Tuesday 15 October 2019

Panama & Costa Rica: Soaring, soaking and snacking in Central America

Mary O'Sullivan enjoys a travel adventure with a difference in Panama and Costa Rica

Majestic waterfall in the rainforest jungle of Costa Rica
Majestic waterfall in the rainforest jungle of Costa Rica
Mary goes solo on the Mother of all ziplines called the Speedy Gonzales

Mary O'Sullivan

"Do it, do it, do it, no one dies doing it," the normally cowardly Eleanor Goggin of this parish exhorted me before I headed off to Central America.

She was referring to the fact that part of my itinerary was a morning of ziplining over the canopy of the rainforest in Costa Rica, something she like me, would ordinarily have freaked at, but she was feeling smug because she had - reluctantly - ziplined in Las Vegas and lived to tell the tale.

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"But maybe I will be the one who does die?" I piped up weakly.

"Brilliant," she said, "then you will always be remembered as the wild one and not the lily-livered person you really are."

Harsh words but true. I've always hated roller coasters, etc and in my declining years I've become worse.

Flying business class with KLM to Central America via Amsterdam did take my mind off the harrowing ordeal due to happen five days later. I thoroughly enjoyed the delicious meals, the latest movie releases, not to mention the full bed included in the service.

Mary goes solo on the Mother of all ziplines called the Speedy Gonzales
Mary goes solo on the Mother of all ziplines called the Speedy Gonzales

The luxury continued at our first destination, Panama, where we stayed at the American Trade Hotel right in the heart of Casco Viejo, or the old town of Panama City, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The hotel, one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, is truly unique combining sustainability, the expected luxury of the SLH group - incomparable bedlinen and toiletries, Nespresso in every room - with a great building, exactly the kind of colonial haunt you'd see in movies about happenings in South America.

It was built in 1907, initially as an apartment building and with its gorgeous architecture - lofty foyers, floor-to-ceiling multi-paned windows, mosaic floors, expansive spaces, stone staircases and balconies, it was lived in by the elite.

Like a lot of the Casco Viejo it was abandoned in the 1970s but in recent years it's been completely refurbished and there's so much to admire - the mid-century modern style furniture made from the trees which came down in Nicaragua during hurricane Felix, the original floors covered in wood salvaged from trees uprooted around the Panama Canal. Meals in the hotel were delicious as they were everywhere we ate in Panama.

Panama is a city of two parts. There's the modern part which rivals New York and Shanghai for its skyline; the many skyscrapers at its water's edge are either banks or apartments for high net worth individuals. Then there's the old city which in many ways is like Barcelona was before it became so touristic.

Casco Viejo has a web of tiny streets, working markets, quirky churches, edgy boutiques, cafes and palm-lined squares with old buildings. The cultural centre in Placa Francis was used as the hotel in Quantum of Solace. And, of course, there's lots of coffee and chocolate, and we enjoyed wonderful afternoons of organic tastings. Did you know the higher the chocolate content in your bar, the greater the snap?

Just near the city is the rainforest - the rainforest was one of the reasons KLM brought us here. The airline is keenly aware of its ecological obligations and because air travel is so harmful to the Earth's atmosphere, they are making it their mission to even out the damage by undertaking many sustainability projects. They recently announced the creation of Europe's first dedicated plant for the development of sustainable aviation fuel. Another project is their re-forestation programme in Panama - CO2OL Tropical Mix - under which they replanted 500 hectares since 2017.

The rainforest near the city is home to an indigenous tribe called the Embera who live on the banks of the Charges. They welcome tourists and we had a wonderful morning in their village with its thatched homes on stilts - they get a lot of rain in the rainy season! As we meandered down the river to their jungle home we enjoyed all sorts of wildlife - turtles, toucans, kingfishers, even a type of alligator known as a cayman.

Of course a trip in the rainforest is not like going to a zoo - you have to keep your eyes peeled and the more keen-eyed you are the more you see.

The tribe who wear traditional dress - bright dresses for the females, colourful loincloths for the males while everyone goes barefoot - chat as they work with tree fibres making baskets, and wood carving and beading.

One elder, Aleppio, brought us around their farm and had us tasting all sorts of herbs which they use for a variety of ailments, including a leaf called dormidera which they use for sleeping - it numbed my tongue instantly. According to our guide, Neil Armstrong and his team at Nasa learned jungle survival skills from the Embera people prior to heading into space.

After entertainment from the Embera and a meal of fried fish and plantains, we headed for the canal.

The canal is probably what most of us think when we hear the word Panama and, of course, it is hugely significant. Named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, it means that ships which want to go from North to South America can, by going via the canal, cut three weeks off their journey.

Apparently it was first envisaged by Carlos V of Spain back in the 1500s; every power which colonised Panama talked about it but it was finally realised by the Americans who built it and opened it in 1914. It's said 20,000 people lost their lives during its construction. In the first year, 1,000 ships sailed through the canal; these days, they can expect 13,000 annually. It is mesmerising to witness giant cargo ships going through the seriously narrow series of locks and passing through unscathed.

By this stage most of the group, now in love with Panama, were sporting panama hats - but it was time to move on to Costa Rica.

All I knew about this lovely country before I landed was that most of the pineapples we eat come from Costa Rica. In fact there's so much more, including the fact that it's the most eco-conscious country in the world. It's home to phenomenal rainforests, produces some of the best coffee and chocolate plantations in the world and is outstandingly beautiful. As are the people whose mantra is pura vida - basically meaning life is great.

It's also probably the adrenaline sports capital of the world - hence the ziplining. You could ignore that of course and just relax as we did for much of our time in our fabulous base - Tabacon Thermal Resort and Spa, two hours from the capital San Jose. Tabacon, another Small Luxury Hotel, is situated within a few miles of the Arenal volcano and its USP is its many hot spring pools which come from Arenal.

The springs, set in lush rainforest, are 100pc natural, and alongside them is a fabulous spa and pool complex. Again sustainability is important - all the hot water in the gorgeous rooms comes from the springs and they had us planting saplings which would be later moved to the rainforest.

The cuisine rivalled that of Panama - the breakfast had everything you could wish for - fresh fruit, fresh juices, pastries, breads, eggs every which way, a cheeseboard to die for and it being a spa, the most incredible fresh smoothies. Dinner was Michelin-star quality.

But then they're lucky in terms of the quality of the ingredients they can draw on as we discovered when we visited the organic coffee and cocoa bean farm of Don Erasmo. The scent of herbs, including turmeric, lemon grass, peppermint, coriander, oregano, pimiento - the mix of herbs was due to the mix of nationalities who came to Costa Rica to build the railway back in 1873 - filled the air, while the pineapples, lychees and mangos oozed juice.

Andreas showed us how they grow, harvest and roast coffee the organic way. Apparently many families in Costa Rica have small holdings. It's not easy to harvest and the Costa Rican tradition was to have families of 15, 20 children in order to help with the harvest. Families are smaller now but interestingly, while child labour is illegal for everything else, it's still legal for coffee harvesting.

Coffee drinking is ingrained in the psyche of the Costa Rican, and a person is judged by the quality of the coffee he gives a guest. Don Erasmo gave us the best accompanied by a local snack - a type of batter made with cassava and stuffed with cheese, called Enyucado. Yummy.

Not so yummy were the many insects and other wildlife we spotted on a hanging bridges walk through the rainforest near Tabacon.

Hanging high above the many trees we were enthralled by our guide Gabriella who spoke so fluently and warmly about the living things she drew our attention to - including a variety of deadly snake called the eyelash snake whose bite would kill you in two hours - that I got a new perspective about the many creatures which surround us. Her story about the fly bot which gets pleasure out of getting into the head of the tarantula and tormenting it had me even feeling sorry for tarantulas.

The next day, I was feeling even more sorry for myself. The time for the zipline had come. I was even more terrified when I discovered I would have to do SEVEN, swinging through the canopy of the rainforest from one platform to another. Beforehand I genuinely felt as if my heart would burst out of my chest. I enlisted encouragement from one of my fellow travellers, all of whom were at least 20 years younger than me. Sian, a lovely Welsh woman, tried to console me by telling me the zipwire was just like a roller coaster. My least favourite thing in the whole world. Aargh.

But you know what. I did it. I admit that two gorgeous Costa Ricans, Manuel and Charlie from Sky Adventures, took turns coming tandem-style with me on four of the journeys but I did fly solo on the one they call Speedy Gonzales, the longest and the fastest.

Was it awful? Yes, Was it exhilarating. God yes. Have I got endless boasting out of the experience - oh my God , my family and friends are sick of me.

Do I intend to go back to Costa Rica? Definitely. But most probably more to soak in the hot springs and see my little yellow almond tree flourishing rather than ziplining again.

If you happen to go there, and I recommend you do, say pura vida to tree no 29/17.

Take Two: Top attractions

Miquel’s magic flute

Miquel, of the Embera people, played a flute he carved himself and told us his mother was 62 when he was born. He claims they have a tea which helps with infertility and people from all over have sought his help.

Raw fish heaven

Ceviche originated in Peru but is a big dish both in Panama and Costa Rica too. You can buy it in fish markets but every high end hotel has a version too. Raw fish marinated in citrus juices and fresh herbs. Yum.

Getting there

American Trade Hotel, Panama City, and Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa, Costa Rica are members of Small Luxury Hotels of the World (slh.com). 

■ American Trade Hotel offers 50 rooms, starting from £207 per night. Tabacon Thermal Resort & Spa offers 103 rooms, starting from £259 per night.

■ KLM flies year round to Panama City and seasonally to San Jose, Costa Rica from Dublin Airport via its multi-award winning hub, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. ■ Economy fares from Dublin to Panama City start from €659 and business €2221

while economy fares from Dublin to San Jose start from €677 and business €2291.

■ Passengers can book online at klm.co.uk or by calling reservations on +44 20 76600293.

This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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