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Flanking the azure reef, my group and I rev ourselvesup for another bicep bashing as we tackle the open waves that buffer us on our journey towards the unapologetically gorgeous two islands of Cayos Zapatilla, just east of the larger Bastimentos Island.

We gratefully run our kayaks aground and slide out on to gilded, untainted sands.

There’s not a sarong seller nor Coke can in sight.

After snorkeling in waters alive with swirling coloured fish and red coral clusters, we head back to the beach for a simple lunch of rice, beans, local fried green banana and the region’s signature spicy sauce.

The latter is an attack on the tastebuds, a piquant yellow pepper creation that locals use to cure anything from coldsores to sinus infections.

A plentiful supply of freshly fallen coconuts ensures my mouth doesn’t burn for long. I chug two in a row before I collapse on the sand, elated, exhausted and excited to find out what else this country’s got in store for me.

Some six hours and two bus rides away sits Boquete, a mountainous coffee town in the heart of the south-western Chririqui highlands on the doorstep of Costa Rica.

Geographically, it’s a world away from the lush, tropical archipelago of Bastiomentos, but this caffeine-scented community is a huge draw for adventure lovers, offering canopying, whitewater rafting, rock climbing, hot springs, volcano hiking and rainforest zipwires for a start.

But my appetite for adrenaline is truly piqued by a brand-new 4X4 Jeep excursion up Central America’s highest volcano, Volcán Barú.

It’s almost 12,000ft above sea level, with notoriously steep, unforgiving trekking trails, and you could argue a Jeep is the wimp’s way to the top.

Not so, according to local guide Stephen Dow, a longtime petrolhead who’s enhancing Boquete’s adventure scene with his customised Jeep tours (and a soon-to-launch high-speed go-kart park).

His tours are not for the faint of stomach, however – scaling enormous boulders and plunging down vertical ravines for three hours means you’re in for the ride of your life, but don’t expect it to be a comfortable one.

I’m scared shitless, but sign up anyway for a 3am pick up.

Bleary-eyed, two fearless insomniacs and I clamber into the Jeep in the freezing pre-dawn. Mist swirls through a sleeping, ghostly Boquete, but Stephen greets us like he’s just done a gym session.

He’s buzzing from local caffeine and takes us through the Jeep’s souped-up credentials: US$7000 on suspension from leading off-road company Skyjacker; a solid metal bar on the Jeep’s underbelly (“so the back half of the truck doesn’t get ripped off”); reinforced roll bars on the roof.

I’m momentarily reassured, until Stephen advises me to “keep your seatbelt off, this is a tactical adventure, not a speed-based one”. It does little to quell the mounting apprehension as we make our ascent.

A half-mile of pothole track is traversed smoothly – “this is nothing,” I smirk. Then the path ends. A sharp hairpin bend presents a wall of stacked boulders flanked by coniferous trees and a vertical drop.

I think of the metal roll bars on the roof and a clammy pool of sweat forms in my clenched palms. But Stephen’s in his element, putting the Jeep into second and revving the clutch so we lurch violently up the rocky route.

“I saw a gap in the market with this volcano,” the former racing driver casually explains, as we swing from side to side. “The hike up is hardly scenic.

So I thought, why not fastrack people to the summit with a bit of fun?” Why not indeed, I think, and congratulate myself on avoiding breakfast.

At 4.30am, we disembark 8000ft up at Volcán Barú’s finest lookout, popping our ears and drinking sweet, strong coffee while appreciating the sky’s rapidly reddening hues.

It’s a sign we need to crack on and tackle the mountain’s notorious tricky spots to make what promises to be a staggering sunrise.

At one point we hit a spot known as ‘Magnetic Hill’, where plentiful ions in the soil enable the Jeep to move upward while in neutral. Could adventure be any lazier?


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Rugged and raw Panama: from extreme kayaking to 4x4 driving up a volcano and untouched paradise islands
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