Breaking out of travel comfort zones, one zip line in Panama at a time

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“Are you ready to do this?” my friend Chrissy asked me as a guide clipped me onto a zipline high above Panama’s Gatun Lake. Cables, a helmet and the giant version of the carabiner I hook my keys into were the only things protecting me from gravity and hitting every crunchy branch in the tree line below.

“Well,” I replied, wondering if Chrissy and our guides could hear my heart pounding like a Questlove beat. “I guess I better be!”

Chrissy, who I’ve known for 20 years, was not the only person shocked that I wanted to try zip lining while writing about Copa Airlines’ new direct flight from BWI to Panama, which started in late June. I am not what you’d call an outdoors person, unless you mean outdoors under a poolside umbrella at a fancy hotel as cocktails are delivered to my lounge chair. I don’t love dirt. My loved ones know that if they ever get a text from me saying I’ve gone camping, I’ve actually been kidnapped and they are to immediately contact the authorities.

But this Panamanian trip seemed a rare opportunity to do something unexpected out of my preferred luxe, air-conditioned comfort zone. I believe that the point of travel is exploring activities you don’t do at home, and adventure travel is a big thing in Panama — kayaking, surfing, hiking, diving and camping in the wilderness. All of that is firmly outside my wheelhouse, but given the chance to visit a place that was never on my travel to-do list meant I had to go big before I went home. Zip lining, under the supervision of experienced guides with lots of safety equipment, seemed the safest thing.

Alasdair White, the behavioral researcher who coined the term “comfort zone,” wrote that optimal performance exists outside of that space where we feel safest. I want to live each trip to the fullest while acknowledging that everyone’s definition of bravery is personal. For instance, I am a badass widowed single mother who moved back to her hometown without a job during the thick of a pandemic. That’s pretty brave.

But I pale at the suggestion of sleeping in a tent in the woods where the only room service attendants are bears. As a mom who usually travels with a 9-year-old, venturing outside my comfort zone could be as simple as not having to ask if a menu has chicken fingers.

So I approached putting my tentative toe over that palatable line with a combination of caution and carefreeness. I hired local travel planner Liz Brown of Lanham’s Mixed Adventures to find a tour company for my zip line excursion because I couldn’t check out Panamanian vendors personally — anyone can present themselves well online from another country, and I didn’t want to wind up on “Dateline.” Brown used her professional expertise to find the well-reviewed Barefoot Panama, and I felt more at ease with her vetting.

My natural cautiousness also compelled me to set up all aspects of the trip before I landed, including connecting with my tour drivers on the free messaging app WhatsApp, considered a must in Panama. I also explored the proper zip line attire (athletic leggings or long shorts and a shirt that doesn’t ride up) as well as the average weight limit, because I wanted to have fun, and falling to my death in a Panamanian jungle is not fun.

That caution actually allowed me to feel better about being present on the actual trip, led by a Barefoot Panama guide named Gonzo. It was about an hour between the 4.5-star Hotel Riu Plaza Panama, well within my bougie complacency, to La Granja Campo y Aventura, which has a restaurant, corporate team building courses and a rustic hostel which I will likely never stay in. We hung out with the facility’s many friendly dogs and cats and signed a very extensive waiver that confirmed this wasn’t a super-safe activity. But we were too close to turn back, and Baltimore girls don’t punk out, so Chrissy, Gonzo and our two zip line guides loaded into a pickup truck to our wooded destination.

The course at La Granja Campo y Aventura currently consists of five lines, although they’re planning to add more. During a brief training, our guides explained (through Gonzo as a translator) that the lines had different lengths and speeds which we could control with a wooden strip sewn inside a leather glove on our dominant hand that would act as a brake. Some of the lines would require us to regulate our speed, and two were constructed to just let us do nothing but enjoy the ride.

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Which brings us back to that first ride, where Chrissy asked if I was ready. And reader? I was not sure. But off I went anyway. About halfway in, I realized I was tensing up and made myself look down into the green, lush trees. “I am not going to die. I am not going to die,” I said out loud, and suddenly I was in the moment, fully appreciating floating free.

From that moment I was hooked. I had a little trouble on the second line, where I found myself twisting in the air. But I remembered that I’d been prepared for this possibility, so I slowed my breath, and let myself twist back into the waiting hands of my guide. It was suggested that I clip to the guide on the next one, which was very long, and for a moment I felt like I was failing zip lining! But I got over it, strapped in and just let myself fly.

And you know what? That was the trick. There was something so freeing about surrendering myself to the moment. By the time I glided on the last line, luxuriating in the breeze on my face and to the wondrous expanse of water and wood, I literally started to cry because I wasn’t required to do anything but just be. No deadlines or requests for macaroni and cheese. Just earth and sky and floating.

Once I got back onto the wooden platform, Chrissy hugged me.

“You don’t know what a big deal this is for Leslie,” she told the guides. “She doesn’t do stuff like this.”

I do now, I guess! Although the margarita and fluffy bed waiting for me when I was done made all the difference. Comfort is relative.

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