My Very Short But Very Sweet Trip To Panama - 2


Following our stay at Cala Mia, our next stop was the mountain town of Boquete in the Chiriqui highlands. The roads in Panama are very good as is the signage. We drove through the bucolic countryside for about 1.5 hours from Boca Chica to Boquete and settled in our hotel for the next 3 nights, the Panamonte Hotel and Spa, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

This hotel is 95 years old with quite a wonderful history. The current owners are Inga Collins, a colorful and vibrant woman in her 80's of Scandinavian descent, who grew up in Panama. She had the most awesome stories. Her son is Chef Charlie Collins, who is the chef for the Panamanian president. He divides his time between Panama City and Boquete and has just opened his cooking school in Boquete. The Panamonte has some eclectic rooms. Roms in the main hotel are lovely but they're the small rooms of the original hotel. Two newer sections are all suites. We got a suite that offered a huge outdoor terrace with an outdoor fireplace, which we put to very good use on the cool nights.

Breakfasts at the Panamonte are delicious. The entire menu is done by Chef Charlie. The dinners were amazing as well, everything fresh and presented beautifully.

The hotel is located at the far end of Boquete but you can walk into town from there - a 5- to 10-minute walk, depending how far you venture. The town sits in a lush valley surrounded by mountains that are mostly jungle. And ""a river runs through it."" The flowers that grow there are plentiful, large and diverse.

We visited one of the many coffee producing plantations in the area, the Ruiz Plantation. I never knew there was so much to know about coffee from the picking to the packing. We got to see the entire procedure, from the plantation itself to the processing plant to the cafe for a ""coffee tasting."" It was an illuminating tour.

In the afternoon, we met up with Chef Charlie to participate in the grand opening of his cooking school. First we went to the local Mercado and saw the amazing produce this area puts forth. After that, in another downpour, we went to a hydroponic garden and learned about that process from the woman who owns it. From there we went to the school which is set up in a house, so it has a living room, beautiful kitchen with plenty of room for hands-on learning and a beautiful dining room where students eat what they create. It was the MOST amazing dinner I've had in a long time. Charlie is so personable, has his own unique and charming stories, and is extremely knowledgeable about food and wine. The school will conduct pairings of food and wine.

The next day it was sunny and we loaded up into the van to go further up into the mountains for our hike along the Quetzal Trail. Like Costa Rica, Panama can boast as home to the illusive and resplendent quetzal and we were hoping to see one. We had a 2 guides, one to lead the way and the other to explain things we were seeing. We heard a lot of birds, but that's all. We never saw a bird on the entire hike. But, nonetheless, it was a great workout in the jungle — the hike was almost straight uphill. We had to cross the river (sometimes just a stream) many times and saw waterfalls, amazing bromeliad growing everywhere in the trees, and flowering trees and flowers all along the way. Just beautiful.

After going back to the Panamonte and cleaning up - it was a muddy hike - we headed over to Inga Collins’ home for lunch. As I mentioned, Inga is a gracious woman who was raised in Panamanian society. Her stories are amazing and some, unbelievable. She was brought to Panama from Sweden when she was a young teenager and her stories about their beginnings in Panama would make a fascinating book. We had a lobster lunch, and with her home being so much like a museum/art gallery, we took a lot of photos and heard stories about her family.

Boquete is an ""adventure"" area. There are zip lines, ATV trails, white water rafting at the right time of year, and hiking trails galore. There are many coffee plantations to visit. A stay of 3 or 4 nights is perfect.