A water taxi to the mainland, a shuttle bus to the airport at Changuinola to pick up a rental car, a drive to Boquete. Just under 250 kms, but it takes 7 hrs. The water taxi is a super fast speed boat. The shuttle bus takes half an hour. The rest of the trip is on a tortuous, hilly, shoulder-less road full of potholes and “curvas peligrosas”, dangerous curves.
Craig is sick with a nasty gastrointestinal bug or too much sun, or maybe both, so the driving falls to me. He spends most of the trip reclined in the passenger seat. The is reminiscent of our 1993 trip across the Yucatan in southern Mexico. On that trip I was the one reclined and, in fact, I am usually the one to be afflicted with whatever there is to be afflicted with (except if it’s a subarachnoid hemorrhage!). It feels strange for our roles to be reversed.
The first half of the drive is along the northern slope of the Continental Divide and is thick, green jungle. As soon as we cross the divide, the countryside changes to dry, brown, high country ranch land and coffee plantations.
Bouquete, at 4,000 ft above sea level, is in a steep-walled, green, flower and bird filled valley on the flank of Volcan Baru, the highest point in Panama. It is a small town of about 20,000 people, many of them expatriates from the US, Canada & Europe. The climate, the natural environment and the low cost of living are enticements.
The Haven & Spa resort http://www.hotelboquete.com is on the outskirts of town. This is going to sound repetitive, but here goes … the hotel is set in a garden full of birds and blooms. As I write this a couple of frogs are loudly serenading us. At some point they stop and the neighbourhood dogs take up a chorus. By dawn the roosters we saw by the road will no doubt be crowing.
Venturing into town in search of a bowl of soup to soothe and nourish Craig we happen upon El Sabroson, where we get cafeteria style, Panamanian home cooking. The only gringos in the place, we draw a lot of stares.
Out on the street, and possibly because it is Sunday, we see local women dressed in traditional garb. The men, of course, are dressed more fashionably. There are babies and toddlers galore and some of the young moms look like they are still teenagers. We are a bit stunned by the contrast between the local and the gringo culture and we wonder how everyone, and if everyone, gets along.
The hiking is partly why we are here. We start with a 3 hr walk, called “Lost Cascades”, through the forest to a series of three waterfalls. It’s the dry season and there’s been a drought so the falls are less impressive than they might otherwise be. But the trail is through some spectacular verdant vegetation dotted with colourful flowers and there are sweeping views across the valley. The frigid pools cool our feet and legs. Afterwards we refuel with lunch at Big Daddy’s Grill.
Tuesday is market day and we set off early in anticipation of local art and handicrafts. What we get is a gathering of mostly white, English-speaking ex-pats greeting each other and communing around the various coffee sellers. The trip advisor reviews did forewarn us about this possibility, so we shouldn’t be surprised.
Beating a hasty retreat from the market, we walk along the river up into the hills to a neighbourhood of suburban estates. We ogle at the gardens, admire the architecture and wonder what it would be like to live, and garden, in a place like this. Could we move so far from home? Would we appreciate endless summer? How would we feel about being part of the income gap between the rich foreigners and the much poorer locals?
The Ngabe-Bugle people, in particular, live subsistence lives, without schools or health care. And have little opportunity for “better” futures. How can we best help them? Do they even want or need our help?
We see families in the fields, the kids playing in the dirt while their parents pick coffee beans. Is this fair, we wonder? Are the folks of Bouquete better off for the jobs, however menial, provided by foreign entrepreneurship? Does our tourism and our tourist dollars help or harm the local economy? No easy answers.
The alarm goes off at 0300 Wednesday morning. It’s cloudy and cool. A jeep and driver pick us up in the hotel parking lot and we head up Volcan Baru on the worst road imaginable. Two hours of bone rattling terror to go 10 kms straight up, from 3,500 to 11,500 ft.
It is cold, windy and foggy at the top, dashing our hopes of seeing both the Pacific and the Caribbean from the same view point. A closer reading of the guide book suggests that while this is possible, it’s very rare.
Soon the fog dissipates and we see the full moon in all its glory, illuminating the clouds. We hunker down out of the wind and wait while the sky pinkens, brightens, and eventually there it is. El sol!
There’s an audible “ahhhhh” from the crowd of a dozen or so of us perched on the craggy crater edge. Click, click, click go the camera shutters. For the next half hour we stand between the full moon, and a super moon at that, and the new day’s sun. The air crackles with the energy from these two powerful orbs. Then the fog rolls back in, the curtain closes on our view.
Later, walking around town and over lunch, we talk about the resources – time, energy, money, petrol – used to support our trip up the volcano. What kind of first world hubris drives our need to have these kinds of experiences? How bad is our FOMO?
To that point, on the last day we go out into the forest with Jaimie, a guide who specializes in finding quetzal. We hike for hours in search of what is said to be one of the most beautiful birds on the planet. Like the view of two oceans from the volcano top, sighting the quetzal is elusive. Jaimie knows where they nest and finds several. All high up enough in the trees that they are hard to photograph. But we do our best!
“Caminando mucho” I say that afternoon to Yuliana, the masseuse working on my tight calves. Lots of walking. She works them deeper and harder and I grit my teeth to stop from crying out. I’m at the Haven spa; Craig is doing yoga with Joy, a blonde, fit, thirty-something ex-pat who I hope is not giving him too much in the way of hands on assists.
Yuliana comments on the condition of my feet. “Pies malo” she mutters. The soles are peeling, they are blistered and scratched, some of the dirt from today’s trail wouldn’t come out from under my toenails. UGH!
Must be time to move on. Away from the forest, the flowers, the birds, the fabulous Boquete restaurants and down to the Pacific coast for some r & r on the beach.