PANAMA’S CLOUD FORESTS, COFFEE & CARIBBEAN ISLANDS
If you want the champagne of coffee, the world’s most expensive, there’s just one place to go: Boquete, a small town on the slopes of the Baru Volcano in Panama’s Chiriqui province. Boquete’s Geisha coffee, which sells for a whopping $600 per pound, is coveted by Asia’s high society for its jasmine, flowery taste and relative unavailability. Panama is a small, modest player in the coffee industry, but what it does produce consistently wins the top awards in the world’s coffee competitions.
On the Elida Estate Coffee Farm I joined master coffee taster Lan Laws, breathlessly following him through steep slopes densely packed with coffee plants. Elida is one of 150 coffee micro-farms, many of them started by American expats soon after their work on the Panama Canal was completed in 1914. They ventured up to Chiriqui and enchanted by the cool mountain air, the densely forested slopes and the towering peaks of Volcan Baru, settled on the slopes and devoted themselves to growing Arabica coffee. Boquete is new on the tourist map, its first hotel opening just 18 years ago. Today the small town of 19,000 still has a strong expat population, especially after 2010, when the American Association of Retired Persons named it a top retirement destination. But its dusty streets and small storefronts selling fresh mangos, rambutan and citrus have also become a hub for adventure travellers coveting whitewater rafting, hiking, ziplines, canopy treks and coffee tours.
While my daughters zipped and shrieked through the treetops at adrenaline pumping speeds, I chose a quieter walk through the hanging bridges, suspended over the rivers and slopes of the Palo Alto mountains. En route my guide Isabel pointed out 450-year-old mamoncillo trees and some of the 1,100 species of orchid that proliferate in the cloud forest. Thick, lush tropical vegetation surrounds me and the sound of the rushing river fills my ears as a cool breeze cuts the 35 degree Celsius heat of Panama’s rainy season. “Ten years ago it was much cooler here,” Isabel notes sadly. “Global warming is changing everything and we’re losing species as a result of climate change.”
We travel west on the Americana Highway later in the day to join a rafting trip down the Old Chiriqui River, whose whitewater tumbles from the slopes of the volcano, flanked by forests and narrow canyon walls. It’s a fast rollercoaster down class 3-4 rapids that leaves us breathless, exhilarated and soaking wet. So we’re sleepy for the next part of our journey, a drive over the continental divide that separates the highlands from the Caribbean coastal port of Almirante, the gateway to the Bocas del Toro archipelago. Prime among Panama’s attractions, Bocas has it all: turquoise waters where dolphins are easily sighted, white-sand beaches with palm trees leaning at precarious angles and island towns filled with West Indian Caribbean sounds and flavours. It’s a scene straight out of a postcard and one that forces even the most work-addicted travelers to put their phones away and soak up the beauty.
We headed straight to Isla Bastimentos, checking into Eclypse de Mar, a small hotel with bungalows suspended on stilts above the sea. From the hammocks on our deck we throw fish food into the water and are soon entertained by a swirl of activity as fish swarm to the surface. A five minute commute by water taxi takes us to Old Town Bastimentos, where we relish meals of plantains and Caribbean fried chicken. At night we’re lulled to sleep by the vibe of joyful music that drifts over the Caribbean.
There are 130 islands in the Bocas archipelago, which is home to the Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park. As our trip draws to a close we board a day-long boat tour to explore the park, careening through islets thick with mangrove trees until we’re rewarded with the sight of a sloth hanging nonchalantly in the crook of a branch. We snorkel around massive chunks of brain coral at Isla Zapatilla, circle the islands powder-soft beach by foot and bask in the perfect beauty of this Caribbean jewel. When a gleaming pod of dolphins cavorts near our boat it’s the cherry on top of a trip that will live long in memory. Costa Rica is hot on the tourist map but Boquete and Bocas remain quiet spots, relatively undiscovered. For those that venture to Panama’s highlands and Caribbean islands, the rewards are plenty.
IF YOU GO:
• The Panama Tourism Authority’s website is a helpful place to begin planning: www.visitpanama.com
PHOTOS: As attributed below
1. Whether you zip through the air on a zipline or take a more leisurely guided walk through the cloud forest, Boquete’s highlands reveal spectacular vistas of gushing waterfalls and lush, densely forested mountains. (Lauren Kramer)
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