The Square Trees and other natural wonders…sort of

The rock at Hanging Rock Bridge.

Years ago, when my husband and I were Peace Corps volunteers in the Republic of Panama, we visited the famous Arboles Quadratos (the Square Trees) in El Valle de Anton. The Arboles Quadratos were, according to the guidebooks, amazing freaks of nature—trees with perfectly square trunks. These remarkable plants grew in a special grove in the rainforest behind the hotel in El Valle, and were one of the town’s main tourist attractions.

So we went to see them.

They were buttressed trees, like many rainforest trees are. And the buttresses made them…sort of squarish, if you had a little imagination. I think there were, maybe, four of them in a cluster along the trail. Their beauty was completely overshadowed in my mind by the rest of the forest around them.

My daughter and I recently had a similar experience. On a road trip, we kept passing signs for Hanging Rock Bridge. It seemed all roads led to Hanging Rock Bridge. We figured it must be something pretty spectacular, if so many signs pointed the way to it.

So we went to see it.

And, yeah, there was an overhanging rock near the bridge. It was kind of cool. But the landscape around the bridge, with stunning limestone outcrops in every paddock, was far more spectacular than the bridge’s rock. If you’d gone out of your way to see the rock at Hanging Rock Bridge, you’d be disappointed.

Plenty of other ‘natural wonders’ fall short of the hype surrounding them. Others, unknown by anyone but locals, are truly stunning.

Like the Iglesia de Piedra, the Rock Church, near our village in Panama. This narrow chasm was carved by a small stream, and it’s one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been—maybe 30 metres deep, and so narrow you can touch both walls. Vegetation covers the opening high above, and makes everything look green below. The stream is shallow, and frogs hop away from every step. At the back of the chasm is a waterfall plunging all the way from the surface.

No tourists make pilgrimages to the Iglesia de Piedra. Few outside the surrounding area have ever heard of it. But it knocks the socks off many a popular tourist destination.

The world is full of these hidden gems, and one of the most wonderful things about living in different places is finding the local wonders. The beautiful places tourists never hear about.

I’ll still go to see the Square Trees and the Hanging Rock Bridges of the world, but much of the wonder of the world is reserved for those who live with it every day.

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