The SW Caribbean: Panama Land Trips
Travel Dates: 2004-2005 (Updated September 26, 2006)
On This Page: Boquete Finca la Suiza (Swiss Farm) Los Quetzales Lodge
(Click on any picture to see a large photo.)
Captive in Bocas del Toro? What a great opportunity to do some inland exploring. Traveling from the island was quite a logistical challenge, but the planes were affordable, plus the buses were cheap and safe, so we tried a variety of options, always being delivered with a smile to wherever we were going. Rain plays a significant role throughout Panama--there were more colors, hues, shades and tones of green than anyone could imagine--so you'll notice how vibrant everything looks. Take a guess why that is.
Our first adventure was to Boquete with Charles and Theresa of El Regalo. We took a boat to Almirante ($5), a bus to David ($7), rented a car ($50) and drove to Boquete for three wonderful Days. We decided to return in style and splurged on a $50 plane ticket directly back to Bocas del Toro. All in all, not a bad deal, huh?
The main town of Boquete is simple, but the surrounding area is rich in natural beauty with excellent weather (though misty at times). It attracts a great number of tourists and retired ex-pats, creating a thriving business in restaurants and hotels like the remote Los Establos, where we enjoyed cocktails on the patio overlooking manicured gardens. We had the benefit of arriving in the rainy season and somewhat early in the transition to a hotel, so negotiated a reasonable rate for what proved to be a 5-star hotel with gourmet dining. We were definitely getting spoiled. How would we ever return to cooking fish & rice in a 4-foot galley?
Boquete Garden Inn (formerly Cabaņas La Via Lactea
Boquete Garden Inn is another addition to Boquete's hotel choices. Pilar and her husband (in photo above) built these condo-like accomodations, with comfortable and clean rooms alongside a river that attracts numerous birds and wildlife, such as the grasshopper that was almost invisible setting on a leaf. On a second visit to the town, we chose to stay here--it was somewhat less formal and closer to town, allowing us to visit with friends Jim & Leslie from Trilogy, long lost friends from Mexico (how did we not get a photo of them? Apologies, Trilogy!).
A drive into the volcanic mountains revealed fascinating geological structures but had us holding our breath on some of the roads.
Boquete is coffee country...and Sitton makes it happen!
We stumbled upon the Sitton plantation: the source for our favorite Panamanian coffee! Overlooking the volcano "Volcan Baru", their offices challenged Sunset magazine covers and their staff showed us warm hospitality, even though it was way past quitting time. We were so excited, we took more pictures than we can show, but this about sums it up. Anyone who know us understands what a major role coffee plays aboard the good ship Gemini. We were in heaven.
La Finca Suiza (The Swiss Farm)
Our second land trip into the Chiriqui region was distinctly different. We've been celebrating Valentine's Day by taking a special trip--usually something to do with bird watching. This time we took a "milk run" bus from Almirante to a remote lodge high in the mountains about 30 miles before David where feathered friends were reported along "pristine trails ideal for spotting various species". This sounded perfect for us and the phone number in our Lonely Planet guide got us a reservation and rough directions for getting there by bus. How tough could it be?
We should not have been surprised that the bus driver knew exactly where to drop us off, in spite of the fact that it seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. (Well, by our standards, it was.) In the photo above, Les is standing at the drop-off point, obviously thinking "Now what have you gotten me into?" We were anticipating "a pleasant hike uphill to the lodge", as the Swiss owner described it. Even though we packed light, we were huffing and puffing after about 20 minutes and discovered the cell phone worked, so called for a MediVac (actually, just calling Rebecca to wish her Happy Birthday!) Luckily, a Panamanian worker came down to store our packs in a shed and let us enjoy the rest of the climb with relative ease. The hike was well worth it--from 4500 feet above sea level, views of Volcan Baru and the south coast of Panama and the Pacific Ocean were spectacular, and we looked forward to two days of rest and relaxation.
We got to spend time with owners Monika and Herbert, who built this 4-room lodge about 18 years ago. They served excellent meals with treats like home-made jams and bread for breakfast, robust lunches packed for hiking and specially-prepared dinners with fresh garden blackberries and strawberries for dessert. With all this energy invested in pleasing their customers, they obviously don't have a lot of spare time to design an internet site, but they can be reached by email (checked once a week) or phone (507) 615-3774.
With trail map in hand, the next morning we chose the "Easy Hike". We forgot: the Swiss live in the mountains. We couldn't believe the effort they put into carving trails and steps into some pretty wild stretches of tropical forest, and took frequent rests...to admire their handiwork, of course.
This was no walk in the park--using long sticks helped conquer the slippery hills and robust roots. With massive trees surrounding us, we tried not to admire the scenery too loudly, trying to "tip-toe" along so the birds wouldn't hear us. But branches cracked and leaves crushed and rocks rolled under our feet, so we didn't surprise too many birds.
A picture-perfect creek was irresistible. Les put the camera in "auto" mode and tried to run across the creek before the shutter snapped, slipping on a rock but posing with a smile as he fell--celebrity material! With a little practice, we chose a safer spot and took a fairly calm picture--but not half as funny.
After two days, we bid the Swiss owners "Auf Wiedersehen" and headed for the ultimate birding experience: quetzal watching!
Los Quetzales Lodge
The Los Quetzales lodge was on the west side of Vulcan Baru and boasted of rustic cabins in a natural setting with quetzal sightings reported on a regular basis. Now we're talking! When we arrived at the lodge, it looked fairly civilized, but hardly in a pristine forest setting conducive to tropical birds. "Of course not", they answered. "The cabins are up in the hills, very different setting; quetzals love it there."
It did indeed look like quetzal country: trees so thick you couldn't have seen the sky even if it weren't raining buckets. Their 4-wheel vehicle drove us through a boulder-bedded creek to the cabin shown above. Rustic was definitely the tone.
Les got right into it, unpacking the food, making coffee, lighting the fire, practicing his bird calls and setting the alarm for 5:30 a.m. Meanwhile, I was dreaming of some 5-star hotel with room service and our names embroidered on the sheets.
The next morning our bird watching guide arrived at 6am to explain to us that the rain had increased and the creek was rising rapidly, so we had to leave or be stranded here for a few days until the water level went down. Tough choice, but we decided to abandon ship and it seemed like it was just in the nick of time because that sweet little creek we'd crossed the day before was well on its way to becoming a raging torrent.
Back in the town of Cerro Punta, we found a simple room with television, decent coffee and a restaurant. A rainbow bode us well, and signaled the end of our quest. Do you want to see a quetzal?
Here's an easier way:
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