BOQUETE, Panama – As the road begins to wind down toward the little town in the middle of the valley, an impressive vista emerges.
Rivers, brown from the winter rains, split the valley; lush green mountains and their accompanying clouds hover over the peaks; and, like freckles, red rooftops are grouped between the hills.
Welcome to Boquete.
This town in the western highlands of Panama has boomed from a sleepy coffee community to a hot spot for North American and European retirees in just the past five years (see separate story).
This added attention has also created a healthy tourism industry that takes advantage of the region’s natural beauty and local traditions.
The boom has also brought disparate development that makes the town look somewhat schizophrenic – a quaint central park here, a modern coffee shop in a strip mall-like building there.
Of course, such development has made life for tourists easier; ATMs from big banks and other amenities make traveling more comfortable.
And add the quirky things North Americans bring, like a woman advertising healing through “quantum energy therapy.”
But the vibe from the old life, well before the expat houses went up, is still visible. A bar plays soulful cantina music, even during the day. Kids play baseball in a park just outside of town. And the colorful dresses worn by the women of the Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous group attract camera lenses.
In all, Boquete is a slice of what Panama was, is, and is becoming.
Nestled a lofty 3,477 feet above sea level, Boquete escapes the searing heat that engulfs most of Panama. Up in the mountains, temperatures remain cool. One doesn’t sweat with the mere act of stepping outside.
Boquete has become one of the most important cities in the ChiriquíProvince, which borders Costa Rica’s Southern Zone, because of the revenue the community is pulling in.
However, the city of David remains the central hub of the region. For many of the expats living in Boquete, David has what Boquete lacks in amenities, namely stores. A stop in David is necessary for any traveler heading to Boquete.
But luckily Boquete is only about an hour’s ride from David, and that city’s heat. By air, Air Panama (222-0433, www.flyairpanama.com) offers flights from San José to David Mondays,Wednesdays and Fridays, departing San José at 11 a.m. The 50-minute flight costs about $120.
TACA airlines subsidiary SANSA (290-4400,www.flysansa.com) recently announced it will begin four weekly flights from San José to David starting in December, with the fare expected to be about $180.
From San José, a round-trip bus ride to David costs about $25 through Tracopa (222-2666), leaving at 7:30 a.m. from its downtown terminal.
It’s an eight-hour bus ride from the Costa Rican capital, barring any major slowdowns on the way. Tracopa makes a stop for lunch at about the halfway point, in the southern Costa Rican town of Buenos Aires.
Once at the terminal in David, prepare your ears to be assailed from all angles as drivers, like street vendors, yell out every city possible. But the terminal is well designed, and finding the bus to Boquete is easy. Destinations are grouped by color; Boquete is blue, and the ride on a chicken bus costs $1.45. It’s not a direct journney; many stops are made on the way, enough to take in the scenery. The chicken bus’s final stop is at Boquete’s Central Park. Taxis are usually parked nearby, but most hotels and hostels in the downtown area are within walking distance.
Places to Stay
Boquete offers a wide range of accommodations, from the ritzy, gated-community resort of Valle Escondido for $240 a night to $6-a-bed hostels.
On the banks of the Río Caldera is Hostal Boquete (507-720-2573/$20), run by Rich Wells from the U.S. city of Philadelphia. A pleasant little patio area faces the river, and the nicely decorated rooms have comfortable beds.
Valle Primavera Hostel (507-720-2881/ $13.75 per person) offers clean, spacious rooms in a peaceful neighborhood about an eight-minute walk from downtown Boquete. The numerous hummingbirds that come up with the sun each morning to drink nectar from various flowers in the cozy backyard are a highlight.
Farther up the main road is Boquete Country Inn (507-6614-1989/$45-95), run by Yalty and Ron Mager. Ron, from the U.S. state of Washington, met Yalty, whose family has deep roots in Boquete, while he was serving in the U.S. military in the Panama Canal Zone. They offer five rooms with queen beds. The inn is located next to a creek and a large yard. Ron also runs a boat tour business that can take travelers on fishing expeditions off the Pacific coast of Panama.
For backpackers, Hostal Palacios (507-720-2040/$6.50) provides dorm and double rooms at cheap prices. It’s across the street from the bus stop. Panamanian owner Francisco Palacios claims his was the first hostel in town, and says he wants to keep it affordable. Services include a community kitchen, hot water and contact with tour guides.
Inside the gated community of Valle Escondido (resort.valleescondido.biz) is a resort that includes almost all luxury services imaginable. That will cost at least $240 a night, though. There’s a bar, restaurant, pool, tennis court and pet horses on the property. Each room features a flat-screen TV.
The Panamonte Inn (507-720-1324; rates depend on the season) also provides upperend accommodations, and is a popular spot with the expat community.
Dining and Bars
The influx of expats has given rise to restaurants catering to foreigners – just don’t expect to pay Panamanian prices.
Boquete Bistro, on Avenida Central, is nicely decorated with the owner’s own work. Prices here go up to $12 for steak, but burgers are available for $7-8; sorry, that doesn’t include fries. The mozzarella cheeseburger is exceptionally good.
A popular expat spot is Los Amigos, across the street from the park. Meals here range $6-12. This restaurant also has an adequate array of alcoholic beverages, from wine to the finest Panamanian beer, such as Atlas, a softer version of Imperial. Live music is featured weekends at Zanzibar Jazz Club. At the Mr.George cantina, music blasts from speakers almost all day. Hidden off the main road, Recuerdos bar is decorated with paintings of tigers on the outside; inside, animal skins hang from the walls.
The Central Park Café offers breakfast for about $2.50. Also, the Panamanian Roasting Company is known for its coffee and breakfast.
Other spots include the Shalom Bakery, run by a Taiwanese family, and the Duran Coffee Store with its hardwood floors that would be at home in Seattle.
With mountains, rivers, quetzals and coffee farms, Boquete provides a wide array of activities for those enamored with the outdoors, and a lot of these ventures are no easy walks in the park; however, many tour guides provide specially designed hikes for those not up to strenuous activity.
The behemoth of the region is Volcán Barú, a dormant volcano that is Panama’s highest peak at almost 11,400 feet. On a clear day, tour guides say both oceans are visible from the top. Located about 11 kilometers from Boquete, the national park housing the volcano is home to a myriad of hiking trails. Rock climbing is permitted on a rock formation called Los Ladrillos (The Bricks) on the road to Barú Volcano National Park, home to Los Quetzales Sanctuary, named for the elusive bird that inhabits the area.
For the die-hard adventurer, there is one hike for which tourism authorities recommend a guide because it is a dangerous, long and arduous journey. The trail starts near Barú Volcano National Park and ends in the neighboring province of Bocas del Toro, near the beach. It takes at least four days to complete.
Some sections of the hike go through undisturbed jungle. Snakes, wild boars and mudslides can be dangers. Tourists are strongly encouraged, even if they are experienced hikers, to hire a guide.
On the way to Los Quetzales, stop by one of the roadside stands for necklaces and bracelets made by the Ngöbe-Buglé people.
For those drawn to water adventures, the Boquete Valley’s abundant, cascading rivers provide perfect settings for white-water rafting.
Chiriquí River Rafting (507-720-1505/$85-105) provides two-and-a-half to four-hour tours of varying degrees of difficulty down the Chiriquí River. Panama Rafters (507-6633-4313/$73.50-94.50) also operates out of Boquete. Both companies encourage people to visit during the dry season (June to December) as river levels can be dangerous after too much rain, though rafting during the rainy season is possible.
For land activities – well, more like flying activities – Boquete Tree Trek (507-720-1635) provides canopy tours and zipline gliding in the nearby forest’s canopy. While Costa Rica probably still has more choices when it comes to canopy tours, Boquete Tree Trek argues its slides are a bit edgier. Visitors drop 12 times during the tour. The two-and-a-half to three-hour tour costs $60 per person.
The valley’s coffee industry is also hoping to cash in on the tourist boom. Café Ruiz (507-720-3852/$22.50 per person, minimum two people for a tour) and Kotowa Coffee (www.caferuiz.com) provide tours of their farms along with coffee tasting. For animal lovers, a sanctuary run by expat British couple Paul and Jenny Saban provides a close look at colorful and talkative species. Paradise Gardens features a butterfly house, several kinds of birds, including some endangered species, and monkeys. The compound features beautifully pruned gardens decorated with metal goblins. The amazing part about the place? Paul, a former stonemason, redid it all. The animals here were rescued or reared by the Sabans. Some will go back to the wild, they say.
In Caldera, a little town just outside of Boquete, hot springs and indigenous hieroglyphics are popular attractions.
Other sights worth considering are the botanical garden Mi Jardín Es Tu Jardín (My Garden Is Your Garden) and, in January, the annual Boquete Fair throws the whole town into party mode, and the fairgrounds are decorated with all kinds of flowers.