By: Panorama of the Americas Editorial Board
Photos: David Mesa
You know you’re approaching the Chiriquí Highlands when the bus driver turns off the air conditioning and opens the windows wide to let in the fresh mountain air. Trees sporting coats of moss and lichen loom, while the drizzle and sunshine collude to form a rainbow. When these arcs of color appear —as they frequently do— you can’t help smiling joyfully, because this is unique to these highlands, where the play of light somehow reminds us of the finite nature of life.
This welcome only hints at what is to come. The first stop is Volcán, whose name refers to its location on the slopes of the Barú volcano. Being the economic hub of the district, the town boasts banks, supermarkets, restaurants, and small shops.
Higher up are Cerro Punta and Guadalupe, where cultivated plots carved into the mountain slopes under a clear sky make quite an impression. Visitors see a land conducive to relaxation and adventure, but for residents, the land is their livelihood.
Chiriquí province is an agricultural region. In the mountain towns, thousands of workers raise the potatoes and vegetables consumed throughout the country. Its climate is ideal for growing fruit like strawberries and raspberries, as well as aromatic herbs. As you amble around, you’ll get fragrant whiffs of chamomile, rosemary, basil, cilantro, parsley, oregano, mint, and thyme.
The Highlands —like nearby Boquete and other neighboring towns like Palmira and Renacimiento— is a prime coffee-growing region. Panama has some 48,000 acres planted in coffee, mainly Typica, Bourbon, Pacamara, Catuay, Caturra, and the famed Geisha. Production is on a limited scale compared to Brazil or Colombia, but Boquete grows the famous Geisha coffee.
As Wilford Lamastus of the Lamastus Family Estates noted during a tour of the area: “While our country is a small producer, we have broken several records.” For example, in 2019 Geisha Elida State Green Tip Natural Coffee fetched a record price of 1,029 dollars a pound and the trade journal Coffee Review assigned it a historic rating of 98 out of 100.
Harvesting coffee cherries requires patience and experience: workers must recognize the exact point of maturity and be in good enough physical condition to deal with sloping terrain. The work is performed mostly by indigenous laborers, who come down from their villages between November and February for the harvest.
After the coffee cherries are harvested, they are dried on raised beds, on the ground, or by machine. The beans are then classified, roasted, and packed. Knowledgeable buyers will procure an exquisite cup of coffee, but coffee growers look to tastings as proof of quality.
During coffee tasting, expert palates and educated noses evaluate the aroma of dry coffee grounds, the aroma when water is poured over the grounds, the flavor, the acidity, the uniformity, the sweetness, the balance between acidity and body, the aftertaste or impression that lingers on the palate, and the flavor nuances. The aim is to ensure a good product, making all the effort that goes into the process worthwhile. Joseph Brodsky, owner of Ninety Plus Gesha Estates, has it right when he says: “It takes a lot of work to produce just a couple of pounds of coffee, which is why we say that we are producing not bags of coffee, but cups. Drinking coffee is an experience.”
This year is the third for La Cosecha, an event that promotes Panamanian coffee, introduces it to potential buyers, and takes advantage of the area’s tourist attractions. Organized by El Buen Diente and the Specialty Coffee Association of Panama, La Cosecha offers visits to coffee estates to learn about growing, selecting, and drying the fruit, along with tastings of some commercial varieties.
Sunday in Guadalupe
Wooden planks painted red. A rosebush with marbled fuchsia blooms. A window with a flowered curtain. A vegetable plot in the background. The town of Guadalupe in the district of Cerro Punta is all that: vibrant colors, fog, silence. Any visit here evokes wonder; every house has a garden and every garden is a surprise.
Evila Rosa Samudio lives in Guadalupe and her whole house is a garden. There are roses in the front yard, succulents and flowering cacti on the terrace, hibiscus and more roses on the side, and a wondrous backyard greenhouse that protects the plants Evila grows for sale from the cold and mountain winds. Set aside time for a leisurely visit to the gardens and the town; every corner bursts with beauty.
If you plan on staying overnight in Guadalupe, be sure to take ponchos, caps, and gloves, since nighttime temperatures can drop to 43 °F. The cold can be numbing if you’re not used to it but the sunset is simply stunning: as the sun dips and the temperature drops, fog creeps over the mountains, giving them a ghostly air. A perfect moment to savor a cup of coffee.
What to Do
Flower and Coffee Festival
Boquete holds a Flower and Coffee Festival every January. The fair is an exhibit of gardens, stunning in their symmetry and contrasting colors. If you have time for several days in town, spend some of it trying the variety of restaurants, cafes, and chocolate shops. We recommend the Kotowa Coffee House, where you can accompany that cup of coffee with bonbons or truffles from Victoria Chocolate. Don’t leave town without visiting the new branch of Café Unidos, its first shop in the country’s interior. Here you can savor a cup of freshly-roasted coffee, prepared with beans from the province’s best coffee estates, such as Lamastus Family Estates, Hacienda La Esmeralda, Carmen Estate, Damarli Estate, Café Don Benjie, Ninety Plus Gesha Estates, Santamaría Estate, and Café Lérida, among others.
Guadalupe sets aside Sunday as market day, when local inhabitants and residents of neighboring towns offer their wares: greens and other vegetables, beans, handicrafts, strawberries, traditional sweets, honey, soaps, organic body lotions, and of course, plants and more plants. Be prepared for crowds since the center of town is just one street. There are not many dining options but what is there will be affordable. We recommend the home-style food at Delicias Yadira restaurant. On the way down, drop by Dulces Caseros Alina in Bambito.
Cerro Punta Stud Farm
The road to Guadalupe goes by Haras Cerro Punta, one of the country’s most important racehorse breeders. There you can take a tour that covers the workings of a stud farm, have a look at some of the animals, go trout fishing, picnic by the lake, and visit the Graille Boutique, where you can pick up souvenirs and sip a cup of Eleta coffee.
If you’re an adrenaline junkie, there are services that offer guides, hiking, and tours through the Chiriquí mountains. We suggest you consult with Boquete Outdoor Adventures (www.boqueteoutdooradventures.com) and Eco Circuitos Panamá (www.ecocircuitos.com).
Boquete Tree Treck (inquire at your hotel) is known for its hanging bridge and canopy tours, tea and coffee tastings, and its new rum tastings, held at La Solera The House of Rum.
Other hotels also offer activities such as horseback-riding, hiking, tastings, rafting, climbing, canopy tours, and visits to gardens. Please visit their webpages.