Beyond the Zone

The Highlands

Sep 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

When Panamanians want to escape the lowland swelter they head for the Chiriquí highlands surrounding 11,340-foot Volcán Barú on the Costa Rican border. If you reach the highlands via the stomach-churning three-hour bus ride from Bocas del Toro over the Cordillera Central, you can celebrate your safe arrival in Panama's "Little Switzerland" with fresh-grown coffee and strawberries—and rejuvenating hikes though shady cloud forests.
Ever aware of nearby Costa Rica's booming tourism business, Chiriquí guides are fond of pointing out the inverse relationship between tourists and quetzals, the green-tailed Holy Grail of birders. Sure enough, my quetzal-free tromps along Costa Rica's populous trails contrast sharply with a single hike on Barú's slopes, where my guide showed me four in less than an hour. (The best local hike is Sendero los Quetzales, a five-mile trail that crisscrosses the Río Caldera as it encircles the volcano.)

Or try your luck hanging out near a bird feeder on the deck of a chalet at Carlos Alfaro's Cabanas los Quetzales, just down the road from the trailhead near the hamlet of Guadalupe. Perched at the edge of La Amistad International Park, a million-acre reserve that straddles the Costa Rican border, Alfaro's oasis sits among flower-lined paths and stream-fed pools stocked with huge rainbow trout. Alfaro serves them up with organic vegetables grown in his garden at Hotel los Quetzales, a ten-room lodge he recently opened in Guadalupe.
At the eastern end of Sendero los Quetzales lies the high-valley town of Boquete, where many of Panama's gentry—and a growing number of expatriates—have built sprawling retreats and coffee plantations. From here you can climb Barú, Panama's gusty high point; on a clear day you can see the island-flecked waters of both the Caribbean and the Pacific.
Without a doubt, though, the Chiriquí's greatest thrill is the recently introduced diversion of whitewater rafting. A reassuringly safety-conscious local company, Chiriquí River Rafting, offers day trips along the Río Chiriquí or the Chiriquí Viejo, both of which have highly respectable Class III-IV rapids, especially during the May-to-December rainy season. And starting this November, North Carolina—based Nantahala Outdoor Center will colead multiday trips, including some possible first kayak descents.
As more veteran adventure outfits like NOC set up outposts in Panama's backcountry, the options are going to multiply. What better way to celebrate the new century, in any case, than with a freewheeling tour of a country that's been a U.S. military and economic asset for much of the century—a country, it turns out, that most of us civilians never knew at all?

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