Panama: A Month in Delightful Boquete and Chiriqui

The view from our AirBNB
The view from our AirBNB

Tropical Paradise in Panama: Boquete and Chiriqui

By Susan Kraus

If you love to travel, you’ve probably flirted with the idea of living overseas, or retiring overseas, either part-time or full-time. My husband and I had planned a trip to Boquete before Covid, not just as tourists but more to get a feel for what life would be like day-to-day. It took until summer of ’23 to finally make it.

About Boquete:

vertical fields Cerro Punta
vertical fields Cerro Punta

Boquete is a mountain town in eastern Panama, about 40 miles from the border with Costa Rica.

With an elevation of almost 4000 ft., yet also close to the equator, it has a dreamy climate: average lows in the 60’s, average highs in the 80’s.

Many houses have ceiling fans, but no AC or heat. There are two seasons: dry and rainy.

With global warming, the rainy season is a lot less rainy, which is a concern as coffee plantations blanket surrounding mountains, their crops fine-tuned to an essential interface of elevation, rain and sun.

Boquete is in Chiriqui Province (think state) which includes districts (think counties) which includes corregimientos (towns).

Golfo de Chiriqui
Golfo de Chiriqui

The ‘District’ of Boquete was established in 1911. But it wasn’t until 1998 that the three adjacent corregimientos that we spent most of our time in were defined as such.

The Boquete District has about 24,000 people, of which 5000 are expats. It was half that number twenty years ago.

Back then, Boquete was more a rural, agrarian, untouched, word-of-mouth destination, where wealthy Panamanians who wanted to escape the heat might go.

Chiriqui
Chiriqui

Until 2001, when Valle Escondido –an expansive, meticulously landscaped, high-end gated community – broke ground. And International Living took note. Then AARP included it in ‘Top Places to Retire’ ratings. And just last January, the New York Times included it in “52 Places to Go in 2023.

Downtown:

Boquete downtown park
Boquete downtown park

Boquete does not have a ‘pretty’ or historic downtown. Narrow sidewalks buckle and disappear in parts. There’s a central Plaza with lovely fountains and seating, but no compelling architecture. Boquete has mushroomed in a few decades, and there is little as far as zoning. It feels almost frontier, like Alaska.

The main street, Avenida Central, is lined with shops: clothing; tourist kitsch; pharmacies; home repair; bakeries; groceries; restaurants; coffee cafes; gelato stands – and an upscale wine store.

Many of the streets in Boquete have names and numbers but lack signage. Google Maps works once you can pin your residence or if going to a place with a name, like a restaurant or store. But finding another residence? That can be a challenge.

Boquete library
Boquete library

Within a few days, we’d checked out several downtown groceries and found one, Super Baru, that had good selection and was an easy walk. Later, we discovered an upscale, European grocery, filled with imports and surprisingly low prices, just south of town. What we quickly learned about Boquete is that the best may be hidden – and few advertise.

What’s To Do?

Tuesday Market veggies
Tuesday Market veggies

As far as tourism, Boquete is a hotspot for adventure and ecotourism: whitewater rafting; kayaking; hiking; mountain climbing; dirt biking; naturalist and birding fishing. You’ll find guided hikes and ziplines, trail rides and ATV tours.

Less strenuous, family-friendly options include beekeeping and butterfly-house tours, and a goat farm where kids get to cuddle baby goats, ride ponies, and see how goat cheese is made.

Jeimy Guerra at Full Adventures Boquete can arrange anything: boquetefull@gmail.com) Their office is on Ave. Central next to Big Daddy’s Grill. PIC

If you have a tight schedule, and want someone to manage your time, transfers, tours and lodging – with meticulous attention to detail and the experience to know what not to do as well as what to do — I suggest Scott Ludlum at Panama Travel Consultants (www.PanamaTravelConsultants.com; 1-813-451-1918). Scott listens, asks questions, and finds the perfect balance for his clients.

The Foodie Scene:

Tourism also means a plethora of restaurants, from upscale continental to local Panamanian comfort food. Overall, the quality of food, diversity of cuisines, and creativity of chefs in Boquete is exceptional.

Breakfast at The Rock
Breakfast at The Rock

We joined soccer fans in Big Daddy’s Grill, an outdoor pub with oversized platters of burgers, salads, fish, steaks, Mexican and more. We walked over one evening to share a particular dessert that was way too much to eat after a meal: Churros and Ice Cream. It could have fed four.

Otto’s sounds like it would be German, but, no, it’s Italian. Start with an Otto Salad, covered in goat cheese, almonds and a lush Balsamic. Beer in an iced mug for $2 and pasta enough to split.

Lunch at Sugar and Spice
Lunch at Sugar and Spice

Sugar and Spice serves up fab breakfasts, lunch and ‘take-home.’ Pastries, soups, sandwiches? Panamanian and Mexican platters? Upscale deli? Yes to all. Expansive menu, all delicious, and hardly anything over $10!

The Rock, a few kilometers from downtown, is a lovely indoor-outdoor restaurant overlooking a rushing stream. Ambiance and service are upscale, but prices are moderate. They have live music two evenings a week and Sunday brunch.

One breakfast included fresh fruit (love the papaya), juice, coffee, eggs, bacon, sausage, a potato croquette that tasted like a French delicacy, plus a bread board. Only $12, it was easily enough for two people.

I had the All-you-can-eat BBQ Ribs and Salad one night for $19. A Happy Hour when drinks are ½ price. And a bonfire by the river where you can toast a giant complimentary marshmallow (unusual, but, hey, it works!)

RetroGusto serves upscale Italian in a cozy, well-appointed space with a garden back deck. Their Salmon Pizza (see photo) was amazing, along with their home-made sangria. Helpful staff.

Casa Vieja has a diverse menu: sandwiches, fish platters; pastas. It’s a lovely spot to stop in during a walk for a papaya batido (smoothie) or wine by the stream.

Salmon pizza at RetroGusto
Salmon pizza at RetroGusto.

Butcher Chophouse is all about the meat: different cuts, international preparations, all meals come with salad and potatoes (different options to choose from), interesting sides, attentive service.

El Sabrason is a cafeteria style, point-to-what-you’d-like, staple for Panamanian platters. Always meat and fish options, plus beans, rice and salads. Complete meals are $6 to $9. Big bowl of soup for $3. There are a few locations, but we preferred the one on Central Ave. with a 2nd story deck.

Mike’s Global Grill is a coxy ex-pat hangout with the feel of a sports bar, with some quiet outdoor tables perched over a rushing stream. Menu ranges from burgers and fried chicken to pad Thai and eggrolls, plus daily ‘specials.’ Live music and spontaneous dancing as well.

The Fish House is right across the stream from Mikes. Low-key and casual vibe, and excellent food, from fish & chips to creative takes on trout and salmon. Grab a table overlooking the stream.

Panamonte Inn and Spa: The history of Boquete is mirrored in the Panamonte, which has nurtured wealthy visitors for decades. Candle-lit, white table cloths, gourmet, reservations often needed weekends. Have a drink in front of the fireplace by the rear garden, then stroll the grounds.

We ate at all of the above—and more. “Eating Your Way Through Boquete” could be an article in itself.

coffee beans
Coffee Beans

Coffee Finca Tour is a Must-Do:

Our favorite Boquete ‘tourist’ outing was the coffee plantation tour at Finca Dos Jefes.

There are large, corporate coffee producers, but their tours have a more ‘bean’ focus and sales model. Finca Dos Jefes is more holistic, including history and some politics.

coffee beans life cycle
coffee beans life cycle

A small-scale finca (farm), it also engages with indigenous farmers growing selected beans on their comarca.

We learned not just about coffee farming and production, but indigenous culture, the struggle for livable wages for the workers, coffee myths and facts, and what corporate coffee doesn’t advertise.

Coffee tasting at Dos Jefes
Coffee tasting at Dos Jefes

We walked through rows of different coffee plants, drying racks, and more, then compared four ‘tastings’ to round out the experience. (www.boquetecoffeetour.com; U.S. #510-540-5065).

Renting a Car:

We could not find the usual car rental options in Boquete (most are at the airport in David). Name brands (such as Hertz, Budget, Avis, etc.) have the confusing-but-requisite Panamanian insurance requirements.

You cannot waive rental insurance just because you have credit cards that cover it or personal policies that extend to international rentals.

Panama requires their insurance –something to do with liability vs. collision — which can double the cost of the rental.

Then we heard about Cowboy Cars. It’s invisible, located on an unmarked gravel road off of the main highway south of Boquete. There are no signs but every taxi driver knows where it is and will drop you for $4.

You’ll find a dozen or so cars, most AWD, crossovers or vans, parked on a lawn next to an open-air repair garage (they do their own work on their cars.) It’s a $200 cash deposit and $40 cash per day in advance.

We signed some papers, handed over the cash, and were handed a key. The service was friendly and helpful. But—take note—no maps available. (No website, but cowboycars2@gmail.com; Facebook: Cowboy-Cars-Boquete; 507-6736-7998)

Chiriqui Province – The Lowlands and The Highlands:

Hiking Boquete
Hiking Boquete

Chiriqui is home to Davíd, the second largest city in Panama, and less than an hour drive south of Boquete.

It is also home to Panama’s highest mountains, highland rainforests, an abundance of rivers, and the rich soil that produces much of the food for the country.

Plus the extinct Volcan Baru, the highest peak in Panama, and the only place in the world where one can see two oceans from one point. The Ngäbe and Buglé tribes have lived in these mountains for centuries, and their “comarca” (reservation) borders Chiriqui.

The lowlands include the Pacific coast, beaches, and the Golfo de Chiriqui.

The Golfo is now a protected national marine park, Parque Nacional Marino de Golfo de Chiriqui, almost 150 sq. kilometers of uninhabited islands, coral reefs, and an abundant diversity of wildlife, from 280 bird species to sea turtles to howler monkeys.

Off to Island Hopping, Whale Watching and Beach Time:

Boca Chica is a tiny village on the Pacific, about 75 minutes from Boquete. It’s an entry point for the Parque Nacional Marino de Golfo de Chiriqui — and deep- water fishing, whale watching, kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling and surfing.

Chiriqui
Chiriqui

We booked a six-hour whale-watching & island-hopping tour through Step-by-Step Travel (StepbyStepTravel.net; +507-61 4422 77). They have a small office in Boca Chica, a three-minute-walk from the dock, with a bathroom you can change in. We parked our car right in front and they kept an eye on it. Ask for Jackie—she is a manager, full of guidance and info, and knows everything Panama!

Island in GolfoSmall Boat Tour

Our tour, on a small boat with a sun-cover, had only 8 people, and we were the only ones from the USA. The outing included snorkel equipment, towels, a beer, water, and a Panamanian lunch called “monos”: rice, beans and chicken wrapped in a banana leaf.

The total was $40 each (excellent value especially if you have a family or group.) We saw whales (well, fins and humps), swam off pristine beaches on uninhabited tiny islands, and had a picnic under coconut trees.

You can book similar tours from Boquete at Full Adventures Boquete, with RT transportation, and some English-speaking guides. They cost a bit more, but perhaps are a better option for anyone traveling solo or not wanting to rent a car.

There are a few small hotels and B&Bs in Boca Chica if you want to stay over, and a posh, lovely, luxury hotel, Bocas del Mar (www.bocasdelmar.com) outside the town on hills overlooking the Golfo.

It was just another hour drive to get to Las Lajas Beach Resort: just 14 rooms, all opening to the lawn and pool, an excellent open-air restaurant and bar – and lounge chairs under palapas and palm trees overlooking the beach. The brightly painted cement block rooms reminded me of Florida in the ‘50’s.

You’ll find 14 kilometers of remote beach (apparently quite a draw for runners), with, at least for now, very little development. No TV, but their wi-fi is good. It gets busy on weekends, when the city folk descend, but is pretty quiet on weekdays.

Palapas at Las Lajas
Palapas at Las Lajas

A room with two queens- and an extra twin- was only $71. Off-season ‘flash’ packages include two-night stay with 3-course dinner for two with drinks for $140, and a third night for just $40. Get on their email list if heading to Chiriqui and maybe you can score a ‘special.’

We strolled the beach, ran into the ocean, dipped in the pool, sipped Mojitos and then napped under a palapa. (www.laslajasbeachresort.com; +507-6790 197)

There are other B&Bs and small hotels in Las Lajas Beach area, as well as in the town of Las Lajas, which is up the road towards the Pan-American Highway. The roads to both Boca Chica and Las Lajas drop down from the Pan-American Highway, about 15 k long each. The Boca Chica road is still under construction.

A Day Drive in the Highlands:

We took a day-drive through the highlands to the other side of Volcan Baru. This can now be accomplished — thanks to a recently constructed connection — without driving all the way south to David, going west on the Pan-American Highway, then heading north again. The mountain road to Volcan twists through small towns where horses are for transportation and dogs nap in the streets.

The town of Volcan (on the southwest side of Volcan Baru) has responded to tourism by creating a ‘center’ with wide sidewalks and turn lanes. There are multiple options for lodging, from hostel dormitories to classy VRBOs, some exceptional as far as views.

There are some Pre-Columbian ruins, but on private land. Guided hikes, from a few miles to the 10-12 hours it takes to reach the top of the volcano, are available, as well as a lot of the same options as Boquete.

Cerro Punta, father north, has the feel of an Alpine village—steep-pitched roof houses, tended gardens. But most notable, most memorable, are the fields of vegetables growing at what feels like impossible angles, almost vertical crops instead of horizontal. Every space is filled with vegetables! This part of Chiriqui, most clearly, provides the country with produce.

Just a few kilometers north of Cerro Punta is Guadalupe, a little community, picture perfect, with restaurants, shops, crafts and produce. It is quite ‘cute.’ But bringing in tourists, and making money feeds the locals and their families— so I’m not going to knock ‘cute.’

The Parque International La Amistad is about 4000 sq. kilometers, extending from Chiriqui Province into Boca del Toro Province. There are some manageable trails, but mostly it’s wild nature that you should not venture into without an experienced guide.

What Was Different About Our Month?

We had time to immerse. We went to the Tuesday Morning Market four weeks in a row. My husband found a group of expats who played bocce twice a week. Restaurant staff recognized us after a few visits. People waved when we were out walking. I got a library card (they have shelves of books in English!) We found live music venues we enjoyed.

We woke up to a very different climate. We sat on a patio with our morning coffee as clouds drifted over the mountains and settled into the valley. We heard the ever-present gurgle of a stream in the garden, and a cacophony of different bird calls.

We watched indigenous laborers tending to crops planted on the sides of mountains. We drove twisting mountain roads until we were in the clouds—and then above the clouds. We practiced Spanish every day.

We ate out a lot because there are so many good restaurants and we could afford them. We walked everywhere because we could.

But are we moving here? No, not now. We found that we missed our home, friends, family. But we loved escaping the scorching summer heat of Kansas, just as we’d like to escape the icy winds of February.

So, we’re thinking that a few months a year — in a place where it’s always spring – with friendly, welcoming people and plenty to do- where we now know how to navigate daily life – could be just the ticket to our next ‘stage’!

Susan KrausSusan Kraus has written about travel for 30+ years, from newspapers and regional magazines to Huff Post and Hemispheres. A long-term member of the Society of American Travel Writers, she has won several awards, and serves on the National Board of their Freelance Council. Her ‘demographic’ has evolved from a ‘family-with -kids’ focus to a more mature audience, both women-solo and couples. Her next journey is solo in Spain: a week in San Sebastian, then exploring the Extremadura region.

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