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: What’s up in Santa Catalina?

We hadn’t spend much time in Pedasi, yet just enough to give us a sweet taste of the burning sun, the cool, turquoise saltwater, the soft, white sand and the calm atmosphere on the beach. Good thing we were headed to yet another beach location. A surf town, to be more specific. Before you ask, I don’t know how to surf. Nor do I know what to expect  from a surfers hotel or hangout spots. But sometimes, not knowing what to expect turns out to be either a great surprise or… “not so funny when it happens, yet kind of funny in hindsight” – kind of stories. Or just a life lesson.

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Our hotel – or hostel (depending on which staff member you asked) – was located a few kilometers outside of the town center. We didn’t mind, as we had our car and weren’t planning on doing anything besides going to the beach before having dinner and drinks at the hotel. I would have loved to visit Coiba Island and go snorkeling, but we didn’t have time for any full day excursions like that, as we had a tight schedule the following morning. I tried my hardest to hide my disappointment and not come off as a spoiled brat, but everyone could read me like an open book with ‘ungrateful piece of….’ written in bold capital letters on the front page.

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Our hotel/hostel looked absolutely gorgeous from the outside. Surfboards and palm trees decorating the outdoor common area, giving the hotel just the right vibe. The view over the beach was spectacular, and I couldn’t wait to dip my toes into the crystal clear water.

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However, when we checked into our rooms, I wasn’t sure whether I was indeed an ungrateful child or if I was allowed to speak up and express my opinion. What from the outside appeared to be like a tropical paradise, was just a facade. Because the rooms were disgusting. They were worse than a cheap motel I once stayed at in the UK, where I found bloodstains on the wall. At least those stains were identifiable. In our rooms here in the hotel/hostel in Santa Catalina, I had no idea what on earth I was looking at – or where to start looking. The curtains were covered in stains of all colors. Some looked like sperm, others could be vomit, food or – who knows. There were pieces of chewing gum stuck to the curtains, as well.

The bed sheets had hairs of different long haired people in it. Black, brown, blonde. And some stains of what could be tomato sauce (or vomit) on the pillow cases. And then there was the large chunk of black hair found in the shower and all the random stains in the sink. Lovely. The towels had some clean areas, but were stained pretty much all over. I had to go to my boyfriends’ parents room to ask for toilet paper, as we had absolutely nothing in our room. The parents had already decided to sleep with their clothes on and would certainly leave a complaint upon checkout. We all agreed that asking for a new room would change nothing. They were probably all just as bad. And it was just for a night anyway.

We used our own clothes as pillowcases and covered the sheets with our dirty beach towels. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather rub my face against sand and sea salt than a random persons bodily fluids.

After turning the disgusting bed into a camping arrangement, we changed into our swimwear and headed down to the beach. Just like in Pedasi, there were dogs running around freely, and washed up plastic littered the otherwise gorgeous sandy beach. The waves were calm, and I’m sure all the surfers who came to Santa Catalina because of its reputation as a surfers point, were feeling kind of disappointed for not being able to go out there and practice. “I’m thirtsty”, I said to my boyfriend – who forwarded the message to his parents, changing it to we’re thirsty, meaning, we wanted cocktails.

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The hotel restaurant didn’t disappoint us the way the rooms did. Not at all. The cocktails were delicious – and cheap – and the food was good. Although, I think Mexicans would shake their heads in shame if they saw my tacos, I enjoyed the taste of them. But then again, I enjoy Taco Bell too, so I’m probably not your greatest source for high quality Tex-Mex recommendations. But trust me on those Pina Coladas and Margharitas!

Getting drunk seemed like a great idea. It would make it easier for me to fall asleep in that dreadful room, and maybe – if I was lucky – it would even wipe away the memory of what I’d seen. Not trying to be overdramatic at all, but this makes me realize how much I appreciate cleanliness above anything else when traveling.

Adios, Santa Catalina. Next stop; Boquete!

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Panama Series: Cool and Colorful Pedasi

Headed 210 kilometers, direction south, ready to exchange the steep hills and windy weather with sunshine and sandy beaches on the Pacific coastline. We had absolutely no activities planned for the day, besides drinking cocktails, soaking up some sun and cool down in the water. I’m fine with that…When it’s just for a day. What you should know about me is that I’m someone who gets easily bored and I actually hate sunbathing (which is why I’m always pale) and swimming in the sea gets kind of boring after a while, when there’s no other activity involved (such as snorkeling, volleyball or whatever).

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We made it to one of the most colorful towns I had ever seen. Modern street art on every white wall, vibrant colored houses, colorful fountains – and a huge sign welcoming us as we entered the town. “Pedasi” was written in multicolored capital letters, with a much more subtle hashtag “visit Panama” below. I remembered to add that hashtag to everything posted on my social media platforms from then on. Maybe the local tourism board would notice me and give me some freebies? Or at least a friendly discount on one of the local tours – or maybe a free drink somewhere? Note; none of that never happened. 

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Our hotel, Residencial Santa Catalina , was conveniently located in the town center and had all the facilities we needed. As we’d already been on the road for a good week, we figured it was a good idea to use the laundry service provided by the hotel. Although there wasn’t really any laundry service on-site. Still, the receptionist offered to take our laundry elsewhere and have it done for us and didn’t even ask for any payment. Fair enough. Later that evening, we received our freshly washed laundry – folded and everything. Even my tiny underwear was folded. As a very sensitive person, I got ridiculously emotional looking at my pile of folded undies and once smelly hiking wear that now smelled like a rose garden. I think my boyfriend’s mother felt the same way, as we both had the idea to leave the lady a generous tip. It would have been even more generous, had we known what would happen at another hotel, four days later..

What was supposed to be one of the nicer beaches in the area, was a little drive outside of town, so we took the car and went to check it out. The beach was crowded. People, their dogs, parked cars and lots of non-recyclable trash everywhere. Lovely. We stopped to take a few pictures and got back in the car to locate another supposedly nice beach. With some help from Google, rather than our outdated guidebook, we managed to find one. This one was way less crowded, and a little less littered than the other one. We decided to stay.

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Nobody were in the water except from us and a bunch of tiny grey fish jumping out of the water and dancing around us. Fish in Panama seem to be a lot less afraid of people than fish anywhere else I’ve been. Why is that?

I enjoyed the moment to the fullest. The clear blue sky, the sunshine, the crystal clear water, the calm atmosphere, the escape from time… and it all came crashing down when we witnessed a dog taking a dump right in front of us, and watched the waves crash into his fresh produce. “That’s it, I’m out”, I said to everyone and got out of the water. Yes, I know there’s probably a lot more poo in the water than just this one – after all, fish poo in it. I just never felt the need to witness it in action. And where were the owners of the dog anyway?

As soon as we made it back to the hotel, I jumped into the shower and washed every inch of my body while picturing myself being completely covered in poo. I guess this phobia comes from an old childhood trauma of mine. I’ll tell you the story. So, my dad and I, went to Greece when I was fourteen years old, a year after my mother divorced him. He didn’t like the overcrowded beaches, and neither did I, so we walked along the beach, probably two kilometers or more, in search of a more secluded place. And we found one. There were literally no one there. Just us. It was simply too good to be true. We jumped right in. It smelled kind of weird there, but we didn’t think much of it….that was until we saw a “no swimming” sign, sewage pipes and…you guessed it, POO. Lot’s of it. Terrified, we ran out of the water as if we were running away from sharks, and headed directly to the hotel to get rid of the feces glued to our skin. Awful.

Meanwhile in Panama, I finished my shower and put on a nice skirt and one of my favorite shirts (which my boyfriend refers to as one of my hippie shirts). I was all set and thirsty for cocktails. We discovered a Mexican restaurant called Tortuga’s – a great place for fajitas, tacos and homemade cocktails (which included fresh juice). The food was good and service was great. Our French-Canadian waitress seemed quite relieved when she realized she didn’t have to speak English with us as we are all French speakers. Immediately, she went from nervous to relaxed and talkative and let her bubbly personality shine through.

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Our lazy day in Pedasi had been an interesting one. A similar kind of day in a different destination was lined up for the following day. Next stop, Santa Catalina!

 

 

 

 

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!