Panama, where you can zip among the coffee plants

By David Taylor
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 19, 2010; 10:46 AM

The words "zip line canopy tour" brought visions of a childhood dream: gliding over emerald rows of plants in Panama's coffee highlands. I imagined flicking under the dark green leaves of coffee trees, just yards above the rich soil, getting a thrill and a deep appreciation of a new place at the same time. Sitting at my home computer, that vision struck me as pretty irresistible. My wife, Lisa, and I were planning a trip to see my cousins in Panama, so I typed in a few lines, and zip! I had a reservation.

"¡Hola David! Greetings from Boquete!" came the reply from Carlos at Habla Ya, a Spanish-language school that also books eco-tours and adventure travel. "We'll make sure that you have an amazing vacation full of unforgettable moments."

Muy bueno.

We arrived in Panama from a snowbound Washington, a jolt akin to landing on the Equator from the moon. "It's sweltering," Lisa said in the airport. "Not that I'm complaining."

In Panama City with my cousins, we strolled the atmospheric old quarter, Casco Viejo, taking in its jazz clubs, galleries, restaurants and New Orleans-style aura, then flew to Boquete. Nestled in Panama's coffee highlands, Boquete is far from the brutal humidity of the capital and known more for rafting, coffee farm tours and gringo retirees than for history. (Our taxi driver told us that the name of Las Ruinas, a restaurant outside town, refers to a fake ancient ruin.) The area's oldest coffee mill dates to 1917.

Not long ago, coffee experts from the Roasters Guild journeyed to Boquete to probe its secrets and learned that the east-west curve of Panama (my cousins called it "the downspout effect," from its shape on the map) allows a unique web of cold air currents through the mountains. The currents cause a flourishing of microclimates - subtly varied blends of temperature, moisture and sunlight - that suit the finicky coffee plants.

More recently, the mountain air also spawned zip line tours, typically as a way to see a forest's upper reaches. (The zip's history goes back to H.G. Wells's 1897 novella, "The Invisible Man," as a fair ride in which "one could be hurled violently against a sack at the other end"; Wells astutely observed that the notion held "considerable favor among the adolescent.") So we showed up at Los Establos Plaza, climbed into Boquete Tree Trek's open-sided diesel truck along with 10 other travelers from Europe, Asia and the United States, and rode up the mountain.

The air quickly got cooler, the road narrowed and we passed the dark green coffee leaves that I'd pictured. They were, however, way too low to fly under. Coffee plants can grow pretty tall but get trimmed to about eight feet for easier harvest. Some varieties prefer shade from a higher layer of trees; others prefer full sunlight.

For the last bone-thumping stretch, the truck scaled a steep two-track drive up to Palo Alto, a base that resembles a verdant ski lodge. It boasts a cluster of cabins where you can stay for $90 a night, far from town but close to hiking trails through the 148-acre preserve, and a massive view of Volcan Baru, Panama's highest peak, where, they say, you can glimpse both Atlantic and Pacific.

We got a quick training session in the correct position for sliding, how to brake and how to zip, and what signals we needed to know. Then came another 10-minute ride higher, to 6,000 feet, where, sporting orange helmets, we dismounted and hiked to the first platform. The half-dozen "canopy guys," a professional crew of locals who all speak English, pointed out various mushrooms and orchids growing in the moist outcrops and branches in the high mountain air. Elusive birds, including the colorful quetzal, were heard but not seen.

The canopy guys dubbed the zip line "Boquete Tree Trek airlines" because it flies you more than two miles through the sky via a dozen runs that zigzag between ridges. The strategy was to start us on a short soar (90 yards) to check our form. If someone seemed unprepared for the longer runs, they'd be urged to dismount at Platform 6, before the four longest. Our group ran the gamut: from a New Jersey couple in their late 50s and their three 20-something kids; to several of us in our 40s, including a German couple; to an engineering grad student from Michigan. Only one of us had to step down. I had tried a shorter zip line before, in Virginia, but the elevation of the Boquete cables (the highest nearly 200 feet above the ground) was breathtaking. And not always in a good way.

You might say the hour and a half flew by. Try as I did to hold on to each leap through the overgrowth - to look down and really see the stream beneath the ferns, bromeliads and vines - it all spun so quickly. I got into the groove of putting my gloved hand on the cable behind my head, leaning back and crossing my ankles as I flew down the line. I reeled in one massive centuries-old hardwood after another.

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