By Julia Mendoza
Photos: Demian Colman
Headed for La Amistad International Park and the cloud-top village of Las Nubes, we expected to find both inner and outer peace. We left behind the city of David and, in a few minutes, the mountains welcomed us with fresh air that filtered in through the windows and filled our lungs. The winding road and the playful mist intermittently altered our surroundings and soon we were more than 1.2 miles above sea level, in another world and another climate, with the other smells and other colors that come to life in the heights of this coastal country.
The park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, covers more than 980,000 acres and is co-administered by Panama and Costa Rica. Although hikers, both current and historical, have travelled between the two countries on expeditions lasting days or weeks, we planned a much shorter hike requiring only moderate stamina to serve as an introduction to this mythical world of giant trees and colorful mushrooms. We were a bit cold when we began our hike, but in just a few minutes we stood dumbfounded in the middle of a universe of butterflies, the outlines of which fit perfectly, like pieces of a puzzle, among the flowers on the trees. Our guide worked hard to hold our attention as we wandered, amazed, in the midst of the sounds of nature, both harmonious and cacophonous, and an orgy of smells, shapes, and flavors.
The ranger informed us that the park is home to 600 of the 850 species of birds reported in Panama and yet, he pointed out, we’ve come at the wrong time, because if it weren’t the rainy season we’d have seen the legendary quetzals: birds with long tails and outlandish colors, revered by scientists and birdwatchers. As the guide laments their absence, I can’t help thinking that, at least today, we don’t need the quetzals. We manage to catch a glimpse of red and orange feathers flitting among the branches, and multi-colored beaks of all shapes and sizes. Beyond being home to the quetzal, this park is the habitat of Panama’s national bird, the elusive harpy eagle, which is not any easier to spot. But I conclude that the park’s charm lies in its almost endless abundance of lesser known stars: huge mushrooms, voluptuous flowers, bright drops of water dripping from refreshing moss, and orchids by the bucketful. Not to mention the hummingbirds that dart daringly close to us, squirrels that jump shyly from one branch to another, and sloths ascending the towering “buildings” they inhabit. Yes, the jaguars and tapirs can stay hidden in their trenches; we’re not going after the “rock stars.” We are content to appreciate the bountiful “lesser” beings of Panama’s most biodiverse forest.
On our second day, we wandered into the National Park, floating along like the butterfly that hypnotized me as I attempted to catch it with my camera. We were hoping to get off the beaten path and discover places not featured in the guidebooks. And so, even before we reached our cabin in Guadalupe, the settlement nearest the park’s trails, we had chosen Bambito as our hub. This is yet another great treasure of the Panamanian Highlands and the perfect place to let time pass while reclining comfortably with a drink in one hand and a good book in the other. Besides the extraordinary view, interrupted intermittently by the spectacular mist, there is a sophisticated spa, a river hidden among the trees that is perfect for tubing, a short zip line, and trails for easy hiking and horseback riding through the surrounding countryside.
Just five miles from our shelter —and 6,463 feet above sea level— we came to Cerro Punta, the nation’s pantry and Panama’s highest town. Walking in the warm sun, surrounded by gardens, fields, and rural calm, we discovered Cerro Punta S.A., a company offering packaged tours of gardens filled with flowers, vegetables, and strawberries. It’s not surprising that the Highlands are known as “Panama’s Garden.”
All along the way our attention is drawn to the little red fruits decorating the gardens of every home, at the heart of large businesses, and in abundance on roadsides. Strawberries have taken over the Chiriquí Highlands and conquered tourists’ hearts; some locals have even opened tantalizing shops where these red beauties are the stars.
It’s not long before we succumb to not one, but two temptations. First, there is El Mirador La Fresa, where the only problem is deciding how to enjoy your strawberries: with chocolate, caramel, condensed milk, wine, or ice cream? It’s a difficult decision. And, as if that weren’t enough, a bit further along we come across a roadside house like something out of Hansel and Gretel: Dulces Caseros Alina. Here we’re welcomed by Alina herself, the daughter of Ludovina and Ulises Vargas, who tells us that her mother, taking advantage of the bounty in her garden, sold her first jam thirty years ago. “We started with a few jars of jam for tourists and gradually the business grew, along with the dessert menu.” There’s 100% natural homemade ice cream, strawberries and cream, traditional sweets, and Ulises’s famous wine (now prepared by Alina, who uses the secrets she discovered in her father’s notes).
And as the people of the Highlands are people of the earth, it is the earth and its products we have come to see. We didn’t want to miss Finca Janson, a family-owned and operated ranch that has been raising several breeds of Paso horses and superior Angus cattle for three generations, in addition to growing and developing high quality specialized coffee.
At Lagunas Adventures, a family business that offers a variety of tour packages, Leif Janson lures us in with the promise of an energetic day of adventure. Janson produces commercial coffee, taking advantage of the altitude, the climate, and the “incredible soil” fed by rich volcanic minerals. In fact, Geisha coffee, produced in Panama, has won awards and world fame as one of the few surviving pure strains of coffee. The company’s meticulous handmade processing has made it a global leader in the field. The tour gives us a close-up look at the entire process: growing, harvesting, drying, roasting, and packaging, as well as the different varieties that bring out the fruity flavor of this renowned bean. Also part of this 1,900-acre farm shared by cattle, coffee (300 acres), secondary forest, and an ecological reserve is Las Lagunas de Volcán: two year-round lagoons and four that dry up in summer, where you can camp, fish, or enjoy a picnic. The kayak ride through the largest wetland and lake system in Panama is fascinating.
Just when we thought our adventure couldn’t get any more interesting we arrived at the Coffee Shop and were given a taste of all the beans we’d encountered during the day, delighting our taste buds and proving that the efforts of the farm’s more than 100 employees can be tasted in every sip. To top off the day’s dessert quota, Leif recommended an incredible lemon pie, which like everything in Janson, was made by hand and with love.
Although this selection includes the personal choices of two derailed travelers who don’t like to do things by the books, there are endless Highland tours to choose from. Take, for example, the Barriles archaeological site, discovered in 1947, featuring petroglyphs, pottery, grinding stones, and other evidence of this pre-Columbian culture. Finca Dracula in Cerro Punta hosts a spectacular display of orchids, the largest in Panama. Hundreds of Panamanians and foreign hikers and environmentalists walk the challenging trails in Volcán Baru National Park and hotels in Volcán, Bambito, Boquete, and Cerro Punta offer hiking, rafting, zip lines, and other outdoor adventure activities. The Chiriquí Highlands not only provide Panama with food, but also hope to become the country’s next big tourist destination. And they’re succeeding!
Where to Stay
Hotel Casa Grande Bambito: A beautiful boutique hotel surrounded by mountains, volcanic rocks, and springs.
Hotel Bambito: Surrounded by gardens and fountains, the hotel was awarded the 2013 TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence.
Hotel los Quetzales: In addition to the hotel in the middle of town, it offers mountain cabins ideal for walks in La Amistad National Park.
Hotel Dos Rios, Cielito Sur Bed & Breakfast Inn, Cotito Boor Ranch, and Mount Totumas Cloud Forest Lodge