Having only spent one full day (diving) in Santa Catalina, we left for Boquete, the mountainous heart of Panama. Deciding we didn’t want to have to switch 4 buses for a 270 km journey, we booked a shuttle for twice the price and three times the comfort.
At first hesitant about visiting Boquete, as it sounded like much of what we were planning to visit next in Costa Rica (volcanoes and cloud-forests) but it was a choice between Boquete and the tropical paradise of Bocas del Toro. Considering we were going to spend 2 months in a tropical Mexican paradise, off to the mountains it was!
Our choice couldn’t have proven any better. This charming town is a big hub for American retirees and I can totally see why. I’m not even close to retirement and would love to live there. Considering its perfectly mild late-spring temperatures all year round, spectacular scenery everywhere you look, a volcano you can climb if you’re up for the dare and… COFFEE! Oh, the coffee…
Thinking of Central America and coffee, one immediately thinks of Costa Rica, due to it being the country’s biggest export. However, inasmuch as CR was a disappointment when it comes to coffee, so much was Panama, or actually the Boquete region, a sweet surprise.
Not only is the region’s climate perfect for growing coffee, most of the farms are organic and grow only the highest quality Arabica coffee. Panama doesn’t have a long tradition of growing coffee, so most of these plantations are under 20 years old and established by expats who brought knowledge and new technologies. Touring a coffee plantation while in Boquete is a must for all coffee lovers and there’s plenty to choose from. We visited Scottish-owned El Jardin del Cafe but the highlight of our visit was our guide, Armando. Witty and informative, he taught us many details about growing coffee and we got a glimpse into a hands-on experience of harvesting and processing coffee beans. Above all, you could sense the passion and admiration he has for the plant and the beverage, which was invigorating.
A few of the most interesting facts about coffee we learned were the following:
Boquete is the biggest producer of the Geisha (Gesha) variety, the most expensive coffee in the world, gaining more and more traction every year since being awarded this title in 2004. This elusive bean originated in Africa but thrived in the mountainous regions of Panama, where it is now considered a domesticated variety and Panama’s most exclusive export.
Almost all of the countries that are known for coffee production export most of their beans. This means that the coffee that you’ll find in Panama’s (or Costa Rica’s) cafes is the lower quality bean, mixed with Robusta and over roasted to achieve the “strong” flavor favored by the locals. So chances are you’ll purchase much better quality coffee at your local specialized roasters than at the source.
Roasting is half of the coffee quality. Yes, high-quality, single origin beans grown at the right environment and altitude are important, but it;s the roasters that add the final touch as well as skim the cream of the profits.
However, good news is that roasting coffee is not as a daunting task as it seems and each one of us can do it at the comfort of our own home! If you’re a coffee aficionado, it’s definitely an interesting exercise to try and get a glimpse of the difficulties, traps but also tricks of the trade. If nothing else, it’ll make you appreciate the roasted coffee you buy and the brewed coffee in cafes and give you some fun knowledge to brag about with 😀
Finally, coffee is a sweet fruit and can be eaten raw! This is also why birds love to nibble on it and pose a big headache for farmers.
Armando not only took us to the coffee plantation, but we also did the 3 waterfall hike with him that afternoon. This short, but pretty challenging and technical hike makes it all worth it when you dive under the second waterfall, in the middle of a cloud forest in that Panamanian mountains.
Food and drink
On top of all the outdoorsy stuff you can do around Boquete, its gastro scene is also very good. This little charming town even has its own microbrewery, where you can have some really great craft beers. In addition, I can’t believe I’m saying this, the best cider i ever tasted in my life! Worth a visit? Hell yeah!
We were sad to have to leave this green haven, however we had to catch our ride of four buses to get to the Costa Rican town of Puerto Viejo. Wanting to cross the famous bridge border crossing, we took the maybe more complicated way around (instructions can be found here) but it was worth the trip. There’s also a shuttle option, but in this case the shuttle is 5x the price of the local buses and you won’t save much time, as the road is looooooong, steep and winding. So better save the $$$ and enjoy the view 🙂
In conclusion, Panama you have been a wonderful surprise. I didn’t expect to find so many interesting thing, people and stories here, but here they were! This is definitely an underrated destination and I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone planning a visit to Central America.