Interview excerpt from Lonely Planet Panama, 2007 Edition (p. 287) Interviewer: Matt Firestone
RICK MORALES AND THE FUTURE OF TOURISM IN THE DARIEN
Rick Morales works as a guide for Ancon Expeditions, and has lead countless expeditions throughout the Darien and the rest of Panama. A linguist by training, Rick is completely bilingual and can convey his passion for wildlife and conservation in flawless Spanish and English.
LP: What is your background and how did you become a guide?
RM: I grew up in the western highlands of Panama, surrounded by mountains and by nature, so exploration became a hobby of mine since I was a child. To be honest, i never thought that I could make a living as a guide, so I decided to take a different path and enrolled in university to study linguistics. later on, by chance, a friend that worked at the same shipping agency as me changed career paths and moved to what was later known as Ancon Expeditions. When we spoke on the phone, she told me that the guides at Ancon had the same interests as I did. The next thing I knew, I was flying to the Darien with Hernan Arauz, one of the most famous guides in the country. Tha was seven years and it was the beginning of my career.
LP: What makes your job unique?
RM: The best part of the job is that you get to travel to all of these amazing places and you’re always meeting lots of interesting people. You can learn a lot from the guests who come on our trips, as well as the locals who live in the areas we visit --it’s a never-ending learning experience. But, the most exciting part is definitely the hunt. There’s a hunter inside every one of us. Even though we may not hunt for survival anymore, there’s still that innate instinct. When you’re out in the forest, trying to spot something, you have to key into that skill. You hone into a slight sound or movement, and sometimes it’s rewarded with a great prize, be it a rare bird, a troop of monkeys or a heard of peccaries. That’s the most exciting part -- ou never know what you’ll spot! The only difference between us an the typical hunter is that we carry binoculars instead of firearms.
LP: What makes the Darien special?
RM: The Darien is special because it represents the triumph of nature over human power. The Darien was the first place in the mainland Americas to be colonized by the Europeans, so you would think that with its long history of human intervention, the Darien should be the most developed place in Panama, if not in all the Americas. But it’s not -- instead, it’s one of the wildest places in the hemisphere, even after hundreds of years. This gives me hope that there are places out there that can resist human colonization, and exist as sanctuaries for nature.
LP: Why has tourism been slow to develop in the Darien?
RM: It is indeed more difficult to travel here without the assistance and support of a reputable outfitter, but that’s due to the fact that it’s a raw, wild place. Most of the Darien’s inhabitants are not bilingual and very few have a service-oriented mentality. But there’s a big difference between being ‘raw’ and being ‘dangerous’. The Darien has this negative reputation as a dangerous place and this unfortunately deters a lot of people from coming here. The mainstream belief is that if someone comes to the Darien, they’re going to run into trouble. The worst part is that this absurd idea is instilled in tourists by Panamanians themselves. Everywhere you go in the Darien, tourists are warned by police that they’re proceeding at their own risk. I really believe that if we could somehow erase this negative reputation, then more people would start discovering he Darien. I’m not implying, however, that the Darien is for everyone. People who are fond of nice hotels with all the creature comforts of civilization should reconsider going to this part of Panama. The Darien is wild and we should keep it that way. The last thing we want to see here is a bunch of foreign retirees living in a gated community called ‘The Darien Village’.
LP: What is the future of tourism in the Darien?
RM: If people from all around the world started visiting the Darien, I think that tourism could help stimulate the economy of the region. Right now, people in the Darien depend on farming and fishing for survival. For the most part, farming is an extremely destructive activity because it doesn’t yield a lot, yet you need to destroy vast areas of forest for a relatively small plot of corn or rice. Just think about how many locals could get involved in ecotourism if things changed here. People in the Darien could have another means of survival and a new appreciation for their natural wealth. But first we have to change the Darien’s negative image.