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Panama Naturally

Part wild, part urban,and chock-full of life

By Hope Cristol, Globe Correspondent
PANAMA CITY -- I slept in a tent once. I drink water from the tap sometimes. I clean up after my dog always. These seemingly mundane activities actually distinguish me from friends and family: I am considered the hardy one.

I once believed that myth. That's how I ended up in Panama's Parque Natural Metropolitano, a lush tropical forest just 15 minutes outside bustling Panama City. The verdant canopy was dewy with dawn and teeming with wildlife as I began my ascent of Cerro Mono Titi.

Hundreds of species of birds chirped noisily; an iguana the size of my leg snoozed under leafy cover. For some time I trekked in breathless awe of this exotic and seemingly unspoiled pocket of the world. However, when a howler monkey let out its typical blood-curdling cry in the distance, I grew paranoid about hiking alone.

A marmoset dabbed with white swung from vine to vine in my direction, and I feared I was under attack. A pair of toucans swooped low overhead, and I hit the ground in terror. When a few ants crawled up my ankle, I shrieked and kicked hysterically, thinking (wrongly) that they were bullet ants, a sort found in Central and South America with a sting so painful it feels like getting shot.

Indeed, while friends and family planned comfortable vacations for the winter holidays, I opted to indulge my ''rugged" side with a week in the Panamanian wild. The idea was half-baked, but the novelty was an irresistible thrill -- and besides, my hiking boots were only collecting dust in the closet.

Turns out, I'm way too neurotic for a vacation in the rain forest. Yet the trip proved better than I ever imagined. On my hike in Metropolitano, which was spectacular despite my skittishness, I met a Florida family at the top of Cerro Mono Titi who helped change the course of my week. As I took in the summit's sweeping views of city and jungle, I said to no one in particular, ''There's so much more here than rain forest."

The teenage boy replied, "You just figured that out?"

In planning for an outdoor excursion, not a cultural immersion, I barely skimmed my guidebook's information on metropolitan life. Vaguely, I knew there were beaches, enclaves of the country's seven indigenous tribes, and historic sites, including the Panama Canal. I just hadn't planned on visiting them until this family recommended I call Ancon Expeditions, one of the country's best-known tour operators.

Panama is Central America's southernmost country. Shaped like a long, horizontal ''S" -- a squiggle, more or less -- it shares borders with Costa Rica to the west, Colombia to the east, the Caribbean Sea to the north, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Its nine provinces offer a diversity of landscapes, from banana plantations to coffee fincas, coral reefs to mountainous highlands. Unlike Costa Rica, Panama has not yet become a price-inflated eco-circus with billboards targeting tourists.

If you're traveling with children, or you're not much of a hiker, or you simply must have air conditioning, Panama City may be the best choice. It has all the cosmopolitan perks, plus proximity to both beach and rain forest. A short trip by car, propeller plane, or ferry will reveal places that feel like a different country altogether.

On the quiet islands of San Blas, for instance, you'll encounter the Kuna Indians. Their native craft, called molas -- applique-like fabric panels that depict the flora and fauna of San Blas -- are sold beachside and around the world.

Many Panamanian beaches are clean, safe, and a virtual must, especially during the dry season December to mid-April, when daytime temperatures climb into the 90s. Still, one day in crystalline waters is quite sufficient when there's so much else to do, as I learned from my Ancon Expeditions guide.

Pudgy and smiling and a redhead, Abdiel Aizpurua seemed to genuinely enjoy leading our group of five Americans around the swank Panama City. Aizpurua deftly narrated our visit to Casco Viejo, the historic district that is home to a monument to the French builders who first attempted the canal, the Panama Canal Museum, the Museum of National History, and the famous gilded wood altar at the San Jose Cathedral.

As we cruised along well-paved streets in a comfortable van, I learned much more about Panama than I could have retained through bedtime guidebook reading. Aizpurua was incessantly chatty, bringing new insight with his commentary. But he fell silent as we arrived at the Miraflores Locks, the first set of locks on the Pacific side.

The Panama Canal speaks for itself.

About 100 tourists shuffled around the viewing platform to get a good look at the black cargo ship powering toward us in the distance. A guide came over the microphone and announced the vessel was 300 yards long and several stories tall. The behemoth sent sizable waves through the otherwise still waters of the 51-mile-long canal that slices the country diagonally in half.

As the ship slowed to a crawl just before the locks, the only sound on the platform was the clicking of cameras capturing the approach. Once again, the canal guide came over the mike, informing us that this Panamax -- a generic name for the maximum size ship that fits in the canal -- would have to pay a $120,000 tax upon passing through. Wows passed over the crowd as we anticipated what came next.

The canal has three sets of gated locks, each with a mechanism to let water in and out. The locks are basically water lifts, raising or lowering ships about 85 feet: the distance from sea level to the level of Gatun Lake, the man-made lake that is part of the water system for the canal.

The southbound Panamax had to be lowered, so water drained from the lock in front of us. It took about 15 minutes for the ''sinking" ship to disappear from plain view. When it reappeared, scooting away from us at a lower level, the crowd burst into applause, unified by the rare opportunity to witness this engineering marvel.

Built by the United States from 1904 to 1914 as a time- and money-saving international trade route, the Panama Canal is an amazing sight in a developing country largely covered by jungle. Of course, the area in and around Panama City has so much American influence -- in large part due to Americans living in the Canal Zone for nearly 100 years, until the canal was given over to Panamanian control at the end of 1999 -- that it hardly seems otherworldly at all.

In the city, Aizpurua reassured us, one can drink from the tap, which I did as we ate lunch alfresco on the Amador Causeway. Having such a good time with the group, adjusting painlessly to the food and water, it all emboldened me. I could handle this country.

"Devil may care!" I thought to myself as I filled my water bottle from the hotel sink before heading out for a final hike in Metropolitano with my new friends. I would go home on a brave note, after all.