Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Off the Amador Causeway and secluded in a rare patch of dry rain forest
Ever heard of the Smithsonian?  Well, if you are like me, you only hear about this institute in places like the National Geographic. And isn't there a Smithsonian in D.C.?  It just shows you how ignorant I am about this powerful institution so I'll stick with what I know:)  In fact, every national park in Panama that we went to visit had a Smithsonian operation going was almost like a secret cult.  Yes...the Cult of Smithsonian.  They keep to themselves, own secret islands and patches of area in beautiful tropical places.....and for good reason!  After this trip, I have a better understanding of the organization.  They aren't big on random people visiting their sites.  Scientists are reporting from all over the world to do studies on various animals, marine life, plants, or other environmental issues.  In Gamboa, the Smithsonian ran a plant facility.  They own a beautiful island called Coibita(more on this later) for marine and virgen rain forest studies. And in Bocas del Toro, they have a station to study endemic frog species etc.  Basically Panama and the Smithsonian have a long history together and it has been around in Panama for 100 years!  So let me come full circle with this story. In Panama City on the Amador Causeway off Isla Naos, the Smithsonian gives outsiders a rare glimpse into marine life.  It's a lovely visit on a little preserved patch of the endangered Pacific dry rain forest called Punta Culebra.  This was my only chance to see the Smithsonian up close and actually meet some of the members! 
This park sized area has several smaller and larger aquariums around the property with turtles, fish, starfish, and other interesting marine life.  It's also a place that a former dictator named Noriega used to have drinks with friends.  That's random.  Anyhow, it cost 5 bucks to enter and the hours for the research station were a bit strange so I'm glad I read the memo ahead of time.  It opened at 1 o'clock on the nose!  Don't even think about getting there early or you'll be sitting on the bench waiting!  So here is how I broke down my day.  I started my morning in Casco Viejo and then grabbed a taxi to the Amador Causeway to do some walking. These two places are located close in proximity and it made sense putting these two activities together.  Stopped and had lunch.  Around 12:45, I headed down the riverwalk towards Isla Naos which is connected to the causeway.  Got there and had to wait a couple minutes to enter.  The people, like most Panamanians, were super friendly and we passed the time chatting.  Sidenote:  I have to admit that Tucsonans,in general, are very standoffish because you don't know if the people are going to kill you, steal from you, sell you drugs, etc.  In fact, you don't usually say hello to people on the streets because that's creepy and strange.  For this former Wisconsinite who was used to saying hello to strangers all the time, it was a bit of culture shock to have to undo that politeness in Arizona.  So it was nice to chat with random people again and not be considered a criminal.....Arizona is a great place, but the people have a lot to learn about manners. 
So back to Panama.  It's a great place to bring kids as they can pick up starfish(after washing their hands of course!) and other sea critters.  Marina, who I would later see again in the magical ghost town of Gamboa), was our guide.  She was a woman with intense blue eyes covered in tattoos. I instantly liked her because she gave off a good people vibe. Marina spoke English and Spanish, but she knew other languages as well.  Anyhow, she would show up in our adventures later on in the trip and it was always great to see her.  The tree pic for the day is below.  I found it on a short trail up on a hill.
This tree was massive and reminded me of Avatar.  Imagine walking on the branches!!  Anyhow, I thought it was a sexy tree. I've got several more tree shots that caught my attention below. 
The STRI(that's what I'm calling them now) occupies former military bunkers atop the rocky Punta Culebra. But keep your eyes open for sloths, iguanas, armadillos, and a variety of birds.  You can also get a great view of ships coming out of the Panama Canal.  Here is my opinion, and some of you may differ as you enjoy the urban landscape a bit more...and that's okay.  It's just my opinion:)  The Causeway is ugly and full of plastic American type yacht clubs and restaurants.  There are 3 islands, 2 of which seem untouched by the tacky development.  The Causeway is a hit for Panamanians because they get to drive their cars fast up and down the road.  The walk is nice because there is a breeze, but you'll occassionally see some trash off to the side.  What is it with people not throwing their garbage away?  In some places, the water had a lot of garbage floating around in it.  This is the part of Panama I didn't like, but the trash issue doesn't compare to that of Mexico.  I think Mexico is still the "trashiest" country I have ever visited.  Sorry Mexico...I love you.  You have my heart, but you could learn a thing or two about picking up after yourselves. You're getting better, but there's still more to do.  Once we left Panama City, everything cleaned up quite a bit.
Museo de la Biodiversidad
I thought I'd leave you with two parting shots as I left the STRI.  This building above will be a major importance for Panama City.  I'm going to say that this is the Eiffel tower or Sagrada Familia of Panama.  It's going to be huge, but right now it's set to open in October.  However, the dates have changed over the years due to construction issues.  It is called the Museo de la Biodiversidad created by designer Frank Gehry.  It's a joint effort of the STRI, University of Panama, and the Interoceanic Regional Authority....3 powerhouses in Panama.  Its 8 halls will feature multi-media exhibitions showcasing Panama's astonishing biodiversity, from its oceans to its cloud forests.
Finally friends, here is the other cool pic I promised from the Amador Causeway. Do you believe in Ents(tree people)? After seeing this pic, I do.  You'll believe in them more on August 24th as I discuss some walking trees. 
Sites to check out........
For the Punta Culebra Nature center(the STRI), contact
or call 507-212-8793/507-212-8760
Open Tuesday through Friday from 1:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM 
"The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, a non profit unit of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C., is headquartered in Panama City, Panama, and is dedicated to furthering the understanding of tropical nature and its importance to human welfare, training students to conduct research in the tropics and promoting conservation by increasing public awareness."
El Museo De La Biodiversidad
Tel: 314-1395


  1. That last picture is truly amazing, especially when you enlarge it. I love seeing the skyline in the background with those wonderful tree in the foreground. Can't wait to see the walking tree!

  2. Wow! Great post. I enjoyed reading about all of this in Panama. I had no idea.


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