26th Aug 2012 4:58pm | By Jennifer Carr
I’m palpably, uncomfortably afraid. The water of northern Panama’s Banana Canal hisses with untamed energy beneath my kayak.
A storm is a-coming, and if I let it, the current could swiftly coax me out into the open Caribbean Sea.
The Banana Canal – a suitably bendy backwater – leads out into the ocean through the protected archipelago of Bastimentos National Marine Park.
Comprising dozens of lush, virgin-white-sand islands, more than 52 cays and hundreds more islets, the region was a key player in Panama’s Banana Republic heyday, when vast quantities of bananas were exported to North America via these waterways in the 1890s.
The dozens of plantations that flank the network today are a reminder of the country’s former economic backbone.
For a while, though, the epicentre of Panama’s financial prowess has been the capital city, thanks to a canal of such engineering triumph that hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to marvel at the manmade locks that link the Pacific and Atlantic oceans over an incredible 50-mile stretch.
The creation of the canal in 1914 meant traders no longer had to sail all the way around the tip of South America to cross from one ocean to the other. Even so, after a day spent strolling the canal walkways and rollerblading paths feeling like a phoney shipping geek, I’m only too ready to swap the inescapable urbanism for something a touch prettier.
Fortunately, Panama’s northern archipelago is blessedly free from oil tankers and freight cargo carriers. It’s hard to believe that only 60 minutes north on a tiny 30-seater plane lies a simpler, more serene Panama, a place vibrating with hummingbirds, bats, natural caves and lagoons, and perhaps the occasional pink dolphin plopping about in the shallows.
Better still, it’s fast becoming a playground for kayak-loving gringos looking for some heart-raising paddle power, which explains why I’m here with a group of other travellers and our guides from wilderness lodge Tranquilo Bay.
Back in my kayak, the threatening storm rolls down the Banana Canal and seems intent on taking me out in a tropical slamdunk.
I steady myself and speedily lodge my vessel in some reeds beneath a gnarly, bearded tree, which reminds me of a wise elder to keep me safe.
Inches from my face, an army of leaf-cutter ants balance emerald leaves as they march up the vines into the canopy above.
Their kamikaze efforts to keep calm and carry on in the storm are commendable; one thick, fat rain drop is enough to send them plummeting to a watery grave.
Between April and September, monsoon season in northern Panama brings with it plenty of these climatic curveballs.
One minute you can be reclining under the exquisite Caribbean blue sky, only to be shaken awake by apocalyptic lightning against Dante-esque clouds the next.
An upside to these extremities, however, is a splendid range of diverse geography and wildlife, something that’s criminally overlooked by those hotfooting it to the costlier, more crowded Costa Rica next door.
My Tranquilo Bay compadres catch up and we decide to stop wimping out, instead engaging our biceps against the six-mile fetch that’s surging towards us from an angry Caribbean Sea.
My embarrassing lack of upper-body strength means I’m wiped out in minutes; paddling against the current in sheet rain that’s the temperature of a bath is energy-sapping.
My left thigh cramps up and my yelp is lost amid the waves of thunder that bellow in the distance.
We persevere, plunging our paddles back into the water, shifting our weight in a bid to remain upright. Half a mile feels like five.
My fingers, arms and thighs ache more than any boot camp fitness regimen I can recall. I begin to wonder if a beach excursion wouldn’t have been simpler?
Then, from nowhere, an almost biblical shard of light bounces off the water – the storm is leaving. Birds wail in appreciation, while an olive-hued frog high-jumps on to the nose of my kayak: the first and only hitchhiker on the canal.
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