The mountain town of Boquete, near the border with Costa Rica, is something of a legend on the expat circuit. At 3,900 feet (1,200 meters) above sea level, Boquete’s weather is delightfully cool. There are scenic coffee plantations at this altitude too plus great bird watching and, well, plenty of other gringos to hang out with. However, travelers seeking an escape from the heat will also find plenty of reasons to hangout in Boquete (pronounced Bo KEH tay), as this one-stop Boquete travel guide reveals, including great hikes, rock climbing, kayaking, coffee tours, the chance to see a quetzal (trust us, you want to), great hotels and something we like to call “wife swap fight club.”
Coffee culture in Boquete
Coffee experts agree on little. Most do agree, however, that beans grown above 3,000 feet (900 meters) are of higher quality than beans grown at lower altitudes. Coffee is grown high on the hills all around Boquete and much of it is renowned as exceptional, including some small batch Geisha coffee.
In 2010 Hacienda La Esmeralda in Boquete produced Geisha coffee which broke all records to date, fetching US$170.20 per pound. More recently that same pound of La Esmeralda Geisha coffee went for more than US$350 per pound.
Geisha coffee was too rich for our blood but we did get into the coffee culture in Boquete at Finca Lerida. Unfortunately, the tour of their coffee procession operation was perfunctory at best.
We’ve done more than half a dozen different coffee tours in Mexico, Costa Rica and El Salvador so we have the basics down, but if this was your first coffee tour you would have walked away only slightly more educated than when you walked in. We heard very, very good things about the coffee tour at Cafe Ruiz, especially with bilingual local guide Carlos. If you’ve never toured a coffee plantation before Cafe Ruiz is probably a good place to start.
Weirdly, citrus, tomatoes and strawberries thrive in the lofty heights of Boquete right alongside the coffee. There are strawberry shacks all over town selling fresh berries with cream, strawberry preserves and strawberry batidas (shakes) made with locally grown fruit. The batidas (a sort of milkshake) at Fresas Cafe came highly recommended.
A much, much more satisfying tour at Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation & Boutique Hotel was their guided bird watching tour. The coffee plantation and hotel take up only a fraction of the 360 acre (145 hectare) property which butts up against the Baru Volcano National Park and the La Amistad International Peace Park.
Baru Volcano is the tallest mountain in Panama at more than 11,000 feet (3,352 meters) and it’s the centerpiece of a massive protected area which has created a haven for wildlife including more than 500 species of endemic and migratory birds.
You can honestly do some pretty good bird watching right from the grounds of Finca Lerida (or almost anywhere in the Boquete area). We saw hummingbirds of all sorts and a dozen other colorful species we’re not equipped to name. Serious bird watching, however, is done on foot along trails that crisscross the property through coffee trees and cloud forest.
We got up at 7:30 am to meet up with Cesar, a Finca Lerida guide whose father and grandfather both worked on the property. Cesar learned about nature and how to guide from his dad in these very hills.
Though the bird watching hike covered less than two miles (3.2 km) it took all morning. Progress is slow when you’ve got binoculars glued to your face and your ears are straining at every peep and rustle. We were rewarded for our vigilance with sightings of five resplendent quetzal birds, one of the most colorful and shyest species on the planet.
We also saw a black-headed solitaire which is a plain gray bird with an orange beak and orange feet but it sings a fabulous song. We also heard the distinctly synthesized call of the three-wattled bell bird though we were denied a clear sighting. Check out our photo essay for an eyeful of even more amazingly colorful birds spotted in Boquete.
The bird watching tour at Finca Lerida concluded with lunch in the hotel restaurant where we enjoyed the best trout we’ve ever had stuffed with herbs grown just a few feet from our table, all followed by a cup of coffee, of course.
Looking for something a bit more heart-pounding? Boquete is full of outfitters ready to take you rafting or kayaking on the Palo Alto River or Chiriqui River. You can go rock climbing on very odd rocks shaped by volcanic activity which reminded us of the formations we saw at Devils Postpile National Monument in the US early in our Trans-Americas Journey.
There’s also horseback riding, something called the Bat Cave, you can hang with monkeys at the Refugio de Monos or take on the Boquete Tree Trek zip line which travels 1.8 miles (3 km) along 12 different cables. Afterwards, you can relax and recap in local hot springs.
Hiking is also a major activity in the hills around Boquete and you can head out for a few hours or a few days on trails like the famous Quetzal Trail which winds through cloud forest and takes you from Boquete over the flanks of Baru Volcano to the town of Volcan.
By far the wackiest thing to do in Boquete is to pay a visit to the private El Explorador Garden (US$5) in the hills just south of town. Slowly created by the Miranda family over the past 50 years or so, this ever-evolving rolling piece of hillside is part garden, part found-object outdoor sculpture park and part, well, good old-fashioned wackiness with superhero cutouts you can be photographed in and a disturbing number of doll heads. El Explorador is best conveyed in photos, so here goes.
Wife swap fight club
The indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé people (pronounced, oh hell, we have no idea) never really integrated into modern Panamanian society either by choice or not. In Boquete they’ve been pushed even further afield by the rising tide of foreigners and the rising prices that usually come with them. Some reports put the number of expats (mostly from the US and Canada) living in Boquete at 14% of the overall population.
Most of the Ngöbe-Buglé in the Boquete area work on coffee plantations. Ngöbe-Buglé women wear primary color tops and skirts with bric-a-brac trim–it’s Raggedy Ann meets Little House on the Prairie. Men wear jeans and a t-shirts. Nothing too surprising about that. In indigenous groups the world over the women tend to retain traditional dress longer than the men, either by choice or not. However, how many indigenous groups do you know of that have a wife swap fight club on the weekend? Well, the Ngöbe-Buglé do.
As the weekend approaches (and pay checks are handed out) some of the men start to get pretty liquored up. Once drunk enough to be stupid but still sober enough to stand some of them begin fighting in an alley next to the Romero Supermarket in downtown Boquete.
The bare-knuckle punches are real and so are the stakes: apparently, the winner gets to inherit one of the loser’s wives and her children. Did we mention that the Ngöbe-Buglé are polyamorous? Some champion fighters are said to have more than 30 wives. We have no idea if the Ngöbe-Buglé women are complicit in this or simply moved around like poker chips.
As we stood at a respectful (and safe) distance and watched increasingly inebriated men duke it out (the drunker among them did more neck hanging than fist swinging) we were plagued with questions: Is this a traditional thing or something new? How is the wife/prize chosen? Does she have any say in what’s going on? Is this financially driven, ego driven or sexually driven? Do other cultures do this? We walked away from the fight, as it devolved into two drunk men more or less slow dancing, more confused than ever.
Where to eat and drink in Boquete
No matter how you feel about the world’s many Gringolandias, of which Boquete is certainly one, you have to admit that food selection improves as more expats move in. Here’s where we enjoyed eating and drinking in Boquete.
- Nelvis is a simple restaurant serving up well-prepared basics to a mixed Panamanian and foreign crowed. Their fried chicken, US$3 got with rice and salad, was a tasty bargain.
- Mike’s Global Grill is owned by Mike and Heidi Rehm who both used to work in the Amudson-Scott station in Antarctica where Mike was a cook and Heidi did five winters which is some sort of endurance record. Mike told us he also cooked at Spice in NYC. They’ve created a casual pub-like place that shows big games, gives free WiFi and serves up good burgers (US$4.50 but fries are extra) and more. Their apple flip is like a folded over piece of apple pie and just as delicious as it sounds. They make their own pulled pork and sausages. Beer was US$1.50, wine was US$2.50.
- At Big Daddy’s Grill, owned by Larry and Elizabeth, we enjoyed their lovely back porch and delicious fish (always fresh, never farmed) at great prices. Do not miss the fish tacos.
- Sugar & Spice bakery has a wide selection of passable, freshly baked breads and pastries.
- Punto de Encuentro serves up huge US-style breakfasts (around US$6) and the owner calls everyone “mi amor.”
- Zanzibar is a lively bar with African decor, hookas, a great lounge-y vibe and good prices (four glasses of wine and two beers came to US$15). Sadly, Zanzibar also has some of the world’s most uncomfortable seating. The place attracts students, expats and Panamanians.
Where to sleep in Boquete
There are a lot of hotels in town but we’re just going to point out three standout places to sleep in Boquete.
The original owner of Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation & Boutique Hotel, located in the hills above Boquete town, was a Norwegian engineer who came to Panama to design aspects of the Panama Canal. In 1911 he bought what is now Finca Lerida and began planting coffee. We were told he also invented the still widely used waterborne method of sorting coffee beans (poor quality beans float) and we were even shown a framed US Patent Office document for the gizmo.
Under the current owners, Finca Lerida now has six spectacular suites, 14 rooms and a historic house where guests can stay. The new suites are best described as Central American shabby chic with a charming combination of chandeliers, plushly upholstered sofas, outdoor fireplaces and downy bedding—necessary at this altitude.
The original rooms are small but charming with the same great beds that the suites have plus renovated bathrooms and inviting patio hammocks. Our favorite touch? The small dish of ground coffee in every guest room as an air freshener.
The 10 rooms at Boquete Garden Inn, near the center of town, are a comfortable bargain (all have kitchenettes) and the owners are dedicated, charming and info-filled. But the best part of this place is the garden which attracts dozens of species of colorful birds which flit around bird baths and fruit-filled platforms nearly oblivious to your presence. Bring your binoculars to breakfast (included in rates) and enjoy some of the laziest bird watching in Panama.
Actually, the best part of Boquete Garden Inn is co-owner Susan who used to read Sassy magazine back when Karen was a staff writer there in the 1980s. Susan emailed us when she discovered our Trans-Americas Journey travel blog and it was a delight to finally meet her in Boquete.
Susan came to Boquete from Toronto in 2008 and she and her husband, Jay, bought the small hotel and totally renovated the five two-storey buildings. They host a lively beer and wine happy hour for guests so you’ll get the chance to enjoy her company too.
When we were in Boquete the area’s classic high end hotel, Hotel Panamonte, was looking a little worse for wear so we skipped it. However, a wellness-focused hotel and spa had recently opened just outside of town and we definitely checked that out.
We were worried that we were in for a dressed up version of medical tourism at The Haven but we were wrong.The Haven, for adults only, is part natural health clinic committed to treating chronic pain and health complaints through diet therapy, natural treatments even psychology/psychiatry when needed. Then there’s the spa designed to achieve relaxation not simply through pampering treatments but also through behavior and diet modification. Finally, it’s a true boutique hotel.
Designed by a Brazilian architect, the interiors were done by the owners, Howard and Sonia, and reflect their personalities and attention to detail not just some hotel designer’s play book or a dressed up version of a hospital.
Even if you’re not partaking of the considerable menu of wellness (acupuncture, nutritional therapy, naturopathy, physical therapy, chiropractic adjustments, deep tissue massage, sports injury work, lymphatic drainage and exercise physiology) or spa services, The Haven is a serene setting. Birds wake you in the morning and frogs serenade you in the evening.
Super chic rooms (some with kitchenettes or patios) are well-appointed with big bathrooms, tea, coffee and a French press plunger, cereal, yogurt and milk for a healthy in-room breakfast. All guests have use of a hot tub, lap pool with resistance wave machine, very well equipped light-filled gym and infra-red sauna and steam room. All in all, The Haven was one of the most unusual hotels we found in all of Panama.
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