Ron booked a tour to the Cloud Forest at $25 each. Had I read the description beforehand, we could have saved $50. The tour was rated ‘easy’. I have learned that is as much of a lie as “_________ is only a ten minute walk from here.” Liars, all of them are liars. This is the great marketing maneuver. It could be the adult version of the nasty children’s trick when they tell you there is a spider on your shoulder. You go crazy trying to find it and brush it off only hear them chant “Made you look!” Regardless of the motivation, it is a lie we continually find ourselves trapped by.
At 8:30 am Chichi, our guide and the owner of the company was outside our door waiting patiently. Chichi, a nickname is a small statured young man who is a 4th generation Boquete resident. We climbed into his four-wheel drive vehicle, which seats one alongside the driver. Other passengers have to sit in the back of the jeep like vehicle. It is not much larger than a golf cart, can only go 40 km an hour maximum, but is a champion on rough roads and flooded out terrain. Ron opted for the back of this whatever we call it, where he was exposed to the elements and only able to see where we have been rather than where we were headed. I sat next to Chichi with no door on my side. During inclement weather, a plastic cover zipped into place to create doors on either side for the driver and passenger. Likewise, the windshield is heavy duty plastic, therefore has no windshield wipers. Needless to say, I used the seatbelt as well as grabbing the handgrip over the ‘door’.
We drove up the mountain for over an hour with Chichi stopping intermittently to point out a flower, tree, bird, or anything he thought may have been of interest. What would have really interested me at that point was having a door and a hot café latte. Everything else was secondary, tertiary or of no interest at all. Of course, the day we do a Cloud Forest Tour, the sky is as clear as newly blown glass. There are no traces of clouds.
Finally, after finishing the drive after the hour and a half mark, Chichi parks in this area covered with twigs, branches, dead leaves and surviving fauna of various species. My heart doesn’t sink until he informs us that he brought walking sticks for the two of us to make it easier. Easier for what, me thinks? We are walking a trail, aren’t we? My mental picture of a trail is basically flat land with maybe a stone or limb of a tree to step over. You need to realize that my idea of ‘hiking’ is climbing from street level up to the curb of the sidewalk. Beyond that, I am calling for mountain gear with no thoughts of ever needing a use for it. The last time I went Hiking with a capital H was in Franz Josef, New Zealand where we hiked to and then over the icebergs. It nearly killed me then and I swore I would never do it again. Once I realized what was involved that time, I nearly killed Ron for even thinking I would enjoy it.
Well, I decided to play this game for a short time. Through the woods, we trekked without any clear path. Crunching down on dead leaves, broken branches, skeletons of dead animals or insects, pushing aside green foliage, walking over rocks, avoiding the slippery moss, and trying to balance while traversing a ledge, reinforced my thinking. This was not my idea of fun no matter how I stretched my imagination. Mind you Chichi had said there was one short piece that was a bit difficult, but the rest was easy. I am secretly taking satisfaction in thinking this is the difficult part, so once this is over the rest will be child’s play. The walking stick kept me from serious injury a multitude of times. Rather than make me feel gratitude for having it, I was feeling resentment that this trail required it.
What I absolutely hate is having to cross bridges. I even avoid gangplanks when I can if they don’t have solid railings. Well, we came across a wooden bridge without rails of any kind. I would have settled for Tarzan’s vines, but there was nothing. Chichi informed us we needed to cross one by one and only after the other person was off the bridge on the other side; the wood was rotting and could not hold much. Crap, and I had a big breakfast today of all days. Add to this the fact that I have had permanent double vision since I was 22 years old. It throws off my sense of balance at times of stress when I am not sure which image to focus on. Even when not stressed, I can be a klutz. We all made it. Light the fireworks, we need to celebrate.
After another 10 minute of this torture, we come to an area that I didn’t notice at first. Chichi stops us to say “Remember the short difficult part I mentioned? This is it. We have to go down this incline and then back up the other side, then down and up one more time. I am now seriously scrutinizing this next challenge. Cripes, this is a 90-degree incline. I would be afraid to do an incline like this if there were an escalator involved. Doing extremely fast calculations in my head, I realize several things. A) If I attempt this, I will be using my travel insurance for my recovery. B) I may never return to flat land once I am down there. C) Eventually, I will be vulture-chow without the benefit of Purina.
I did the only logical thing I could think of, I voted myself off the island. Okay, so we were not on an island, but I voted myself off anyway. Chichi tried to convince me it was not so bad. Ron had enough sense not to weigh in or there would be hell to pay later. Getting down could be easy. You take one false step and roll the rest of the way. It is getting back up again that concerned me. My zodiac sign may be a mountain goat, but my soul is really a prairie dog. I offered multiple times to stay put and let the other two have their fun, but Ron resisted and Chichi was reluctant. I really would have been perfectly fine, but they would not have any of it.
All the while I am thinking of my friends who would have loved this adventure and who would have scoffed at my reluctance. To Ruth and Henry Ferguson I say your faces appeared before my eyes more than once, yet your little voices in my head were still unsuccessful in changing my mind. To Gabor Pál, our massage therapist who loves all of this crazy outdoor stuff, I say to you – good for you, but leave me out of it.
This gave us 40 extra minutes to ride around or stop for a coffee and chat with Chichi. We discussed what locals think about so many ex-pats invading their area. Regardless of what magazines say, the locals are not happy. The invasion has driven up property costs to the point where locals cannot afford a house any longer. Many have had to move outside of town as the rents have skyrocketed.
Those that do own land are selling to foreigners at inflated prices to cash in on the gold rush. Farmland is decreasing as farmers sell their land to developers who put up gated communities creating an Us vs Them mentality. He shared that many locals cannot understand why these ex-pats have to build such ridiculously oversized houses when there is only one or two people living in them. It continues to happen because the current president is a businessman and reportedly has a partnership in one of these construction companies. However, there is an election in May 2014, so something may change then.
I had asked Chichi, what people do for entertainment here. The answer was basically nothing. There is no cinema or mall. There is a small theater built by ex-pats where they offer a play about 3 times a year. Some of the gated communities have their own golf course, generally 9 holes. A few have their own swimming pool. Other than this, there is no entertainment locally. As we meandered around the streets, we wondered what we would do with our time if we lived here. The answer was not much, because you really need a car to get around.
Chichi told us that some bus routes are only 3 times a day when school is out. Other routes around the center of town arrive once every 30 minutes, but they don’t venture into the Gringo area. Although many articles try to make this sound like paradise where everything is in place and waiting for you to join the Rotary or Lion’s Clubs or alternatively to do some volunteer work (where is never mentioned) for life fulfillment during retirement, we found the restaurants and coffee shops filled with people who seemingly had nothing better to do than hang out. Because I could understand their conversations, there was a 90% chance my impressions were right on target.
Although we did not fulfill our original goal with Chichi, it was an enlightening experience and well worth the time and money. He has an excellent command of English and we wholeheartedly recommend him to anyone heading this way. You can find his contact information here under the Panama section.