Insects and Arachnids
Insects generally come second (after snakes) in the list of creatures tropical neophytes worry about. But most parts of Panama are not nearly as buggy as one might think, and certainly can’t compare to, say, the mosquito swarms of an Alaskan summer.
Mosquito populations are kept down around populated areas because of the potential risk of mosquito-borne diseases. Still, mosquitoes can be a nuisance in certain places, especially in the rainy season. Dusk and dawn tend to be active times. Insect repellent and long-sleeved shirts and pants are effective at keeping mosquitoes at bay. Sleep in tents or screened-in rooms to avoid bites at night.
Sand flies (a.k.a. sand fleas or no-see-ums) are locally known as chitras and can be a real irritation. They love to bite feet and ankles and can cause itching for hours. To avoid infection, try not to scratch. Mosquito repellent helps. They tend to like beach spots without breezes, especially near mangroves, and dine in force in the early evenings. They can be a nuisance in Boca Brava, parts of Bocas del Toro (there’s actually a Sand Fly Bay off Isla Colón), and Kuna Yala.
They’re worse during the rainy season; dry-season breezes keep them at bay. Some claim chitras like pale skin, so consider working on a leg tan. Keeping feet covered with shoes and socks provides some protection. Anti-inflammatory and itch-relieving creams, such as hydrocortisone, can help with the irritation after bites. Eurax is locally popular for the itching, as is coconut oil. I’ve found the Pure Tree Natural Body Products (cell 6607-8962 and 6570-8277, www.upinthehill.com) made in Bocas del Toro effective in controlling the itching. They also make a chitra repellent, but I haven’t tried it yet. Chitras can spread leishmaniasis (see Insect-Borne Diseases), so it’s a good idea to minimize exposure as much as possible.
Chiggers are a type of parasitic mite that hikers can pick up wandering through a field or grassy area. They often climb up the hikers’ legs and like to burrow into the skin around the elastic bands of underwear or pants. Once they latch on, they stay attached for days and cause their hosts to itch like crazy. Insect repellent on the clothes, especially around the legs and feet, can offer some protection. Experienced hikers often tuck their pants into their boots and seal them off with masking tape to keep the things out. Some also sprinkle powdered sulfur into their boots to ward them off.
In general, be careful where you put your hands and feet when hiking. Many plants have sharp spines and the like and may harbor aggressive ants, poisonous caterpillars, and other nasties.
There’s a reasonable chance of coming across a scorpion, especially in rural and semirural areas. Except for small children the sting is rarely life-threatening, but it’s quite painful. Ditto for some spider bites. To be on the safe side, shake out your shoes and clothes before putting them on. When I’m traveling in the countryside, I stuff my socks into my shoes before going to bed at night and shake them out in the morning. In the canal construction days, workers slept with their boots under their pillows. Tarantulas and other large spiders sometimes make an appearance, which is more startling than dangerous; if you leave them alone, they’ll do likewise.
Panama has Africanized bees—the so-called “killer bees”—which can be aggressive and dangerous. Keep well away from any bees you come across. If you disturb them and they start chasing you, try to run through dense brush. They will have a hard time following. Do not jump into a body of water to escape them; they will wait for you to surface.
Stay out of the way of ants. Some, such as the bullet ant, have ferocious stings, and less-nasty ones can still swarm over an unsuspecting hiker remarkably quickly.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition