I spent a month in Panama during my Career Break learning how to speak Spanish with Habla Ya Spanish School and hopped across their three campuses, one of which was located in the little mountain village of Boquete. Boquete is not as cosmopolitan as Panama City, nor as popular as tropical Bocas del Toro, but it does have cool mountain air and a quiet charm and lots of forest and nature for those who want to get away from the city. I put together this little guide from my week in Boquete, Panama for anyone looking to visit.
I’m particularly proud of this Boquete piece because it was first written for Singapore’s Today newspaper, my first article published and printed in a newspaper! The original article I submitted had to be edited for length and clarity, so I’ve asked for permission to republish the article here with a few little extra photos and tidbits from my own experiences that didn’t make the final cut.
This piece was first published in Today and TodayOnline and republished here with permission and amendments.
Boquete in the Clouds
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 2000s. 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 (adelante!)
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 [booking.com affiliate link]. The Puentes Colgantes or 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. Also spotted – some playful toucans, 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 4×4 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.
Indulge in Geisha Coffee
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 – you can find them in the lobby of Mamallena’s Hostel [booking.com affiliate link] in downtown Boquete which is really centrally located – 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 4×4 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.
Boquete Travel Tips
How to get to Boquete
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.
When to visit Boquete
The temperature in Boquete throughout the year is around 20 degrees celcius 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.
Where to stay in Boquete
I did a homestay when I spent my week in Panama which was organised by my Spanish School. They set me up with a nice local family who had a lovely house in a quieter neighbourhood but still within walking distance to my school. But if I had to find my own accommodation for Boquete, here’s what I would probably have chosen based on location and reviews:
Have you been to Panama? I enjoyed my time there studying Spanish, but tell me where I should check out if I return. Read more about my adventures around Latin America and how I learned to speak Spanish.