Tell people you’re going to Panama and the response is often pleasing. Most people’s knowledge of the country stops at its famous maritime short cut and its status as an Aladdin’s cave of tax evasion. So there’s an element of the pioneer as I set off to discover what else this S-shaped isthmus that joins Central and South America has to offer.
For the adventure, I’ll be based at Islas Secas, an island hideaway that is part of the archipelago of the same name some 20 miles off the Pacific coast. It was acquired in 2009 and redesigned by the investor and conservationist Louis Bacon. “Every time I visit the islands, it reaffirms for me the importance of preserving and protecting our natural resources for future generations,” he explains. The nine casitas nestle like treehouses among the canopy, each with a spectacular view over the ocean, a vast bathroom, indoor/outdoor showers, and wide louvred shutters. The attention to sustainability is best in class for Panama, ranging from broad strokes – the island’s entire energy consumption is solar-powered, all food scraps are dehydrated and composted, guests’ waste water goes through an extensive treatment process, including a UV-light filter – to the small details such as beeswax wrap instead of clingfilm, glass straws and not a whiff of single-use plastic.
But it’s my means of transport for this safari-like exploration that is the hot news. She’s amphibian, for heaven’s sake, a Turbine Otter with wheels and floats, one of only 50 such planes operating in the world. And despite resembling a gangly teenager in shoes too big for her, she boasts good pedigree: delivered to the United States Army in 1956, deployed to Germany in 1957, served in Vietnam in 1965. Now she’s the latest toy in the Islas Secas collection, the only outfit in Central America to offer such a bespoke service – and I’m the first to sample it.
“My speciality is landing on beaches,” says my pilot, Will Holladay, reassuringly as we take off from the runway in Panama City. To the right is the Canal, while to the left it’s rush hour: a messy queue of container ships waiting to sail the narrow pass. We head west for the Gulf of Chiriquí, cruising between coast and mountains, before Holladay hangs a left out to sea.
Arriving at Islas Secas is dramatic. Seemingly out of nowhere, tufts of jungle meet the water– a cluster of 14 islands, 20 miles from civilisation, sleeping just 18 guests. We land by a floating pontoon and I’m blasted by the tropical salty-moist-earth smell that accompanies 35° and 85 per cent humidity. Like an impeccably timed relay race, one of Islas Secas’ fleet of boats awaits to power me through jade-coloured water to a magnificent arrival jetty; a bamboo “cathedral” that houses a juice bar, dive centre and fishing hangout. Cool beats play as a guest takes a post-sea rinse beneath a smart bucket-shower. I’m sold.
Up with the hummingbirds the next morning, I pad through a leafy pergola, past huge iguanas and scattering crabs, to the elegant beachside dining area. My eyes are trained firmly on the ocean as I breakfast on pineapple and spicy huevos rancheros – this area is unique for hosting the migrations of humpback whales from both the northern and southern hemispheres at different times of the year, and is possibly where the females calve, though no one has ever witnessed or filmed a humpback whale giving birth. (Maybe that will change; a field station is planned for the island where guests will be able to spend time with visiting scientists and researchers talking about their work in and around Islas Secas.)
But whales aren’t on my agenda today. Instead, I’m heading in the amphibian plane from sea level to Panama’s highest point, Volcán Barú, standing at 3,475m. We circle the volcano, which last erupted in 1550, before landing in its fertile foothills of Chiriquí Province, known as Panama’s bread basket for the wealth of produce, specifically its “black gold”: the world’s most expensive Geisha coffee is grown right here, with some batches fetching over $800 a pound.
The cool, high-altitude air of the cloud forest is a welcome relief. “We live in paradise here. I call it eternal spring,” says Calle Janson, elegant in a beret and yellow-framed glasses. Janson’s life in this Eden is thanks to his father, Carl, who as a young man in the early 1920s leapt off a boat from Sweden with nothing but a toothbrush and a $20 bill in his flannel suit pocket. In the 1940s he bought a farm in Volcán and began to grow the now-famous Janson Coffee. I wander through the farm’s nurseries, inhaling the smell of lime leaves, scattering butterflies and beetles in my path, and tasting the sweet red geisha plants. Islas Secas’ Rob Jameson has arranged for Genover “Ito” Santamaría, one of the country’s top bird guides, to accompany me. I spot a few of Panama’s 900-odd different species – the country has nearly as many as the whole of the US – but the resplendent quetzal, with its 26in tail streamer, evades us. The Janson family invite me for lunch in their cabin-style house overlooking lakes filled with largemouth bass and bluegill. I sip their fruity, award-winning coffee and they regale me with family history and stories of the booming market in Japan.
Back at Islas Secas, 28-year old Noma-trained consultant chef André Patsias prepares a scallop and white-truffle pizza, followed by suckling-pig slow-roasted over a firepit on the beach; the results leave me unsurprised that Patsias’ restaurant in Miraflores, Statera, which opened last summer to rave reviews. I dine under the stars to the strains of a local band and the wheezing mating-call of thousands of crickets.
The following morning, I suit up and dive a site just in front of the archipelago, where I have an object lesson in how the country got its name. Panama means “abundance of fish”; there are said to be around 750 species in these waters, and in just one hour I feel as if I’ve seen most of them. There are shoals of Jack fish and clouds of eagle rays; a sleepy guitar fish slinks in the sand and among the healthy coral; a nest of 10 baby white-tip reef sharks snuggle together like puppies.
In the afternoon, I island-hop within Islas Secas’ archipelago, culminating in an archaeology hike with Rob Jameson on Islas Canales. Up the steep hill we find countless pieces of pottery dating to the pre-Columbian indigenous population. “The Smithsonian archaeologists who visited recently were most surprised by the number of axe heads we’ve found,” Jameson tells me. “The people who controlled the axes controlled the money, so it’s likely this island was like a bank – a Switzerland of the Pacific.” As the peachy sun vanishes beyond the ocean, we return via Islas Coco, home to one of Panama’s largest frigate bird colonies. Like giant pterodactyls, the circling birds darken the sky until, one by one, they each pick a tree for the night.
After sunrise yoga, it’s back on the plane for a hop to Simca Island, the home of businessman-collector-philanthropist Jean Pigozzi. Up close, the acid colours and graffiti-daubed structures of his compound squeal against the pristine rainforest. A Disney-like train chugs up a hill to the main house, which is filled with museum-quality contemporary African art, while fresh and saltwater pools lie side by side beneath a helicopter pad. The description is clichéd but this is pure Bond. We tour Pigozzi’s Liquid Jungle Lab, a marine and terrestrial research laboratory for visiting scientists and students founded by Pigozzi in 2003, before hiking to a nearby waterfall for a swim in a freshwater pool. On the way back to Islas Secas, Holladay makes a sighting: “Whale shark! Three o’clock!” Nose pressed against the window, I spy the singular shape of the world’s biggest extant fish cruising the waters. Holladay pulls a right, swooping so low that I can literally count the majestic beast’s defining spots. It’s my first ever – rather emotional – sighting of a whale shark, and more than ever I am taken by this amphibian plane’s prowess as safari vehicle.
The dawn of my final day arrives, and with it some tough decision-making: fly across land to the Caribbean coast? Be dropped onto a nearby empty wave (an option, too, for the surfers among Islas Secas’ guests)? But a trip to the Gulf of Chiriquí wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Coiba National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site. Islas Secas has arranged for Kevan Mantell to guide me. A Sheffield-born dive instructor who moved here 23 years ago, Mantell formed part of the data-gathering crew whose work earned Coiba its Unesco accreditation. Until 2004, he explains, Coiba was Panama’s answer to Devil’s Island – a penal colony for the country’s worst offenders (and sometimes rumoured to be where Noriega would “disappear” his political opponents). The sparse human contact has had the glorious side-effect of preserving the island’s pristine habitat almost perfectly. Murmurings of a recent fishing deal between Panama and China, as well as talk of large-scale tourism plans, are worrying. “Coiba is the keystone of the eastern Pacific marine channel corridor, set above the Galápagos, Malpelo, Gorgona and Cocos,” explains Mantell. “It’s a complex migration route for many animals, and without necessary protection the marine ecosystem would be seriously compromised.” We land in a bay off the north of Coiba and I lower myself, as elegantly as I can, from the Otter into an inflatable kayak. We paddle (mostly) in sync towards the mouth of the river, then head upriver. The setting almost instantly morphs from dynamic ocean to meandering freshwater, a world belonging to kingfishers, butterflies, howler monkeys and – less charming – saltwater crocodiles. “The thing about Coiba,” says Mantell, grinning, “is you’re never the apex predator.” I grin back nervously, eyes darting. We don’t see any crocs, but it feels as if a hundred pairs of eyes watch our every move.
Three enchanted hours later we emerge from the river and immediately board a waiting speedboat, joined by a motorcade of leaping dolphin outriders, until we arrive at a golden beach where turtles play in the baby-blue sea. After a picnic lunch and a glass of rosé, I lie back, feeling both full and fully immersed in the breadth and bounty of Panama, ready for my final floatplane dash back to the capital city. After five days wriggling in and out of her cockpit, I’ve grown fond of my amphibian ride, coolly delivering incredible access to remote mountains or open waters in a matter of hours, allowing a far-flung itinerary of days rather than weeks. This is a Latin-American adventure like no other, one for the intensely curious, time-poor, modern pioneer: strap in and take off.