It has always bewildered me, this fascination with cruising through the Panama Canal. The water goes up, the ship goes through, the water goes down. I know the canal is an engineering marvel, but as an exercise in appreciation, I'd rather count rivets in the Eiffel Tower. Since "canal" and "Panama" go together like "horse" and "carriage," I relegated Panama to my Z list.
Then I learned about Boquete.
A contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, my hometown newspaper, wrote about a Panamanian Shangri-La in the cool highlands of Chiriquí where there were rushing trout-filled streams, a lush mountain rain forest, abundant orange groves and coffee plantations, and a picture-postcard town chockablock with flower gardens. This idyllic place, the writer went on to say, was known only to the well-to-do of Panama looking to escape the mugginess and mosquitoes of the lowlands.
Panama leaped to the A list.
Last spring I enticed my traveling companion, David, who does not share my views about the canal and has been through it three times, to come with me to Boquete, a town of about 3,000. As our plane circled Panama City, I could see dozens of ships waiting to take the shortcut across the isthmus. Poor devils. I was on my way to paradise.
From Panama City we took an hour's flight to David (not to be confused with my companion), the capital of Chiriquí province and, with about 75,000 residents, Panama's second most populous city. As we made our way through its traffic-congested sprawl, we began to worry that we had taken a wrong turn to "idyllic," supposedly but 25 miles away.
But at the outskirts of town, the two-lane road began a winding climb. With every turn the air grew fresher, the grass and trees greener. As the odometer clicked the last of the 25 miles, we began a sudden steep descent and found ourselves in a deep valley surrounded by craggy mountains. In its center, Boquete. Not until later did we learn that boquete does not mean "bouquet," as we'd assumed, but actually "hole." No matter. Boquete is one flowery hole.
Flowers, flowers and flowers
A modest sign at the edge of unpaved Jaramillo Arriba Road above town announced the presence of La Montaña y el Valle - The Coffee Estate Inn. We beeped our horn, as instructed, and iron gates slid open, revealing an asphalt-paved but gravity-defying downhill drive. Owners Barry Robbins and Jane Walker, Canadian expatriates, greeted us and showed us to our cottage. Besides their own residence, Barry and Jane have three housekeeping cottages, each with one bedroom and a well-equipped kitchenette.
"When we bought the site in 1996, the locals considered us daft," Jane said as she led us to our cottage. " 'Crazy Canadians, they bought land you can't get to, and when you get there you can't build on it.' Evidently they'd never heard of stilts!"
The cottages are situated for absolute privacy. Ours had a stunning view across the valley to the mountains beyond. A light mist enveloped us as we admired the scene -- the every-afternoon bajareque that Jane described as a "warm blizzard full of rainbows." As if on cue, a perfect rainbow arch touched down on either side of Boquete. Jane smiled. "We are rather smitten with this place."
Jane and Barry came to Boquete after working for years in Canada as information systems consultants. Not surprisingly, the two are well organized. Information sheets arrived by e-mail before our departure covering topics from inn policies to a list of nearby explorations and activities. We would have no trouble filling our allotted four nights.
Initial excursions took us to flowers, flowers and more flowers. We passed maintenance crews using machetes to hack at colorful clouds of bougainvillea threatening to take over the roads. Impatiens, in every shade of the impatiens rainbow, interspersed with frothy flings of blue forget-me-nots, blanketed hillsides. Aerial gardens of orchids, aroids and bromeliads nestled in the high branches of trees. Lacy tree ferns towered man-high; mosses muffled almost every available surface. Nearly every front yard in Boquete seemed to sprout a hand-lettered sign, "Se venden plantas" -- plants for sale.
El Explorador, an open-air family-run restaurant steps away from La Montaña y el Valle, introduced us to Boqueteans' penchant for gilding the lily of their gardens with eccentricity. Behind the cafeteria, where our halting Spanish procured for us a tasty steak flanked by fried plantains instead of the cooling fresh-fruit drink we had envisioned, piped-in arias encouraged us to explore the lushly cultivated hillside. Tucked here and there along maze-like pathways, gutted TV sets were outfitted with bizarre dioramas that had nothing to do with flora and fauna. We passed bushes sheared into improbable shapes. One was trimmed to resemble a furry animal's face; in its mouth, a doll. A shoe tree was exactly that, a straggly tree branched with footwear from moldy sneakers to spangled high-heeled slippers. Almost with relief, we spotted exit arrows and popped out of "Alice in Wonderland," Panamanian style.
Another day we visited Mi Jardín Es Su Jardín (My Garden Is Your Garden), a horticultural Eden surrounding a private estate on the outskirts of Boquete. Here the lily is embellished with what appears to be dozens of escapees from a miniature golf course: little Dutch windmills, a blue cow, a Hansel and Gretel house and wee castles, along with cutouts of children at play.
With that, the gardens of Boquete's fairgrounds, where the town's annual Feria de las Flores y del Café (Fair of Flowers and Coffee) is held in January, are hardly surprising. Here we found even more brightly painted little lighthouses, multistoried birdhouses perched on tall poles and park benches disguised as dragons. Beds of flowers familiar from garden stores at home -- petunias, marigolds, snapdragons -- were planted with brilliant abandon. Alongside stretched the sparkling Río Caldera. Across the river is Boquete, with its church spire peeking through the trees, and beyond, rugged mountains with their tops adrift in clouds, including those of Parque Nacional Volcán Barú, Panama's tallest mountain at 11,400 feet.
Clouds and orchid thieves
Aday hike took us into the cloud forests of the Palo Alto Reserve, guided by Danny Poirier, also a Canadian expat. Within minutes, we encountered a washed-out bridge over a treacherously deep, rushing stream. As we debated between taking a slippery, boot-soaking wade or shimmying across on a slender downed tree, three Panamanians in thigh-high rubber boots sloshed into the water, machetes swinging at their sides. "Who are they?" I asked. "Orchid poachers," Danny replied.
To protect the country's natural richness, including hundreds of rare orchid species, 30% of the land has been designated as national parks, preserves and refuges. The areas, however, are understaffed and underprotected.
Choosing a boot soaking, we made our way across the stream. Our steep and slippery footpath took us into a world of infinite shades of green brightened with spikes of ginger, tree-clinging bromeliads and countless other flowering plants that we had seen only in florists' shops.
At one juncture we emerged from damp greenery into a sunny clearing waving with gladioli gone wild and carpeted with out-of-control patches of Shasta daisies, which we greeted like an old friend. This was an abandoned cut-flower nursery, Danny explained as he dug roots of Shasta daisy to take home to propagate. He too had a "Se venden plantas" sign on the fence of his garden in Boquete.
It is a wonder who is buying the plantas everyone has for sale here. As idyllic as the area is, tourism has barely arrived. The town goes unself-consciously about its everyday business, making its one main street and its central plaza a people-watching delight. Inside the mercado, vegetables and fruits fill the stalls, indicating the agricultural richness of the surrounding mountains.
Guaymí Indian women padded by, dressed in traditional garb, voluminous hand-stitched dresses made up of rows of blue, red and green triangular trimming. Chiriquí is home to about 125,000 Guaymí, many of whom make their way to the highlands at coffee picking time and stay on as farm workers.
If one is yearning for a pizza or Mexican fare, there is a choice of restaurants on the main drag. But lucky guests of La Montaña y el Valle can eat their evening meal in their room, having given warning to Jane and Barry, both gifted cooks. A knock at the cottage door would announce Barry's arrival, crisp linens in hand, to set our table. Candles lighted, our "waiter" would return with salads of freshly picked greens from the inn's garden and our chosen entrees: Indonesian chicken one night, a light-as-air moussaka another. Dessert? Of course, with carrot cake a standout.
After dinner, Dave and I often wandered the paths that wind through coffee bushes (the property has been returned to a working plantation) and orange trees (original rootstock from Riverside in the Inland Empire) on La Montaña y el Valle's now-manicured grounds. Under a canopy of stars, we heard nothing but the chirp of insects.
At dawn on our last day in Boquete, while the valley's surrounding mountains were still etched black against the departing night, we wandered out on our cottage deck, coffee cups in hand. Gradually a stain of pink appeared in the sky, turning golden as the sun made its way over the mountains, spotlighting first just one section of craggy peak, then another, until all of Boquete was bathed in gentle light. The call of one bird -- more than seven dozen species have been spotted to date on the property -- grew into a whistling, chirping, chiming morning chorus.
Like Jane and Barry, we too had become smitten with the place.