Racing through a Panamanian archipelago by sport boat, I couldn't help but feel like James Bond. It was just me and a mustachioed driver, speeding toward a remote island where I would spend a few decadent days at an eco-resort, hiking the rain forest, sunning myself by an infinity pool and sucking down rum cocktails to a soundtrack of rolling, tropical surf.
That's how I spent this past Christmas — as far away from reality as possible — because my reality was that I didn't have my son for the holidays. My ex and I alternate Christmases, which works great when it's my year. When it's not, I wallow in misery. At least that's how I've spent previous years. I vowed I wouldn't do that again.
Solution: a weeklong getaway to the tropics.
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 also 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 bridge the Atlantic and Pacific.
But the onetime Spanish colony is increasingly popular for areas that are less engineered and more untouched by humans, especially its islands (more than 1,600 of them), 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 U.S., 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 include a cloud forest first and then a beach resort. I flew in to the capital on a Monday night and immediately flew back out the following morning, arriving in the western city of David, Panama's second-most populated city, and traveling by car to the more remote Chiriquí Highlands for the first part of my trip.
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.
Where I was headed was bonito mejor, my driver, Orlando, told me, blowing a kiss to underscore his point. As we drove along the tree-lined highway connecting David to one of its burgeoning eco-tourism districts, I did understand a few things despite the language barrier: that a Toyota Corolla with 208,000 miles doesn't have enough zip and shouldn't be passing cargo trucks on one-lane roads, that iguana is the predominant road kill and that it's pretty pathetic to be an Angeleno who does not speak Spanish.
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-trailed birds, are known to fly.
We saw no one else on this three-hour hike, which 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 — not unlike what you might see in a Southern California landscape.
We were safely tucked away in Orlando's Corolla when the sky really decided to open. The many locals we passed on the road weren't as lucky. We were off to the 39-room Valle Escondido Resort & Spa, the hotel my travel agent had booked. I was dismayed as soon as I passed through the gates of the community, one of several such enclaves cropping up in western Panama and catering to American and European retirees who build out-of-place mansions on lands once used for local agriculture.
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.
At the recommendation of the desk clerk, I took a taxi. The two-minute trip in a small pickup truck painted yellow and decked out in cabbie stripes cost $2 and took me to the only restaurant in town 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.
It was still early, so I wandered through the town, a mix of subsistence-level groceries and American-targeted real estate offices, restaurants, hotels and tourist operators. As I strolled the potholed street — there are no sidewalks — I came upon the small dessert spot, Choka Chetta's. Intrigued, I stopped in and ordered a bowl of locally grown strawberries, which were served with a ladle of melted chocolate bars, a mound of whipped cream — and a dollop of disdain from the shopkeeper, who should have been pleased with getting the $3.75 she charged for this confection but instead seemed wary.
I couldn't blame her. Just a few years earlier, this was a small town populated mostly by locals, but now the American influence is unmistakable.
I walked back to the hotel in a driving but warm, rain, which was lovely for an Angeleno who almost never sees it, and rested up for the following day's activity: whitewater rafting.
The driver, who also turned out to be 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. Twenty minutes from the river we would be rafting, the driver slowed to pick up another man who seemed to appear out of nowhere. He was the driver who would move the van from the head of the river to its tail and pick us up a few hours later.
I know how to swim — not well, but I can — but I had never been whitewater rafting. In fact, I'm terrified of water, especially "Deliverance"-style rapids. Hoping to conquer my fear before I die, I signed up.
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 Chiriquí Viejo — a river that would soon no longer exist as I was seeing it. Construction is underway to dam it for hydroelectric power to support development spurred by a Panamanian policy that encourages foreign settlement. For a $300,000 investment in Panamanian banks, business or real estate, Americans can gain citizenship – and a long list of benefits that include no taxes on foreign earned income, fewer business regulations and a high quality of living for less than in the U.S.
My rafting partners were American and Swiss. There was Alan, an Oklahoma State University electrical engineering professor who had grown up in Panama; his wife, Karen; Priska, a university researcher; and Thomas, a horticultural economist. All had rafted previously. I was the newbie.
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 birds didn't help. They weren't any of the country's exotic 940 identified species of bird. They were vultures.
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 inflatable raft. Half of the paying customers had fallen into the river by the time we pulled over to a sandy inlet for a lunch of ham sandwiches. I wasn't one of them.
What's the saying? "No swimming within an hour of eating"? That's about how long it was when our dinghy, back on the water after lunch, nearly capsized and jettisoned me almost 50 feet downstream. Tiny, our guide, earned a good tip for fishing me out with a rope before my head made contact with a boulder. Although my unplanned, boat-free ride down the river was terrifying when it happened, once I was safely back onboard, I realized I had had a fantastic time.
Our journey ended at the Costa Rican border about four hours after we'd first pushed off from the muddy shore, cascading through rocky rapids, under trees filled with squirrel monkeys and rocks populated with preening birds, the names of which I'll never know. This is, of course, where Panama's own tourist journey begins, piggybacking on the hugely successful eco-tourism trade of its northern neighbor, which is built on the same sort of lush tropical paradise that Panama is now trying to leverage.
After a 90-minute van ride in wet jeans, I was actually looking forward to Valle Escondido, where I made a bee line for the sauna and a thorough de-pruning. I tried to ignore the Hummer in the country club parking lot when I walked outside and into town.
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 only 4:30, but I was hoping to book a last-minute snorkel adventure through the local tourist agency. Christmas was just two days away, and, though I already had my hotel reservation booked at an island eco-resort, I was growing anxious about being alone with nothing to do. I wanted distractions. In this fast-growing tourist destination, I was fairly sure a Christmas booking was possible — for a price. And it was, for $90 and a minimum of three people. I planned to ask the Swiss.
Meanwhile, I invested in a backup plan at the local market: a secondhand Janet Evanovich novel (no doubt read by an earlier tourist) and a bottle of Chilean Syrah.
Even the lovely, locally caught trout dinner at the Panamonte wasn't enough to persuade the Swiss to be my substitute family for Christmas.
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, off Panama's western Pacific coast. It looked as though it would be just the Syrah and Evanovich and me for Dec. 25.
It wasn't. I spent my 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 for dinner. I did a fairly good job of distracting myself from the idea that mothers are meant to be with their 6-year-olds on Christmas.
On Cala Mia, it turned out, mothers can't call their 6-year-olds. The 11 cabanas don't have in-room telephones, and there was no cellphone service. Any other time, that would be a perfect antidote to the stress of a working L.A. mom.
The island resort, founded three years ago by a European couple, is run on solar power and supplied, at least in part, with locally grown produce and its own dairy operation. One of the 100, mostly deserted islands that make up the Archipelago de Chiriquí, the sun-dappled island and its warm ocean breeze were a wonderful distraction. I didn't go snorkeling, but I did manage to take a few strolls along the island's private beach and also polish off my Evanovich novel sitting on the private porch of my grass-thatched cabana as I sipped a concoction of rum and pineapple.
All of it was wonderful, though none of it was an adequate substitute for spending Christmas with my boy. 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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