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Boquete in the clouds

The Panama hotspot that adrenaline junkies and coffee lovers don’t want you to know.

As the bus pulled to a stop, I was greeted by the most perfect rainbow arc that described my experience in this little mountain town — colourful, surprising and a little damp. Boquete is located in Chiriqui, the western-most province of Panama, close to the border of Costa Rica. With an elevation of 1,200m, this quiet town with a population of 25,000 is comfortably cool with a seemingly perpetual mist all year round. It also explains why rainbows are such frequent sights here.

Once barely a blip on the tourism radar, Boquete’s popularity boomed in the early 2000. It was named one of the top places for North Americans to retire in, thanks to its good weather, lower cost of living, and laidback lifestyle. But don’t dismiss Boquete as a retiree village just yet. A growing group of visitors come equipped with hiking gear and a sense of adventure to explore Boquete’s abundant outdoor offerings.

RIDE THE RIVERS

The abundance of rivers in the Chiriqui region makes it one of the best places for whitewater rafting. I was in Boquete for three weeks to study Spanish. But I thought I’d cut class one day to go for a full-day whitewater rafting tour with Boquete Outdoor Adventures.

We drove about 90 minutes to the Chiriqui Viejo River, close to the border of Costa Rica. The weather in the lowlands was starkly different from Boquete’s. I found myself pulling off my jacket and slapping on sunblock to combat the stifling heat.

And I got my Spanish lesson after all. When my guide found out I played hooky, he taught me the direction commands in Spanish, and got me to call them out when rafting.

Even though it was the dry season, the river flow was fast. Volunteer to sit in the front of the raft for the full experience, and be prepared to get thoroughly wet in the four hours you spend paddling. We were tossed about on the rapids but on calm stretches, we could catch our breath and spot the occasional migratory bird — even a snake sleeping on an overhanging branch once.

NAVIGATE THE CLOUD FORESTS

Boquete also offers some excellent treks. Walking through Chiriqui’s cloud forests — so named for the accumulated amount of moisture — felt like walking through a giant water mister. I spent a sunny weekend morning visiting the Boquete Tree Trek Mountain Resort. The Hanging Bridges Tour, a 4.5km circuit through the surrounding cloud forest with six suspension bridges, gave me a closer look at the forest canopy.

Having a good guide can enrich your trekking experience. Mine picked out distinct bird calls amidst nature’s sounds. He pointed out a Resplendent Quetzal sitting in the trees — a striking turquoise bird that is surprisingly elusive for something so brightly coloured. He also directed my attention to some micro orchids, tiny specimens barely the size of a pinky nail.

If you’re not too fond of hiking, try the Canopy Tour, which is an adrenaline-filled way to explore the same area via 12 different ziplines. I would hear zipping sounds overhead and see a flash of shoes swishing by with an occasional yelp. Definitely a fun way to get around the forest!

Seasoned trekkers can consider trekking up the dormant Volcan Baru, the highest peak in Panama at 3,474m. The high altitude and unpredictable weather make this a tough climb but you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans on a good day. The less strenuous option is to take a 4x4 Jeep tour to the summit instead.

You can hike the trails around Boquete on your own, but it is recommended you join a trekking tour or find a local guide as the paths are not always well marked. The constant rain also means the landscape can change without warning.

GO GEISHA

Originating from the Gesha region in southwestern Ethiopia, Geisha coffee — one of the most expensive coffee in the world — flourished in Boquete’s cool climate and high altitude. These Arabica beans boomed in popularity in the last decade after winning various coffee cupping and barista competitions.

The coffee tour I took with HelloTravel Panama brought me to the finca (Spanish for an agricultural estate in a rural area) at Boquete Bees, where we had a thorough introduction to the laborious process that goes into making a perfect cup of Geisha coffee. The tour brings you to the coffee plants, and explains the machines and manual work needed to harvest and dry the bean. Finally, they show how the beans are sorted into different grades, and packaged for sale.

The way to prepare Geisha coffee is by lightly roasting the beans to preserve its original flavour; unlike Starbucks’ dark roast, which my guide said, “is charred beyond belief”. I was surprised at how tea-like the brew turned out: A clear, light-brown liquid. Experts say Geisha coffee is citrusy with notes of bergamot, but to me, it tasted like regular coffee. I guess when you are a coffee heathen like me, it makes no difference whether it’s S$1 instant coffee or over-S$100-per-pound premium stuff!

As the name “Boquete Bees” suggests, it also specialised in farming honey, and you can learn more about the bees and butterflies located on the finca.

My week was up before I knew it. I hadn’t managed to try climbing on the volcanic basalt rock walls, take a 4x4 Jeep tour to the top of Volcan Baru for the sunrise, or dip in the hot springs by the Caldera River. Hopefully, I would be properly conversant in Spanish by the time I return.

TRAVEL TIPS
- Getting there
There are no direct flights from Singapore to Panama City. Your best option is to connect via Frankfurt (Lufthansa), Amsterdam (KLM), Paris (Air France) or San Francisco (United). From Tocumen Airport in Panama City, take a 40-minute domestic Air Panama flight to David Airport, or an eight-hour bus ride to David in a comfortable coach. From David, it’s a 45-minute connection by frequent public buses up the hills of Chiriqui to Boquete.

- Best time to visit 
The temperature in Boquete throughout the year is around 200C on average. The dry season is from December to May, and the rainy season from June to November. Boquete is quiet most of the months but gets busy during special festivals like the annual Coffee and Flower Festival (mid January), Jazz and Blues Festival (February) and Orchid Festival (March). Make sure to book accommodation ahead of time during these periods.

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