The word reached us shortly after we arrived in Costa Rica: Panama is about to become the next Costa Rica. My sons—Sam, 10, and James, eight—and I were swinging in hammocks in a thatched-roof beach bar on Costa Rica's Osa Peninsula at the time. The country's less traveled neighbor to the southeast, we were told, has more species of flora and fauna and a less crowded rain forest. It also haswhite sand beaches, fish-filled waters just right for snorkeling, and no fewer than seven Indian tribes, each with its own culture and "costume," as the kids would say.
When it came time for my husband, Jeff, and me to plot the following spring's escape, there was no question of where we wanted to go. We weren't sure, though, that we were ready for a do-it-yourself road trip in Panama, and we suspected we might need to speak Spanish—which we don't (at least not very well). So we signed up through Seattle-based Wildland Adventures for a nine-day family trip with ancon Expeditions, a Panamanian outfitter specializing in nature tours. Best of all, we'd be traveling with a Spanish-speaking naturalist-guide who would also manage the day-to-day logistics of our trip. As parents we'd have the rare opportunity to relax without worrying about such potentially stressful details as breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
When our pre-departure package arrived in the mail, we tried on Wildland's go wild, millennium 2000 a.d. T-shirts, unfolded the huge map of Panama, and pondered the packing list. The mosquito repellent with deet gave us pause, as did the plastic trash bags (for wet clothes), but the rest was as easy as tossing shorts and Tevas into a bag.
We spent our first night in Panama City's Caesar Park Hotel, a 381-room tower with a cosmopolitan clientele, a luxurious swimming pool, and a dramatic setting beside the Gulf of Panama. In the morning we awoke to the pleasantly upside-down sight of the sun rising over the Pacific (Panama runs west to east), and realized we really were in a strange new land. At the hotel breakfast buffet, with such exotica as miniature boxes of Kellogg's Choco Flakes ("Las proteinas forman musculos!"), we met Ivan Hoyos, 28, our guide for the next six days. Sporting stylish baggy trousers, thick black-framed glasses, and a mischievous grin, he charmed us all instantly. A former second-grade teacher, Ivan was decidedly worldly: born and raised in the Canal Zone, he'd attended high school in New York City, college in Munich, and was now working on a graduate degree in wildlife science at the University of Washington.
An hour later, aboard a 33-passenger plane bound for Panama's western Chiriquí Highlands, Ivan was laying out our itinerary: two nights in the rain forest, followed by a drive over the Continental Divide to the Caribbean coast. There, we'd catch a ferry to the island town of Bocas del Toro, our base for three nights, before heading back to Panama City. We were on our way to the land of coffee and quetzals, Ivan said as the plane banked over crazy-quilt, broccoli-green fields and chugged through cauliflower-topped cumulus clouds. Jeff and I wereexcited about stalking the resplendently green-feathered, notoriously hard-to-spot quetzal, the Holy Grail of rain-forest bird-watching—but what about the boys?Ivan went on: we might also see sloths, manatees, crocodiles, and white-faced and howler monkeys, but probably wouldn't see the skittish jaguars or peccaries. "Watch out for the white-lipped peccary," he said. "It's shy but nasty. It smells like cheese gone bad, and it chewson nuts—loud. First you smell it, and then, when you hear this chomp, chomp, chomping coming at you, you'd better look fast for a tree to climb!"
"Mom," James whispered, "Ivan's cool!"
After the flight, we piled into a van and headed west on the pan-american highway. The roadwas in excellent condition compared to those we'd driven in Costa Rica, which surprised us. We passed through villages where terraced green fields of potatoes and onions grew on steep hills that jutted straight up behind the houses. At one point, a plastic window on the left side of the van blew open—it had been taped shut—and our driver, Mariano, amazed us all with his aplomb. Casually grabbing the flapping window with his left hand, he kept up a lively conversation on the cell phone in his right one—all the while steering with his elbows. "Manos, por favor! Manos, por favor!" we yelled, white-faced but grinning.
Lunch was in the Alpine-like town of Guadalupe, where brilliant patches of mustard flower edge the roads, and the windowsills of small blue and green houses hold pots of geraniums and impatiens. In the main lodge of the Hotel Los Quetzales, the kids commandeered the foosball table while Jeff and Iwatched a storm drift into the valley. Ivan explained that we'd be spending the night in a chalet in a 770-acre preserve tucked inside Panama's Volcan Barú national park. After lunch we'd get into a jeep, head up to the chalet on a road that was really more of a riverbed, and settle in for the afternoon. He would come back at about six to pick us up for dinner down at the main lodge.
This plan sounded fine, except that by the time we met the road that was really more of a riverbed—grinding along boulder by boulder in a tricked-out Toyota Land Cruiser over a quarter-mile stretch that took 20 minutes—some of us were becoming a little cranky. When we pulled up in front of our chalet, a two-story, three-bedroom tree house surrounded by virgin rain forest, our expectations were running high. But instead of the orchids, the miles of trails, the jaguars lurking in the bush, we saw only the mud, a cabin that appeared to have been uninhabited for quite some time, a rain that had now socked in hard, and our own breath hanging in the chilly air.
"You can't blame the rain forest for rain," a fellow guest observed the next day as we watched a hummingbird hovering in the mist. He was right, of course. We had ended up opting out of the chalet (there was no electricity, and its kerosene lanterns leaked) to sleepin a barracks-like bunkhouse next to the lodge. The lodge's almost Adirondack-style dining room was hung with paintings by the owner's brother, the well-known Panamanian artist Brooke Alfaro. As it turned out, the lodge's 11 lovely rooms were booked by a birding group—thus our placement in the rarely used overflow cabin. Other families we met were delighted with their chalets and rooms; one little girl traveling on our exact itinerary told me her favorite part of the trip had been spotting two quetzals outside her room. We'd hit a patch of bad travel luck, evidently.
It poured that night, pelting the tin roof above our heads. I hardly slept. But strangely, the four of us bedding down with three other guests in the room was, for the boys, who shared a single bunk, a highlight of the trip.
Part of Panama's appeal is that nothing works quite properly (the taped-up window on Mariano's van was a harbinger).Reservations get misplaced, the electricity goes out, your bed has lumps, there's a small earthquake during lunch in a crowded Panama City restaurant. As travelers, you have to adjust—or, in the case of the restaurant tremor, laugh and propose a toast to the chaos theory.
We arrived in the town of Chiriquí Grande, on the Caribbean, after a three-hour chartered-bus ride through miles of cloud forest and over the Continental Divide. (At the top we'd stopped and ceremoniously rolled from Panama's Pacific side to the Caribbean side.) We were expecting to board a ferry, but for two hourswere stranded on a dock waiting for the boat. The boys fished. I read. Jeff scoured the town for Chiclets and met a small boy who wanted to shine his sneakers. When we finally were on our way, it felt grand to be speeding around islets and mangroves across glassy water north to Isla Colón.