Panama: Boquete

So after a few days in Panama City, we were ready for a change of scenery - this time in the western part of the country closer to the Costa Rican border: A small mountain town called Boquete.

Of the two primary methods people use to get from Panama City to Boquete (generally either by bus or by plane), we chose to fly so as not to use up 7 hours of precious vacation time on the road. To do so, we had to go to the small Albrook airport (near the mall), located in a former U.S. Air Force Base. We quickly learned that arriving 90 minutes early for a regional flight was completely unnecessary; they wouldn't even open the security line for our 11:00 flight until 10:30. While we waited, a nearby Kotowa coffee shop featuring Boquete coffee helped us pass the time and gave us a preview of what was to come.

How did we occupy ourselves before iPads and Wifi?

The flight to David (pronounced "duh-VEED") in western Panama was quick and easy, and a pre-arranged taxi driver was waiting at the gate to take us the 50-minute drive to Boquete. Although David was pretty hot and humid (like Panama City), as we ascended the mountains, the temperature began to steadily drop. By the time we reached The Haven, our hotel in central Boquete, the air was cool and comfortable - a treat for us Caribbean-dwellers when this time of year means weather patterns of "hot", "hotter", and "hottest".

The Haven is a spa hotel located just off a side street in central Boquete, and although it was within walking distance of most of the shops and eateries we visited, you'd never have guessed its proximity to town due to the way it interacts with the surrounding mountains. It's nestled in there like it's always belonged, and the sculptures and landscaping accent the property perfectly.

The Haven features plenty of spots to rest and relax, and I didn't have to be begged to just plop down, read my book, and listen to the sounds of nature. Our room was also well-equipped with a huge, comfy bed, an enormous open-air shower, double sinks, and--my favorite feature--individual white robes. Ahhh... nothing evokes a relaxation vibe like a fresh white robe. Understandably, this hotel is limited to guests aged 18 and above. No offense to the minors out there, but the peaceful atmosphere was really amazing.

The Haven also offers a full gym, a hot tub, a sauna, a racquetball court, and an exercise pool (all of which can be used by non-guests with a day pass or membership.) 

After a slow-paced afternoon of enjoying the hotel's amenities, a quick $2 taxi ride got us to the center of town (we could have walked, but we had been warned about some neighborhood dogs), where we ate at Big Daddy's Grill - an American-owned restaurant that makes killer fish tacos. The casual atmosphere was only enhanced by the delicious, affordable food.

Hey, if it's on your sign, it must be good.

We squeezed in one more of my favorite tourist activities before day's end: Going to the grocery store. A stroll through the supermarket (without the urgency of a long grocery list) is an easy way to check out who the locals are and get an idea of how they eat and live every day. You also get a feel for what cost of living is like, snooping on the cost of bread and milk and such. At least, that's what I do. As for NS... well, he just checked out the ice cream sitch.

What, you're surprised they don't have peanut butter? This isn't America, buddy.

We left the grocery store with fresh local strawberries (because they can grow nearly everything in Boquete), and soon enough we were back in our white robes. I really love white robes.

The next day's big adventure was a whitewater rafting tour down the Chiriqui Viejo River. To get there, our tour guides from Boquete Outdoor Adventures (including the owner, Jim, formerly of Colorado) drove to the almost-border of Costa Rica, provided us with life preservers, water shoes, and helmets, and away we went in our big blue rafts.

    photo credit: BOA

As you can see from the photo above, these local tour guides put the "Adventure" in "Boquete Outdoor Adventure"! Even seemingly-small rapids became, at a minimum, a huge splash in the face, and on at least one occasion, a quick dip in the river. 

   photo credit: BOA
At least that's fresh water I'm getting doused with,
as opposed to our uber-salty Caribbean sea water back in Cayman!

I think I was a bit in over my head (pun intended); meanwhile, you could not wipe the grin off N's face. Seriously, I'm not sure if I've ever seen him so happy.

   photo credit: BOA

Seeing the landscape and wildlife from the middle of the river was an experience I'll never forget.  Our guide pointed out a snake wrapped on a branch right above our heads, and we even spotted monkeys far up in the trees. By the end of the tour, we were just 3 miles from the Pacific Ocean (which always seems like the other side of the world to me.) 

What was really great is that Jim rode the rapids alongside us in a sea kayak, all while using a waterproof camera to keep snapping away during the entire tour. Check out the full BOA tour Flikr album here.

The BOA guys did a fabulous job, and I'd do the tour again in a heartbeat. Even with the river tumbles.

  photo credit: BOA
The entire tour group, which hailed from America, England, Cuba, and France.

After a day on the water, we were ready to dine like kings (not that my version of white water rafting actually burns any calories, but still.) We heard that The Rock was one of the best restaurants in town, with Monday night involving live jazz. Um, yes and yes?!

But we couldn't settle down in our seats for very long before we had jumped up again to take in the stunning mountain views right behind the restaurant.

Let's be clear: I absolutely love where I live in Grand Cayman. The sun shines year round, the water is always clear and warm, and the beaches are world-renowned. But I do miss a little mountain action. And I miss the crystal clear air that goes along with it. Just take a few whiffs of the next photo.

And the best part is that Boquete experiences mild temperatures basically year-round! Sure, they can get some rain and some hot days, but they don't get snow storms, and they don't get hurricanes. Paradise, I tell you.

But don't take my word for it. In 2005, Fortune magazine named Boquete one of the five best places to retire in the world, which is probably why we encountered plenty of retirees (many of whom were American) in the area. Tourism also got a kickstart in 2007 when the New York Times featured Boquete as an alternative to vacationing in Costa Rica.

We couldn't stay outside all night (who would have eaten all that delicious food?), but we were able to enjoy the breathtaking views from the restaurant's huge windows, all while listening to a piano/sax/trombone jazz trio play a selection of Gershwin hits (which falls into the category of My Favorite Music of All Time). After dinner, we sat around the fireplace sipping on local coffee, chatting with other travelers. I couldn't have designed the evening more perfectly if I had tried.

One thing I loved about Boquete is how we were able to tick both the "ahhhh...relaxation" box and the "energetic adventure" box. I already described the marvelous hotel we stayed at, where NS treated me to a few spa services that helped in the post-busy season recovery process. But the flip side of the mani/pedi + massage treatments was that we both engaged in Boquete's numerous outdoor activities. After the rafting on Friday, we decided to go on a waterfall hike on Saturday.

But we would have been fools to embark on a long hike without nourishment.

Enter: Sugar & Spice Bakery.

With a name like that, how could we resist a visit? We both loved our egg breakfast sandwiches on the world's softest bread, freshly squeezed orange juice, and local coffee to start the day. And we selected a few muffins to take on our hike. Oh, and some cookies. To sustain us, of course.

The hike, located in the Bajo Mono area (translated: Monkey Valley), started out pretty well, although we were ascending nearly the entire time.

Although the photo above may seem to show a fairly rickety path, we soon came to find out that this was the most well-maintained portion of the trail.

As the first hill plateaued a bit, we entered a local farmer's land and dutifully paid our $5/person maintenance fee for the upkeep of the trails, signing our names into the guest book. It's still fun to be able to write "Cayman Islands" under country of residence!

A short but welcomed break

The views of other farms from this point in the trek were incredible. And this was on a cloudy day. Can you imagine this bathed in full sunlight?!

Also, can you please try to imagine this shot with a wide-angle lens??
I was REALLY missing my 24-70mm lens at this stage.

The trail was called "The Lost Waterfalls", and we set off with intentions of finding all three. #1 was pretty easy, but you'd expect them to put the first one in a spot that everyone can find. We felt so good about our sleuthing skills that we were easily duped into looking for #2 and #3!

We did find the other two, although #3 proved to be someone of a hassle (I nearly thought we were lost at one point), as the trail got super narrow, steep, rocky, and muddy. Wearing ancient, tread-less running shoes on my feet and a camera bag as long as my arm on my back, I was glad there weren't a lot of people around to see and hear my frustration. Still, the idea of finding something that is "lost" was enough of a challenge to push us forward and complete the hike as designed.

Don't be fooled; this is a second photo of Waterfall #1; it just came out a lot prettier than Waterfall #3. But you can see them all in the photo album link below.

We finished the hike, walked back down to the main road, and took a local bus back into Boquete.

Just a quick word about the locals: We saw many of the indigenous people in the entire Boquete area, and based on tour guide information, these are part of the Ngabe-Buble ("gnaw-bay boo-blay") groups. Although many things could be said about their generally poor living conditions or their average educational level or their interaction with the other Panamanians, what I found most interesting was their traditional clothing. The women wear brightly-colored, homemade dresses called naguas. I found a cute little blue one in a shop that turned out to be just the right souvenir to bring back for our goddaughter.

For dinner that evening, we walked to Mike's Global Grill, an American-owned restaurant featuring international flavors, free WiFi, a sports bar, and couches for casual lounging (perfect for the hostel crowd). The owners' background story (outlined on the back of the menus) is really interesting, but ultimately they moved to Boquete and opened a restaurant after coming for vacation and falling in love with the place. Mike's Chicago background provides plenty of tempting flavors to the menu, and they have a wide range of drink options as well. (I fell in love with their fresh-pressed juices.)

Pumpkin soup. Impossible for me to decline.

Unfortunately, our night ended on a crazy note: N's meal came with some kind of tiny pepper garnish that he completely ignored until reminded by Mike that that he had "forgotten" to eat his red pepper. Without another thought, into his mouth it went. (He has a history with consuming food that is hotter than hot.) It wasn't a pleasant walk home as the gagging (etc.) set in. Lesson learned! Also, we pretty much left the restaurant without paying, since they don't take cards and we were low on cash. But in Boquete, a promise that we'd come back tomorrow to make good on our meal was good enough! (We did. And ate lunch there. Second time was the charm!)

Now. For my favorite tour of all.

Boquete (and Panama in general) is known for its coffee. A popular tour when visiting Boquete is to visit a coffee farm. BOA recommended Finca dos Hefes - an organic coffee farm owned by American expats just outside of town.

I never realized how many steps it took to get from green coffee berries to a black, steaming cup o' joe. And the fact that this guy does it organically only adds to the steps and level of care used along the way.

Rich shows us around his happy seven acres.

On his farm, which follows the lunar calendar to dictate the growing cycle, the beans are hand-picked by workers and then dried in the sun the old-fashioned way on these drying beds.

After a tour around the farm and a tasting of all three of his Caf├ęs de la Luna roasts (light, medium, and dark), I was fortunate enough to experience the roasting process first-hand. It's all very scientific, with temperature charts and timers and everything. Basically, I just pushed the buttons on the big, silver machine when told to do so.

Each of us got to choose a half-pound bag of roasted beans to take home with us as part of the tour package. Of course, I chose one of the bags of coffee I had just finished roasting. What a wonderful experience!

For our last night in Boquete, we walked a short distance from our hotel to Amigos Restaurant - a casual bar and grill owned by Canadian expats. 

My favorite memory from the whole trip occurred on that walk: It was the day before our nine (nine?!) year wedding anniversary, and we just started to reminisce about our favorite marriage memories. I suppose we could have brought up our first cruise or moving to Grand Cayman or even passing the CPA exam (which would be a mix of memories, to be sure.) But the experiences that came to mind were the simple, best friend memories, like how when we were young and broke, a date night consisted of walking to McDonald's, Blockbuster, and Dairy Queen, all in one night. Or how when we were first married, I somehow bought into N's practice of hair spraying/starching his military uniform to the point of cardboard consistency, helping with that crazy routine at 6 a.m. every day. And also how our first one-bedroom apartment seemed huge and awesome and perfect (overlooking the fact that it was subsidized housing) to two 19-year-olds.

Yep. There are benefits to getting married young. Simple things are huge. Being frugal is easy. And dates to McDonald's, Blockbuster, and Dairy Queen prove to be as consequential as a dinner at the Ritz. Actually, any date with this guy is consequential to me. Happy to be celebrating nine years!

And speaking of our anniversary, N stayed up a little later that night to write in a Spanish anniversary card he'd picked up in Panama City... in Spanish. Thank you, Google Translate, for providing the nearly-accurate romantic wording for this year's card.

I know I packed a lot of photos into this post, but there are plenty more! Check the full set out in this Google+ photo album.

Stay tuned for the next few travel posts, which will cover our first trip to one of the best cities in the U.S., as well as a summer visit to our hometown, finishing up with a weekend at one of my favorite Stateside beaches.

July, you always treat me right.


  1. so lovely! this place is definitely on my bucket list now, and i'd never even heard of it before. the whitewater rafting, but the spa and white robes sound glorious. and the weather!

    1. You would have really loved it in Boquete! Great for a couples getaway.

  2. Wow. You are so making me want to go on vacation. What a beautiful place!! I love all of the photographs.

    By the way - I told my husband about you and your husband and your jobs...and now he is wishing even more that he'd become an accountant like me. He was highly jealous!!

    1. Put Boquete on the list! As well as Grand Cayman. :)

  3. This is such a beautiful post, one of your best yet! I'm completely convinced that we need to go to Panama, and honestly you were right that it coudn't have been scripted any better. What a wonderful treat! I love reading your account, and wish I had asked better questions in person about Boquete in particular. Said goddaughter loves said nagua, too! :)

    1. I really hope we return to Panama; Boquete is well worth the trip.
      Miss my favorite goddaughter!!