Upon booking my impromptu trip to Panama, I hadn’t even heard of Boquete. After sifting through a Panama travel guide, I ended up in this small mountain town for three days! Boquete is located in Panama’s western-most Province of Chiriquí about 40 miles from the Costa Rica border. At 3,900 feet above sea level, its climate as well as its natural environment attracts locals, tourists and a large ex-pat community.
While I can’t claim the town of hodge podge buildings mostly clustered along the main thoroughfare and a small square is terribly pretty, the surrounding area consisting of coffee plantations and the Volcán Barú (11,400 ft) National Park make up for it.
Boquete affords its visitors a variety of activities including hiking, fishing, rafting, horseback riding, 4×4 off roading, visiting coffee plantations, and simply relaxing. And during the dry season, the weather in Boquete couldn’t be more pleasant!
Two Traveling Tips: cash is king here! Bring lots of it or have an atm card ready. No one expects tips.
How to Get to Boquete
The easiest way to reach Boquete is to take a flight from Panama City to David and then grab one of the waiting taxis for a 45-minute ride to the mountain town. The taxi ride costs about $35 for the non-haggler, maybe $30 for those who like bargaining more extensively.
It is also possible to rent a car and drive from David to Boquete. While there are plenty of taxis willing to drive visitors around town and the surrounding areas for $3-10 fares, a car to get around the highlands is more freeing. Having said that, in my short time in Boquete, I relied on taxis and my feet.
Where to Stay in Boquete
There are many places to stay in Boquete from backpacker’s hostels in town, to B&B’s, to 5 star resorts just outside of town. I was hesitant to book a place ¾ of a mile outside of town because I thought I’d feel trapped there, but I did, and Valle Escondido Resort Golf & Spa was an excellent choice. Though no sidewalks, I easily made the walk to town when I felt like it.
Valle Escondido Resort & Golf Spa sits on manicured grounds and features a river that runs directly through the property. The resort includes cabins, a hotel, a restaurant, a spa, a pool, a golf course, an outdoor stage, a chapel for weddings, tennis courts and even putt-putt golf and fishing.
It is surrounded by an ex-pat community of amazing mansions and villas that may also be rented. In addition to the activities available at the resort, Valle Escondido contracts with tour operators who offer horseback riding, off-roading, hiking, rafting, and coffee plantation touring. The tour companies may also be found in town.
I rented a cabin at Valle Escondido which was about $110/night and did not include golf, but all activities could be paid for “a la carte”. The cabin was simple with a bedroom and bathroom decorated in rustic decor. It sat on a hill with a sweeping view of the golf course.
It’s my understanding that many of the villas surrounding the hotel include golf, and from what I understand, its some of the least expensive golf in the world on a challenging course.
I ended up hiking on my own and taking advantage of the coffee plantation tour during my visit. Some tours required a two-person minimum and others differed from the price shown by the hotel which was the only downfall.
The restaurant at Hotel Escondido is spectacular! I went to town for lunch three times and dinner once, but always found myself back at Sabor Escondido enjoying marvelous breakfasts and dinners. I had pumpkin waffles topped with arugula and a poached egg, a simple bacon and egg breakfast, sea bass ceviche, octopus, tuna tartar, and lobster…all tasty!
Things to Do in Boquete
Wander the Streets
While I wouldn’t call the town picturesque, it is always fun to do as the locals do. Check out the town square, pick up a lottery ticket, buy some vegetables at a local stall, stop by the dollar store, and visit the artisan market. Keep in mind Boquete is much busier on the weekend than weekdays.
Visit Feria de las Flores y del Café
The flower and coffee festival takes place in Boquete at the end of January and lasts for 10 days. The main attraction is the gardens situated by the Caldera River. The festive flowers invite visitors to a fair featuring coffee, handicrafts, plants and sweets. I visited Boquete in February and the flowers still looked beautiful!
Try the Local Food
Given a large ex-pat community resides in Boquete, it is easy to find Americanized restaurants. I tried two “nicer” restaurants. I got the fajitas at Big Daddy’s Grill for lunch and pricey bites at Colibri Restaurant for dinner.
Though good, I think it is fun to dine like the locals. This generally requires the knowledge of some Spanish. The owner greets you with a smile and in Spanish rattles off five or six menu items. At Las Orquideas, I joined a young woman from Uraguay that I met while walking a back road to a viewpoint, and we both ordered sopa de res con arroz. The soup and rice cost $2 each.
Another day, while walking around, I spotted several locals eating at a small restaurant called Fonda y Café Beby. Basically, a small stall held the kitchen and a canopy covered the four-table patio. I ended up with fried chicken, rice and beans, and a salad for $3. I couldn’t even finish it all!
Tour a Coffee Plantation
There are many things to do outside of town too. Any visitor to Boquete would be remiss if he/she didn’t tour a coffee plantation. Believe it or not, the most expensive coffee bean in the world comes from this region of Panama! It is called geisha.
There are several coffee plantation tours from which to choose. Most cost $30. I cannot claim which is the best. I ended up touring Don Pepe Coffee Estate because that’s who the tour operator, Cloudforest Travel, used. It turns out, Don Pepe won second place for its natural geisha coffee, which means the beans were dried naturally in the sun, not washed. It missed first place by the sixth decimal place (0.000001).
Our guide, Ramon, was a coffee judge. Who knew?!? Anyway, he goes around the world tasting coffee! Today, however, he took me and a couple from the Netherlands on a tour of the grounds at Don Pepe. We saw three types of coffee beans in which they specialize: Caturra, Catuai and Geisha.
We compared the size of the plants and the number of beans. The Catuai produces the most beans per plant and the Geisha the least. In fact, it takes about three geisha plants to produce the same number of beans as one Caturra plant. This is one reason the Geisha coffee is so expensive.
In addition, the Geisha plant which comes from Ethiopia grows the best in a cooler climate so it is planted higher up on the mountainside making it harder to harvest. It also prefers the volcanic soil provided by nearby Volcán Barú.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to climb up the mountainside to see the geisha plant. The coffee growers politely included one plant down by the other species. Not in its premium location, it looked a little “Charlie Brownish”.
After learning about the plants, we saw the vats used to shell the fruit and wash the beans. Any of the leftover plant was used as an herbicide gel or as compost making the coffee organic though without paying for the certificate, they only claim “all natural”.
From there we looked at the drying stations and then visited the storage facility which also included machines to sort the beans and a giant oven that dried beans.
Ultimately, we walked up to a small tasting room where Ramon prepared six types of coffee and a tea from the three beans that were dried naturally or washed. Ramon explained that coffee competitions use a light roast as this is the way to taste the true flavors of the coffee. He is opposed to dark roast which simply burns the bean and masks the true flavors.
Much like wine, coffee judges swirl the coffee with a spoon and almost stick their noses into the cup. Then they take a spoon full and SLUUURP it, so the flavors reach all the taste buds which apparently reside in more places of the mouth than just the tongue.
The coffee is given a score in several categories such as sweetness, acidity, flavor, balance and mouthfeel. We joined Ramon in tasting the coffee (though not slurping it). The geisha coffee is almost fruity. Frankly, I wasn’t too fond of any of the choices, but I’m certainly not a coffee connoisseur. Overall, the tour was informative and fun, and I got to taste the most expensive coffee in the world!
Take a Hike
The top two things to do in Boquete are to hike Sendero Los Quetzales and Three Waterfalls also known as Lost Waterfalls. It is highly recommended to hike Sendero Los Quetzales with a guide as hikers get lost. In addition, I believe a four-wheel drive vehicle is necessary. Hiking with a guide requires a two-person minimum at $75-100 pp.
On the other hand, Three Waterfalls, may be reached by taxi or bus ($2-10). From the roadside stop, hikers walk down to the river, cross the bridge and follow the signs to Tres Cascadas which is privately owned. Visitors must pay a $7 entry fee before taking the two-hour hike beneath a jungle canopy to three different waterfalls.
The undulating path crosses lots of tree roots and has a few short, steep sections. During the dry season, it isn’t that strenuous though during the rainy season I suspect it would be slick. My post for this Three Waterfalls Hike includes more details.
In addition to hiking, visitors to Boquete can participate in many outdoor adventures. I can see how the climate, friendliness, and fun in Boquete attracts such a large ex-pat community. I would happily return! ETB
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