A Tropical Wonderland

Boquete, in western Panama, is a mountain oasis—laid-back and full of flowers, exotic birds, raging rivers and adventure.

Tucked away in a narrow valley along the eastern flanks of a dormant volcano, high in the mountain rainforests of western Panama, lies a sparkling slice of heaven. It’s an area flush with flowers, oranges, coffee farms, whitewater rivers and an abundance of rainbows. Sound a bit like Brigadoon or Shangri-La? The classic paradise fantasy is the same, but Boquete, Panama, is the real thing.

Rhyming with machete, Boquete has been heralded as a holiday haven since the early 20th century. In his 1913 book, America’s Triumph at Panama, author Ralph E. Avery wrote, “Many American employees have been accustomed to spend their vacations there.” And the tradition continues. FORTUNE magazine’s 2005 Retirement Guide hailed Boquete as one of the five best places in the world to retire, as second homeowners and retirees from the States and Europe seek out “villa” communities, golf course bungalows and green-designed haciendas and condos.

Having previously discovered Boquete as a lifesaving oasis after a rough Pacific fishing trip, my sister invited me to join her for a short work break. We flew into Panama City late in the evening, rented a car and headed north, stopping for the night in the town of El Valle. The next day, we took in the nearby Canopy Adventure before heading 300 miles up the Interamericana Highway, stopping at a few beaches along the way. I wanted to see the country, and we did. Straight through from Panama City to Boquete, it’s only a seven-hour drive, but not a very scenic one. Flying into David—the hot, sprawling capital of Chiriqui province, located some 30 miles from the Costa Rican border—would have been a more expeditious way to reach Boquete.

We finally straggled into David and headed due east up a gentle climb from sea level to an elevation just under 4,000 feet. Trapped in a procession of yellow school buses carrying villagers and farm workers, and open trucks ferrying bags of grain, generators and schoolchildren, we chugged up the open flanks of Panama’s highest mountain, the extinct Volcan Baru, an essential link connecting the mountain spines of the Americas from Alaska all the way down to Patagonia. Before long, mini-billboards in English flashed by like old Burma Shave signs, hyping luxury condos, ‘demo’ apartments, haciendas. The road plateaued, deceptively, just before we bounced up and over a rise and descended into a lush green rainforest valley stretching out along the banks of the Caldera River. “Welcome to Boquete,” “Welcome to Feria de Las Flores y del Café.” We were just in time for the annual Flower and Coffee Fair.

Inns, villas and other lodging choices abound, but my sister chose the Panamonte Inn and Spa at the northern end of this walk-about town. We unpacked in a spacious room at the back of this ranch-like complex sprawled among lava stones under a canopy of palms and fruit trees. The evening was surprisingly chilly due to moist clouds trapped at the base of the volcano, so we headed posthaste to the bar—yes, for vodka tonics, but more to curl up in front of one of the roaring fires in huge, raised fieldstone hearths.

Built as a farmhouse in the late 19th century, the Panamonte Inn was converted to a lodge in 1914, acquiring an unpretentious status for hosting the likes of Garbo, Lindbergh, Teddy Roosevelt, the Shah of Iran and Antarctic explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd.

The next morning we walked into town, past the Catholic Church, real estate offices, general stores and a bus depot, then stopped in Chiriqui River Rafting. Owned by Hector Sanchez, who pioneered rafting in this region some 20 years ago and who has a longstanding training and expedition connection with North Carolina’s Nantahala Outdoor Center, the company offers novice trips for rafters and families or expert kayak descents on challenging, world-renowned whitewater. Choose from the Rio Chiriqui, many sections of the Rio Chiriqui Viejo, or the Esti, depending on your desired level of difficulty and time. We scheduled the Rio Chiriqui Viejo for midweek but ended up on the Rio Chiriqui after a horrendous deluge made the Viejo unsafe. My sister and I, together with a dozen or so others, had a blast. The trip was sufficiently demanding, as the water was high, but also well orchestrated and safe. The grand finale was the takeout. We had to get off the river before reaching the newly constructed dam. This meant bushwhacking our gear uphill through thick, tropical forest to a service road—a cool, jungly exit.

The folks at the raft company recommended a coffee shop named Panama Roasters, so off we went for a taste of Boquete’s finest and a craved-for yogurt and granola parfait. We then headed to the Flower and Coffee Fair. As we approached, hawkers hustled three ring-toss throws (over prizes of liquor bottles), vendors restocked beer tents, and Ngöbe Buglé women arranged their handmade naguas—the colorful muumuu-type dress worn by indigenous women, in bold colors with Seminole-stitched rickrack at the neck and sleeves. Clearly this event was a command fiesta for locals, as well as tourists and expatriates.

We bought our fair tickets then followed a snake line through a flea market maze before emerging onto the flower grounds. It was like descending into the Land of Oz: Thousands of zinnias, salvias, marigolds and vincas fused together into whimsically shaped beds and topiaries, like Rose Parade floats tucked in the ground. The festivities continued up the riverside, flowers morphing into vegetable displays, beer and food tents, ending at the carnival rides and music stages. For the full flavor of Salsa rhythms, spicy fair cuisine and fireworks, we came back late one night.

The next few days, while my sister explored the feasibility of buying a house on the nearby Isla Perida, I took to the hills, hiking up over washed-out roads toward the Los Quetzales Trail, part of a trail network in the mountain rainforests surrounding Volcan Baru. The Chiriqui highlands are a hiking mecca, with guided excursions that can last from a couple of hours to four and five days. The Pianista Trail is an example of the latter: It traverses the Continental Divide from Boquete to Bocas del Toro, from the Pacific ecosystem to the Atlantic.

The Los Quetzales Trail connects Boquete with the community of Cerro Punta on the other side of the mountain. It’s a six-mile hike, but I didn’t make all of it, as the trail had been washed out from floods generated by rain torrents a few days back. Giant bromeliad and orchid-bedecked trees were heaped on top of each other by thick, oozing mudslides. Being immersed in the forest, however, was reward enough. I sauntered along under blooming epiphytes, beside human-dwarfing plants and towering, tapered waterfalls, passing men clearing the path with big machetes. Parrots and iridescent-feathered birds whirled overhead. If you are a dedicated birder, and this is birding paradise, there’s a guide named Chago who can call quetzals and guarantees a sighting.

Hiking back toward town one day, I passed coffee fields in harvest. Ngöbe Buglé men and women were hand picking the hard red berries and dropping them into their canvas aprons. The Ngöbe Buglé tribe is one of seven in Panama and the only surviving indigenous people of the 50 to 100 different tribes who welcomed the Spanish in the 1520s. German, Dutch and Spanish families cleared these rainforests in the late 19th century to plant coffee trees. The high-altitude moisture, cool temperatures and fertile soil are ideal for coffee production. Boquete coffee is purported to be the finest in Central America. Numerous coffee plantations offer tours of their fields as well as their processing and roasting facilities.

Vegetables also flourish in this loose volcanic earth, nourished by daily afternoon rains that produce rainbows when the sun comes back out. I continued down the farm road, passing crated, fresh-picked cabbages waiting for truck pick-up. The produce crates were stacked next to corrugated tin corrals, living spaces for the Ngöbe Buglé families who work the fields.

My sister met me for a quick jaunt over to Caldera Hot Springs. Turning south off the David road, we followed the arrows, drove as far as we could off the tarred surface along a rain-soaked dirt road, then parked and sidestepped down a forested hillside. Rough, handmade signs led us to haphazard piles and low walls of smooth stones stacked along the banks of the Chiriqui River. Closer in, we saw that these enclosed bubbling, green-blue pools. We paid our dollar, shed clothes and slid into the hot, clear, fizzing mineral water from Volcan Baru. It’s not the Homestead or White Sulphur Springs, but the “ahhhh” factor is just the same.

We couldn’t miss a chance to hike to the top of Panama’s premier mountain, so Neena, a friend of my sister’s, picked us up before 5:00 one morning in her red Isuzu 4 x 4. We needed all that truck to get to the trailhead. In pitch dark, we traipsed up past clusters of Indian families coming down the mountain to go to work. Dawn broke red through dark cloud slits hovering over the Pacific. We climbed past vegetable fields, coffee farms and an experimental sheep ranch, high into thickets of tall old-growth trees laden with bushy, blooming clumps of epiphytes. The mud had hardened and was so slick that we spent a lot of time on our keisters. The ruts in the path were as tall as our shoulders, but after six hours, we finally reached the first of seven blown-out craters. Nothing grows in these desolate crater basins, but you can see clouds of birds diving and dancing.

Around 10,000 feet, my sister just stopped, lay down in a nest of boulders and went to sleep. I plowed ahead, white fog oozing up off the forest floor, seeping out onto the road path. This meant the top would soon be enshrouded. At what seemed like the last steep incline, the path transformed into a wide, white concrete driveway leading to three large TV towers resembling something out of the ’60s science-fiction fantasy Barbarella.

I crept out onto a rock outcropping defaced with graffiti, then crawled on my knees along a rock ridge until I at last reached the summit. It was marked with a white cross—half-ruined by more graffiti. After eight hours, I was atop Volcan Baru, Panama’s highest point—11,593 feet. I could see neither the Pacific nor the Atlantic through the rising fog.

My sister rebounded, descending like a mountain goat, while I tried to avoid spending too much time on my backside. Around 7:30, after a circuit of 18 miles, I finally limped into Neena’s red truck. We didn’t waste much time getting back to the warm fire in the Panamonte bar. What a day.

Before we left this tropical wonderland, we had to try the new Boquete Tree-Trek. Located in the thick ‘cloud forests’ above town, this is one of the longest and most vertical tree canopy adventures in Panama. After a thorough safety and instructional session, we clipped into our harnesses and started zipping downhill on cables—cautiously, at first, but then moving from tree to tree with the hell-bent abandon of teenagers. It’s impossible not to let out a chest-beating, Tarzan-like “ahh-eee-ahh”, because it’s such a grinning, wind-sucking thrill. The Indians pioneered this tricky mode of travel, and scientists, thanks to steel, have perfected it for tourists.

Apparently, lots of quality-of-life seekers from the States and Europe are moving to the Boquete valley, and why not? Boquete has a laidback pace and pleasant weather, plus nearby fishing, sailing, good restaurants, flower gardens, picture-perfect inns, golf courses and bucketloads of adventure activities. My sister bought a house under construction on Isla Perida, 38 miles from Boquete, accessible only by boat and the only Pacific island in the Gulf of Chiriqui National Marine Park off Panama where residential building is permitted. I will be happy just visiting again.

This article originally appeared in our Oct. 2007 issue.

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