The Panama Highlands

By Randy Keck
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(Third of four parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

The Highlands

The Chiriqui Highlands of southwestern Panama, with elevation ranging from 3,500 to 6,000 feet, are indeed a special haven of nature’s splendor.

A place of respite and generosity to humans, the natural world of the highlands is verdant and abundant in its offerings of rainforests, cloudforests, clear streams and rivers, wild flora and colorful bird life. With its ample rainfall and a year-round growing season, a large range of fruits, nuts, vegetables and flora is produced for both local consumption and commerce.

In all of these offerings, the common denominator is the year-round spring-like climate that many, including myself, would describe as just about perfect.

The road to Volcan Baru

The thriving regional center of David, Panama’s third-largest city, is located on the coastal plain and serves as the primary gateway to the highlands. The less-traveled westerly road into the high country from David travels a very scenic route to Volcan, Bambito and finally Cerro Punta and the Volcan Baru National Park.

This region is a center of ecotourism activities, especially hiking and river rafting, and a magnet for both independent and group birding expeditions (260 species in the region) from around the globe.

Traveling as a guest of Panama Jones (Clarita, OK; 888/726-2621, www.panamacanal.com) with owner Win Rice in May ’06, I stopped with him at Volcan to admire the impressive woodcarvings and wood furniture of master craftsman Arte Cruz, who has customers all over Panama and beyond.

At the small, flower-strewn agricultural village of Guadalupe, we inspected rustic Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa and undertook a 4x4 drive and hike to their three secluded cabañas high in the cloudforest. From the decks of the cabañas, we witnessed a world of amazing bird life performing on the all-encompassing forest canopy stage before us.

I believe, judging by the friendly swarming within arm’s length all around, I may have been in hummingbird heaven.

El Manantial for a while

A big regret is that we did not have time to properly experience one of our best discoveries, El Manantial Spa & Resort in Bambito. With a beautiful rafting, tubing and trout-fishing river flowing in front of the resort and spa, I don’t know how the place could have been more inviting or attractive.

Rates range from $60 for a standard room to $120 for a large suite for up to nine people. The full-service spa offered a wide range of treatments, and I still feel the pain of loss from the $25 remaining in my wallet as a result of the one-hour massage I did not have time to experience.

El Manantial is included in the Panama Jones “Panama Explorer Tour” (described next month).

On to Boquete

After backtracking to David, we turned north again into the uplands bound for the popular mountain town of Boquete, a 45-minute drive.

Boquete is known as the Valley of the Flowers and the Eternal Spring. Its inhabitants today are farmers, cattle ranchers, coffee growers, merchants and providers of tourism services and, more recently, construction services related to the region’s discovery as a retirement and second-home destination, primarily for North Americans.

King coffee

The highlands, of volcanic origin, are fertile for growing vegetables, strawberries, citrus fruit and flowers. Make no mistake, however; in this lush region coffee is king, and Boquete’s specialty is quality coffee. The combination of climate and harvesting at altitudes around 1,500 meters reputedly results in aroma, body, acidity, softness and sweetness that stand out when being evaluated by coffee connoisseurs.

Currently, local growers are converting and focusing on new farming techniques, resulting in special certifications that provide competitive and comparative advantages when marketing. The ensuing designations include Green Seal Certificate, Certificate of Fair Commerce, Specialty Coffee, Gourmet Coffee and Organic Coffee.

The local Ngabe-Bugle Indians and some Boquete growers are now producing purely organic coffee, which is becoming increasingly popular on the world market. Coffee Ruiz has a local processing plant that offers tours.

Gringo invasion

The streets of booming Boquete are awash these days with new gringo residents and scores more in town conducting relocation fact-finding explorations.

The Panama residential tourism boom was set off by the development and opening in 2002 of gate-guarded Valle Escondido in a secluded valley near town. A golf cart tour of Valle Escondido revealed quality construction and amenities and, from the standpoint of a protected retirement enclave, very little to find fault with. I fear, however, that this may just be the front edge of development in this area, considering the lucrative retirement and tax incentives Panama extends to foreign retirees.

Boquete is small (population 19,000), and too large of an influx of foreigners may well alter the area lifestyle in ways that most visitors would not view as positive. The key with Boquete, as with most movements involving humans, seems to be finding balance — a concept that typically receives lip service but often is usurped in favor of real estate speculation.

The current Panama retirement/second-home relocation phenomenon extends as well to the region in and around Panama City and, on a smaller scale, the islands of Bocas del Toro and beyond.

Enjoying Boquete

While Boquete is unquestionably a great place to relax and enjoy the local lifestyle, activity options abound as well. Favored are trekking to waterfalls and petroglyph sites; bird-watching, and scenic drives on upper and lower loop roads that reveal continuous vistas of hillside coffee plantations and vegetable and ornamental flower farms. Wild orchids are abundant and commonplace.

Relaxation options include visiting local thermal springs, enjoying treatments at one of the local spas and exploring the many artisanal shops in town. Boquete has numerous appealing dining options, and our experience at the charming Panamonte Inn & Spa did not disappoint ($22 for two, including wine).

Where to stay

We were fortunate to stay at Los Establos, a small, upscale inn ($143 per room, double occupancy, including taxes) surrounded by coffee trees and located on a hillside overlooking Bouqete.

The attractive, Spanish Mediterranean-style property, with beautifully manicured, calming grounds, has an ultrafriendly and savvy staff and is currently being expanded from four to 12 rooms, with a restaurant, swimming pool and spa also being added. Los Establos was a pure pleasure and will be even better in future.

Next month, I’ll focus on my visit to the San Blas Islands.

(Third of four parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝Temperate perfection for the physical being,
Effervescent enlivenment for the mental being,
Meditative balancing for the spirit being. ❞
— Randy’s advisory regarding the types of special energies commonly experienced by visitors to the Panamanian uplands of eternal springtime

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

(Third of four parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

The Highlands

The Chiriqui Highlands of southwestern Panama, with elevation ranging from 3,500 to 6,000 feet, are indeed a special haven of nature’s splendor.

A place of respite and generosity to humans, the natural world of the highlands is verdant and abundant in its offerings of rainforests, cloudforests, clear streams and rivers, wild flora and colorful bird life. With its ample rainfall and a year-round growing season, a large range of fruits, nuts, vegetables and flora is produced for both local consumption and commerce.

In all of these offerings, the common denominator is the year-round spring-like climate that many, including myself, would describe as just about perfect.

The road to Volcan Baru

The thriving regional center of David, Panama’s third-largest city, is located on the coastal plain and serves as the primary gateway to the highlands. The less-traveled westerly road into the high country from David travels a very scenic route to Volcan, Bambito and finally Cerro Punta and the Volcan Baru National Park.

This region is a center of ecotourism activities, especially hiking and river rafting, and a magnet for both independent and group birding expeditions (260 species in the region) from around the globe.

Traveling as a guest of Panama Jones (Clarita, OK; 888/726-2621, www.panamacanal.com) with owner Win Rice in May ’06, I stopped with him at Volcan to admire the impressive woodcarvings and wood furniture of master craftsman Arte Cruz, who has customers all over Panama and beyond.

At the small, flower-strewn agricultural village of Guadalupe, we inspected rustic Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa and undertook a 4x4 drive and hike to their three secluded cabañas high in the cloudforest. From the decks of the cabañas, we witnessed a world of amazing bird life performing on the all-encompassing forest canopy stage before us.

I believe, judging by the friendly swarming within arm’s length all around, I may have been in hummingbird heaven.

El Manantial for a while

A big regret is that we did not have time to properly experience one of our best discoveries, El Manantial Spa & Resort in Bambito. With a beautiful rafting, tubing and trout-fishing river flowing in front of the resort and spa, I don’t know how the place could have been more inviting or attractive.

Rates range from $60 for a standard room to $120 for a large suite for up to nine people. The full-service spa offered a wide range of treatments, and I still feel the pain of loss from the $25 remaining in my wallet as a result of the one-hour massage I did not have time to experience.

El Manantial is included in the Panama Jones “Panama Explorer Tour” (described next month).

On to Boquete

After backtracking to David, we turned north again into the uplands bound for the popular mountain town of Boquete, a 45-minute drive.

Boquete is known as the Valley of the Flowers and the Eternal Spring. Its inhabitants today are farmers, cattle ranchers, coffee growers, merchants and providers of tourism services and, more recently, construction services related to the region’s discovery as a retirement and second-home destination, primarily for North Americans.

King coffee

The highlands, of volcanic origin, are fertile for growing vegetables, strawberries, citrus fruit and flowers. Make no mistake, however; in this lush region coffee is king, and Boquete’s specialty is quality coffee. The combination of climate and harvesting at altitudes around 1,500 meters reputedly results in aroma, body, acidity, softness and sweetness that stand out when being evaluated by coffee connoisseurs.

Currently, local growers are converting and focusing on new farming techniques, resulting in special certifications that provide competitive and comparative advantages when marketing. The ensuing designations include Green Seal Certificate, Certificate of Fair Commerce, Specialty Coffee, Gourmet Coffee and Organic Coffee.

The local Ngabe-Bugle Indians and some Boquete growers are now producing purely organic coffee, which is becoming increasingly popular on the world market. Coffee Ruiz has a local processing plant that offers tours.

Gringo invasion

The streets of booming Boquete are awash these days with new gringo residents and scores more in town conducting relocation fact-finding explorations.

The Panama residential tourism boom was set off by the development and opening in 2002 of gate-guarded Valle Escondido in a secluded valley near town. A golf cart tour of Valle Escondido revealed quality construction and amenities and, from the standpoint of a protected retirement enclave, very little to find fault with. I fear, however, that this may just be the front edge of development in this area, considering the lucrative retirement and tax incentives Panama extends to foreign retirees.

Boquete is small (population 19,000), and too large of an influx of foreigners may well alter the area lifestyle in ways that most visitors would not view as positive. The key with Boquete, as with most movements involving humans, seems to be finding balance — a concept that typically receives lip service but often is usurped in favor of real estate speculation.

The current Panama retirement/second-home relocation phenomenon extends as well to the region in and around Panama City and, on a smaller scale, the islands of Bocas del Toro and beyond.

Enjoying Boquete

While Boquete is unquestionably a great place to relax and enjoy the local lifestyle, activity options abound as well. Favored are trekking to waterfalls and petroglyph sites; bird-watching, and scenic drives on upper and lower loop roads that reveal continuous vistas of hillside coffee plantations and vegetable and ornamental flower farms. Wild orchids are abundant and commonplace.

Relaxation options include visiting local thermal springs, enjoying treatments at one of the local spas and exploring the many artisanal shops in town. Boquete has numerous appealing dining options, and our experience at the charming Panamonte Inn & Spa did not disappoint ($22 for two, including wine).

Where to stay

We were fortunate to stay at Los Establos, a small, upscale inn ($143 per room, double occupancy, including taxes) surrounded by coffee trees and located on a hillside overlooking Bouqete.

The attractive, Spanish Mediterranean-style property, with beautifully manicured, calming grounds, has an ultrafriendly and savvy staff and is currently being expanded from four to 12 rooms, with a restaurant, swimming pool and spa also being added. Los Establos was a pure pleasure and will be even better in future.

Next month, I’ll focus on my visit to the San Blas Islands.

(Third of four parts, jump to part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝Temperate perfection for the physical being,
Effervescent enlivenment for the mental being,
Meditative balancing for the spirit being. ❞
— Randy’s advisory regarding the types of special energies commonly experienced by visitors to the Panamanian uplands of eternal springtime