The Fortuna Road
The area around the Fortuna reservoir, farther east along the cordillera, is known for its sweeping vistas and great bird-watching, but so far it doesn’t see many visitors or even have that many residents.
Because the Fortuna Dam generates more than 30 percent of Panama’s electricity, there’s an economic incentive to keep its watershed well protected. That’s good news for nature lovers, as the forests here are overflowing with life. It can get cool at the higher elevations, down to about 14°C (57°F), but it’s significantly warmer than the area around Volcán Barú.
The reservoir, just south of the Continental Divide, is surrounded by the Reserva Forestal Fortuna (Fortuna Forest Reserve, 19,500 hectares), which in turn is bordered by the enormous Bosque Protector de Palo Seco (Palo Seco Buffer Forest, 244,000 hectares) to the northwest. The Continental Divide marks the border between the provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro.
A good, though dangerous, road—often referred to as the Fortuna Road—cuts north across the mountains from the town of Chiriquí on the Interamericana to the oil port of Chiriquí Grande on the Caribbean coast, less than 100 kilometers away. A fairly new road links Chiriquí Grande with Almirante, the jumping-off point for water taxis and ferries to the archipelago of Bocas del Toro. Along the way there are rugged access roads into the forest, making it relatively easy to explore the area.
More than 1,000 plant species have been identified just in the Fortuna Forest Reserve, which is also home to 40 mammal and 70 amphibian and reptile species. Endangered mammals here include the white-lipped peccary and Baird’s tapir. The area has some of the best bird-watching in Panama. Besides the ever-popular resplendent quetzal, there’s a chance of seeing such spectacular specimens as the bare-necked umbrellabird, azure-hooded jay, black-bellied hummingbird, lattice-tailed trogon, and yellow-eared toucanet, to name just a few. Some of these are rare and nearly impossible to spot, so you’ll get a lot more out of a hike if you go with a good guide.
Getting to the Fortuna Road
The Fortuna Road begins at the town of Chiriquí, 15 kilometers east of David on the Interamericana. Turn north off the highway at Chiriquí and head straight past town. Keep left when you come to the fork at Gualaca. The two-lane route, unofficially known as the Fortuna Road, soon starts winding through the highlands and the views become spectacular.
Beware of landslides and washouts and sudden dips and bumps in the road caused by soil erosion below it. Returning to the Interamericana on the way back down can be a bit confusing. At Gualaca, be sure to turn left at the crossroads, following the signs that say “CPA” (apparently for Carretera Pan-Americana, i.e., the Interamericana).
Any bus running between David and Chiriquí Grande or Almirante uses this road and can drop off and pick up passengers anywhere along it. The trip from David to Finca La Suiza takes about an hour and costs US$2.50. To return to David or Almirante you’ll have to flag down a bus by the side of the road.
Note to those driving to or from Boquete: A road links Caldera and the Fortuna Road that can potentially shorten the trip considerably since it spares you from having to drive all the way down to the Interamericana. It was recently paved most of the way and should be in good shape. However, it’s prone to landslides and washouts, so ask locals about conditions before attempting. The road is about 38 kilometers long. It’s a pretty drive.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition