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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