a first-class wildlife observatory. His personal touch is everywhere, from the marble floors in the bathrooms (recycled from his city apartment) to the reading selections in the library.

He explains his personal philosophy of conservation and respect for the environment. In remodeling the radar tower into a lodge, he used many materials recycled from the site itself. The lodge will be run as a model of recycling, reuse, and respect for nature and its resources. For example, he has installed a water recycling system. He hopes that lodge guests will pick up something of that philosophy and its practical application in their stay here.

We climb into the 4-by-4, and I return reluctantly to the hustle and bustle of the modern Panama City metropolis. Yet I feel reborn inside, renewed by the perfect harmony of the world of creation I have just observed. I have had a chance to feel the same sensation I felt the first time I went snorkeling and saw another fascinating, unseen world of colorful creatures in enchanted surroundings.

As we speed along the beltway, I hope that Canopy Tower is the harbinger of the new kind of venture we will see more of in the next millennium. I long for the time when all men can commune with nature as I just have, and war and poverty are a thing of the past. Today a new day dawned for me in a very special way.