On the five-hour drive through undulating foothills and savannas to the mountain town of Boquete, we pass through what must be the breadbasket of Panama — cattle ranches and vast plantations of rice, corn, bananas, sugarcane and pineapples that grow fast and furious in the rich black volcanic soil.

Boquete is a retreat for rich Panamanians who want to escape the sauna heat of Panama City, and a mecca for boomer Americans looking for an affordable place to retire. It's cradled in a high green valley flanked by volcanic peaks, and crowned by the looming dark hulk of Baru, a dormant volcano and the highest mountain in Panama at 3,475 meters (11,000 feet). It's a good place to hike, fish and ride horses. But for us it's a chance to take a cable-harness ride through the top reaches of the rain forest canopy, and to push deeper into some of the wild upper reaches of the interior.

After careering and bucking up an impossibly steep rocky trail in a vintage World War II-era U.S. Army truck, we arrive (with whiplash and jolted kidneys) at the 6,500-foot canopy base facility. Here we get our gear and instruction then press on up an even steeper quarter mile to the first of 13 high wires.

Ziplining through the tallest treetops 200 feet above sloping mountainside gorges and the forest floor far below is a ride like no other — kind of like what a raptor must feel when it swoops out of the blue, zeroing on a kill. The cables and platforms are anchored in what the locals call millinerios, the great primeval, towering lords of the forest that can grow hundreds of feet and live more than 1,000 years.

By the third cable I've figured out how to max the velocity without crashing into the next anchor tree. From this altitude and perspective it is a marvel to see the unlikely and incongruous mix of mountain pines, stately royal palms and banana trees below, all fighting for a place in the sun.

After lunch, we climb into a Toyota safari truck and take a ride high into the mountain passes at the end of the valley, where a new world awaits. As we approach, all appears to be wild and lush. But as we draw nearer it becomes clear that things here are not always what they seem. Now we can see that every inch of green that is not on a vertical wall has been cultivated. The resourceful people of this region, mostly Indians, have planted the dark soil with a surprising range of crops: celery, beets, onions, potatoes, yams, beans, bananas, apricots, guavas, mangoes, and tomatoes.

But the main commercial crop up here was introduced by British adventurers and speculators more than a century ago. Boquete is the home of some of the world's finest coffee. In fact, Panamanian coffee was judged No. 1 in the Americas in the last two international competitions.

Right now it's harvesting season, and Indian families are in the groves, the women and little ninas in bright yellow and blue traditional dress, patiently plucking premium red berries from the branches. Yellow and brown berries are picked later for the second and third-quality coffee market.

Near a mountaintop we pull into the headquarters of the finest coffee plantation in Panama, which is also a small hotel. In the tiny restaurant, we savor a special java that is available in this place only. The rest is shipped to top restaurants all over the world. When it is available for sale in containers at the plantation restaurant (on this day it is not), it sells for $100 a pound. After one cup I can understand why.

• • •

One of the wonders of Panama is that you can be highwiring over a mountain rainforest one day and having a picnic on a deserted tropical island the next, which is exactly what happens after we fly over the western mountains into the northwest coastal archipelago of Bocas del Toro.

Unhappily, we are too late for On the five-hour drive through undulating foothills and savannas to the mountain town of Boquete, we pass through what must be the breadbasket of Panama — cattle ranches and vast plantations of rice, corn, bananas, sugarcane and pineapples that grow fast and furious in the rich black volcanic soil.

Boquete is a retreat for rich Panamanians who want to escape the sauna heat of Panama City, and a mecca for boomer Americans looking for an affordable place to retire. It's cradled in a high green valley flanked by volcanic peaks, and crowned by the looming dark hulk of Baru, a dormant volcano and the highest mountain in Panama at 3,475 meters (11,000 feet). It's a good place to hike, fish and ride horses. But for us it's a chance to take a cable-harness ride through the top reaches of the rain forest canopy, and to push deeper into some of the wild upper reaches of the interior.

After careering and bucking up an impossibly steep rocky trail in a vintage World War II-era U.S. Army truck, we arrive (with whiplash and jolted kidneys) at the 6,500-foot canopy base facility. Here we get our gear and instruction then press on up an even steeper quarter mile to the first of 13 high wires.

Ziplining through the tallest treetops 200 feet above sloping mountainside gorges and the forest floor far below is a ride like no other — kind of like what a raptor must feel when it swoops out of the blue, zeroing on a kill. The cables and platforms are anchored in what the locals call millinerios, the great primeval, towering lords of the forest that can grow hundreds of feet and live more than 1,000 years.

By the third cable I've figured out how to max the velocity without crashing into the next anchor tree. From this altitude and perspective it is a marvel to see the unlikely and incongruous mix of mountain pines, stately royal palms and banana trees below, all fighting for a place in the sun.

After lunch, we climb into a Toyota safari truck and take a ride high into the mountain passes at the end of the valley, where a new world awaits. As we approach, all appears to be wild and lush. But as we draw nearer it becomes clear that things here are not always what they seem. Now we can see that every inch of green that is not on a vertical wall has been cultivated. The resourceful people of this region, mostly Indians, have planted the dark soil with a surprising range of crops: celery, beets, onions, potatoes, yams, beans, bananas, apricots, guavas, mangoes, and tomatoes.

But the main commercial crop up here was introduced by British adventurers and speculators more than a century ago. Boquete is the home of some of the world's finest coffee. In fact, Panamanian coffee was judged No. 1 in the Americas in the last two international competitions.

Right now it's harvesting season, and Indian families are in the groves, the women and little ninas in bright yellow and blue traditional dress, patiently plucking premium red berries from the branches. Yellow and brown berries are picked later for the second and third-quality coffee market.

Near a mountaintop we pull into the headquarters of the finest coffee plantation in Panama, which is also a small hotel. In the tiny restaurant, we savor a special java that is available in this place only. The rest is shipped to top restaurants all over the world. When it is available for sale in containers at the plantation restaurant (on this day it is not), it sells for $100 a pound. After one cup I can understand why.

• • •

One of the wonders of Panama is that you can be highwiring over a mountain rainforest one day and having a picnic on a deserted tropical island the next, which is exactly what happens after we fly over the western mountains into the northwest coastal archipelago of Bocas del Toro.

Unhappily, we are too late for Bocas, which until recently was regarded as an exotic and rustic out-of-the-way destination for sailors and travelers who don't mind going the extra mile.

The town of Bocas on the island of Colon is still rustic. But it is also beyond funky, a ramshackle jumble of low-end honky-tonk hotels jammed cheek by jowl on a polluted harbor — a depressing example of the difference just a few years can make.

On the streets you can hear more people speaking English than Spanish, never a good sign. The locals can scarcely conceal their contempt for the invading gringos (they hold Kansans and Dutch people in equal disregard), and there is a pervading sense of ill will everywhere.

But the news is not all bad. The moment our outboard launch pulls away from the dock, we shift immediately back into the Panama Paradox. No sooner are we underway than the mess of Bocas town begins to morph back into abundant nature. With Bocas falling into the rear distance, we start weaving through uninhabited islands that can never (never say never in Panama) change, because Panama has outlawed further destruction of mangroves. To our right, the brooding, cloud-capped coastal mountains we have just overflown. Ahead and to our left, the open Caribbean Sea.

After 30 minutes we arrive at our little hotel built on stilts over the water on the island of Bastimentos. A quick change into bathing suits and we are off again to the island of Zapatilla (Little Slipper), part of a national marine reserve, for a swim and a picnic on a white sand beach backed by thick groves of coconut palms. The island looks much the same today as it did to Christopher Columbus, who spent weeks in these waters on his 4th voyage to the New World, navigating through a bewildering maze of uncharted, treacherous reefs, guts and inlets, trying to find a passage to the Indies.

The next morning we're back in the boat, cutting a spidery wake on the way to Dolphin Bay, where we catch a quick glimpse of a few broaching dolphins before being overtaken and swallowed by a black monsoon, which chuffs up a frothy, wind-whipped chop, heaping sheets of torrential rain upon us in the open boat.

We have no choice but to bow our heads into the stinging blast for 40 minutes. By the time we find refuge back in the odoriferous pit of Bocas, we are a couple of downed rats, soaked to the bone, looking for a cup of coffee.

The hissing wall eventually lifts, and the moment we have visibility we race back to the hotel for a hot lunch of shrimp and coconut rice, before setting off again under sunny skies for the nearby Indian village of Salt Creek.

The entrance to Salt Creek is almost invisible, an impossibly narrow, very shallow twisting alley through a swamp and a welcoming committee of black-eyed Chiquiri children.

The moment we smile, the kids light up. They giggle themselves silly when they see their images in the digital camera. Something moves in the branches overhead. It's a sloth, inching its way painfully slowly into the upper canopy.

Ten minutes later we step into a mud-floored thatch hut and purchase two simple but unusually elegant necklaces for $4 each. The artist in residence is a beautiful young Chiquiri mother with a warm smile and keenly intelligent eyes. It's early afternoon. The village is resting in the heat. Elders nap in hammocks.

Whole families are gathered in their stilted huts, talking quietly and ignoring the outsiders who walk among them. Later, the men will emerge, climb into their dugout canoes and make their way out to the open sea to fish.

Our new friend Arturo, a psychiatrist from Costa Rica, slips off the wooden plank path on the way back to the boat and sinks up to his knees in muck. By the time he gets to the dock 15 minutes later, he looks like the loser in a mud wrestling match, and probably needs a little therapy himself. We try not to laugh out loud.

Next week: The incredible Panama Canal, a visit with an Indian tribe, and exploring the fabled San Blas Islands.