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.
The moment we pulled up in front of the anconField Station, our base for the next three nights, we felt that our vacation was hitting its stride. With aquamarine clapboard walls, an open-air dining room-cum-dock built over Bocas del Toro's harbor, and upstairs suites opening onto a balcony strung with hammocks, the field station breathes Key Largo-style, laid-back adventure. Within minutes the kids were in their swimsuits and diving off the dining-room porch into the lagoon, clambering back for more while Jeff and I lounged in big teak deck chairs. The water was warm as a sigh, and the boys swam until dark, demonstrating their cannonballs, swan dives, and even a front flip. As it got dark, they drip-dried in the warmth of the night, and a pair of dolphins swam by, maybe 100 yards away.
The next day, as we were finishing an alfresco dock breakfast of melon and mango, scrambled eggs, toast, flat-cakes with jam, and dark Panamanian coffee, a fiberglass skiff pulled in and a huge, rotund man stepped out. This was Livingston, our local guide and a native of the neighboring island of Bastimentos. His enormous belly and Houston Astros baseball cap, strapped on tight by gold aviator goggles, lent him the jolly aspect of a West Indian Santa. The boys were mesmerized by his girth and deep voice. Along with Ivan, who flashed me a big thumbs-up sign as we hopped onto the boat and sped out for the day, we were joined on our excursions by the Bowditch family from Massachusetts—a couple traveling with their grandchildren—who were also staying at the field station. Fortuitously, the grandkids, Po and Z, were the same ages as Sam and James. Since we were all traveling with Wildland and were roughly on the same itinerary, we decided to join forces.
Livingston began by taking us to Bastimentos, where we docked near a remote Guaymi Indian village and hiked to the first of the untouched beaches we'd be visiting over the next few days. Everyone waded into the gentle surf, except Livingston, who sat smiling encouragingly amid the pile of cast-off T-shirts and shorts.
"One time the Panamanians didn't come much to Bocas," he said when we got back, "but now the hotels are full-up. All different nations here—that's the way it is now." Jeff and Sam walked along the beach, a thin strip of café con leche-colored sand lined with coconut palms and West Indian almond trees. Ivan and James returned to the shallows for a snorkeling lesson—James's first—and because the emerald water was nearly still, he could see straight to the bottom. For a long time I sat on the beach, watching their snorkels bob about.
James emerged waterlogged but ecstatic: "Mom, we found manatee grass, and turtle grass, and some little parrot fish, and Ivan taught me how to say 'cool' underwater"—and he made the "okay" sign.
Along with laid-back biology lessons and beautiful beaches where the only tracks might be those of tiny red frogs, what makes these Panamanian islets so memorable is the locals. In the San Blás Islands, to the northeast of Panama City (which we longed to visit, if only we'd had enough days),the Kuna women dress as their ancestors did. They wear wrap skirts, shirts sewn from intricate reverse-appliqué fabric, and iridescent bands wrapped tightly around their arms and legs, making them as brilliant as tropical birds. On Bastimentos, the Guaymí Indians we encountered live by fishing and subsistence farming, travel by dugout, and reside in thatched-roof huts without electricity or running water. While we played on the beach, small children eyed us from the trees. Jeff and Sam returned from a walk, having watched two Guaymí boys bodysurf on pieces of driftwood.
Not that all of our encounters were this cross-cultural. Much of our time was spent simply hanging out at a series of docks and thatched-roof cabanas built over an aquarium-like snorkeling spot known as Coral Key. Cervezas and refrescos cost $1 at the mint-green snack bar with the robin's-egg-blue tin roof; we drank them sittingon the wooden walkways between the docks, dangling our feet in the water and watching schools of parrot fish and angelfish endlessly shape and reshape themselves. At one point, snorkeling with the Bowditches, we looked like a school of fish meeting schools of fish. It took a sinister and extremely territorial barracuda to herd the kids back toward the dock—and even then they hung in the water for ages, thrilled by the threat of such a predator.
By late afternoon each day, we'd boat back to the field station in time to mess about some more. Sam, James, and their friends smashed coconuts in the courtyard, swung from hammocks overlooking the harbor, pestered the imperturbable Ivan, and stayed up late playing blackjack. Jeff and I felt comfortable enough with the setup that one afternoon we spontaneously sneakedoff to explore the town of Bocas del Toro, once a busy center for banana trading. We'd intended to walk just a block but found ourselves drawn on—down the main drag, where jazz floated out of a whitewashed café, past a band of men playing dominoes in a park, to the docks. Here young boys dressed as roosters, with bells fastened to their ankles, were celebrating a carnival by playing an elaborate street game thatinvolved slapping long whips at one another.
The town, with its run-down colonial architecture, tin roofs, and turn-of-the-century details, had a completely seductive, dissolute charm. As Jeff would saymuch later, apropos of nothing, "If I ever wanted to disappear for a while, I'd go to Bocas." On the wide, sand-strewn boulevard, in front of the old Hotel Bahía(once the headquarters of the United Fruit Co.), we watched islanders ride their bikes down the middle of the street, dodging potholes as the island's few taxis dodged them. Music played, bicycle bells rang, roosters crowed, hammers hammered, and the whole place thrummed with the sleepyyet rough-and-ready vibe of an uncharted outpost. An expat community has begun opening a few barsand funky dockside restaurants, and we saw small bands of surfers flag down water taxis or even dugout canoes, load up their boards, and take off for distant reefs.
On our next-to-last night at theField Station, tables and chairs were pushed aside and the local band, the Beach Boys of Bastimentos, showed up (by boat) for a dance party. They weren't always in tune, but before we knew what had hit us, everyone was dancing to reggae. The bass player had brought along his seven-year-old son, Moises, and he teamed up with James, who learned that, in both their languages, the word barracuda is the same. Moises joined us for snorkeling the next day, and after we'd returned to our rooms, James made his new friend a present: a good-bye note with three colored pencils taped to it. We figured the odds were slim we'd ever see Moises again, but a few hours later, what do you know?
"Hola!" he said, jumping off a sidewalk.
"Hola!" James said, and handed over his gift.
We adults watched, incredulous at the coincidence, while Moises unwrapped the pencils and ran off to tell the town.
Traveling in Panama wasn't always easy, but the experience—despite, or maybe because of, the complexities—thrilled us. We decided the country is, in fact, a long way from being the next Costa Rica. Call it the next next Costa Rica. There are few luxury lodges on the outskirts of its rain forests, few English-speaking wildlife guides, no safari vans ferrying nature-lovers about. But we had encounters we will not soon forget, and we loved the feeling of being someplace most of the traveling world has yet to discover. There is still much talk about turning Panama into an eco-tourist's dream-come-true, but from what we saw, it's going to take a while. And for that we were glad.
Back at Panama City's Caesar Park Hotel—cotton sheets for Jeff, blow-dryer for me, Nintendo for the boys—it was clear the boys felt slightly bereft. I knew the feeling. Although wefinally had regained our creature comforts, we hadfelt closer to one another in the rain forest and on the reefs, unknown territories that cast into relief our identity as a family. We might be cleaned up and headed home, but we already missed the wild places.
There are a few travel operators who specialize in custom itineraries for families headed to Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize, and while it is slightly more expensive to travel this way, I highly recommend it for first-time visitors. You can have your entire trip laid out for you or work with your guide to create the ideal itinerary. Meals tend to be family style with an emphasis on chicken, fish, rice, salads—simple buffets with plenty of options, even for those on an all-white-food diet. Here, the essentials for a successful family trip to Central America's big three.
BEST FAMILY TOUR OPERATOR
The Panama Family Adventure from Wildland Adventures (3516 N.E. 155th St., Seattle; 800/345-4453 or 206/365-0686; www.wildland.com; $1,895 per adult, $1,295 per child) includes visits to the Panama Canal, rain and cloud forests, and the Caribbean coast. Accommodations are very simple by American standards, but the pace is flexible and the planned outings are outstanding. The mosquito repellent went unused: we encountered fewer bugs than we have on a summer evening in Connecticut.
WHERE TO STAY
The rustic but completely charming lodge set harborside at Bocas del Toro's Ancon Field Station (011-507/757-9226; www.ecopanama.com; $80 per person daily, including meals) is being renovated to install private baths in all upstairs rooms and add a new wing, for a total of 17 rooms. The downstairs dining dock has been converted into a full-service restaurant.
Gamboa Rainforest Resort (Canal area; 877/800-1690 or 011-507/314-9000; www.gamboaresort.com; villas from $200) has just opened as the Panama Canal's first destination resort, with 48 comfortable plantation-style one- and two-bedroom villas that originally housed canal administrators and their families from the 1930's to the 80's. There are extensive grounds and lots of activities: an aerial tram that runs above the rain forest, a butterfly aviary, turtle and iguana nesting areas, and botanical gardens. A 107-room hotel opened last June.
Hotel Los Quetzales (Guadalupe; 800/383-2107 or 011-507/771-2291; www.losquetzales.com; rooms from $44, chalets from $66) is one of the only eco-hotels in Panama or Costa Rica with accommodations inside a national park. Set in a highland cloud forest 6,800 feet above sea level, it's a birder's paradise. While our visit was uneven at best, we met other guests who were delighted with the setup. Five new luxury suites are due to open in December. With its unmatched rain-forest location, this is one to watch.
BEST FAMILY TOUR OPERATOR Costa Rica Expeditions (San José; 011-506/257-0766; www.costaricaexpeditions.com) pioneered the concept of ecotourism in Costa Rica. The guides are highly qualified, and the staff will help your family choose from an enormous range of possible touring combinations.
WHERE TO STAY
Lapa Ríos(Puerto Jiménez; 011-506/735-5130; from $151 per person daily) is a luxurious hideaway high above the sea, in a private 1,000-acre nature preserve near Corcovado National Park. It has 14 lovely thatched-roof bungalows, a swimming pool, rain-forest walks, and kayaking expeditions.
Finca Rosa Blanca Country Inn (near Santa Bárbara de Heredia; 011-506/269-9392; family of four from $245) is an estate-turned-inn with a pool on a green hillside. Located just outside San José, the house was built by an American family. Informal enough for well-behaved kids.
Capitán Suizo (Tamarindo; 800/948-3770 or 011-506/653-0075; family of four from $130), a 30-room resort, has it all: pretty bungalows as close to the beach as you can get, a pool with a rope swing, landscaped gardens, and a restaurant that welcomes children.
BEST FAMILY TRIP Wildland Adventures sets up itineraries ($1,795 per adult, $1,195 per child) that incorporate Mayan ruins at Tikal (in Guatemala), the jungle, and plenty of beach time along the Caribbean.
WHERE TO STAY
A small Caribbean resort on the sea, Green Parrot Beach Houses (Placencia; 011-501/63-7009; beach houses from $105 per day) has a friendly, gracious staff. Its quiet cabanas and beach houses that give families privacy.
Macal River Jungle Camp (near San Ignácio, Cayo; 011-501/92-2037,fax 011-501/92-2501; from $42 per person), An intimate camp of 10 recently built bungalows on the banks of the Macal River, near the ancient Mayan ruins of Tipu and Xunantunich. Offers swimming, canoeing, horseback riding, and mountain biking.
SIDE TRIP: THE SAN BLÁS ISLANDS
The approximately 350 San Blás islands are scattered along the northeast coast of Panama in the Caribbean Sea. A two-night visit—arranged by either Wildland Adventures (www.wildland.com) or ancon Expeditions of Panama (www.anconexpeditions.com)—is not for everyone, but it's a fascinating side-trip for capable kids and adventurous adults. These small islands are home to the Kuna Indians. You'll stay at Dolphin Island Lodge, owned and operated by a Kuna family, and travel by dugout canoe to the neighboring island of Achutupu. Kunas are fiercely independent and determined to protect their heritage. Kids might just join the cause after visiting the communal houses of Kuna chiefs.