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Chiriquí: Sanctuary of Panamanian Biodiversity

By Roberto Quintero
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez

Chiriquí is one of Panama’s most beautiful provinces. You may think I exaggerate or that I am biased because my parents are from Chiriquí, but you’re wrong. The Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley, as it is also known thanks to its indigenous name, is one of the most biodiverse regions in Panama. Rich in flora and fauna, the area covers some 4,070 square miles and features captivating ocean views and mountain landscapes, offering visitors a variety of destinations and outdoor activities. Located in the far western part of the country, Chiriquí borders the Bocas del Toro and the Ngäbe-Buglé to the north, Costa Rica to the west, the Comarca and Veraguas to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the south. Travelers in the Americas can now reach this region more easily thanks to two daily Copa Airlines flights between David (capital of Chiriqui) and the Hub of the Americas in Panama City.

Without a doubt, the most popular place in Chiriquí is Boquete, a small coffee town located in a valley surrounded by the mountains of the Cordillera Central, about twenty-five miles from David. Its popularity has grown in recent years, making it one of Panama’s most important tourist destinations, surpassed only by the San Blas and Bocas del Toro archipelagos. This is due mainly to its pleasant climate and natural beauty, which have seduced many Americans and Europeans into retiring there. This has led to development, including restaurants that serve international cuisine and boutique hotels. And while the village looks somewhat different from the one I knew as a child (my mother is from Boquete), it has retained its spirit and tranquil lifestyle.

Hiking is one of the region’s many tourist attractions. And not just any hiking! Two of its trails are the best in the country. Suffice to say that Boquete is one of the access routes to the 11,400-foot high Barú Volcano, the highest point in Panama and the highest volcano in southern Central America. You’re probably already making calculations, and you’re absolutely right: climbing it is a real adventure! Following the guide’s recommendation, I left very early, walking from the National Park entrance for about six continuous hours (except for two or three breaks) to reach the summit at dawn. The sky was clear and from up there, thanks to the narrowness of the country, I could see both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. A wonderful experience! It is certainly the best view of Panama and one of the best views in the world. Naturally, after such a feat, the walk down seemed very difficult. Because of this, many people prefer to make the climb in two days instead of one, taking it easy and enjoying the scenery, discovering the cloud forest, and observing some of the 250 bird species that live there. You can then camp near the summit and walk down the next day. The choice is yours.

Also inside Barú Volcano National Park (covering some 35,000 acres) is another interesting option: the Quetzal Trail skirts the volcano and connects the towns of Boquete and Cerro Punta. This is one of Panama’s most famous trails; it’s easier to hike and offers some beautiful natural scenery. It’s also ideal for birdwatching, including, naturally, several pairs of quetzals that inhabit the park, and toucans and hummingbirds, to name only a few. These are two of the most popular activities, but this nature park offers other trails and activities as well.

This coffee-growing valley offers another entrance to La Amistad International Park, run jointly by the Panamanian and Costa Rican governments. The Panamanian part covers more than 500,000 acres, extending over the impressive Central Cordillera, between the provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro. Due to its biological importance, UNESCO declared the region a World Heritage Site in the 1980s. Some 550 species of birds live here, more than half the species recorded in the country. Adventure lovers can enjoy numerous hiking and outdoor experiences. The options, indeed, seem endless. In fact, outside the protected areas, Boquete’s abundant natural resources are being exploited to the maximum, making it a Mecca for adventure tourism with canopy rides, rafting and hiking, and other extreme sport experiences. Or, if you prefer, just sit and enjoy a glass of wine on the porch of a cabin in the mountains, and watch the afternoon slowly fade.

And speaking of drinks… don’t leave the Chiriquí highlands without trying their best product: the coffee! We’re talking about a national symbol, not just an object of Boquete pride. First, most of the coffee consumed by Panamanians is produced in the region and second, in the past ten years, the world coffee community has had its eye on Panamanian coffee, and the reason is in Boquete. Among the many varieties grown there, the local gem is the Geisha bean, which produces what is known as “the champagne of coffee.” Although it originated in southern Ethiopia, this bean earned worldwide recognition on Panamanian plantations. “Elegant, delicate, and perfumed,” it is ranked second in the world and sells for up to $165 US dollars per pound (auction price).

Plantations such as Dos Jefes, Kotowa, Café Ruiz, Lérida, La Milagrosa, Janson Coffee Farm, and Hacienda La Esmeralda offer tours and tastings to introduce people to the local culture and the secrets of coffee production. There are also retail outlets not found elsewhere in Panama selling this coffee. And that’s it. We descend from the mountains and their temperate climate to experience a radical change in temperature as we approach Pacific Ocean. For those who prefer the sea, the Chiriquí coast holds several interesting surprises. Its beaches are not the most popular in the country, or the best known internationally, but thanks to their anonymity, if we can call it that, the region’s natural beauty has been less exposed to the whims of man and retains an air of paradise lost.

 

Just sixteen miles from David is the mythical La Barqueta beach in the Alanje district. It is one of the most popular resorts in Chiriquí and has gained some importance in the domestic real estate market due to the construction of luxury oceanfront condos and a five-star hotel. It’s a busy place and the atmosphere there is always festive. Fortunately, there’s always enough room on the beach. Measuring fourteen miles, it is Chiriquí’s longest beach, and its size, as well as the rough sea that breaks on the sand, filling it with foam, command respect. Be careful; the waves harbor powerful whirlpools that have been known to drag away unsuspecting swimmers. This beach is also much closer to the continental shelf, making it slope steeply. Although local say it’s safe to swim there, ask about which areas are safest.

While it has some tourist infrastructure, there are no cheap cabins or hostels in La Barqueta. But given its proximity to the Chiriquí capital, it’s a great place to spend the day. However, those who enjoy sleeping under the stars will find it an ideal place to camp, thanks to the large area between the fields and small forests lining the beach. With a bit of luck, at the right time of year you may even witness an evening arrival of turtles. The beach is surrounded by areas of great biodiversity, leading to the creation of the La Barqueta Beach Wildlife Refuge several years ago.

Another recommended beach is Las Lajas in the San Felix district, sixty miles east of David. It’s a beautiful place to get away from it all, with no noise or hordes of bathers. The 11-mile beach offers a beautiful, mesmerizing seascape. There is also the incredible air you breathe from the mixture of sea, sky, and sand, the driftwood carved by the waves, and the thousands of crabs playing everywhere. The village is far from the beach and the few hotels there are small. The most popular lodging options are renting a cabin, sharing a room in a hostel, or simply camping out. According to the locals, when the sky is clear and the moonlight bathes the coast, the beach looks more beautiful than ever. But you do have to be careful when swimming: when the tide is high, the waves are very powerful and dangerous.

But if you’re looking for a truly unforgettable encounter with the sea, here’s my recommendation: get to the fishing port of Boca Chica, just twenty-five miles east of David, and hire a boatman to give you a tour of the Chiriquí Gulf National Park, also known as the Paridas Islands Archipelago. This protected area, declared a Wildlife Refuge in 1994, covers some 37,000 acres of islands and marine waters in Panama’s western Pacific. It’s famous for its green iguanas, humpback whales, hammerhead sharks, dolphins, many sea turtles species, and giant rays. The archipelago consists of twenty-five islands, including Isla Parida (the largest) and Paridita, the only two inhabited islands, and others like Boca Brava, Isla Secas, Bolaños, Gámez, Pulgoso, and Tintorera.

This archipelago is a natural jewel of outstanding beauty. The scenery is amazing! Not surprisingly, it has grown into an exclusive tourist site. The islands host a number of boutique hotels with five-star service and simple but very sophisticated architecture and design. Nature activities are also available, including bird, whale, and monkey watching and diving excursions, adding even more allure to this tropical paradise of white beaches and uninhabited islands. Although, as mentioned earlier, given the archipelago’s proximity to the Chiriquí capital, you don’t have to stay at one of these hotels to visit the Gulf of Chiriquí. It is, of course, a very wonderful experience!

And these are just some of the most popular places in Chiriquí. There are many other beautiful nooks, some of them almost pristine, since they haven’t been exploited for tourism, but we’d need another article to tell you about them. Better yet, now that Copa Airlines flies to David, go out and discover them for yourself!