Ilbra Yacoob

Encino, California Travel Agent

Discovering Panama

Before I became a travel agent, a friend and I were thinking of going to Costa Rica to experience rain and cloud forests and have an active adventure. When someone suggested that we could have a less expensive and less touristy experience in Panama, we started looking into it.

Not sure about what information to trust, we reached out to my cousin, a travel agent, who curated the trip for us. She was able to address the things we wanted and we felt confident that we would be safe with her doing our planning. She arranged just the kind of adventures in nature and local cultural experiences we were hoping for and it was an eye-opening and magical trip.

She arranged a wonderful guide; my friend and I described our guide as a human mountain goat. We had hiking boots and were careful about our footing, but she lived in those mountains and she seemed to practically bounce up the steep mountain trails in flip-flops.

The people we met along the way were very kind and hospitable, despite their lack of material wealth. Many lived in thatch-roofed homes that were extremely modest. At one point, there was only one house in the area and we needed a bathroom. The woman of the house invited us in. The toilet had no seat, but she welcomed us.

Another thing I noticed as we drove through various neighborhoods was the kids were out playing soccer and every house had a porch that seemed to overflow with family members. The atmosphere was very social. People seemed happy; almost everyone was smiling and communicative, and it felt good to be around them.

The rainforest is spectacular. Nights were especially magical. I’d never heard cicadas before and the loud symphony of insect songs at night was unforgettable. Towering trees were strung with natural vines that seemed like a setting for Tarzan and Jane and everywhere we turned there was a waterfall or a strange flower. We saw leaves the size of my body and there was life even on fallen trees.

The first time I heard a howler monkey was mind-boggling. We were hiking and I heard this otherworldly cry. I froze and felt as though I had walked into a scene in The Jungle Book. It made me feel very small and I remember thinking that this is what life is really about; experiencing what is around us.

The fanciest place we stayed was Finca Lerida, a coffee estate with a gorgeous inn. There, I saw my first coffee berry, watched farmers chopping at bushes with their machetes and carting in sacks of berries and laying them out to dry. I gained a new appreciation for coffee. We were in an area where workers spoke a tribal language, not Spanish and it felt very remote. The Finca was also our home base for exhilarating white water rafting and hiking in a cloud forest.  

This trip was my first real adventure trip and it whetted my appetite for more. I was also inspired by seeing how much my travel agent cousin had done to create our dream trip, and now am excited to be doing the same for my clients. If you are considering an eco-adventure, I would love to help!

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