Panama

Boquete and Coffee in Panama

By Jordan Karasek

Nearing the end of our adventure we decided to take things easy and relax in the small town of Boquete that is about 25 minutes outside of David, Panama. In a re-purposed yellow school bus the trip is more like an hour. Boquete is great for adventure sports like, zip lining, white water rafting, hiking, and camping, but at US prices. So glad that we did all of our fun stuff in Ecuador. The city is nice and quaint, most everybody knows each other and the places that visitors want to go. The locals all had great suggestions on places to eat for every meal. To name a couple we really enjoyed Big Daddy’s Grill for dinner and Sugar & Spice for breakfast, all within walking distance.

We found a great hostel on the edge of town called Hostel Nomba. The guy who owns it is from the United States and just loved the area so much he stayed. We pretty much had the place to ourselves, which made for great relaxation and reading. The hostel has it’s own small Mexican restaurant attached which was amazing. Finally some food with some serious flavor! The volunteer staff were great to hang out with and talk too as well. We watched movies together at night.

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Adrianne and Sarah Ann ended up going to a real natural spring, much better than the one in Baños, but much hotter (around 104 F). They spent the majority of there day there while I stayed back at the hostel all day and read some new books I picked up. But the definite highlight for me was going on a coffee tour the day before.

Panama is rising in its popularity and notoriety around the world for its coffee production. It has a great climate and altitude to match with the great coffees of Ethiopia. There are lots of coffee plantations in Panama, and many of them were around Boquete. They now hold a yearly competition for the best coffee in the country. This made a coffee tour a must-see.

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Adrianne likes coffee the least of us, so she stayed behind. Sarah Ann and I booked a tour of a new coffee plantation called Cafetos Gourmet Café. It was $35 each which sound much better to us than the all day $75 tour of the number one coffee in Panama and swimming. Tired people don’t like to do much of anything all day. Fortunately we were the only two people on the tour. Our guide and the owner of the farm, Luis, picked us up in his truck.

We kicked the tour off with a fresh brew of his primary coffee called the Pacamara. It is an Arabica coffee crossed with a Paca and Margotype. It was nice to sit out on the lawn with the cool breeze, sip coffee, and eat a lemon tart. It was also fun to play with his cat and dog. We finished our coffee and took a tour of the grounds. The first part was new growth and plants grown in the sun which were all very small. The next section was grown in the shade and more developed.

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Many of the plantations in Central America, especially in Panama, use a natural composting technique to keep the soil and the plants healthily producing. Most of the plants are planted below trees for shade and those that are not are clearly producing less as the others. More Lychee and Avocado trees are being planted along side the rows of coffee because they grow quickly to provide shade and the natural fruits along with the leaves and cut grass that makes a wonderful fertilizer. The temperature difference between the shade and the sun is 3 or 4 degrees Celsius, or close to 7 degrees Fahrenheit, it also made for a comfortable walk. With it being out of season for harvesting we saw mostly green beens but as they ripen they turn yellow and red.

We got to walk all over the farm and see the different sizes and types of coffee plants. Our guide also gave us lots of the fruits and avocados to take home with us. We headed back to the house to see the harvesting and roasting setup. Right now most of the coffees in Panama are sold green and non-roasted. The product at Cafetos is 20% roasted and 80% natural. The owner has plans to flip the number and sell mostly a roasted blend.

They have a new machine that partly washes the beans after being picked and strips them of the skin and pulp to be put placed near by to dry in air and sun. While we were there, men worked to build a new area for separating the bean from the skin and an area for drying. All of the old skins and pulp goes back into the mulching process to help keep up the healthy soil.

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We then saw his new machine for roasting and got to try another blend of coffee that he had recently started. Depending on the type of coffee he had different roasting temperatures and lengths of time. From what I understood he had a longer drying and shorter roasting process for a more natural blend that we tried last. Drinking it black it had a sharp green flavor upfront that faded but adding the smallest amount of sugar, milk, or cream made it fade.  In the end we bought a bag of each. My back smells like coffee through and through.

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For us, that was Boquete and we loved it!

The plantations website: http://www.cafetoarabica.com/

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Panama City

Arriving in Panama in the evening, exhausted, sunburnt, and still a little wet from San Blas, we collapsed in bed. We were just awake enough on the ride into the city to notice how nice and developed the area is. For some reason I thought it would be like Lima or even just a huge slum-town, but that certainly isn’t the case. The next day, we had a full 24 hours in Panama City before finding a bus to northern Panama. We decided to spend it at the canal. Jordan read up on the canal and the period of American expansion/imperialism as a preteen and really enjoyed the subject matter, so visiting the canal in person was kind of a big deal to him. There are two canal museums, but we picked the nicer and more English-friendly of the two, Miraflores Locks. The other was more out-of-the-way, completely in Spanish, and fairly anti-American from what I hear. I wish I could’ve seen the anti-American stuff, though. That would have been really interesting. IMG_6996 Miraflores costs 15 USD per person, but takes ISIC cards with a reduced price of 10 USD. It includes a 10-minute video with creepy 3D animation detailing the history and current processes of the canal, a viewing platform, and a museum. IMG_7004 You can read all about how the locks works here. And there are many websites and books about the building and management of the canal through history, which I highly recommend looking into. The canal hit it’s 100th birthday last year, and it has been an interesting ride. While the United States has done a lot of development work and modernization in Panama, the most noticeable being the canal, they did it pretty much without asking permission, getting input, and expected gratefulness and thanks. Panama, receiving nice gifts of immunizations, work, and education, felt pretty conflicted because these gifts (which they didn’t really ask for) came with strings attached. In the 1970s, however, the U.S. relinquished its hold on the canal, and now Panama operates it as a sovereign nation–which made them a lot happier. That’s a very short, condensed version of the historical events and relations between the two countries, but there you go. IMG_7030 Within the museum, there were sets showing the inside of a tunnel beneath the canal, the communications hub of a typical boat that passes through the canal, and other things. It also had lots of original photos from the construction and even an exhibit on local insects, animals, and whales in the region. We were still recuperating from going-going-going in Colombia and the lack of sleep we got on San Blas, so the canal was about the only thing we had the energy to do that day. Later in the evening we did go see a movie at one of the malls. I recommend this activity if backpackers begin to feel homesick. Especially American backpackers, because malls in Latin America tend to have American chain businesses. The food court had Subway, Taco Bell, Burger King, Sbarro, and all sorts of other familiar foods. The mall even had a Chuck E. Cheese, which none of us can stand in the States, but seeing it made us all so happy. Sarah Ann couldn’t contain her excitement and squealed through most of our visit. Although none of us visit malls frequently or would consider that commercialized image of America “home,” it was familiar enough to ward off the homesickness for another week. IMG_7002

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San Blas paradise

By far the most scenic route from Colombia to Panama (or vice versa) is a San Blas tour. They are usually four days of island-hopping in a sailboat/catamaran or a motorboat with nights spent on the islands, and it is a great way to get in some beach time and meet the Kuna people, and indigenous group originally from Colombia hundreds of years ago.

We chose San Blas Adventures, a more commercial endeavor, rather than booking a captain at a hostel or at the docks, because I had heard too many horror stories of picking the wrong captain, and I have very little faith in my captain-picking abilities. SBA seemed more official and had good ratings on Tripadvisor. So we went with them. There were 27 people on the tour (I didn’t realize how commercialized it was until I saw the roster) plus captains and two guides. We began at our meeting point (Capurgana docks) at 6:15 am to get a water taxi to Sapzurro, the next town up the coast. It cost 7,000 pesos a person, and once there we got breakfast (8,000 pesos a person) and hopped in our boats for the four days. All of our bags were wrapped tight in garbage bags and we had split our belongings: one small bag for the trip, the large bag for when we arrive in Carti, Panama.

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The border crossing wasn’t terribly unpleasant, but it was unnecessarily long. Puerto Olvidia, the immigration point, was 30 minutes away. We had all “crossed out” of Colombia by visiting the immigration office in Capurgana the day before, so this was just our entrance into Panama. Because this is one of the most common routes the drug traffickers/cartels take for shipping goods to the States, the customs take searching bags very seriously. If caught with anything, you can be thrown in prison for 10 years and there is very little your embassy can or will do about it. So the bag searching took over an hour. And they’re sticklers for paperwork. But in the end we all made it through unscathed.

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The boat rides between islands were a little rough at times, but nothing like the disaster we experienced from Turbo. We slept in hammocks mostly, though the second night there were enough beds for everyone. Accomodations are basic throughout: “bucket showers” (and here it really was nice to have a spouse to pour the water on you), squattie-potties half the time, bathrooms without doors, and limited electricity (no outlets or cell service though). But you’re not there for the luxuries of the developed world–you’re there for the sun and the sand and the coral, of which there was plenty. The islands Waginega, Cocovendera and Pelicano were particularly good.

Food was quite good and filling–breakfast was mostly fruit and some oatmeal and things, while lunch on the islands were sandwiches. Dinner was the catch of the day, which usually meant octopus, lobster, or other animals doused in delicious sauce and spread over rice. Jordan and pictured with dinner below (crab). All food (but no drinks, even water) are included on the trip. Drinks were overpriced, being on the islands, but were not as bad as they could have been. A bottle of water ranged between 1 USD to 1.50. A can of coke did as well, while alcohol was a little more expensive. I strongly recommend buying a 5 liter jug of water before the trip (we did it) and mainly drinking that. Even though we bought some drinks and finished off the 5-liter between three people, we were all a little dehydrated by the end of the trip. The sun and salt just do that to you.

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The Kuna people, who live on the islands and have a few farms on the mainland, have experienced rapid change in the past 20 years. Five years ago they had no electricity. In fact, it was illegal to cut open coconuts after 7 pm because it was dark and the village leader/shaman was worried people would hurt themselves. Now most families have solar panels, but still no one opens coconuts so late–it has become bad luck. The Kuna have their own language, customs, and clothing, though more and more the young people go to Panama City for college or even study abroad in other countries. They had a lot of strife with the Panamanian government over land and water rights as well as the normal troubles of an small, indigenous group, but those have mostly been worked out now.

IMG_6968San Blas Adventures works very closely with the Kuna people, using them as boat captains, lodging hosts, and restaurant service as well as the obligatory drive from Kuna land all the way to Panama City ($30 per person in a 4×4, about 3 hours one way).

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As you can see by the photos, we greatly enjoyed our time. The four days went by quickly (though I hardly slept at all because hammocks are just uncomfortable) and we loved the blue, blue water with all the shades. Snorkeling wasn’t the best we’ve ever done, but it was decent and included in our trip price. On our way to the mainland (the town of Carti) we saw starfish and dolphins, which was a perfect end to the trip.

Once on land we collected our baggage and waited for the 4×4 jeeps. These are pretty much your only option to get out of Kuna land, even though it’s pretty expensive. Our ride back was pretty uneventful, though both Sarah Ann and Jordan got pretty carsick. The road is (mostly) paved, but it rides like a roller coaster for the first hour and a half. There are military checkpoints (again, looking for drugs), but they didn’t bother us. Some days they let people pass without even checking passports, other days they check every pocket in every suitcase. We were lucky, because that can slow groups down by almost two hours. We made it into Panama City by 6:30 pm, which is pretty good timing.

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All in all, that was San Blas. More succinct advice follows below.

  • Double bag your suitcases, because even though we tied things tightly, garbage bags rip easily and a lot of our clothes got wet
  • Choppy water means the bags will bounce and slam on each other. Some friends of ours had their laptop ruined from the jostling
  • Bring water and anything else (but nothing in glass bottles! Some people on the tour learned that the hard way) liquid you may want
  • Expect very basic accommodations
  • Have cash ready to pay for things, like drinks, and the $22 fee to leave Kuna land along with the $30 jeep trip
  • Sunscreen and aloe. Bring it

 

 

Categories: Colombia, Panama | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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