Here's one for the game shows: Excluding the Canal, what is there in Panama? Used up all your lifelines? Want to guess? I'm sorry, Regis will have to take back all your money. Don't feel bad; most people can't answer it either. Since the conquistador Vasco Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean by crossing Panama in 1513, few recreational travelers - and even fewer divers - have explored the western edge of this mostly overlooked country. This omission has left Panama's Pacific coast as pristine territory for adventure-minded divers. Off Panama's west coast is a 1,600 island archipelago and thousands of pinnacles where most of the dive sites are unexplored, unnamed and, fortunately, unfished by commercial operators. Inland, the province of Chiriqum (cheer-i-key) is an eco-tourism gem that offers volcano hiking, rain-forest walks, whitewater rafting, bird-watching, hot-spring soaking or simple beach dozing. Whichever you choose, chances are you and your companions will be the only touristas there. There is little tourism infrastructure in Panama, so few travelers know of it and even fewer have been there. With few tourists, it is hard for the government to dedicate resources to creating a tourism machine the way that other Central American countries have. Consider this: Compared to its northern neighbor, Costa Rica, Panama has more species of flora and fauna and more preserved land. Yet it is Costa Rica that is crowded with hordes of eco-tourists. This is so well known that the Panamanians have a saying: In Costa Rica, 20 tourists try to see one resplendent Quetzal, while in Panama, one person tries to see 20 of these rare birds. Thus, Panama is an adventure destination. Its abundant vacation resources are there for the taking if you are willing to make your own road (sometimes, literally). Outside of Panama City you won't find Hyatts or Benningan's. In fact, usually you won't even find a sign indicating a tourist attraction or historic site, and you can forget about a dive-site map.Name That Dive Site Panama is like Belize was 15 years ago, says Donald Perkins, owner of the MV/Coral Star live-aboard. There are no crowds here diving the great sites we do know about, so there's no pressure to keep going further afield to find new ones. We don't even have names for half the sites we're doing now. We always try to work in at least one new site every trip, but that's just the curious explorer in us. We have no idea just how good this diving can be. The Coral Star is the only full-time dive operation dedicated to Panama's Pacific coast. The Coiba Explorer II also runs dives trips there, but only for a few months a year when she is not doing deep-sea fishing expeditions. If you're the type who prefers lots of soft and hard corals, sponges and fans, you may be somewhat bored here. We have some, but not like Caribbean dive destinations, says Perkins. All we have are fish - big ones and lots of 'em. That's something of an understatement. Sport fishing near Hannibal Banks is about the only thing taking fish here, and now most of that is catch-and-release. And because there are no mooring buoys, the few local fishermen don't know the prime locations. The result is large schools of seriously large fish. In the Caribbean, mature stoplight parrotfish may grow to about 2 feet. Here, it's common for them to grow to well over three. And the schools are equally enlarged, with fish numbers between 500 and 1,000. Not tiny silversides but 2- to 3-foot-long red snappers. It's like sea life on steroids. At Neptune's Trident, a grouping of three pinnacles off the coast of Isla Montuosa, a school of barracuda forms and begins circling at about 40 feet. It is so dense that it literally blocks out the sunlight from above. A wall of amber jacks invades an unnamed site at Isla Contreros. It separates one dive group into two, passing like an Amtrak train through a small town. In one shallow crevice at another unnamed site off Isla Brincanco, green morays are so abundant that they cramp together like freshman in a college dorm: two together, another two, another two, three together, two morays and two lobster and several others weaving aimlessly out in the open. It could be any day, any island. White-tipped sharks cruise nearby. Yellow fin tuna appear and vanish. Frogfish - red, yellow and black - try to avoid detection. Mahi mahi trail baitfish. Spotted eagle rays - 40 or more - glide together above a shallow sandy bottom. Spotted dolphins escort the dive boat between islands. This is typical Pacific Panama. We don't guarantee it every trip, but we've seen giant mantas, whale sharks, marlin and bull sharks. You never can never tell around here. That's part of the thrill, says Perkins.The other thing you never can tell about is the diving conditions. Much of the diving here is drift diving, with currents and surges ranging from calm to ripping. Visibility tops out at about 85 feet but usually averages 45 to 65 feet due to the huge quantities of plankton and krill and such in the water. These conditions are the very things that draw the fish populations to the area. It's a very fair trade.TOPSIDE FOR $10, ALEX Choices for topside activities in Chiriqum are no problem. Actually locating them can be somewhat more difficult. If you speak little or no Spanish, the task is tougher still. But for the adventurous, the rewards are there for the taking. Hiking 11,500 feet up Volcano Barz to the only place on earth where you can look at the Atlantic and Pacific oceans simultaneously is an easy choice. Finding the unmarked, unmapped trailhead is difficult. Finding a knowledgeable guide is only a little easier, and best done through the outfitters in Panama City and the U.S. The best of Chiriqum is in the mountains, north from the provincial capital David in the coastal plain. Bordering the coffee plantations and flower farms are small mountain towns like Boquete, Volcan, Caldera and Cerro Punta, where Guaymi Indian women still wear traditional dress (albeit with sneakers instead of leather sandals) and Caucasian people are still an oddity Near the end of the coffee harvest in late February and March, local pickers and their families make their way on foot into town to buy or replace clothes and household essentials while there is money. In a country where the average annual income is about $3,500, these may be their only purchases this year. Despite that, chatter and laughter rise up from the town square while hours pass unnoticed. It is a valuable time to rejuvenate for these people whose lives are dominated by nature's schedule.Just observing this ritual is a refreshing insight into a world we often forget exists alongside our own. It is a valuable respite from all there is to do in Chiriqum, and there is plenty. Whitewater rafting the Class V rapids of the Chiriqum River compares favorably with any river in the Americas. The river's many tributaries and feeders create waterfalls and rapids that add more challenge to hiking the Talamanca Mountains, which include Barz and two other volcanoes. Deep beneath the mountains, the aquifers that feed the rivers also feed subterranean pools that rise to the surface as natural hot springs. Virtually all these activities, however, require a 4x4, a guide, some Spanish and some patience. It is a worthwhile investment for discovering this unknown gem so close to home. What's in Panama? A genuine travel adventure, above and below the water. That's correct. Johnny, tell them what they've won.
by Brian Courtney
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