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Boquete Panama Vacation

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Thursday, 06 April 2006 16:47
Recently I checked out several hotels in Panama's highlands, diagnosis the Chiriqui Province. This terrain is very similar to the mountains of Costa Rica, both in climate and landscape. It also reminded me very much of Switzerland. Not surpisingly Swiss and German expats have been settling in the area for years.

Day 1: Left at 11am from P. City. The roads 90% of the way are fabulous, a nice reprieve from the PanAm in Costa Rica (where I live). There was light traffic but nothing noteworthy. You can drive 70mph most of the way. We stopped in Aguadulce, just past Penonome and had breakfast. The landscape as you head above sea level and into the highlands changes from Palms to Pines. The scenery is very nice. Around 5pm we arrived in David, the largest city in the region. David reminds me of a smaller San Jose, Costa Rica. It's not that nice, but a good place to get supplies before heading deeper into the countryside.

About 1 hour from David we reached the mountain town of Boquete. The temperature was significantly lower (18C/65F) and the air was fresh from recent rainfall. A few minutes from the town center and we found our lodging, the Hotel Panamonte. My sister and I, both big fans of travel in Ireland, commented how it reminded us of an Irish B&B. The building is one of the oldest hotels in the region and sure does feel like a European B&B with it's cheery, wooden sky blue siding and victorian interior. The U-shaped lodge opens onto a lovely garden with rooms opening onto terraces which face it.

The bar has a roaring fireplace and an outdoor seating area with it's own fire pit. Guests were a combination of well to do Panamanians escaping the heat of the capital as well as a few foreign tourists. Our room was a two bedroom suite on the second floor over the lobby. The town of Boquete is small but has an International feel to it. You can feel and see the effects that a decade or more of foreign retirees has had on the area. Trendy restaurants and modern services mix with a very local, laid back country flavor. Rivers and streams seem to be everywhere. Green hills and misty air envelope the area. It really does feel a lot like Switzerland or Scotland (from what I imagine).

We had a drink in Panamonte's beautiful bar in front of a roaring fire before dining on fresh river trout at the restaurant. The food was excellent. We then retired to our 2-bedroom suite and slept soundly.

Day 2: We woke early and headed out to visit multiple hotel properties and real estate projects outside of Boquete. Along the way we saw the impressive (but small) Hotel El Establos. The U.S. Ambassador in Panama was staying there, so we didn't get to see the best suite, but the rooms we did see were fabulous. Availability is limited, but I'd definitely recommend it. Romantic for sure. More intimate than Panamonte but a little more remote. They have horses for riding on the grounds. The Boquete area is famous for retirees and we checked out the biggest retirement project in the area Valle Escondido. It's an impressive property that's already 95% sold out.

Later we took a coffee tour at a local finca. The neatest part was seeing the original factory, which is over 100 years old. The original was powered by steam and the wheels and gears still work. The offices are converted into the current tasting room and gift shop. Really neat. We ate lunch at a super cheap and pretty good local cafe in Boquete. The food was great for the price (under $3 per).

The best part of the day was when we headed to some very hard to find hot springs on a farm outside of Boquete. We walked down a path for about 5 minutes before a rough looking campesino informed us that he was the field worker in charge of the springs and he was obligated to charge us $1 entrance fee. We obliged. The springs are very simple but indeed very hot. There are four separate pools of various sizes and temperatures sprinkled over about 1/2 acre of thinly forested area. There's nothing nearby but a few ramshackle houses inhabited by local indians. There was not another tourist to be found. There are stones piled up a few feet around each of the pools to help trap in the heat, but other than that they're basically untouched. We felt like we'd discovered a hidden treasure. We exited the springs at dusk feeling incredibly relaxed, ate dinner in town and snoozed early. There was some minor local nightlife but we were all bushed.

Day 3: Early AM we drove from Boquete to Cerro Punta, near the Baru Volcano. This more remote area has fewer homes, more "outdoorsy" travelers and more abundant nature. We stopped on the way to check out Hotel Mantial and Bambito resort. The former was a pretty impressive hotel with its own hot springs and spa. It felt like a swiss mountain lodge. Bambito was too big and the decor was too outdated for my taste. Our final destination and lodging for the night was Los Quezales. If you're into being immersed in nature, this is the place. Just a few kilometers from the Costa Rican border, the four jungle cabins are just incredible.

There's a main hotel near the center of the tiny town of Cerro Punta, but the real gems are jungle cabins 30 minutes away on really, really rough roads (4x4 a must). I've never seen so many birds before. The cabins are 25 years old but designed to feel like mountan lodges from the 1800s. There's a generator as well as gas powered lamps. Totally rustic, totally secluded...and one of the most unique properties I've ever seen. I felt like I was in a fairy tale. The crisp air and woodstove heat reminded me of my great Uncle's mountain cabin in rural Pennsylvania.

Each 2-story cabin has incredible views of the trees, horizon and ever present rivers. This is paradise for a birder, naturist or hiker. I could definitely hibernate there for a few nights. Area tours include hiking the volcano or on-site trails, fishing the freshwater streams for dinner, a local orchid farm, horseback riding and guided birding excursions. We spent the night in one of the rooms in the main lodge. I feel that it's only worth the trip for the jungle rooms. We met the owner, Carlos and had a drink with him in the very pretty bar and restaurant until we were ready for bed.

Day 4: We made the long drive back to Panama City, stopping in El Farallon to eat ceviche at one of the coolest beachside restaurants I've ever seen. This white sand beach is just 5 minutes from the huge Decameron Resort.

Final Thoughts: Boquete is a really neat area and a good compliment to the heat and sun visitors will get at any of Panama's beach destinations. It's a chance to see animals and plants that live at the higher altitudes as well as a very different cultural scene in Panama. I think it's worth 2 or maybe 3 nights there. You have rafting, hiking, birding, spas and some local cultural tours...as well as a very relaxing/romantic environ.

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