Head in the Clouds, Feet in the Coffee: Boquete, Panama

Leaving the US was bittersweet, as we were onto new adventures, but it had been so wonderful and relaxing to spend time with my family for the past month.  However, Panama did its best to sweeten the deal.  Well, first there was a night in San Jose, Costa Rica and the long haul bus ride over to the Pacific coast and then down to the border.  The officials were especially stringent about allowing people in without definite plans and money to back them up, but I was just organized enough to sneak through.  On the upside, we saw a rainbow as soon as we got into Panama, so I took that as a good omen.  Another bus ride on an old yellow school bus blaring merengue, and we were finally at our destination, the mountain enclave of Boquete.

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A solid night’s sleep restored us to sense, and just in time to take in the glories of Boquete.  This town’s elevation ensures much cooler temperatures than the surrounding lowlands, and provides the perfect environment for growing vegetables (the majority of Panama’s produce is grown in this area) and coffee!  We plotted our tour of the area as we sat in the cooling breezes on our hostel’s balcony.  On that first day, we did get out to wander around the town a bit and ended up finding ‘where the sidewalk ends.’  Truly, the road just continues until a place where there used to be a bridge and just…ends.

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Curious, we eventually searched until we found the source of the blasting music…there was the annual Festival of Flowers and Coffee, the largest celebration in this area all year.  It runs for eight days in mid-January and we were lucky to check out the booths, floral displays, and listen to the live bands play (SALSA!).  On occasion, different cooperatives would hold makeshift parades through the fair, with flags, singing, and a few women wearing the traditional dress.

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The next morning, we set out on our great tour adventure.  We had booked a full day tour in order to see all the sights that we wanted to see that are not necessarily accessible by independent travelers.  Our guide, Jorge, was worth every penny, including the tip we gave him at the end.  The first portion of the day was spent driving around the cloud forest in an open jeep, stopping to see spots like basalt rock formations, waterfalls, old Dutch towns (Alto Quiel is the Spanishized version of Kjiehl), Swiss pipelines, haunted houses, and viewing the peak of Volcan Baru.  He even pulled over a few times to cut different fruits down for us, like lulus, guavas, and wild blackberries.

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Our second stop was at Finca Milagrosa, a really fascinating little coffee farm.  Mr. Tito was told he was crazy when he declared he would turn his land into a coffee farm…he was told that the ex-cow pasture was unfit to grow coffee.  He answered by planting 150 different species to see what would grow.  About 12-15 different types thrived, so he planted the rest of his land with those.  Then, he set about building his own processing and roasting machinery with old car parts and household appliance.  Seriously, look at the roaster!  That is a car headlamp case and an alternator.  The large roaster is a repurposed laundry drier.  Now he has won many awards, and some of his exports command $180-250 per pound.  By the way, “milagrosa’ means ‘miraculous.’

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After a quick lunch, we headed to our third stop…the horseback riding ranch!  Jorge led us, and a few other folks, along trails up to scenic viewpoints looking over the valleys of Boquete.  We spotted igaunas and loads of different bird species on the way.  It was Sangbyeong’s first time on a horse, so he was assigned sweet, old Bosque, who just followed the leader.  As an experienced rider, I drew from the “challenge” group, and got Shaggy, who had a smooth gait but a nasty habit of biting everything…including trying to get my foot.  Ya, he learned not to try that twice.

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The final stop of the day was the local hot springs, good for soaking away the dust and aches of the busy day.  Stone enclosures were added by the landowner to create a more intimate experience.  I staked out the 40C pool for nearly an hour…ahhhhhh.  After that, we drove into town as the sun set.  The entire next day was spent chilling out and quietly celebrating Sangbyeong’s 36th birthday!  Took a relaxed walk and found a sweets shop to find cake.

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On Sunday, we ventured a bit out of town to the recommended ‘Mi Jardin es Su Jardin.’  A wealthy local family decided to open their gardens to the public years ago.  It remains a popular place for locals, as the place was packed with families snapping photos and romping in the manicured greens.  We took the time to wander down each and every path and taunt the koi in the pond.  Afterwards, we stopped into Cafe Ruiz, opened 95 years ago and still serving local, organic, hand drip coffee to the passersby.  Bliss.

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For our last day in Panama, we decided to rent a motorbike and whiz around the cloud forest roads for ourselves, which would also give us the flexibility of stopping and hiking if we wanted to.  For the first hour, we revisited the mountain roads lined with small villages and coffee plantations.   And luck was with us….a long-tailed resplendent quetzal flew right past us while we were stopped!  Didn’t catch a photo, but just seeing one is rare enough that we were SO excited!  From there we drove up to the head of the Quetzal Trail and had a little hike.  Didn’t get lucky enough to see two, though.

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We only hiked along the trail for about 30 minutes…the trail is actually 5.7km long and leads to another village, but we didn’t have the time or hiking boots (and we couldn’t abandon our trusty motorbike).   Back on the road, we turned to the lower roads that led through the vegetable farms and over toward the volcano itself, although we turned south before entering the national park and worked our way back to town just as the midday heat started to kick in.

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We spent our last afternoon running errands and preparing for the long bus ride back to San Jose the following day.  That night, there were fireworks bursting over the fairgrounds as they were being cleaned out by the people from the fair.  A nice send-off, since I love fireworks!  Definitely wished we could spend more time in Panama, but that just means we have every reason to come back!

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We had to be up and catching the 6:30AM bus back to David, in order to reserve our place on the 8:30 bus to San Jose.  Onwards, to our Costa Rica adventure!

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