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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2015

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2015 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities of the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including cruising the Amazon River in Peru (in luxury and in a hammock), playing with gunpowder in a bar in Colombia and sky biking through the treetops in Ecuador (don’t miss our Amazon drone footage). Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2015, Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

In 2015, the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia, Ecuador and Peru and we drove 7,210 miles (11,603 km) doing it. Want more geeky road trip numbers like how much money we’ve spent on gas and how many borders we’ve driven over? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page on our website.

And now, in no particular order, here are the…

10 Best Adventures & Activities of 2015

 

Best walk through the tree tops: It’s more than a third of a mile (500 meters) long and up to 115 feet (35 meters) above the ground. It sways and creaks as it connects more than a dozen different platforms. It’s supported by enormous rain forest trees and there’s nothing else like it in the Peruvian Amazon basin. We’re talking about the Ceiba Tops Canopy Walkway at Explorama Lodge from which you can see toucans, tree frogs, monkeys and more all at eye level. Check out our Amazon drone footage from above the Canopy Walkway, above.

 

Caceria del Zorro horse race - Ibarra, Ecuador

Best insane horse race: Every October the town of Ibarra in northern Ecuador hosts a race that includes hundreds of horses and riders who parade around town, then leap down a series of steep cliffs (see above) before taking part in a track race in pursuit of a rider dressed as Zorro. Yes, that Zorro. It is breathtaking in more ways than one. Learn more about the annual Caceria del Zorro in our story about Ecuador’s craziest horse race for Afar.

 

Cock-of-Rock

Best cock sighting: The national bird of Peru is called the Cock of the Rock. It is a crazy looking thing, but not how you’re thinking (check it out, above). It’s also pretty rare and seeing one is not a guarantee. Seeing five in one day without a guide is pretty extraordinary, but that’s exactly what happened when we hiked the trail to the Gocta Waterfall in northern Peru. Just after reaching the 4km mark on the 5km trail we heard a really weird noise–like alien frogs. We stopped and looked around and soon saw a bright red flash in the rain forest. We hung around and looked and listened some more and then we saw three male Cock of the Rocks in the same tree just off the trail. They hung around for more than five minutes before flying off. On our way back out we saw another Cock of the Rock alone in a tree around the 3km trail marker. Our advice is to keep your eyes and your ears open on this trail. And even if you don’t see any Cock of the Rocks the waterfall is worth is. At 2,530 feet (771 meters) Gocta Waterfall is one of the tallest free-falling waterfalls in the world.

 

Amazon Ferry Iquitos Peru Hammock

Best bare bones Amazon River trip: At an average up river speed of less than 10 miles (15 km) per hour, it takes more than three days to travel up the Amazon River by cargo ferry from Iquitos to Yurimaguas, Peru (you can hack off a day or so going downstream in the other direction). We slept on the deck in hammocks (Karen is demonstrating, above), spent a lot of hours spotting blue and yellow macaws and pink river dolphins with our binoculars and generally slowed down to river time. It was like taking a multi-day trip on the Mississippi but with rarer wildlife.

 

Aria Amazon river boat - Iquitos, Peru

Best super luxe Amazon River trip: On the extreme other end of the Peruvian Amazon River Trip experience scale you will find the Aria Amazon river boat. This floating luxury hotel and fine dining restaurant lived up to the substantial hype with some of the best food we’ve had in Peru so far (the menu was created by Executive Chef Pedro Miguel Schiaffino who runs the award-winning Malabar restaurant in Lima), exceptional service, chic rooms with floor to ceiling windows, great guides and, of course, all that Amazon. Did we mention the air conditioning and the hot tub?

 

Playin Tejo - Salento, Colombia

Best explosive bar game: It’s called tejo and it involves a heavy metal disc (called a tejo) which you toss underhand toward an angled board covered in wet clay. Your goal is to hit pieces of paper stuffed with gun powder which are arranged around a metal ring pressed into the clay. You know you’re doing it right when the reaction between your tossed tejo, the gun powder and the metal ring causes an explosion. We played it in the otherwise tranquil mountain town of Salento, Colombia at the Los Amigos bar where they have a massive open air tejo area set up in the back. Pay 1,000 COP (about US$0.40) per person, grab a cold beer for 3,000 COP (about US$1.00), choose one of the half dozen or so tejo set ups and start tossing. You earn one point for the tejo which lands closest to ring. You get three points for an explosion. You get six points for landing in the center of the metal ring and causing an explosion. You get nine points for landing in center of metal ring without causing an explosion. The first person who racks up 25 points first wins. Though Karen hates loud noises, she somehow won anyway. Check out her winning form, above.

 

Masphi Eco Lodge sky baike jungle canopy

Best place to bicycle through the air: Masphi Eco Lodge in Ecuador is remarkable for a number of reasons, including top luxury deep in the rain forest and breathtaking architecture. Mashpi is also home to the only sky bike in the country. What is a sky bike? It’s an ingenious contraption that allows you to pedal your way across a taught line high above the ground (above). Think of it as horizontal zip lining on a bike. At Mashpi they’ve installed their sky bike through a particularly lovely patch of cloud forest and a leisurely round trip between two platforms gives sky bikers eye level views of the tree tops and the flowers and critters that live there.

 

 

Best death road: There are two ways to travel between Macoa to Pasto in Colombia: via a normal highway or via something called the Trampoline of Death. Guess which one we chose…To assuage her nerves, Karen crushed the pre-drive to do list. Water bottles were filled. Tire pressure was checked. The oil level was monitored. We were ready for the steep grades, blind corners, narrow stretches where two vehicles can’t possibly pass, potholes, rock slides and whatever else something called the Trampoline of Death might have in store. What we weren’t ready for was a recently graded surface, helpful safety signs and guardrails. Guardrails? We still had fun on the road and it is still challenging and requires even more concentration then usual, but the moral of this adventure is: don’t judge a road by its nickname. Check out the time lapse video from our death road drive, above.

 

Animals of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve, Ecuador

Best Amazon adventure destination in Ecuador: Ecuador is blessed with a number of different areas from which travelers can access the Amazon Basin. We spent weeks exploring the Amazon along the Napo River out of a town called Coca which is the most popular gateway. Then we visited the Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon Basin and it blew our minds. The waterways in the Cuyabeno area of Ecuador are much smaller and they flood and recede throughout the year. There are also far fewer lodging options in the Cuyabeno area then there are along the Napo which means fewer humans. This means the animals are more common and much easier to see. In three days we saw pink river dolphins, the smallest monkey in the world (the pygmy marmoset), huge tracts of primary rainforest, toucans, a pygmy potoo (look it up) and more. We saw so many animals we had to make a wildlife montage for you, above. Lodges in the Cuyabeno area of the Amazon Basin are fairly basic with varying degrees of electricity, hot water, etc. We recommend Tapir Lodge where the food is great, the solar and generator electricity is reliable and the private rooms are clean and comfortable. The biggest asset at Tapir Lodge is Kurt the owner. He is passionate about his slice of paradise and works hard to make sure his guests fall in love with it too.

 

Kuelap Fortress archaeological site - Chachapoyas, Peru

Best first Incan archaeological site: During the course of our Trans-Americas Journey we’ve explored more than 100 archaeological sites through the US, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. None of them have been Incan sites, however, until we crossed into Peru and headed straight for the Kuelap Fortress, which is actually a pre-Incan site that was built by the Chachapoyas people in 1500s. The massive stone wall that encloses this site is nearly 2,000 feet (600 meters) long by nearly 400 feet (119 meters) wide. In places the wall is 62 feet (19 meters) high (check it out, above). Kuelap held thousands of people at it’s peak in distinctive round stone houses with thatch roofs. Despite its name, some archaeologists believe that Kuelap probably wasn’t a fortress at all but more of a sacred area used for ceremonies and rituals. Visiting Keulap is about to get even more adventurous. In late 2015 work began on a massive cable car system, the first in Peru, which will transport visitors from the village of Tingo Nuevo to the Kuelap site covering 2.5 miles (4 km) and rising more than 2,400 feet (730 meters) in 20 minutes. The new Kuelap cable car is expected to be finished in 2017.

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Photo of the Day: Mount McKinley No More, President Obama Makes Denali Official (again)

Even before we laid eyes on the mountain when our Trans-Americas Journey explored Alaska back in 2007 we were calling it Denali as the Athabascan native people have for generations. In 1886 a gold prospector christened the mountain Mount McKinley after President William McKinley and the US government recognized the name in 1917. The renaming sparked plenty of controversy and a serious push to reinstate the native name has been going on since 1975. In 1980 Mount McKinley Park became Denali National Park and Preserve but the mountain was still called McKinley. But no more. President Barack Obama has reinstated Denali as the official name of the iconic mountain, ditching Mount McKinley for good.

Any way you look at it, the tallest mountain in North America–which the USGS just re-surveyed and declared to be 20,310 feet (stripping 10 feet/3 meters off the previous height–is one gorgeous bump on the map.

Denali from the National Park

Denali

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Mountain Mercy – Minca, Colombia

After a few days in the sweltering beach town of Taganga and in sunny, coastal Tayrona National Park we were more than ready for a cool down. In northern Colombia, with its sweaty, slow, Caribbean heat, that means one thing: time to travel to the mountain town of Minca.

The road up to Minca, about nine miles (14 km) from Santa Marta, is narrow, winding and rough but we were undeterred in our quest to get to Finca San Souci which we originally read about the finca in this post from the folks at Life Remotely. We were not disappointed.

Minca view Los Pinos Colombia

The town of Minca, Colombia is in the Sierra Nevada mountains which means cooler temperatures and views like this.

Cool camping in Colombia

Started nearly 20 years ago by Chris, from Germany, and his Colombian wife, Finca San Souci has some basic rooms but we jumped at the chance to do some camping in Colombia and set up our tent for 10,000 COP (about US$4) per person per night including access to a clean cold water shower, two shared toilets and a very cool outdoor kitchen with running water and a fireplace.

There’s also a small swimming pool at Finca San Souci but we are delighted to say it was too cool to use it. At more than 2,000 feet (600 meters) in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Minca delivered the cool temperatures we were after.

Tip: if you’re going to camp in Minca bring groceries and supplies from Santa Marta. There are very few stores or facilities up in Minca. There are no ATMs in Minca either.

SteriPen water purification Minca Colombia

Karen, left, and Teresa (part of the duo we shipped our vehicles with from Panama to Colombia) in a battle of the SteriPENs in the outdoor kitchen at Finca San Souci in Minca.

Travel is better with friends

Another great amenity? Travel mates. Since shipping our truck from Panama to Colombia, we’d been convoying around Colombia with our awesome shipping partners, George and Teresa and “Vida”, their (mostly) trusty Toyota. They’d come up to Minca with us and as we set up our tent on the big, flat lawn they relaxed since Taco has a pop up roof tent that makes camping a breeze.

Besides cool weather, Minca is known for its coffee and its natural beauty. There are hiking trails past waterfalls and up to scenic viewpoints like Los Pinos at more than 5,500 feet (1,700 meters). Wildlife loves the region too. We saw toucans every day in the trees near our tent.

Toucans Minca Colombia

Toucans were our neighbors a we camped at Finca San Souci in Minca.

Minca was one of the most relaxing places we visited in Colombia and we still can’t figure out why there aren’t more tourists in Minca. We liked it so much that the four of us ended up staying for three days and in all that time only two other guests showed up at Finca San Souci.

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Better Than Boquete? – Cerro Punta, Panama

Boquete is beautiful. The coffee plantations. The bird watching. The hiking trails and natural climbing walls. The refreshing weather. The expats (or at least the diverse restaurants they attract). However, Cerro Punta–with its awesome agriculture, Swiss chalet architecture and proximity to Volcán Barú National Park (home to the tallest mountain in Panama) and La Amistad International Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s shared with Costa Rica which is the largest nature reserve in Central America)–may be even better than Boquete for travelers who are into nature and bird lovers.

Quetzal Cerro Punta Rainforest Panama

Just one of the resplendent quetzal birds that we saw in the cloud forest around Cerro Punta, Panama.

Fastidious farmers

There’s something rejuvenating and reassuring about being surrounded by fields of thriving fruits and vegetables. Potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, onions, some mysterious green stuff we couldn’t identify, strawberries (which are sold in town by vendors who whip up strawberry smoothies, strawberries and cream, strawberry bread, etc) and more deliciousness blanket the slopes around Cerro Punta like edible carpets. No risk of starving to death here.

Everything you shove into the ground seems to flourish in the rich soil and tender climate at 5,905 feet (1,800 meters). However, Cerro Punta farmers don’t just shove things into the ground. Each field is tidier and more picturesque than the last. With neat rows, not a weed in sight and borders planted with flowers, they all seem to have been groomed by the world’s most fastidious farmers in prep for a Martha Stewart photo shoot.

Adding to the agricultural bliss of Cerro Punta is Haras Cerro Punto, a five-star horse farm which opened in 1977 and has produced top of the line race horses and show horses. Even if you’re not in the marketing for a million dollar horse you can take a tour of the pristine paddocks for about US$5.

Los Quetzales Lodge Spa Panama

Los Quetzales Lode & Spa offers everything from camping to private forest houses and has great value spa treatments.

Sleeping and spa-ing in Cerro Punta

Speaking of horses, a brand new colt was frolicking in the central lawn at Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa, in the town of Guadalupe just a few miles from Cerro Punta, when we arrived. Good sign.

The lodge offers something for everyone from camping to motel-style rooms to stand alone cabins. The place looks and feels like a cross between a Swiss chalet and a boy scout camp and is run as sustainably as possible. Most produce comes from their own organic garden (their salad bar is famous). Dairy products come from their own cows. More than 7,000 trees have been planted on the lodge’s 980 acre (400 hectare) private reserve. No plastic water bottles are sold. More than 90% of the staff lives within walking or biking distance of the lodge.

Hiking in Los Quetzales rainforest

Lush cloud forest in and around Cerro Punta, Panama.

Resplendant-quetzal

Another quetzal spotted near Cerro Punta. This is a male but he doesn’t have the bird’s signature long tail feathers because it’s not mating season.

Every morning at 8:30 am there’s a free guided tour so guests can see some of the lodge’s property in a super bad ass custom-built vehicle. We had the added bonus of seeing resplendent quetzal birds in the lush cloud forest which butts right up against Volcán Barú National Park.

During this tour you will also see the lodge’s best kept secret: About 10 minutes up a rough dirt road beyond the main lodge Los Quetzales also offers spacious wooden cabins built into areas of the cloud forest that were deforested decades ago so no new trees had to be cut down.

Quetzal with nest Panama

Yet another quetzal bird in the cloud forest around Cerro Punta.

Los Quetzales Rainforest Cabins Cerro Punta, Panama

Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa also offers a handful of large wooden homes in the cloud forest.

Each cabin has multiple bedrooms, WiFi, full kitchens and fireplaces (at over 7,260 feet/2,200 meters it gets chilly up there). They’re the perfect family or romantic hideaway. Bring your own groceries or arrange for the chef from the main lodge to come cook for you.

Hummingbird Panama

It’s easy to get distracted by the flamboyant quetzal birds, but the cloud forest around Cerro Punta is home to any other species as well.

Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa also has a top value spa which uses all natural products. It’s not fancy but you can get a superb deep tissue massage for 1.5 hours for US$45 in an open air spa room with the sound of a creek gurgling by.

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Photo Essay: Birds of Boquete, Panama

There are many reasons to travel to Boquete, Panama. Great coffee, cool temperatures, outdoor adventures, wife swap fight club (more on that in our travel guide to Boquete) and some of the easiest and most gratifying bird watching in Panama. We saw dozens of species, including the always-amazing resplendent quetzal and a tantalizing tease from a three-wattled bell bird, with little or no effort. This photo essay brings you some of our favorite birds of Boquete, many spotted from our breakfast table in the bird-filled garden of the Boquete Garden Inn.

Resplendant Quetzal - Finca Lerida, Boquete, Panama

A male resplendent quetzal spotted during a bird watching walk on the property of Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation & Boutique Hotel in Boquete, Panama.

Resplendant Quetzal - Boquete, Panama

A male resplendent quetzal spotted during a bird watching walk on the property of Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation & Boutique Hotel in Boquete, Panama.

Colorful-birds-of-Boquete

The morning menagerie on the grounds of Boquete Garden Inn.

Male Red-legged honeycreeper - Boquete, Panama

A male red-legged honeycreeper.

Male Red-legged honeycreeper & Male Flame-colored tanager - Boquete, Panama

A male red-legged honeycreeper gives an earful to a male flame-colored tanager.

Silver Throated tanager - Boquete, Panama

A silver-throated tanager.

male-female pair Blue-grey tanagers - Boquete, Panama

A mating pair of blue-grey tanagers.

female Red-legged honeycreeper - Boquete, Panama

A female red-legged honeycreeper.

pissed off Flame-colored tanager - Boquete, Panama

A flame-colored tanager does its best to scare off a larger bird.

Violet saberwing Hummingbird - Boquete, Panama

A violet saberwing hummingbird.

Green Manakin - Boquete, Panama

A green manakin.

Male Red-legged honeycreeper & Female Blue-grey tanager - Boquete, Panama

A female blue-grey tanager (left) and a male red-legged honeycreeper.

Hummingbird - Boquete, Panama

Even with all the flowers around, a classic feeders still attracts hummingbirds.

male Flame-colored tanager - Boquete, Panama

A male flame-colored tanager.

female Flame-colored tanager - Boquete, Panama

A female flame-colored tanager (foreground).

Birds of Boquete panama
More of the morning menagerie on the grounds of Boquete Garden Inn.

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Eric’s  photo of the Violet Saberwing Hummingbird above was awarded Most Photogenic by  Birdfeeders.com


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Beans, Birds, Beds & Wife Swap Fight Club – Boquete, Panama

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.”

View over the Boquete valley and the flank of Baru Volcano

Looking down on Boquete town from the flanks of the Baru Volcano, the tallest mountain in Panama.

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.

Finca Lerida Coffee Estate - Boquete, Panama

Coffee grown in the hills around Boquete is world class.

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 MexicoCosta 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.

Finca Lerida Coffee Tour - Boquete, Panama

Workers bringing ripe coffee “cherries” in from the fields at Finca Lerida in Boquete, Panama.

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.

Abandoned Coffee Beneficio in Boquete, Panama

An abandoned coffee processing facility in Boquete, Panama.

Outdoor Boquete

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.

Resplendant Quetzal - Finca Lerida, Boquete, Panama

One of the five resplendent quetzal birds that we saw during a bird watching tour at Finca Lerida in Boquete, Panama.

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.

Rock climbing basalt formations Boquete, Panama

This unusual basalt formation is popular rock climbing spot in Boquete, Panama.

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.

Wacky Boquete

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.

El Explorador Garden - Boquete, Panama

Wacky garden art at the puzzling El Explorador in Boquete, Panama.

El explorador cutouts Boquete

We couldn’t resist…

El Explorador Garden - Boquete, Panama

Yep, it’s a collection of empty mini perfume bottles (and a goat) at El Explorador in Boquete, Panama.

flowers Boquete, Panama

Even the non-man-made stuff at El Explorador was wacky, like this waxy, super-geometrical flower.

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.

Bar Nacional Boquete quetzal, Panama

One of the best bar signs we’ve ever seen is in Boquete, Panama.

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.

    Big Daddy’s Grill - Boquete, Panama

    The fish salad at Big Daddy’s Grill in Boquete, Panama is huge and delicious.

  • 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.

Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation & Boutique Hotel - Boquete, Panama

Finca Lerida Coffee Plantation & Boutique Hotel in Boquete, Panama.

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.

Red Legged Honeycreeper - Boquete Garden Inn, Panama

Red-legged honeycreepers spotted on the lush grounds of Boquete Garden Inn.

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.

Blue Grey Tanager - Boquete Garden Inn, Panama

This blue-grey tanager was having breakfast just a few feet from our own breakfast table at Boquete Garden Inn.

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.

The Haven Spa & Hotel - Boquete, Panama

The Haven, a sophisticated combination of wellness center, spa and boutique hotel in Boquete, Panama.

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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