Panama Series: Educational Ecotourism in Boquete

If anyone ever asks me what my favorite part of Panama is, I’ll without a doubt say Boquete. Which may seem shocking to some people, as it’s not by the coast, it’s calm and quiet and absolutely not the place to go if you’re planning to party all night and sunbathe all day. In fact, your grandma might have a lot more fun than you will, as a lot of the people who have settled down in this idyllic little town are old, retired North Americans. 

So how can I possibly prefer Boquete over places like Panama City or any of the beach towns with a young cool vibe?

I have plenty of reasons for that.

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First of all, I’m not a party girl (anymore). My days of clubbing until dawn and daytime drunken shenanigans are way behind me. I’m turning thirty in two months. Thirty. That number tastes bitter on my tongue, even more bitter than the lemon or lime or whatever it is they serve with your tequila shot. I’ll rather sit down and enjoy an ice cold draft or bottled beer at Boquete Brewing Company (photo above) over a fun conversation with my travel partners (my boyfriend and his parents in this case) and move on to dinner and cocktails (or wine) at one of the amazing restaurants in town – such as Argentinian restaurant La Posada Boquetena (side note: they have the best coconut lemonade imaginable) and Italian restaurant RetroGusto Restaurant & Bar (excellent place for a romantic date). And the coffee shop in our hotel, Hotel Central Boquete, serve the most amazing coffee ever. You must try their raspberry mocha. It sounds weird, I know, but it’s magical. So is their plain, non-fancy black cup of Joe. Coffee in Boquete – no matter what coffee shop or restaurant you go to – tastes a hundred times better than any coffee I’ve ever had before. Trust me, I’ve had a lot of coffee these past fifteen years.  And no, frappuccino’s are not coffee. It’s liquid candy.

I will talk more about coffee later in this post, but first I’d like to talk a little more about our hotel – which brings us to my second reason for loving Boquete:

Tim, the owner, and his lovely wife.

After a night at the “strangers’ bodily fluids and hairs fest” hotel in Santa Catalina, it felt amazing to be greeted with kindness and professionalism, when arriving at Hotel Central Boquete. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in the US, it’s how easy it is to bond with Americans. Tim was no exception. He had a look at my ID and was pleasantly surprised to find out that I was Norwegian (at least half, anyway). “I am Norwegian too”, he said, and told me about his family in Norway, where they were from and which Norwegian specialties he’s particularly fond of. I love talking about food, and I love talking about my country, so my frown was turned upside down within seconds. Even more so when I got my coffee.

“Our room is so clean I can still smell the cleaning products!”. I couldn’t hide my enthusiasm. A clean room. What a luxurious feeling!

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After a night in the dirtiest hotel imaginable, I was probably scarred for life.

We returned to the reception and asked Tim to help us book a couple of day-tours for the following days in Boquete. We wanted to go bird watching and were also interested in booking a coffee tour. A lot of the tours scheduled for the following day were already fully booked, but as luck seemed to be on our side, Tim didn’t give up on calling every single tour company he knew – and managed to schedule us in for a bird watching tour the next day, followed by a butterfly, bees and honey tour in the afternoon, and a coffee tour the day after that.

The birdwatching tour (which I would’ve posted a link to, had I known the name of the company) was a 4 km hike up the pipeline trail in Boquete. It’s an easy hike as long as you’re not stuck hiking in the pouring rain….like we were. Whether it was because of the rain or just a matter of bad luck, spotting any birds was not an easy task. We were kind of expecting to see the beautiful quetzales, after reading guidebooks and articles basically guaranteeing that we’d spot these fascinating birds when in Boquete. We didn’t.

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What we did see, were the occasional bright green birds, yellow and some red ones (itsy bitsy teeny tiny birds) – and on our way back we discovered a family of monkeys jumping from one tree to another. My partner managed to capture a few shots from afar, although the quality of the photos are rather questionable and we had to be quick to avoid heavy raindrops from attacking the camera.

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We found a little lizard, as well. The little guy escaped quite rapidly, but we managed to take a photo with him before he took off. The rain seemed to be getting heavier and heavier, and the ground more and more slippery. Dragonflies the size of my index finger, hovered like helicopters before flying away. Thirsty mosquito’s attempted to come close but flew away when sensing the awful scent of the insect repellent.

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Although we hadn’t seen as many birds as we were hoping to see – and even though it was raining during the entire tour – we were still very pleased with what we’d seen. It was an amazing hike and the guide was professional and clearly passionate about bird watching.

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The second tour that day was even better. And it stopped raining. Now, here’s yet another reason why I love Boquete: the educational aspect. I don’t travel to “switch off my brain” and just rest. In fact, I hate resting – sleeping excluded. I love sleeping. And when I’m done sleeping, I just wanna get dressed, eat a nice big meal and get out there and learn some interesting facts that may or may not change the way I see things in life. Our tour with Boquete Bees taught me that there is such a thing as STINGLESS BEES. People who know me, know I’m terrified of wasps and bees – even adorable bumblebees. If they had seen me standing in front of a beehive without any protection, without freaking out and making a scene, they’d probably say the beehive is fake and the insects flying around are probably just flies or something. As soon as the guide informed us that the bees on this farm were all stingless and completely harmless, I managed to let go of my fears. Maybe this will even help me relax a bit more around the bees we have in Europe. I know how important bees are to the ecosystem. Without them, all life on earth will die.

The tour continued to a butterfly conservatory, similar to the one we had visited in El Valle de Anton. We spent a while admiring the beautiful creatures and photographing them as they were resting, eating or fluttering gracefully. I enjoyed every second of it – obsessed with butterflies, as I am.

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The garden of the property had a small coffee plantation, vegetable garden, pineapples and plenty of gorgeous, colorful flowers. Have you ever eaten a flower? We tasted some. Yup, they were good. No, I’m not crazy (not more than the average woman, anyway).

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We finished the tour with a grand finale inside of the main building. It was time for a real honey tasting experience! I don’t even remember how many different kinds of honey we had lined up in front of us, but it was a lot. Maybe thirty different ones?

Fun fact: Did you know that honey is actually bee vomit? 

Our honey tasting didn’t consist of just plain honey. There were blends of honey/cacao, honey/chili, honey/lavender, honey/ginger and a lot more. Even the basic honey didn’t taste “basic” or “plain”. It tasted divine. The guide poured us a glass of some sort of honey wine and some honey liqueur. I wasn’t a fan. We ended up buying some honey to take home, though. We would have been fools not to support these amazing people who work so hard to educate visitors on the importance of the protection of bees, protection of different butterfly species, growing organic coffee and vegetables. It feels good to spend money on good causes!

Our last tour in Boquete was another educational experience – and I can’t decide which tour was my favorite, between the previous one and this one. This was the coffee tour I had been looking forward to ever since we made it to Panama. I love coffee and I was interested in learning more about the farming, production and marketing of Panamanian coffee. Our tour was with a guide named Carlos at Cafe Ruiz. Carlos was the funniest tour guide I’ve ever met and I’m surprised he doesn’t consider becoming a stand-up comedian – because that guy has skills (check out Cafe Ruiz on TripAdvisor and you’ll see I’m not the only fan). Even when talking about serious subjects, such as how the coffee production in Panama is decreasing due to locals who sell their land so that North American migrants can build their gated communities there, he still added a little tongue-in-cheek humor to even the touchiest subjects. I can’t help but feeling sad for the locals, and I admire his ability to speak so lightheartedly about it.

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I didn’t know that little white flowers grow on the coffee trees. Nor did I know that coffee beans are green before they’re roasted. And I definitely didn’t know that light roast coffee is the strongest in caffeine and has no bitter aftertaste, whereas dark roast contains way less caffeine and has a strong, bitter aftertaste. You know, the taste that makes a lot of people put milk and sugar in their coffee.

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The tour finished with a trip to the coffee shop, where we did a coffee tasting. As you may have guessed, the light roast came out as the big winner. As if the coffee tasting and the stand-up comedy wasn’t already 35 dollars well spent, Carlos gave us a goodie bag with our own bags of coffee, some biscuits, a postcard – inside of a really cool Tote bag made from an actual coffee sack. We’ve kept them and use them for our groceries. Strangers have even complimented me on them. Thank you Carlos – for everything!

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Now that you’ve read this post, I’m sure you have a better understanding for why I love Boquete and why some of my most wonderful memories from my trip to Panama, were made here. I feel educated. I feel like I spent my money on things that matter. People that matter. People that contribute to making this world a better place.

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Next: Hiking and chilling in an ecolodge in Cerro Punta 

 

 

 

 

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Panama Series: Adventures in El Valle de Anton

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After finishing a large last breakfast at our hotel in Panama City, we packed our bags and went to pick up the rental car – a Toyota 4×4 – because on rocky terrain and steep hills, only a car that size will be able to make it in one piece. By all means, renting a fancy impractical car would have made an excellent “how everything went wrong” kind of story, kind of like the plot of a poorly rated comedy flick. However, we didn’t want that kind of adventure. Nor did we sign up for what happened in El Valle de Anton, which is a completely different story. I’ll get back to that later. Needless to say I am now laughing about it in hindsight – although it wasn’t funny at all when it happened…

The day started out well. We got in the car, got on the road and drove the 128 kilometers from Panama City to El Valle de Anton – a town I had done little to no research on in advance. All I knew was that we were going hiking, and that we’d be staying in Hostel Orchid, which according to their official description, is the first genuine backpacker’s hostel in El Valle de Anton. The hostel is also the location of a beautiful orchid conservation. I was looking forward to seeing all the gorgeous flowers!

Two hours later, we made it to El Valle de Anton and stopped by a supermarket before heading to the hostel. We loaded the car with water bottles, plantain chips, yuka chips, nacho chips, dip, more dip, another dip, fruit juice and rum. Because, that’s obviously how you do lunch before going hiking.

The hostel was kind of hard to find, but we found it. Turned out it wasn’t  the right season for orchids, so we saw in total three flowers. Three individual flowers. Two that were gorgeous, and one I didn’t like, because I think those kind of flowers look vulgar. My significant other shakes his head whenever I say that, and tell me I have a sick mind. Well, he knows which flowers not to get me for Valentine’s Day.

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As I was already starving, I finished a bag of plantain chips before we left the hostel to do the Chorro El Macho hike, which turned out to be a nice but very short hike. We admired an impressive waterfall, stopped to photograph it, scouted for birds and animals, saw absolutely no birds nor animals and crossed a scary rope bridge – which is probably not scary to anybody else but me (I guess), as I’m terrified of heights and anything that makes me feel like I’m gonna fall into my death.

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At the end of the hike there was a natural lagoon. I dipped my toes into the water. It felt good – too good. Now, why didn’t I put on a bikini before going hiking? No matter how illogical it seems to wear a bikini underneath hiking-clothes, I guess I’ll have to start making it a priority when in countries with warm climates (this situation occurred more than once during this trip).

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As the hike was way shorter than we’d expected, we figured we’d have time to do yet another hike and see more amazing waterfalls. We had previously read about Chorro Las Mozas and realized today was our lucky day. Two hikes in one day. Two birds with one stone, right?

We parked the car, prepared our backpacks, but something seemed a bit off. Only a few people were there, and the gate was closed. Was it really closed? Mother-in-law who speaks the least Spanish out of the four of us (none of us speak Spanish) got out of the car to ask someone who may or may not have worked there, if it was still okay for us to enter. They didn’t speak any English – except from the word CLOSED. And that was it.

“What do we do now? It’s only four O’clock” we all said, and desperately drove from one tourist attraction to another, searching for something – anything – to do. We discovered a butterfly farm called Butterfly Haven, which was unfortunately closed as well, so we scheduled it in for the following morning as a last activity in El Valle de Anton before moving on to the next destination.

It seemed like absolutely everything was closed and everyone in El Valle de Anton had taken the rest of the day off, so we returned to the hostel to hang out and drink rum and fruit juice and eat more chips before heading out to a local restaurant for dinner in the evening. And that’s when the unthinkable happened…

The lights went out. The power was out. We asked the staff at the hostel if there was anything they could do to fix it, and they looked at us as if we’d never been to a small town in Central America before (which at least two of us hadn’t). “This is a small town. The power cuts quite often here. It will only take a few minutes – one hour tops, and it will be back” the receptionist said. We waited. And waited. And waited even longer. Minutes became hours. We were starting to get hungry and got in the car, in search of a restaurant. Dumb as we were, it never even crossed our minds that none of the restaurants would have any power either. And they didn’t. The restaurants were all closed.

Disappointed and with growling bellies, we returned to the hostel and finished our chips and dip before going to bed at eight PM – because we were bored and miserable.

This night, we’d all be sharing a room. My boyfriend, his parents and I. The room had a large double bed and a bunk bed. As always, the kids go in the bunk bed – and since I am the least fat one out of me and my man, I had to take the top bunk. For some reason, the bunk bed was centered in the middle of the room and had no edges. You roll over, you fall out of bed and break your legs. Or even worse, your neck. I laid there, anxious, imagining myself becoming paralyzed while on vacation in Panama. Nope, I ain’t having it.

As the evening fell, it got more and more windy outside. The wind was howling and shaking the roof like crazy. The windows had no glass, just mosquito nets covering them, and the roof had a two centimeter gap, and the walls felt fragile. Oh, how they were fragile. But not as much as the roof. The wind distracted me from my newfound “bunk bed without edges”-phobia, and got my mind busy picturing the building getting ripped apart by a tornado instead. Nice.

Not everything went wrong, though. We remembered to pack flashlights, so we were still able to find the toilet, the bed and the way out. And the hostel was clean. Now, while staying at a hostel, that’s considered luxury (it’s my only clean hostel experience!). And I DO recommend this place, as the staff was helpful and friendly and I’m sure the garden is amazingly beautiful when the orchids are blooming. And the property itself is lovely. So please, check out Hostel Orchid – and wherever you decide to stay while visiting El Valle de Anton, pack your flashlight and an extra sandwich!

I have no idea what time I finally fell asleep, but it felt like I’d only slept for one hour when suddenly I woke up by the sound of my boyfriend talking loud to his father. He turned to me and asked me if I was awake. Well, I sure was now. “What time is it?”, I mumbled. My phone was dead. Apparently it was five thirty am. Excellent. What can one possibly do at  five thirty, besides sleeping?

By seven thirty, we were all showered, dressed, packed and ready to check out from the hostel and find somewhere to go for breakfast. The power was back, so this time there was no excuse for restaurants and cafes to be closed other than how early it was. Heaven’s Cafe was our lifesaver. By the time we got our food, we were so hungry I’m sure we’d all willingly eat the cafe’s plastic furniture if our breakfast hadn’t arrived in time. My grilled cheese, smoothie and cafe latte tasted…heavenly. Pun intended.

After our much needed breakfast, we were all pumped up with new energy and a clear head, and decided to check out the artisan and vegetable market before visiting Butterfly Haven. My boyfriend and I bought nothing, but his parents found some nice souvenirs to take home. Me, I’m not much of a souvenir collector. I hate dusting ornaments, and I move around too much.

Butterfly Haven was my highlight of our stay in El Valle de Anton. The guide, John, was very knowledgeable and eager to answer any questions asked about butterflies. Butterfly Haven’s mission is to nurture and protect butterflies and educate as many people as possible about them. We enjoyed photographing them and I even had the pleasure of having a butterfly land on my arm and stay there for five minutes. Obviously, I didn’t touch it, as their wings are extremely fragile and would most likely be damaged by it. Nor did I move my arm. I stayed in the exact same position until the butterfly decided to fly away. Five minutes. Plenty enough time to take some cute pictures of the little beauty!

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3 important things to remember when visiting El Valle de Anton:

  • The money you spend on visiting the Orchid Conservatory (at Hostel Orchid), Butterfly Haven and the different hiking trails, go towards maintenance and protection of the nature and environment – and people who work hard to conserve it.
  • In case the power cuts, bring a flashlight/headlamp, portable charger and something to eat (that requires no pre-cooking or a refrigerator)
  • Bring a light jacket or a sweater. It gets really windy and slightly chilly in the evening.

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Next stop on my Panama adventures is the beach town Pedasi!