We show you how to enjoy this Latin American country in style.
Teri (my girlfriend-partner-whatever) and I decided to visit Panama after hearing one too many friends describe their ecotours: We wanted to explore Central America and the thought of the canal (history), rainforest retreats and island hideaways (bliss) sealed the deal. Our plan was to hop across the country via the regional airline Aeroplas from Panama City to David, a rainforest base camp in the lowlands of western Panama, and from there go to the Bocas del Toro, remote, sparsely populated islands in the blue Caribbean Sea. The one thing we didn’t factor in was attempting to buy plane tickets two days before New Year’s. Aeroplas was booked solid.
Storm clouds gathered in our hotel room. Phase II of our journey included a night in a treehouse perched high above a cloud forest, and there was no way we were missing that. Then the wonderful concierge at our hotel pointed us in the direction of Thrifty and hailed us a cab. Minutes later we drove off in a rented Toyota Yaris (Yari, we affectionately nicknamed her), an option we hadn’t previously considered. The route across the country was via the Pan-American Highway, Guinness’ longest “motorable road,” stretching from Alaska to Argentina. Our adventure began as we crossed the Bridge of the Americas and set out on the roughly six-hour drive to David.
We left the coast behind to climb our first mountain pass just as it began to get dark. I’ve seen many a dazzling night sky in my lifetime, where city lights become a distant memory; but I have never been so close to the stars as I was driving across that mountain. The sky was glowing, and the sparse landscape around us was clearly visible. I stuck my head out the window for a better look and drank in gulps of fresh cold air.
Along the road, with bright, flashing trucks barreling down on us and machete-wielding fieldworkers suddenly popping out of the darkness on the lip of the road, we got confused and lost, finally settling into the first available hotel in the bustling, friendly city of David. It was Friday night, a holiday, and the squares were packed with people. We did the only thing we could—enjoyed a delicious meal, strolled the streets and stepped inside an Internet café to write home. The next day, we started out early and promptly drove up the wrong side of Volcan Baru, the mountain home of our rainforest getaway. This detour proved magical: We ended up with a lovely driving tour of Boquette, a picturesque retirement community where nearly every house was adorned in a riot of live blooms.
When we finally found it, Los Quetzales, the quiet inn named for the gorgeous bird we never glimpsed, was exactly what we needed. We rode on horseback into the forest and indulged in one of the best spa services I’ve ever experienced: hours long, with a steamy eucalyptus-scented sauna. The tension eased out of my body to the music of a small but vocal river; pink hibiscus smiled as the sun shone on the last day of the year. After a scrumptious dinner in the inn’s cozy dining room, we reveled outside at midnight, amid locals shooting off fireworks and a three-legged dog howling at the moon.
The next day we set off for Bocas del Toro, a laid-back group of islands—some with small cities and an airport, others only big enough to support one house perched precariously on a rocky cliff—where getting around requires a water taxi, (i.e., a guy in a dug-out boat, with a flashlight to steer by when the sun goes down). Staying in small hotels on the water, we fell asleep to swells rushing across the sand, took a slippery mudslide through dense forest to be rewarded with a pristine, virtually empty half-shell beach and considered selling everything we owned to stay there forever.
But home beckoned. After a few days in paradise, we reluctantly retrieved Yari and sped back toward Panama City, the Bocas watching from a safe distance and the looming mountains gaping ahead. Barreling down the empty road, I casually mentioned to Teri that the pesky sign we were pretty sure translated to “slow down” was recurring more and more frequently. She ignored me and turned the music up louder. Then I noticed something suspicious—what looked like a long tree branch spanning the road. “It’s string,” I screamed. “Stop!” Teri’s foot hit the brake. Yari shuddered and slid to a screeching halt. When the smoke cleared, we looked up to see that there was, in fact, an unassuming bit of string stretched across the road. One side was tied to a stop sign and the other to the handlebar of a police motorcycle, the officer sitting calmly in wait. I began to panic.
The officer strolled over to the driver’s side. Teri relinquished Yari’s papers and her own. He studied them for a while and then walked back over to the motorcycle and started talking into his walkie-talkie. Meanwhile, the road was filling with cars and a kind young woman took pity on us—me glowering from the car, scribbling into my notebook, and Teri taking it all in stride, snapping photos of the string, the tire marks in the road and, surreptitiously, the officer himself. “They had to close the road to clean up a mudslide,” my new friend explained. “It’ll probably be at least another hour, maybe more.” Glancing at the officer, she smiled reassuringly. “Just give him some money when the road opens and I’m sure he’ll let you go. Don’t worry.”
The hours dragged on. Finally, the officer ambled away from his motorcycle and began clearing the stringy barricade. The path was clear, and he motioned for the other cars to pass us and continue on. When the very last car in the long line had snaked by, and the road was once again empty but for us and the officer, he walked over to the car, looked around once or twice and bent down with his palm open, face up. Teri handed over the hush money; the young officer finally cracked a smile; we exhaled and drove away. This time we kept to a modest pace, tracing our route back past sympathetic David and through the mountains of stars. We and rolled into Panama City with just enough time to find a room, sleep for three hours, then get to the airport and fly back home.
It was the best trip of my life.