The Invasion of Panama
In this Central American paradise the whitewater is fierce, the reefs are teeming, and the surf breaks are sweet. So why haven’t you taken the plunge?
Before my first visit to Central America five years ago I had visions of roiling whitewater, white sand beaches, and plentiful wildlife. I found the first two easily, but my elaborate efforts to track down monkeys, sloths, and scarlet macaws in Costa Rica culminated in one pitiful sighting of a peccary (a hairy pig). On subsequent visits to the region I kept my Discovery Channel dreams in check. Then, several months ago, I went to Panama. Within hours of arriving I was eyeball-to-eyeball with a toucan, a three-toed sloth, a family of tamarin monkeys, and the blue cotinga, a rare bird. I started to believe what I’d heard about Panama: It’s a trip back in time.
Tourists and developers have overtaken Costa Rica, driving out much of the wildlife, not to mention crowding surf breaks, rivers, and beaches. But Panama, blissfully pristine and low-key, is just starting to register as an adventure travel destination. Its résumé is impressive: ancient cloud forests and tropical rain forests protected within 48 national parks, reserves, and wildlife refuges; the Cordillera Central mountain range, with 11,000-foot peaks and some of Central America’s best whitewater; Caribbean and Pacific coastlines with yellow and black sand beaches and world-class surf breaks; and reefs swarming with tropical fish and sharks. Because about half of Panama’s tourism revenue comes from regional travelers, it isn’t as jammed with gringos as Costa Rica, where most visitors are foreign. Yet hotels, outfitters, and guides are plentiful here, the roads are good, and the airlines reliable. Plus, the American dollar is the national currency and the water is as drinkable as Manhattan’s. Here’s a guide to Central America’s time warp.
RAFTING & HIKING
The Cordillera Central
"We’ll have Class IV rapids today," Hector Sanchez, owner of Chiriqu’ River Rafting, announced to our group. We were assembled in the town of Boquete in Panama’s southwestern Chiriquí province, where the Cordillera Central churns 144 inches of annual rainfall into raging whitewater. "You’ll have plenty of fun — and then some," Sanchez said with a hint of foreboding. (The guides from North Carolina’s famed Nantahala Outdoor Center have so much fun they migrate here each winter.) By the time we got to the put-in, two hours to the south, I was prepared for one of the more hardcore rafting trips of my life — and the Chiriquí Viejo River didn’t disappoint.
The whitewater was nonstop, starting out relatively tame with the Class III rides El Mexicano, El Panameño, and El Boliviano, then building to a crescendo with the Class IV/V El Miedo ("Fear"). During our lunch break I soothed my rattled muscles by standing underneath a 30-foot cascade — one of hundreds that feed into the river — for a powerful back massage. Before we pushed off again, Tiny, the guide who was paddling in the kayak support boat (he’s nicknamed for a Venezuelan telenovela star), lost his paddle. His solution was to lash his boat onto our raft. That made the next rapid, the Class IV Hijo de Puta ("Son of a Bitch"), our hairiest challenge: kayak bouncing on raft bouncing through wave train. And as with every other rapid of the day, I was blinded all the while, the whitewater serving as a giant eyewash station. We spent the next couple of hours cruising through dense rain forest, catching glimpses of herons, cormorants, and iguanas, and jumping out in flatwater to swim alongside the boat. At the take-out I silently toasted my survival with a Panama beer.
Back in Boquete I relaxed on my private deck at La Montaña y el Valle, a collection of tidy bungalows run by a Canadian couple with an encyclopedic knowledge of their adopted country. With a pair of binoculars I scoped out my next adventure: 11,410-foot Volcan Barœ, Panama’s highest peak. My guide Chago picked me up at two the next morning, though I’d barely digested the previous night’s dinner of pork tenderloin with sweet Thai chile sauce. To increase our odds of seeing both oceans, we needed to summit by dawn, when cloud cover is minimal. The hike up, on a washed-out dirt road in the dark, was steep but relatively short at 6.5 miles. At the summit we were treated to a view that extended 50 miles to the Caribbean (sadly, the Pacific side was clouded over) and into the 35,000 acres of surrounding Volcan Barœ National Park.
The scenery on the hike back down was even more stunning: With fog sweeping through giant cypress trees and stands of 90-foot elms, it was like being inside a giant airbrushed painting. Quetzals called out to us from their avocado-tree perches. The hike’s happy ending, so to speak, was a trip to Caldera Hot Springs, 20 miles southeast of Boquete. The soothing waters of its three thermal pools are surrounded by stone walls strategically located next to the river, for plunges that are refreshingly cold — and then some.
The Pacific Coast
It’s hard to say what’s more surprising about surfing in Panama: the number of established breaks — 58 in all — or the utter lack of people in the water. Word of these ideal conditions has leaked to American watermen, but few of them actually motivate themselves to make the trip down. "We get about 180 American surfers here a year," Alan Barnes, Panama’s reigning longboard champ, told me. Barnes owns a surf camp at Rio Mar, a river about 60 miles southwest of Panama City where no fewer than ten different breaks fan out from the beaches. (Rio Mar is also within striking distance of Panama’s other marquee surf spots: Santa Catalina, a three-hour drive west, and Teta, about ten miles to the east.) On weekends maybe half a dozen guys are in the water. No one was there the Monday I paddled out for a session at Punta Rio Mar, a reef break west of the river itself, except Hugh, who hailed from Texas, and Terje, who had come from Norway.
"I’ve been dreaming of surfing for as long as I’ve been alive," Terje said. He’d quit his job and traveled to Central America to realize that dream, and his dozen or so rides that morning were proof of his success. As we bobbed through an hour’s worth of waves we surveyed the coastline, where the pristine beaches are framed by 100-foot cliffs at low tide and get swallowed up at high tide. They were downright deserted.
Waterlogged and tired, we drove to the fishing village of San Carlos, two miles away, for a lunch of garlicky corvina fish and to scout out Palmar Point, a mile or so farther east, where Terje had surfed the previous day. "It’s a long ride along the beach when it’s breaking at high tide," he told us. "And it’s easy to paddle out to." It sounded promising, so we walked down the road to a brand-new hotel, from which we saw a construction site about ten miles down the coast — harbingers of change. Thanks to its proximity to the capital and good, consistent waves, this area is poised to become an enclave for surfers and surf culture vultures. But any way you crunch the numbers, that still amounts to no crowds.
SNORKELING & DIVING
Bocas del Toro
An archipelago comprised of 68 islands in northwestern Panama, Bocas del Toro has served as the location for several foreign-language versions of Survivor. And once you’re outside the principal town of Bocas del Toro, whose main street is lined with about a dozen restaurants and small, rustic hotels, you might as well be a castaway. This is Panama’s most popular destination, but it hardly looks that way.
Of the handful of lodges scattered throughout the island chain I chose the luxurious Resort Punta Caracol, a collection of thatch-roofed cabanas set on stilts out in the Caribbean and connected by wooden walkways. From my private dock I could jump into the water, don the snorkeling gear supplied in my room, and check out the small reef out front. (The angelfish and parrotfish favored the coral under cabana 3.) From Bocas town, Bocas Water Sports runs frequent boats to Coral Cay, where I saw a gargantuan, four-foot-long barracuda as well as needlefish and parrotfish swimming among hard and soft coral. The company also took me to one of the archipelago’s secret spots: Zapatillas Cay, two uninhabited islands with yellow sand beaches backed by rain forest. I swam in limeade-green water as a dugout canoe, with a jury-rigged sail that looked as fragile as a handkerchief, drifted by — a scene that felt closer to Tahiti circa 1800 than to 21st-century Caribbean.
That night was my last in Panama, and I was already feeling nostalgic. Over a drink at the Wreck Deck, a floating bar in the town of Bocas, Carlos Jaramillo, one of the managers of Bocas Water Sports, expressed my options plainly: "Take the early flight out in the morning or stay in Bocas forever." Not an easy choice at all.
By: Claire Martin
Photographs by: Anne Sherwood