Monday, November 15, 2010


Spanish School has been far harder than I'd imagined. So I was really glad to get away today (Sunday) for a little excursion. Ostensibly, these outings (and there's no shortage of them here in Boquete, a sort of hotspot of hiking, rafting, zip-lining and eco-you-name-it adventure) are integrated into the Spanish program as opportunities to practice the language in settings more relaxed and spontaneous than the classroom. But, with my heavy class schedule—not to mention producing content for two blogs—there just hasn't been any free time.

So, along with fellow students, Deborah and Glenda, our Habla Ya staff guide, Nodir, and our driver, we headed happily south toward the picturesque Chiriquí Gulf region of the country, specifically to an area called Chorcha. Our destination, Alouatta Lodge and Release Center.

Our first 30 or so kilometers in the small 4x4 were a piece of cake. It was the last two I'll remember. Once we turned off the paved road, we wound our way up something that looked like it might, at one time, have been a road. Today, though, it was a series of hub-deep mud holes and hub-high rocks. Our driver handled it with skill and patience.

Steven Walker with furry sidekick.
The owner of Alouatta Lodge, Steven Walker, a hale Australian in well-used work clothes and rubber boots, met us at the gate. Another few hundred yards and we stopped at the foot of a long, sloping lawn leading up to the main lodge building. As we hopped  out, his wife and co-owner, Michelle, was ambling down the grassy slope from the main building, carrying several oddly-shaped dark objects. And they were moving!
Michelle Walker, with an armful of monkeys.
Turns out the Walkers, with son Robert and daughter Becky, had left the rat race behind and bought their 15-hectare tract of high forest here just three years ago.

Becky Walker

Apparently, they'd intended to refashion the place into a botanical garden and forest preserve, offering guests lodging and a chance to explore a network of trails winding through the preserve.

That was before they were adopted by the howler monkeys. Soon after they'd arrived, a neighbor gave them one they'd rescued, and the Walkers soon picked up another they found wandering, abandoned or lost, along the road. (They learned there were no fewer than ten howler troops residing in and around their land.)

Yahoo, one of the Walkers' resident mantled howler monkeys.
Like everyone and everything does in the tropical jungle, they went with the flow. Steven still carried out his trail clearing and landscaping. (He's a horticulturalist with design experience all over the world and Michelle's an accomplished gardener in her own right.) But he and the rest of the family also committed themselves to preserving and caring for these most spectacular of Panama's monkeys. Steven told me they are the first people in the world to have cared for these mantled howler monkeys and then successfully released them back into the wild.

As Steven power-washed the deck and Michelle and Becky worked on lunch, the rest of us took the "easy" Green Trail into the woods. It's still the rainy season here, and, though not especially hot, the air was like an over-saturated sponge, sopping us to the skin. We found many interesting
A serpentine vine slithers through the saturated air.
and exotic plants, several enchanting varieties of mushroom and fungus, some positively evil-looking, spiky caterpillars, a number of beautiful butterflies and a couple of busy hummingbirds. While we spotted only one monkey, the unearthly, guttural roar of the big male howlers echoed all around us. I suppose they knew we were there.

Back at the lodge, as the four or five tame, resident monkeys clambered to share our food and drinks with us, we enjoyed a wonderful lunch on the deck. Chicken breast, rice, and two salads—one of lettuce; the other of hearts of palm and cilantro. And even wine.

The Blue Morpho loped across the picnic tab
Suddenly, an arresting flash of neon blue. A Blue Morpho butterfly loped across the picnic table, circled us a few times and headed back into the undergrowth. (I think the Morpho has a unique way of flying; its floppy flight makes it appear even lighter and more ephemeral than other butterflies.)

Steven shows off one of his rarest halicones.
As we sat in the reluctant sun, a couple of the monkeys took a shine to Glenda and Deborah. For much of the next hour, both walked around wearing live-monkey stoles as Steven took us around the grounds and showed us the incredible array of plants and trees he'd established in what had been no more than a motley stand of palm trees.

Deborah and new friend

Gingers, bromeliads, heliconia, vanilla, torch plant, even lantana—a plant I've always associated with Australia, but which Steven says grows naturally here in Panama.

Glenda, about to lose a knuckle
Michelle introduced us to their resident tamarins, living in a substantial cage Steven says was donated to them by the BBC.

After three years of toil, the fond abduction of their hearts and surrender to a simpler, more sane lifestyle, the Walker family now faces a heartbreaking reality. Between a scattering of guests and a few partnerships with other local attractions, they simply can't make the enterprise pay for itself. Just today, they told us, they'd forked over $500 to the vet to treat a couple of sick monkeys. Nonetheless, they've designed a more spectacular, sprawling lodge, hoping, at least, to find a buyer who'd build it some day and commit to preserving both their monkey rescue-and-release efforts and their sustainable footprint on this wonderful place.
Alouatta Lodge overlooks the islands of the Chiriquí Gulf.


sue in mexico mo said...

Beautiful photos and interesting report.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey, Sue -- Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your support. Have I asked you if you're in Zihuatanejo? Are you a blogger?

sue in mexico mo said...

Hola Jeffrey, I wish I was in Zihuatanejo, but I'm not. I am in Mexico, Missouri. Each winter two women friends and I go to Mexico (the country). This year was not my turn to choose. We are going to Cozumel, which I also like. Maybe next year, Z. . .

Jeffrey Willius said...

You'll have a great time in Cozumel too. Maybe we'll cross paths some day in Zihua.

Hubbs Center said...

Greetings from your English students. We love the pictures of your host family and the large, friendly howler monkeys. Meseret wants to know why you chose to learn Spanish in Panama. Cuba thinks you need MUCH more than two weeks studying Spanish if you want to be fluent. (He knows because perfecting his English has been a lot of work.) We had two English teachers from China visiting our class and they enjoyed your blog a lot.
See you soon.
Christine and the crew from Hubbs.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hola, Hubbs students! I miss you guys!! I have only two days more of classes, and then I start the long trip home.
Thanks so much for your interest in my blogs. Meseret: I chose Panama because there's a good Spanish school here, and because I wanted to visit another Latin American country I hadn't seen before.
Cuba: Estamos de acuerdo. Yes, it takes much longer than two weeks to master a language, but as you say, poco a poco. Nonetheless, I've made some progress in two weeks of almost constant Spanish.
Christine: I hope your Chinese visitors wrote down my URL -- I'd love to add China to my growing list of visitor countries!
See you all next week! -- Jeff

Nancy said...

Such an interesting adventure and nice change of pace from seriousness of studying!! I can hardly wait to go--will put it on my "must see" list.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hola Nancy -- Thanks for your persistence in figuring out how to make a comment! So glad to have you as a supporter. When you're in Boquete, I think you can arrange for a day trip to Alouatta Lodge -- vale la pena!

Joules said...

Hola Jeffrey,

Great blog post!

Just to let you know, Chorcha overlooks the Chiriqui Gulf in the Pacific... it's roughly 200 km south of the Caribbean!



Jeffrey Willius said...

Hey Joules -- Aside from that glaring error, glad you liked the post. I tend to focus on the experience, but should have known at least which side of the country I was on! ¿Verdad? Could swear someone said we were near Bocas del Toro.
Thanks for visiting -- hope to hear from you again!