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Thursday, August 27, 2015

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Blissing out in the tropics of Panama

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Visitors can play with howler monkeys at the Alouatta Lodge & Rescue Centre.

BOCAS DEL TORO, Panama – Only four hours away by air from Toronto on a direct Copa Airlines flight, Panama is a relatively new, reasonably priced destination for eco-inclined tourists drawn to the allure of jungle-clad mountains, palm-fringed sandy beaches and warm, emerald waters.

Canadians in search of such attractions in the western hemisphere usually head for Costa Rica, whose manifold attractions are indeed appealing. But of late, Panama has been breathing down Costa Rica’s back in the race for tourist dollars. The reason is clear. Panama, while just as beautiful as Costa Rica, is cheaper, an important consideration in these economically uncertain times.

On a recent trip to Panama, my daughter and I found nirvana in the adjacent and remote provinces of Bocas Del Toro and Chiriqui.

We started our tour at the Alouatta Lodge & Rescue Center in Chiriqui’s sweltering tropical lowlands. Thirty minutes by bus from the town of David, the flyblown capital of the province, this rehabilitation centre for howler monkeys is owned and administered by Steve Walker – an Australian horticulturalist and landscaping contractor – and his wife, Michelle. It’s one of the only places of its kind in the Americas, they said.

The Walkers established Alouatta, an oasis of botanical gardens and groomed paths cutting through the rainforest, four years ago with the intention of rescuing orphaned howler monkeys, which are indigenous to Panama.

Typically, the Walkers rescue and rehabilitate monkeys whose mothers have been killed for bush food or whose pet owners have abandoned them. “We’re here to keep them strong and healthy before we release them into their natural habitat in the forest,” explained Michelle, a spunky woman who tends to the monkeys with tender, loving care.

There are eight howler monkeys in Alouatta, which is set high on a densely forested mountain with a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean. They roam freely on the premises, but being people-friendly, they are permitted to interact with visitors, who usually like to cuddle with them. One warning: do not hold them tightly or restrict their movements, or else they may bite.

The Walkers have successfully released three males into the wild, but some of their charges have preferred to remain in the sanctuary.

Apart from howler monkeys, the Walkers keep several Geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys in cages. Indigenous to Panama’s Darien Gap and the primary forests near Panama City, they’re caged because they’re vicious in the company of people.

After spending a few hours in Alouatta, we drove to the town of Boquete, a town in the cool, pleasant highlands of central Chiriqui, a region of coffee plantations.

Slightly more than 1,200 metres above sea level, Boquete is a rather unremarkable place, its rustic Spanish colonial plaza, cafes and arts and crafts shops notwithstanding. But the setting in which it is located, a lush valley bisected by the fast-flowing Caldera River, is lovely.

Aside from horseback riding and whitewater rafting, the main attraction in Boquete is hiking. We opted for a guided four-hour hike in a cloud forest. Not surprisingly, a fine, misty rain fell as we embarked. As we climbed higher into the mountains, we passed strawberry fields and isolated farmsteads.

We paused at three thundering waterfalls deep in the jungle, but it was too cool for a refreshing dip.

In the distance lay Baru, a dormant volcano that, at 3,475 metres, is the highest point in Panama. Baru, which last erupted about 800 years ago, was not our destination, so we proceeded through the cloud forest, stopping to examine and taste such wild and edible fruits as naranjilla, which is green and tart, and water cress, a minty, chewy herb.

The forest was awe-inspiring, a mélange of giant ferns, impenetrable bushes, delicate flowers and towering hardwood trees. Toward the end of the hike, we stumbled upon baby coffee trees, their white blossoms giving off a heady aroma.

Driving northward the following day, we reached the grimy banana port of Almirante, where a boat took us to the Bocas Del Toro archipelago, which consists of six relatively small islands that were discovered by the Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus in 1502.

Within 40 minutes, we landed on Colon island, the southern tip of which houses the capital, Bocas Del Toro. As we disembarked, the intoxicating odour of diesel fuel and salt water impregnated our nostrils.

On a breezy bicycle ride that afternoon, we discovered that the town, although somewhat scruffy, is dotted with exquisite Caribbean-style residential buildings painted in soft pastel hues.

The Caribbean influence here is palpable, given the influx of Jamaicans and other islanders who arrived here from the 19th century onward. Strangely, most of the shopkeepers here are ethnic Chinese, with a sprinkling of Palestinian Arabs.

On our first full day, we piled into a class-A ocean-going catamaran for a day of sightseeing, snorkelling and swimming. The captain was a German from Hannover who has lived in Panama for the last two decades.

Those of us who were game jumped into the crystal clear water and swam through schools of such brightly-coloured fish as dog snappers, yellowfin groupers, neon gobies and clown wrasses.

Fortified by a lunch of a tuna sandwich, local beer and a slice of pineapple, we disembarked at a marina where a Canadian yacht from Port Colborne, Ont., was moored. A dirt road led us to Red Frog beach, where the surf was awesome.

The next morning, we cycled northward, reaching La Gruta, a waterlogged cave brimming with bats and encrusted with guano, and Boca Del Drago, a fine, curving beach draped by bent coconut palm trees. We cycled on a two-lane asphalt road cutting through a pristine rainforest, passing teak wood and banana plantations. The air was moist and fragrant.

Lunch was one of the highlights. Under a cluster of palm trees on the beach, I dined on grilled jackfish, coconut-infused rice, fried plantains and a carrot salad. The meal was delicious.

Call it another blissful day in the tropics of Panama.

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