Visiting Coffee Plantations
Boquete has been known as a coffee-growing area far longer than it has been established as a tourist or retirement destination. It's not so much the quantity of coffee produced here, but rather the quality of the product.
In international competitions, Boquete coffee wins some of the top awards. The soil and the climate are well-suited to producing the kind of beans needed for the best brew.
But as retirees move in, some are more taken by the mountain setting and the privacy that a coffee plantation can provide. They're buying the plantations but not keeping up with the growing operation.
Enter Richard and Dee Lipner, formerly of Berkeley, Calif. They became fascinated with the coffee business, and Richard even went to some of his potential competitors to ask for advice. He received it willingly, because he says the remaining growers want very much to keep the coffee-growing tradition alive in this part of Panama.
Lipner's Cafe De La Luna brand is named in honor of the lunar phases, by which this organic farm operates. He has won awards and seen his product bring top dollar in stateside markets, but Lipner seems to enjoy the Boquete lifestyle the most. He'll spend 2-3 hours with you and give you a complete tour of his operation for $30. That might seem like a lot to budget travelers, but it's an experience you're apt to remember for a long time. During any such tour, you're likely to see new coffee plants, the beans at various stages of development, drying, grinding, roasting and finally brewing.
Prepare for Bad Weather
Boquete weather is delightful -- rarely more than 85F and usually not cold enough to warrant anything more than a jacket or light sweater. But there are micro-climates here that create dramatic landscapes and almost instant rainstorms.
When you set out for the day, be sure to pack some rain gear. Why include such advice on a budget travel site? Few things rob your trip of value more quickly than soggy clothing and wet feet. Be prepared!
Zip Line Tour near Boquete
Zip Lining has moved from a scientific study of plant life to a much sought after adventure experience for travelers in just a few decades. Unfortunately for budget travelers, it's not unusual to spend $80-$100/person to zip from platform to platform in resort settings.
But Boquete Tree Trek comes in well under that price range and offers an experience free of strenuous uphill hikes. Retirees who have never tried this form of entertainment fit in nicely with college students ready for a day of adrenaline rushes.
The staff will pick you up in Boquete and transport you to starting point, which is high above the town. It's a winding and steep journey that you'll be glad to sit out rather than sweat out. The hike to the first platform is generally flat, and temperatures at this altitude (roughly 6,000 feet above sea level) are quite comfortable most of the time.
A restaurant, lodging and photography services are available here, but you're under no obligation to buy anything. The guides put a top priority (as they should) on your safety and comfort.
Free Garden Tour
If you've spent money on a coffee tour or zip line experience, your budget might need a break. In Boquete, that break might be spelled Mi Jardin Es Su Jardin which is translated "my garden is your garden."
Many years ago, a prominent local family decided to open their estate to passers by who enjoy gardens -- lots of gardens. You can spend an hour or more just making the basic rounds here. Only the house and other buildings on the property are off-limits. Bring your camera and take your time. There will never be an admission charge.
It takes about 10 minutes to walk from the center of town to the garden entrance. For directions, simply utter the name in Spanish and it's likely a resident will point the way.
Cheap Meals: Dine Like a Local
The plates of food you see here will never pass for gourmet fare. It's filling tasty food, but it certainly isn't fancy.
It isn't expensive, either!
The total cost for both plates and two soft drinks was about $4 USD. As you eat your meal at Restaurante El Sabroson, you'll watch local families enjoy a meal out together. The locals greatly outnumber tourists. It's a fun experience that will also save you money.
In almost every Central American town (even those catering to tourists), you'll find a place like this. Don't be shy. Food is served cafeteria style, so even a lack of Spanish skills won't prevent you from simply pointing to the dish you'd like to sample. If you wind up with something you don't like, at least you won't be paying a huge sum of money for it.
Elsewhere in Boquete, I saw counters in grocery stores that offered grilled cheese sandwiches for 50 cents (65 cents on french bread) and ice cream cones for 50 cents. Of course there are places -- catering to tourists -- that will charge you quite a bit more for a meal. Dine like a local at least once and see what it does for your budget.
Rancho de Caldera
Boquete is a pleasant town, but chances are good you didn't come to this part of Panama for the urban environment. You want to enjoy the mountains, the hot springs and perhaps some horseback riding.
About 13 miles outside of Boquete is an extraordinary place called Rancho de Caldera. The name comes from its position near some hot springs. It truly is a ranch, where horses are raised for riders with limited experience right up to experts who spend the day exploring the area on horseback.
But I found the most interesting thing about this place was the quiet and dramatic scenes that unfold on the balcony of every room. Mountain views here are ever-changing with cloud cover, approaching rain showers and bright sunshine on a given day. There are few sounds beyond the thunder, rainfall and the birds singing. That's quite a nice change for most of us.
Rancho de Caldera also boasts a gourmet restaurant with Chef Craig Miller planning and executing top-quality meals for guests. The meals are not included in the room rates and tend to be on the high end for budget travelers ($23-$27/person). You must reserve this three-course prix-fixe meal no later than 2 p.m., because Miller plans his meals around the number of guests and the available fresh produce and other farm products of the area. It's a splurge you won't want to miss--you'd pay twice as much for a similar meal almost anywhere else.
Room rates here for a suite can hit $200/night, but look for deep discounts in the off-season months (June-September). There are discount rooms here with no air conditioning or televisions for $55/night.
If resort rates aren't in your budget, Boquete offers plenty of budget options. Expect to pay between $30-$50/night for basic rooms, and perhaps $70 or more for something a bit nicer.
As with other parts of Panama, you can find hostel beds in Boquete for less than $15/night, sometimes under $10.
At times, Boquete lodging might be hard to find. An alternative is to stay in the much larger city of David, about 30 miles to the south and make a day trip or two to Boquete. Bus transportation between the two is frequent and cheap. David is also close to the Pacific coast, enabling travelers to experience the mountains and the coastline in the same day.
Visit the Grocery Store
Grocery stories in Boquete sell machetes for $3 USD. I don't think you'll get one of these past airport security, but it would make a cheap and interesting souvenir.
This is just one of the discoveries you'll make in a Boquete supermarket. It's fun to see what local people are buying not only for their dinner tables, but as a part of their daily life and work. One of the best reasons to travel is to experience another culture. Supermarkets provide a window into the place you've come to see. Spend a few minutes walking around -- it's free entertainment. You'll also find a few bargains beyond the machete display.
Take a Walk
Boquete's town square is lively and unpretentious. The bridge that crosses the Boquete river is worthy of a photograph or two.
This isn't Vail or Banff, but there is a fair amount of scenic beauty surrounding you at almost every turn. Walking up the main street reveals markets and lottery salespeople. At another turn is a string of real estate offices with properties for sale displayed in the window. Make another turn and you'll see a language school or a man on horseback visiting from a neighboring town.
As with the supermarket, a lengthy walk through Boquete costs nothing and yields some interesting sights. Don't miss the experience.
How to Reach Boquete
As mentioned previously, Boquete is about 30 miles north of David, which is the largest city in western Panama and the second largest city in the country. You'll find an airport there with multiple daily flights to Panama City and a few to Costa Rica, which is actually closer than the nation's capital. Car rental agencies have set-ups in David. If you must drive in Panama, better here than in the fast-moving traffic of Panama City.
David is also a hub for bus transportation, and usually you can find a bus leaving for Panama City within the hour. The cost for that trip is about $15/person, and it takes roughly six hours.
Buses between David and Boquete are also frequent and inexpensive. In the mornings, your van is likely to double as a school bus.
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