Exploring Pacific Panama — Road Trip!

David and Boquete

Tuesday morning we set out on a road trip across the mountains to the city of David and on to Boquete, a spot high up in the mountains. Getting there was a combination of boats, busses and rental cars, and took most of the day – starting with the water taxi to the tour dock, where we caught the 8:00 am lancha to Almirante (the porqueria) for $4 apiece, then to the bus station to take the mini-bus to David ($7 apiece). The drive was beautiful, crossing Panama’s continental divide that rises to 5-6,000 feet. The road is relatively new and in great condition, offering some spectacular views once you get up to the top – you can see both oceans from some places. David is the 3rd largest city in Panama, located right at sea level. We rented a car and drove 45 minutes north to Boquete, which is up at about 3000 feet, nestled in a steep valley with a little river flowing through.

Accommodations at Isla Verde – Small Roundhouse

On the recommendation of some cruiser friends, we stayed at Isla Verde, a hotel/lodge about 2 blocks from downtown. It’s a collection of buildings consisting of a main lodge with sleeping lofts and several “round houses,” individual cabins with little kitchens and a separate sleeping loft if more than 2 people stay. It’s run by former cruisers from Germany, and we could sure tell they felt at home in Boquete. Although it’s at about 9° N, smack in the tropics, it feels almost alpine, what with the river cascading through town and homes perched high up the cliffs.

Mi Jardin es Tu Jardin

Some of the sights we took in included a garden, “Mi Jardin is Su Jardin,” built by a man who agreed to plant a spectacular garden to persuade his wife to move to Boquete. It’s filled with plantings, both formal and naturalized, garden whimseys and statuary, and a series of koi ponds that flow through the property. Right next door is Café Ruiz, a working coffee plantation and roastery with a Starbuck’s-like shop where we sampled their brew.

After being fortified with coffee, we drove south for about 15 minutes, turned right to climb the hill to Volcancito, and visited a garden/park put together by a retired English couple who emigrated to Panama (with 18 rescued parrots) and built a wonderful sanctuary for abandoned, abused tropical birds and animals. A two-hour walk in the company of a delightful volunteer introduced us to capuchin monkeys, scarlet macaws, sulfur-crested cockatoos, a native cat called a marguay, kinkajous, and a collection of green parrots who made us laugh with conversations they had picked up from former owners and visitors.

We tried to take the mountain drive around the hillsides surrounding town, but got rained out – think the rainy season started this week!

Horseback Riding Near Caldera

Our second day there, we went horseback riding on a ranch near Caldera. The horses of Panama are small, pleasant sure-footed animals, and we picked our way up and down the hillsides, fording rocky creeks and washed-out channels up to a high meadow vista where we could see all of the 45 miles to the Pacific. Both Ole and I found it much easier to just relax and let the horse pick its own way, as the terrain was rough enough to get us into trouble should we have decided to take charge. At the end of the ride, back at the ranch, the horses took advantage of the fallen mangos under a huge tree and gorged themselves drunk. The owner said his horses wouldn’t know an apple or a carrot if it forced its way into their mouths.

The third day there, we thought we’d drive over to Volcan, a little town that sits on the shoulder of Volcan Baru, the highest point in Panama. As the crow flies, it’s probably only about 20 miles. But because the countryside up here is so corrugated, we had to drive back south to David, west for about 20 miles, then north again to Volcan. We were aiming at Cerro Punta, a village that contains trailheads through the national park that spans the border between Panama and Costa Rica, but missed a turn and ended up in the far reaches of frontier Panama, finally in a town called Rio Sereno, spitting distance from the border. We found a little comedor that was packed with people, and had a huge lunch of chicken stew and grilled pork with rice and beans – both of us ate our brains out on simple food for less than $5. Even though we took the wrong road, it was a spectacular drive through high cattle country and coffee plantations, with the hairpin turns and later pouring rain making for some extra careful driving.

On our last day, we stopped on the way back to David to investigate a new building development called Montanas de Caldera. The whole of western Panama, especially Boquete and Volcan, have been written up worldwide as a great place for snowbirds and retirees, so we wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The development sits along the Rio Caldera Canyon, with territorial views all the way down to the Pacific – almost the same views as we saw by horseback. The developers are English, and have worked in the Clearwater, Florida area as well as the Caymans. We toured a couple of the homes under construction and were impressed with the quality and craftsmanship, as well as the floor plans. The visit made for some interesting conversation on the way back to the boat!

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