OpenRoad Driver Volume 15 Issue 1 - Page 74

74 » OpenRoad Driver The world’s finest coffee beans grow in abundance on the slopes of the Barú Volcano in Boquete, located in Panama’s highlands. Thick, lush tropical vegetation surround me and the sound of the rushing river fills my ears as a cool breeze cuts the 35-degree Celsius heat of Panama’s rainy season. “Ten years ago it was much cooler here,” Isabel notes sadly. “Global warming is changing everything and we’re losing species as a result of climate change.” We travel west on the Americana Highway later in the day to join a rafting trip down the Old Chiriquí River, whose whitewater tumbles from the slopes of the volcano, flanked by forests and narrow canyon walls. It’s a fast rollercoaster down class 3-4 rapids that leaves us breathless, exhilarated and soaking wet. So we’re sleepy for the next part of our journey, a drive over the continental divide that separates the highlands from the Caribbean coastal port of Almirante, the gateway to the Bocas del Toro archipelago’s 130 islands. Prime among Panama’s attractions, Bocas has it all: turquoise waters where dolphins are easily sighte d, white-sand beaches with palm trees leaning at precarious angles, and island towns filled with West Indian Caribbean sounds and flavours. It’s a scene straight out of a postcard and one that forces even the most work-addicted travelers to put their phones away and soak up the beauty. We head straight to Isla Bastimentos, checking into Eclypse de Mar, a small hotel with bungalows suspended on stilts above the sea. From the hammocks on our deck we throw fish food into the water and are soon entertained by a swirl of activity as tropical fish swarm to the surface. Old Town Bastimentos, just across the water, was once a haven for 17 th -century pirates who repaired and rebuilt their ships on Bocas’ islands before continuing their pillaging journeys. Later, wealthy aristocratic settlers arrived with their black slaves, and after slavery was abolished, those slaves turned to fishing and farming, many of them working in the banana industry. Today tourism supplements the subsistence farming while water taxis zoom, readily available to transport visitors on snorkeling trips and meal excursions between the islands. We brandish a white flag from our dock to hail one, commuting five minutes across the water for a dinner of plantains and Caribbean fried chicken. At night we’re lulled to sleep by the vibe of joyful music that drifts over the Caribbean. The Bocas archipelago is home to the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. Before our trip draws to a close we board a day-long boat tour to explore the park. Our captain careens through islets thickly populated with mangrove trees, pointing to a sloth hanging nonchalantly in the crook of a branch. We snorkel around massive chunks of brain coral at Isla Zapatillas, circle the islands powder-soft beach by foot, and bask in the perfect beauty of this Caribbean jewel. When a gleaming pod of dolphins cavorts near our boat it’s the cherry on top of a trip that will live long in memory. While Costa Rica is hot on the tourist map, Panama’s highlands and Caribbean islands remain quiet spots, relatively undiscovered. For adventurous travelers that journey this way, the rewards are plenty. W H E N YO U G O Fo r g e n e r a l i n f o r m a t i o n o n Pa n a m a , v i s i t Pa n a m a To u r i s m . Ad v e n t u r e L i f e s p e c i a l i z e s in creating customized itineraries for travelers to Pa n a m a , p re a r r a ng i ng a l l details, from water taxis and fl ights to hotel s and excursions. adve nture - l i fe . c om 1 (800) 344-6118