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Panama Guide

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Thursday, June 20 2019 @ 03:41 AM UTC

Panama invites you to hike the rainforest and lounge on the beach

Travel & TourismBY SUSAN CARPENTER - LOS ANGELES TIMES - When deciding where I wanted to spend this past Christmas, I looked at my short list, and there was Panama, billed as an up-and-coming Costa Rica, thanks to its abundance of animals, the eco emphasis and its dollar-stretching economics. It appealed to my contrarian nature. Tourists have been gawking at the Panama Canal for nearly a century, watching ships wend their way through the series of locks that connect the Atlantic and Pacific. But the country is increasingly popular for areas that are less engineered and more untouched by humans, especially its islands (more than 1,600), its coasts and its wildlife, attractions that have given rise to eco-tourism and the medical tourism with which it is often paired. U.S. institutions such as Johns Hopkins University have partner facilities in Panama that offer procedures for almost half of what they would cost in the United States, and the beach resorts are used for recovery. I wasn't in the market for a triple bypass or boob job -- yet -- just the flora and fauna I knew I could find in the western part of the country. So I planned my six days to take in a cloud forest first and then a beach resort. I flew in to the capital on a Monday night and flew back out the following morning, arriving in the western city David, Panama's second-most populated city, and traveling by car to the more remote Chiriqui Highlands for the first part of my trip. (more)

Climb to a luxury resort - When I arrived in David, my driver greeted me with a sign bearing my name. Turns out "Susan Carpenter" was the only English he spoke during the 45-minute drive from David to Boquete, where I planned to shake the travel cramps from my legs with a hike along the Quetzal Trail, a narrow forest path that zigzags uphill and across streams.

About half an hour into the drive, Orlando slowed to pick up what looked like a hitchhiker. But, no, it was Alvaro, the English-speaking guide who would take me on my trek of the Quetzal Trail, past corrugated metal lean-tos housing the indigenous workers who harvest the onions, corn, coffee beans and strawberries grown in this lush mountainous terrain, past howler monkeys and up toward an enormous waterfall where flocks of quetzals, the gorgeous, green-tailed birds, are known to fly.

We saw no one else on this three-hour hike that began under a fine mist that escalated into a downpour, despite the fact that December is billed as the start of the dry season. Nor did I see the bird for which the trail was named, just a rainbow of butterflies and Panamanian flora -- birds of paradise, hibiscus and bougainvillea.

We were safely tucked away in Orlando's car when the sky really decided to open. We were off to the 39-room Valle Escondido Resort, the hotel my travel agent booked.

Panamanian in an idealized, Vegas sort of way, Valle Escondido is a lush, luxurious estate made up of a hotel, townhome complex and country club, complete with a golf course, indoor swimming pool, spa, restaurant and bar.

I couldn't wait to leave and go into town.

I'm the sort of traveler who wants to experience the local culture, so although Valle Escondido was nice, it wasn't my kind of place. It wasn't of the people but removed from them.

I took a taxi to the only restaurant in Boquete that serves Panamanian cuisine. The dimly illuminated and largely empty Sabroson was staffed with Spanish-speaking locals who danced to Shakira as they served me a buffet-style dinner of marinated chicken, fried rice, salad and fried bananas, which I washed down with a box of pear juice for $2.75.

I walked back to the hotel in a driving but warm, rain, and rested up for the following day's activity: whitewater rafting.

Rapids get more rapid - The driver, also the rafting guide, was exactly on time the next morning, at the brutal-for-vacation hour of 7. Scooping up two other couples on the way, we raced northwest on the Pan-American Highway, then took secondary roads and, finally, a treacherous deep-in-the-jungle dirt road.

I know how to swim -- not well, but I can -- but I had never been whitewater rafting.

Arriving at the base of the Talamanca Mountain Range just miles from the Costa Rica border, we were greeted by guards who let us through the gate that would lead us to the churning Chiriqui Viejo -- a river that would soon no longer exist as I was seeing it. Construction is under way to dam it for hydroelectric power.

I'd signed up for the introductory, sissy version of whitewater rafting: Class 2 rapids. But the previous night's rains had elevated the waters to a Class 3. I was nervous when I strapped on my life vest and helmet, and the circling vultures didn't help.

I got in anyway, willing myself to stay in the boat as we plowed our way through the serpentine, foaming waters and observed the lizards, birds and monkeys our multitasking guide was spotting as he expertly steered our raft.

Our journey ended at the Costa Rican border about four hours after we'd first pushed off from the muddy shore. This is, of course, where Panama's own tourist journey begins, piggybacking on the hugely successful eco-tourism trade of its northern neighbor, a country built on the same sort of lush tropical paradise that Panama is trying to leverage.

Island in the Pacific - After a 90-minute van ride back to Valle Escondido, I made a beeline for the sauna and a thorough de-pruning. I was to meet my rafting buddies at 7 for dinner at the place at which I wished I'd been booked -- the Panamonte, an old country-style inn housing a spa and Boquete's best restaurant.

It was 4:30, and I tried and failed to book a last-minute snorkel adventure through the local tourist agency. Christmas was just two days away, and, though I already had my reservation at an island eco-resort, I was growing anxious about being alone with nothing to do.

So midday on Christmas Eve, I made the two-hour journey from Valle Escondido to the coastal town of Boca Chica, where I hitched a ride on a speedboat that would take me to the tiny Cala Mia boutique hotel, on an island off Panama's western Pacific coast.

I spent Christmas Day as a sort of international orphan, having breakfast with a Texas couple who were in Panama to shop for beachfront property; hiking the lush island and spotting howler monkeys with a couple from England and then having lunch; and dining on locally caught lobster with a family from Seattle. I'm happy I went, and I'd do it again. But if I had to do it over, I'd make sure to bring a friend to enjoy the sunsets and surf with me.

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