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Published: December 11th 2008
This morning I am in Bocas Town, on Isla Colon, in the province of Bocas del Toro, Panama. Since I last wrote, I´ve had a lot of adventures!
Tuesday morning I finished writing my blog just as Rachel woke, and after she showered we walked a few blocks to the main street. I popped into Habla Ya, a local spanish school, and was able to arrange for an hour long private lesson. Rachel was interested, and so we agreed to take the class together after having some breakfast.
We ate a very Panamanian place, with small tables and a friendly young man who served us. Our lesson started at 10:15, and we had a great time with the teacher, who spoke little english. We first practiced the pronounciation of some survival spanish phrases (¨where is....?¨ and ¨how much?¨, etc), and then learned the verb ¨gustar¨which is ¨to like¨. It was a great value for only $13.50!
We also made arrangements for a coffee tour, which started at 1pm, so we had a bit of time after the lesson. Rachel had heard of a place called Fresas Maria (Strawberry Mary), and we caught a cab for $1.20
to the hill above Boquete. There we found a cute little building with a patio in the front, and a sign advertising homemade icecream, yogurt and milkshakes. I had homemade yoghurt with strawberries, and Rachel had a milkshake - though once she saw my yoghurt she ordered one too! They came in little bowls served on strawberry shaped plates.
It was delicious, and after a minor mishap (Rachel tripped!) we found a cab and got back to the town square. After a brief stop back at the hostel we were in a van on our way to the tour. Along the way we met Joanne and Eric (also from Canada) and a couple of girls from Europe who were studying Spanish in town.
The tour was led by a fantastic young man who explained the process of coffee in great detail. He was very knowledgeable, having begun working in the industry as a labouror at the age of 10.
The coffee farm and facilities we saw were owned by Cafe Ruiz, and I was suprised to learn that Panama is considered the best coffee producer in the world, having won the gold medal internationally for the last
The coffee in Boquete isn´t grown the same way as in many other places, where the coffee plants grow in neat rows like an apple orchard. At the Cafe Ruiz farm, the coffee plants grow up and down the hillsides, with paths winding between. Tall trees and other plants grow amongst them, and we were told that this had many benefits - the shade was important to the coffee, but the trees also attract birds, which eat the insects and reduce the need for chemicals. The shade is also more pleasant for the workers.
Coffee is harvested 6 months of the year, and this was the harvest season. Like blackberries, not all of the coffee berries ripen at the same time, and so the workers must revisit each plant weekly, as unripe or over ripe berries are not as high a quality.
Many of the workers are indigenous Panamanians called the Guaymi (Why-me). They live in the hills, except during the harvest when they come t pick the coffee. They were very shy, and we didn´t see many.
Our guide picked us coffee berries, and showed us how to pop them open and find
the two coffee beans inside. The beans are a pale green and have a slightly sweet slimy coating. From there we headed back to the van and went down the hill a ways to the processing area.
The large complex had several machines and buildings. After the coffee is picked, they use water to float the berries, which allows the good berries to sink to the bottom and the insect eaten or rotten ones float to the top. These ¨floaters¨aren´t discarded though - they are sold to cheap coffee companies to make into instant coffee!! We were told that Nescafe is a major purchasers of these low quality coffee berries, and in Panama they are known as ¨No es cafe¨ (its not coffee!).
Coffee berries go through many more stages after the floating, including squeezing (removes the bean), washing, fermenting, pre-drying aging and drying. We saw many of the beans laid out in the courtyard to pry-dry before being bagged.
In the bagging area, workers were stacking bags of partly dried beans to await their turn in the drying machine. Rachel and I had a try at carrying the 60 kilo bags - I think we impressed
From there we saw where the beans are further processed - the outer shell is removed, and a thin silver skin rubbed off. They are sorted by colour, size, quality and density and dried and bagged. All of this is done before they even go to be roasted!
Our tour ended at the packaging facility, where we smelled different qualities of coffee, and saw some roasters that had been used over the 80 or so years of Coffee Ruiz´operation. We also got a cup of coffee and a gift bag, which was included in the $25 tour cost. Over all we thought it was fantastic, and I certainly have a much better appreciation for how much work goes into the creation of coffee!
By the end of the tour, Joanne and Eric had chatted a bit with Rachel and I, and we all decided to have dinner together. We split ways for a bit and then met up with them again at their hotel at the edge of the central square in Boquete. We ended up eating at a place beside the square where we had a simple meal of rice and chicken and plantains.
I had plans to do laundry at the hostel, and since I didn´t have much, I invited them to share the wash load. So we headed back to Hostal Refugio del Rio and with everyone wearing a mish-mash of the few clean clothes remaining, we had a good time chatting, researching Bocas del Toro, and eating Panamanian sweets. I also enjoyed another hot shower! Might as well, while I can!!
Wednesday was a bit rainy, and Rachel and I got up early (me at about 6, her a bit later) and got ready for our morning. On Tuesday we had made arrangements through Habla Ya language school to do a zip line canopy tour, which sounded pretty cool!
After a quick breakfast at our Panamanian place, we grabbed some hot drinks and jumped into the back of a big truck. It was like an army truck, with bench seats and plastic hanging down to try and keep the rain out. We drove out of town and then into the hills, climbing a bumpy old road up into the rainforest for about 45 minutes. It was mostly deserted, but there was 2-3 random homes along the way, and
plenty of flowers and beautiful scenery. At one point, a hawk was sighted!
We could see Baru Volcano in the distanc, and we were right on the continental divide, where rivers run on one side to the east and on the other to the west.
The trip ended in a clearing where a small lodge had been built. It was a bit rustic looking and fit in well with the scenery. Inside were offices, bathrooms, and amazingly, a coffee bar! We were fitted with gear for the zipline, briefed on how to ¨zip¨and then trekked off to the start of the course.
Rachel and I were apparently the only troopers in town - no one else was on the tour! So it was us two girls and 4 guides! It was the rain that kept everyone else away - it poured and we were quickly soaked to the bone. It wasn´t too bad - in fact, I enjoyed it!
We hiked uphill through the forest and across some areas where there were recent landslides, for about 15 minutes, and then took stairs downwards for another 10 before we got to the first platform in the
It was probably 100-200 feet above the river! We got a quick refresher, and our gear was checked, and then the first three guys zipped off along the line. Then it was our turn! I was a bit scared, but it was lots of fun! We both got the hang of it quickly, and spent the next hour zipping around from tree to tree in the rainforest.
The guides were fantastic and friendly, and Rachel and I felt very lucky to have them all to ourselves! One of the guides was the photographer, and took lots of pictures and even a video! At one stop, there were some Guaymi visible on the hillside, and the guides tried to teach us this throaty call that echoed through the valley - I didn´t do so well, but it was fun!
We got covered in this brown-black stuff that came from the wet zip line, but we didn´t mind too much!
We were sad when it was over, but cold from being so wet. We were loaned jackets to wear, and we scrubbed the black stuff off of our clothes (so much for laundry!). I had a hot
chocolate, and we were able to see the photos that were taken on the tv screen - I´ve included some, they´re great! They lit a fire for us, and Rachel and I got partly dried out. All too soon it was time to head back down the hill and say goodbye.
Back in Boquete, I grabbed my stuff from Habla Ya where I had stored it, and jumped on the next bus ( a school bus type) back to David. The tour guide from the Cafe Ruiz tour was there, and we had a nice chat on the 45 minute trip. In David I caught a bus to Bocas del Toro, and left at about 2:30. A girl from New Zealand, Julia, was across the aisle, and a nice Panamanian girl was beside me. I spoke with both a bit, and the girl beside me told me her niece was named Eileen too!
The drive to Bocas del Toro in the mini bus wasn´t too bad. The roads had been somewhat washed out in floods a few weeks ago, but we only saw a few areas of damage, and traffic flowed through without problem. Julia (also headed to
Bocas) and I got off in Almirante at 7pm, and walked 2 kms into town. We were able to find a boat heading over to Isla Colon at 8:30, so we paid our $4 and headed to a nearby resterant for some food. It seems most places serve mostly arroz (rice) and pollo (pronounced Poy- oh - chicken)!
The boat ride was beautiful - it was dark, with a bit of light from the moon behind the clouds. The sea was pretty smooth, and the wind was warm and fragrant. We got into Bocas Town just after 9pm. Julia and I parted ways, and I headed to Casa Max, were Joanne, Eric and I had planned to meet. They weren´t there, but had left a note, and after a brief issue with the owner I headed over to Hostal Hansi where I found them. I got one of the last rooms, with a single bed and a shared bathroom, for just $11.
This morning it was raining, but its forecast to improve. I had a showed that was hot thanks to a contraption on the top of the shower that uses electricity to instantly heat the water (a
bit Frankenstein, but it works!) and then the power went out. So I wrote some post cards, and took a walk during a break in the rain.
The weather seems to be clearing, so Joanne, Eric and I, plus a Quebecois guy named Sebastion, have a plan to take a boat to an island to do some snorkling!
All the best!
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