In Panama, a taste of the tropics and a new state of mind
Racing through a Panamanian archipelago by sport boat, I couldn't help but feel like James Bond. It was just me and a mustachioed driver, speeding toward a remote island where I would spend a few decadent days at an eco-resort, hiking the rain forest, sunning myself by an infinity pool and sucking down rum cocktails to a soundtrack of rolling, tropical surf.

That's how I spent this past Christmas — as far away from reality as possible — because my reality was that I didn't have my son for the holidays. My ex and I alternate Christmases, which works great when it's my year. When it's not, I wallow in misery. At least that's how I've spent previous years. I vowed I wouldn't do that again.

Solution: a weeklong getaway to the tropics.

I looked at my short list, and there was Panama, billed as an up-and-coming Costa Rica, thanks to its abundance of animals, the eco emphasis and its dollar-stretching economics.

It also appealed to my contrarian nature. Tourists have been gawking at the Panama Canal for nearly a century, watching ships wend their way through the series of locks that bridge the Atlantic and Pacific.

But the onetime Spanish colony is increasingly popular for areas that are less engineered and more untouched by humans, especially its islands (more than 1,600 of them), its coasts and its wildlife, attractions that have given rise to eco-tourism and the medical tourism with which it is often paired. U.S. institutions, such as Johns Hopkins University, have partner facilities in Panama that offer procedures for almost half of what they would cost in the U.S., and the beach resorts are used for recovery.

I wasn't in the market for a triple bypass or boob job — yet — just the flora and fauna I knew I could find in the western part of the country. So I planned my six days to include a cloud forest first and then a beach resort. I flew in to the capital on a Monday night and immediately flew back out the following morning, arriving in the western city of David, Panama's second-most populated city, and traveling by car to the more remote Chiriquí Highlands for the first part of my trip.

When I arrived in David, my driver greeted me with a sign bearing my name. Turns out "Susan Carpenter" was the only English he spoke during the 45-minute drive from David to Boquete, where I planned to shake the travel cramps from my legs with a hike along the Quetzal Trail, a narrow forest path that zigzags uphill and across streams.

Where I was headed was bonito mejor, my driver, Orlando, told me, blowing a kiss to underscore his point. As we drove along the tree-lined highway connecting David to one of its burgeoning eco-tourism districts, I did understand a few things despite the language barrier: that a Toyota Corolla with 208,000 miles doesn't have enough zip and shouldn't be passing cargo trucks on one-lane roads, that iguana is the predominant road kill and that it's pretty pathetic to be an Angeleno who does not speak Spanish.

About half an hour into the drive, Orlando slowed to pick up what looked like a hitchhiker. But, no, it was Alvaro, the English-speaking guide who would take me on my trek of the Quetzal Trail, past corrugated metal lean-tos housing the indigenous workers who harvest the onions, corn, coffee beans and strawberries grown in this lush mountainous terrain, past howler monkeys and up toward an enormous waterfall where flocks of quetzals, the gorgeous, green-trailed birds, are known to fly.

We saw no one else on this three-hour hike, which began under a fine mist that escalated into a downpour, despite the fact that December is billed as the start of the dry season. Nor did I see the bird for which the trail was named, just a rainbow of butterflies and Panamanian flora — birds of paradise, hibiscus and bougainvillea — not unlike what you might see in a Southern California landscape.

We were safely tucked away in Orlando's Corolla when the sky really decided to open. The many locals we passed on the road weren't as lucky. We were off to the 39-room Valle Escondido Resort & Spa, the hotel my travel agent had booked. I was dismayed as soon as I passed through the gates of the community, one of several such enclaves cropping up in western Panama and catering to American and European retirees who build out-of-place mansions on lands once used for local agriculture.

Panamanian in an idealized, Vegas sort of way, Valle Escondido is a lush, luxurious estate made up of a hotel, townhome complex and country club, complete with a golf course, indoor swimming pool, spa, restaurant and bar.

I couldn't wait to leave and go into town.

I'm the sort of traveler who wants to experience the local culture, so although Valle Escondido was nice, it wasn't my kind of place. It wasn't of the people but removed from them.

At the recommendation of the desk clerk, I took a taxi. The two-minute trip in a small pickup truck painted yellow and decked out in cabbie stripes cost $2 and took me to the only restaurant in town that serves Panamanian cuisine. The dimly illuminated and largely empty Sabroson was staffed with Spanish-speaking locals who danced to Shakira as they served me a buffet-style dinner of marinated chicken, fried rice, salad and fried bananas, which I washed down with a box of pear juice for $2.75.

It was still early, so I wandered through the town, a mix of subsistence-level groceries and American-targeted real estate offices, restaurants, hotels and tourist operators. As I strolled the potholed street — there are no sidewalks — I came upon the small dessert spot, Choka Chetta's. Intrigued, I stopped in and ordered a bowl of locally grown strawberries, which were served with a ladle of melted chocolate bars, a mound of whipped cream — and a dollop of disdain from the shopkeeper, who should have been pleased with getting the $3.75 she charged for this confection but instead seemed wary.

I couldn't blame her. Just a few years earlier, this was a small town populated mostly by locals, but now the American influence is unmistakable.

I walked back to the hotel in a driving but warm, rain, which was lovely for an Angeleno who almost never sees it, and rested up for the following day's activity: whitewater rafting.