Thursday, November 2, 2023

Flying COPA Cabana Airlines


Part 5/5, The Pilot's name was Rico (really!) but he didn't wear a diamond and there was no Lola, she never came over...

The story of COPA and how exactly Olaf got lifer 1896, the pretty good Olive-spotted hummingbird shown above.  This was my last Brazilian bird, and it came in overtime on this trip and will come later.

The ends of trips are melancholy at best but sometimes just getting home is an adventure

An epic trip has four parts:

1) A noble purpose.  Say my bucket list zero event of going to Trisdan da Cuhna, a Big year, a wedding in paradise, or something.

2) A beginning of course, the buildup, and as they say half the fun is getting there

3) the actual event, of destination, going to Trisdan and not landing a boat would have been "tragic" and not "epic" 

4) Getting home

We have had EPic trips, South America-South Africa, Boating Lake Powell thirty years ago, RV camping in Sweden, a Glacier trip on our honeymoon, and Attu, nude birding are five of many that come to mind.

We have had some real Tragic trips, too, a Bermuda trip including near frost bite and a plane crash and milking a wounded new RV around California and back are two classic ones, but most trips are somewhere in the middle.  A trip between shifts in Spearfish to Minnesota playoff baseball with the Yankees and back also comes to mind as the Twins got obliterated by Roger Clemens and I arrived to a disaster of the previous ER doctor's making upon my arrival at 7am when the cop tracked me down at the motel.  The extra hour they refused to authorize payment for and this was the last time I ever worked there. There are also the boring trips that nothing really happens, which for us are few and far between as something ALWAYS happens.

This trip was in the middle but more on the tragic side of things.  It will ALWAYS be remembered as that trip the boat ran aground and that terrible trip home, and not for all the nice people we met nor the 50 lifer birds I saw.  Much like Thailand-Bhutan last year is remembered for the food poisoning I had and the awful end to our flight.

So what happened?

We were heading to Manaus aboard the Premium ship.  

We came across a group of poachers on the National park, fishing and stealing turtle eggs, our guide Wolf gave them a wide berth as who knows if they were armed.

We stopped at a more modern Native settlement.  They had a new school, had electricity since 2017, a store, but eighty steps to get up the hill.  Below is their sawmill.

The village was a mecca for birds

I saw our first variegated flycatcher there, on a power line they had just put in

I saw a Hauxwell's thrush in a tree, not well as we heard it mostly and tried to get the other birder on it and lost it and never got a photo.   Then there was also this immature thrush

I was thinking it was a Pale breasted thrush due to it being more conspicuous and looking at me, but I am not sure.

The namesake of the Hauxwell's Thrush is a bit of a mystery, as it (and some other things) is probably named after John Hauxwell, a "collector of specimens," but whose affiliation and how he came to the Amazon and what he did is unclear.  He died somewhere between 1886 and 1919, lived in Peru after maybe Manaus...(There is also a T. A. Hauxwell).

So, with the trip winding down, we ended up trying to unsuccessfully catch a piranha, we fished off of a high and dry floating home.

Then it was back to Manaus, an obligate tourist activity seeing the Manaus Opera house built in 1897, it had been abandoned after the rubber boom ended in 1915 when British agents smuggled out rubber seeds and found they could be grown cheaper in Malaysia 

We had an early night, just before dark, I was out birding behind the hotel and slipped in the mud and wiped out coating myself with sticky clay-mud.  I had to scrape it off everything in the shower in the room.  Luckily my camera was in my backpack.

This Chiri vireo, not a lifer was what I thought was going to be the last bird for the trip ,

We went to bed at 8 and were up at midnight for a 1245 departure in the morning,  We loaded up, zipped through tickets, security, passport control and causally noted that the flight would be 30 minutes late.  The plane came in, they took their time boarding and eventually everyone got on and we sat down but they never shut the doors and Rico the pilot looked like he was waiting for something, and we waited, and waited

The announced something in Portuguese and then in English, "flight cancelled."  That was it, nothing more and we all filed out and through customs, who had all gone home.  It was 0430 at the airport.  We tried to pump a few bilingual people about what was also said, but we got little.  

What had happened, the airport in Manaus closes from 4AM to Noon every day and despite a plane loaded and sitting on the tarmac, the Air traffic control people in the tower went home at 4AM and as such the plane could not take off and depart.

This also made the crew "time out" so their mandatory 12 hour break would not start until they got to the hotel and COPA was dithering about that and they did not depart the airport until 530 so, that was the rumor of the time of departure in the afternoon.   

Everyone piled in front of COPA's one representatives, nothing was happening and here we were the 19 Americans who could not really understand what was said and we sat in a closed airport with no food and nothing.  COPA "called" all of the hotels but they were full. Silja got on the telephone with the emergency number at Road Scholar and woke someone up named Steve.  Calling a random relative of one of the fellow travelers would have been more helpful.  My wife was then on hold for a while and then got nothing just advice to call the main office when they opened in 4 hours.

Then we decided to try to contact our guide Wolf, but how do you call Brazil in Brazil from a US cell phone?  We could not do it and then my wife remembered she had him on Instagram and he answered.  Wolf showed up like an angry German and walked into the COPA manager's office, soon we were on a bus back to our hotel and our old rooms, a free breakfast and then lunch.

I went back to the spot in the back of the hotel and watched them remove a caiman from a hole and then tried to identify honeycreepers with another birder.....

olive potted hummingbird

I saw my last lifer, an olive-spotted hummingbird, and after two showers and a nap, it was back to the airport for round two at 230

Checking was still crazy and no officer was in immigration just a woman with a list of all of us that had "left the country" earlier that morning.  

I read some comments on the airline while we waited.

"COPA sucks!"  Non stop delays. Not 15 min delays I’m talking HOURS. Horrible. Even worse than Spirit. I think this might be the worse airline in the world. 

"Reservation System does not work properly, very bad customer service.COPA system for reservation is very bad. I tried to add a checked bag in advance and the system did not allow me, it ask me to wait until check in day. On check in day, the COPA system to collect the payment did not work. Now I need to pay at the counter a more expensive price, this is the only option I have. Then, when I call the call center, the poor service representative cannot do anything because the system is locked everywhere. This translated in a very bad customer service. There are many more things that I want to complain, but I do not have time to keep writing.

COPA poked around and finally we got going to Panama City with Rico driving the plane, somehow it was uneventful, and then luckily our quick transfer to Miami was a gate away, but after going through the scanner, we walked up and noticed the flight was delayed two hours, even with the plane sitting around at the gate.

We finally left, I was stuck in a middle seat stuck between two bigger guys than me with a woman in front of me grabbing me on the top of the head while I slept.  It was a relief to get out at Miami, we hustled through the airport found our car and drove the rest of the night and early morning home, the trip was over 16 hours later than expected.  We were tired, furniture was arriving soon and in a day, my mother was coming and a day after that, Silja and her were both flying to Germany to check on our son, who was having surgery.

The trip was over, I logged 50 new bird species, 104 for the trip, which was a bit of work.  I logged country number 59 to my Century Club total, met some nice people and brought home chiggers.  We ran aground, had a crazy airplane delays and we rode COPA Cobana airlines for a first and maybe....last time.

COPA is bad but Road Scholar should not have forced everyone to start in Miami, some, could have saved 6-14 hours or more in the air by meeting in Panama, we could have started in Tampa, half of the group could have flown into the west coast directly.

Road Scholar needs a better emergency response, and we need to figure out how to use our phones from an international country to that country.

Brazil, maybe another time, we'll see, maybe Peacock Bass fishing, it was not an "epic" trip but memorable none-the-less.  COPA, I'd advise a pass.  My cats were so lonely to see us, it was nice to be welcomed home.




  1. Good lifers, but it makes you wonder why we do these things with that kind of crap service from an airline. Makes for a good story, but??

  2. Thanks for a great trip blog…

    Quite a story.


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