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La vida loca! Wished you were there? We did, so here we are on our big adventure! A year in central America, to make sense of this vida loca...

Boquete: Coffee and Quetzals (not to be confused with pretzels)

PANAMA | Friday, 3 October 2008 | Views [4066] | Comments [1]

View of the cloud forest from El Mirador, half way across the trail

View of the cloud forest from El Mirador, half way across the trail

We had a long journey back from Panama City to David, and after another stay at Hotel Toledo, we took a chicken bus north into the highlands, to the town of Boquete. Although the town itself hasn´t got much to shake a stick at (not quaint, and suffering a bit from new development), its surrounded by pretty forested hills. The temperature up there….well, in the sun its hot, as usual, but in the rain or at night its bordering on the chilly. We stayed at one of the original pensions in the town, with clean rooms, blankets (!), 3 geriatric dogs and a possessive parrot called Rikki.

The highlands are centred on the Volcan Baru, which has been dormant for the last 500 years. However the rich volcanic soils and humid, warm climate allow vegetable and fruit farming, and great conditions for Arabica coffee growing. The volcano and surrounds are a national park, and are covered in fantastic primary cloudforest.

We went on a tour of a specialty coffee farm (Kotowa), which produces small quantities of very high quality coffee, partly for export. Wow, the things I didn´t know about coffee growing and processing. They grow Arabica plants (highland coffee), with a mix of new (Columbian) and old (Ethiopian) varieties, using local Ngobe Bugle specialist pickers and processors. Because they need to retain skilled pickers (the plants continually have berries ripening on them, and to get high quality coffee you have to only pick the berries that are just ripe), they pay them more and provide schooling for their kids and free healthcare.

As such, this sort of high-end coffee is fair-trade by definition, even if its not marketed as such. Coffee processing is a complicated business, which involves taking off three layers, washing, sorting by size, and eventually drying and roasting. I now also know the differences between the different roasts, which I never really appreciated before. I have a horrible feeling that our coffee expenditure is going to skyrocket when we get back to blighty....

We also visited a garden and animal rescue centre run by a very friendly English couple. It was good to see animals in decent sized cages, with cover and given plenty of things to occupy themselves, after feeling thoroughly depressed by the distressed (and probably psychotic) animals at the Summit Botanical gardens in Panama. We had Capuchin monkeys climbing all over us, and got to stroke a Marguay cat (all of which can´t sadly be rehabilitated) – which was really quite special. There obviously is still quite a problem with trade in wild birds and mammals in Panama, and its great that centres like this are working to change the perceptions of local people to these often endangered animals.

One of the highlights of our stay for me, was hiking along the Senderos Los Quetzales – a trail skirting the Volcan Baru from the Boquete valley to the Cerro Punta valley to the west. This involved a very early start (a 5.45 taxi), so that we could start hiking from the ranger station at dawn. As the sun rose over the ridge above us, howler monkeys boomed in the forested hills. The trail starts off along a track leading up through smallholdings, who´s houses show strong influences from the swiss settlers who came here in the early 20th century. We also saw our first sheep in central america!

We then branched off into the forest, wading across and then following a fast-flowing river through secondary forest, interspersed with ancient trees with massive buttresses. Starting early allows you to avoid the rain (with any luck), but also means the birds are more active, and the forest was alive with shy little birds diving between trees – frustrating, as I seldom got the binoculars onto them in time to identify many. However, this was made up by the haunting off-key metallic fluting and whistling which surrounded us.

After a few kilometres, we started the long, steep climb up to the highest point at El Mirador, with fantastic views over forest-shrouded slopes, with mists encroaching and receding, providing a constantly shifting vista. We were really surprised to see the cloud forest dominated by huge oaks, with fuzzy, lichen-covered trunks and massive acorns. The trail had once been well maintained, with wooden steps, but these had long since rotted, making it quite a scramble. We surprised a pair of large wood quail, who bubbled and flared their yellow crests at us, before gathering up their brood of five tiny, peeping chicks and hurrying off into the undergrowth.

Once over the watershed, the trail levelled-off following the slope. This is where we saw our first trogon (large, graceful birds with spectacularly-coloured plumage – this one the black collared species), sitting, quite contentedly on a branch level with us, just five metres away. A little way further in a small valley, and a blaze of green feathers flew across our line of site, before settling on a branch in full view.  This was a male resplendant quetzal, one of the iconic birds of C.A, with prominent green crest, although this individual was sans the dramatic tail streamers that makes the species so sought after by birders and the subject of ancient Mayan mythology. To cap it all, around the corner and sitting in another nearby branch was a third Trogon – this time a female resplendant quetzal. She sat there for a while before flying further down the slope to alight on a branch, rythmically bobbing her green tail. In this context these birds really were magical, something that would be utterly lost if you saw them in a zoo.

Eventually, the cloud forest made way for secondary stuff, and we arrived at the ranger station high above Cerro Punta – a fantastic mornings hike, and no rain (which was highly improbable). The only down side to the day was collecting, and carrying out of the park three full bags of other people´s rubbish that they´d left on the mountain. Who hikes through untouched cloud forest and leaves their plastic waste behind? I dunno. The three hour bus ride back to David in the lowlands and up the other valley again to Boquete was also a bit trying, still the experience was definately worth it.

Our final foray in Boquete was to go white-water rafting on the Chiriqui Viejo river – one of the few big rivers in the area not to have been altered by hydro-electricity schemes. We were due to go on a nice subtle section, but due to last-minute cancellations, ended up with a more experienced group on a not-at-all subtle section of the river. After waiting an hour at a police checkpoint whilst the overly officious (and un-bribed) officials checked out the identity of, and then fined an American co-raftee who´d forgotten to bring his passport with him (way to go to treat tourists like illegal immigrants Panama!), we arrived at the river and got thoroughly nervous as our guides gave us instruction on how to avoid bad things happening to you in a Class III+ rapid (as a guide, IV is nasty, V is silly).

However, once we were in the boat it was a blast – you don´t have time to be scared – you´re too busy doing your dragon-boat impression to get the boat out of the way of the ominous oncoming big rock in the middle of the flow, avoiding having your head knocked off by low-hanging branches near the banks, and not being thrown out as you pitch in and out of waves higher than the boat. Our only near-miss was near the start of the journey, where a bow-wave coming off the rock wall of the canyon sent the left-hand paddlers (Rachel amongst them) flying into the centre of the boat as we pitched at at a 60 degree angle. That was exciting :). It was a fantastic experience, in fact if anything, it was over too quickly... Photo´s hopefully to come, if one of our fellow raftees sends us the pictures from her (waterproof!) camera.

Tags: boquete, cloud forest, coffee, resplendant quetzal, senderos los quetzales, volcan baru, white-water rafting




Hi Rachel and Daniel,

I've been catching up on all your postings over the last couple of days - what adventures you are having and here I am stuck in Blighty with miserable weather. Looking forward to hearing more. Hope you are well. Keep safe and have fun. Love to all the family if they're tuned in.

Love Bev, Becky, Matthew (and Chris - currently cycling to Paris - as you do - on a charity event!)

  Bev Everett Oct 8, 2008 7:48 AM

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