It’s an easy sell for us when the guidebook write-up for a place starts with the coffee and ends with the OJ. We had time for one stop between San Jose and Panama City so Boquete, (the home of Panama’s fruit, coffee and flowers) at the halfway point, seemed like a good idea.
Boquete is hugely popular with Americans, and it’s easy to see why. Aside from the huge tax breaks and low living costs, moving to Boquete lands you in a small, laid back town set along a river, in a valley surrounded by forested hills and Panama’s highest point. From the peak of Volcan Baru you can apparently simultaneously see the Pacific and Atlantic on a clear day.
Whilst there are a number of Americans living and working here, we didn’t actually see many tourists. Our hotel – the brilliantly named Hotel Central which was about as far as you could get from the tiny town’s centre – was almost empty, which meant zero competition for the jacuzzi and hammocks in the garden, and the chance to upgrade rooms for just a couple more dollars. We were promoted to a bigger room, ditched the shared bathroom and gained a corner view of the garden. This proved to be a good move when a six hour downpour the next afternoon meant we spent a fair bit of time there; concocting a plan for our upcoming day-long layovers in Bogota and San Salvador.
When blue skies returned went out to explore. Despite some ever-present US icons (dollar bills and the repurposed yellow Simpson-esque school buses), Boquete still feels very Panamanian; from the ‘comida tipica’ cafeterias, to the women in the bright embroidered traditional dresses (from the indigenous Gnabe-Bugle population, as we learnt later in Panama City). The town is small and easily walkable; the walk from our not-so-central hotel at one end of town to our fix of the delicious muffins at Sugar & Spice bakery at the far end of town took just 15 minutes.
Walking north out of town from our hotel led us past the free-entry ‘Mi Jardin Es Su Jardin’ flower garden, past locally-famed Ruiz coffee cooperative and cafe, across the river and up into the hills, home to some impressive mansions with incredible views out over the valley. From this vantage point we looked down on row upon row of coffee plants extending back down to the town in the valley. These orderly plantations looked more like vineyards than the more rustic (and eco-friendly) plantation style we’d seen on Isla de Ometepe in Nicaragua.
Along the paths we also saw a lot of citrus trees, although nothing appeared to be ripe. This explained why nobody in town could produce any of the famed fresh OJ. We’d tried our luck at the Princesa de la Fresas strawberry shack in the main square, but sadly it wasn’t the season for strawberries either. We didn’t go hungry, though. Boquete has a lot more on the menu; from the local Panamanian food, to international options (French, Mexican, Argentinian and wood-fired Napolitan pizzas), to craft beer.
Boquete’s microbrewery serves craft beer brewed in the nearby Chiriqui highlands. We made the most of their happy hour offer of a $5 tasting trio (coconut infused beer is better than you’d think), their free popcorn and their book collection. Predictably, the local food was always cheaper than the French bistro or the Argentinian steakhouse. The wood-fired pizzas were priced somewhere in the middle, so we alternated between there, Jenny’s for a delicious plate of chicken, rice, beans and salad, and – by far the cheapest option – canteen style El Sabroson for plates of pork, rice and chicken for under $3.
After an easy few days of eating, strolling, drinking and hot-tubbing, we decided to raise our game and finally take on one of Central American’s most popular activities: Zip lining. We booked the 8am slot (for a better chance of clear skies and good views) with Boquete Tree Trek who drove us from their office in town up the steep tracks into the hills. First up was the very thorough safety demonstration covering how to sit in the harness, how to hold the cable, and most importantly (we assumed) how to brake. It soon became clear the braking part wasn’t the thing to focus on; the parting words from each guide as they clipped us to the wire and prepared to launch us off the platform were always “Now on this one, don’t brake.” Gulp, ok then.
Going early in the morning was the right decision. We had amazing views out across the valley and all the way (seriously, allllllllll the way) down to the river below us. We got up some speed too, powering from platform to platform, through carefully trimmed gaps in the canopy, until we’d made it to the final line which descended from the tree-tops right onto the balcony of the office lodge.