Playa Blanca, Panama -- In this mountain town nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano, mist covers green mountains and fertile fields.
A light rain has preceded our bus to the Chorro El Macho waterfall, leaving the air cool and still. We traverse rocky paths and wooden suspension bridges through a forest alive with positive spiritual energy.
It's an easy hike to the foot of the 36-metre cascading El Macho Waterfall. From there, we make our way to El Nispero, a private nursery and zoo in an abandoned sand quarry, where we see up close many species easily missed in the underbrush or the canopy.
A tiny titi monkey the size of a kitten chirps happily, gobbling up bits of banana. Capybaras (dog-sized relatives of the guinea pig) chill in the water. Agoutis (rabbit-sized rodents) sun. A tapir browses for food. A shy little white-faced capuchin monkey gently slips his hand into my pocket, then timidly accepts a piece of banana. A tiny horned owl in a Zen-like meditative stance holds my attention.
Later in the week we set out for our main destination the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, located inside Soberania National Park. Soberania is one of Panama's most accessible forests, a mere half-hour's drive from cosmopolitan Panama City.
At the resort, we're the only two on our naturalist guide Alex's early morning hike Panama's tourism is in its infancy. As we trek the legendary Pipeline Road, Alex alerts us to movement and names each creature. The road is considered one of the world's premier birding areas, with over 400 species recorded annually. Alex points out bird varieties and scarlet passion flowers and identifies birdsongs and howler monkeys' booming calls. Iridescent blue morpho butterflies flutter by at eye level.
Most animals, unlike me, are most active at dawn, but it's worth rising at 6 o'clock to see them when humidity levels are low. We even spy a coatimundi (a relative of the raccoon).
Back at the base, hummingbirds of five different varieties dart by my head in a thunderous rush of wings, dancing in luminous emerald and indigo sequined ball gowns as they sip nectar at conveniently placed feeders.
On another day we take a night tour. I drink in the heady scent of jasmine and gaze at the starry indigo night sky. Cicadas and bat sonar are the predominant rhythms until the truck engine starts.
This time there are 10 of us, mostly avid birders and backpackers, perched on wooden benches in the back of a pickup. Our guide, Carlos, turns on the floodlights and instructs us to watch for red eyes and movement.
"Stop the truck!" shouts one of the backpackers. "Shine the light there." Our guide is thrilled! This is a rare sighting (only the fourth in a year) of a western night monkey. Later, we sight a two-toed sloth and several owls and bats. My cottage-loving friend smiles. "It feels like we're in Jurassic Park."
The highlight of our adventure is still to come: a trip to Monkey Island down the lush green Chagres River to the brown, silt-laden Panama Canal. In our 6-metre motor launch we speed past huge 240-metre cargo freighters crawling to the locks.
We cruise the back channels to encounter wildlife in its natural habitat. A caiman slides into the water, turtles sunbathe and a three-toed sloth preens overhead in the fork of a tree. A troupe of white-faced capuchin monkeys leap through the treetops. After all, this is Monkey Island, where the scent and sight of bananas lure intrepid primates to eat out of your hand.
If you've never experienced the abundance of a tropical rainforest untouched by mass tourism, visit Panama now. An added enticement is the engineering marvel of the Panama Canal.
This country is more than locks and chambers, though it's the heart of a great ecosystem.