John Miller, co-owner of Boquete Mountain Adventures, navigates a river in Panama. Miller, who grew up in Kentucky, pioneered numerous runs down the rivers surrounding the mountain village of Boquete. (Scott Willoughby, The Denver Post )

CHIRIQUI PROVENCE, Panama — The dream is hardly uncommon among adventurous mountain dwellers navigating the peaks and valleys unique to the seasons of Colorado's high country.

They're known as "shoulder seasons," those languid lulls separating the flourishing tourist attractions of summer and winter. And while rarely economically beneficial, those slower spring and fall months when neither snow nor sun dominates the landscape are often recognized by adventurers as opportunities to explore and expand beyond their typical range.

Favored among many dreamers is the cluster of countries forming Central America, from Mexico to Costa Rica, where gringo dollars go a long way in a warm climate suited to year- round outdoor endeavors. They visit for weeks, seeking a connection to the culture and almost always asking at some point: How can I make this dream last?

Jim Omer appears to have found an answer.

Omer, from Ridgway, wasn't much different from his mountain-town neighbors when he landed in Costa Rica on a whitewater kayaking adventure about this time last year. He merely took his vision a step further.

"I was looking for something," said Omer, 36. "While I was traveling in Costa Rica, I had heard good things about Panama, so I came down to paddle with John to see what it had to offer. After that trip, I knew I wanted to be down here."

The John of reference is John Miller, a Kentucky-bred ex-pat who used his 10 years of training as a river guide at North Carolina's well-regarded Nantahala Outdoor Center to found the paddle-centric Boquete Outdoor Adventures in western Panama a few short years ago.

Miller pioneered dozens of whitewater kayaking runs surrounding the river-rich mountain village of Boquete while leading expeditions for NOC during the past 12 years, but he has since learned that a passion for paddling alone is likely not enough to sustain a full-time business in a place where the only distinction between seasons is wet and

Jim Omer, co-owner of Boquete Outdoor Adventures in Panama, checks out a plump Jack pulled from the Gulf of Chiriqui along Panama's Pacific Coast. (Scott Willoughby, The Denver Post)
dry. His ensuing partnership with Omer offered a well-timed injection of diversity.

"You really don't hear about a lot of kayaking-only outfitters succeeding at something like this," Miller said. "So it just made sense for us to branch out and expand our offerings with things like the sport fishing, sea kayaking, backpacking and whitewater rafting day trips. The thing that really works the best for us is custom trips, where groups can pick and choose what they want to do."

Only slightly larger than Ireland, the narrow isthmus may qualify as North America's best-kept adventure-travel secret, unrivaled on our continent in its diversity. Despite being the thinnest landmass between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, Panama contains about 480 rain-fed rivers tumbling from the flanks of countless mountains surrounding the high point of the dormant 11,400-foot Baru Volcano, just outside Boquete.

Untamed land a draw

The country is home to 940 bird species, more than in all of North America, and its dense forests contain the greatest number of animal species of all the countries north of Colombia. There are 1,518 mapped islands off its coasts, where Panama lives up to its Indian name meaning "abundance of fish." Its Pacific waters lay claim to more deep-sea fishing records than anywhere in the world. The Caribbean is only a couple hours away by car.

For someone like Omer, a habitual outdoorsman with a degree in environmental science and a resume that includes

The Caldera River is a popular spot for whitewater kayakers visiting the adventure- travel destination. (Scott Willoughby, The Denver Post)
a lengthy stint developing wilderness programs for Utah-based Aspen Youth Alternatives, the mix of ingredients in this concentrated natural melting pot proved too good to pass up.

"It's that diversity — going from the mountains to the beach in less than an hour — that makes this place so attractive and unique," Omer said. "And a lot of it still feels relatively untamed, wild, unexplored — at least relative to a place like Costa Rica. There are definitely some 'firsts' left here. You feel like a pioneer."

So close to all terrains

The irony lies in BOA's geographic proximity just more than an hour's drive from Costa Rica, a little less to Panama's third-largest city (David) and the Pacific Coast, and a few minutes from one of the nation's pre-eminent national parks (Volcan Baru), all on well-paved roads. Access to adventure is hardly an issue.

"It all depends on how intense you want your adventure to be," Omer said. "But it's real easy to sample the whole gamut of what Panama has to offer."

In their bid to establish a bona fide eco-tourism industry, Omer and Miller buy from local merchants, employ local workers and last month shared their knowledge of wilderness first aid with area guides. Omer has been involved with mangrove revegetation in the nearby Gulf of Chiriqui, and he and Miller (along with wife Robin) helped coordinate relief efforts for victims of a remote flood-ravaged village last September.

So far, their efforts have been well-received, which remains important in keeping the dream alive.

"More and more people are discovering Panama all the time," Omer said. "The standard of living is different than people expect in the U.S., but the quality of life is really good for the people who live here. We try to help that quality of life by providing jobs for the locals, and they seem to appreciate the business we bring. Everyone is really welcoming here, and we happen to really enjoy what we do, so it really is a win-win situation."

On the web: www.boqueteoutdooradventures.com