Panama: Coffee, Cowboys and American Retirees

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March 11th 2014
Published: December 25th 2017
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Geo: 8.6, -80.1333

19th February - 10th March

We arrived in Boquete and queued at the Taxi stand. A Taxi pulled up, and although we had been there first, everyone else, 5 individuals, all jumped into the Taxi and off it went. People share the Taxis so it was a matter of getting in first, something we could not achieve with our bags! After observing this a few times we decided it was not going to work. I had seen other Taxis turn a corner from the main road a little way off so Jim and I hauled the bags between us to the side of that road and, in desperation, when the next taxi came round the corner I jumped out in front of it waving my arms. Thankfully it stopped, was free and the driver took us to our B & B.

We stopped at the house we thought was Los Naranjos about 4pm but there was no name plate. We knocked and there was no answer. We told the driver to leave us and sat on the patio. After a while we started to wonder if we were at the right house and were concerned that some poor unsuspecting person might come home to find unexpected strangers sitting on their garden furniture on their patio. Eventually I saw a young woman in the garden opposite and asked her. She confirmed it was the right house but was surprised no-one was answering as both cars were in the garage. She had Katarina and Pedro's (our hosts) numbers so called them but again there were no replies. She seemed to be quite concerned by this time so decided to call their sister in law to come round. She duly arrived and unlocked the door at the same time as our hosts opened it. They had been in bed! Slightly embarrassing all round but we all recovered quickly and they were very welcoming.

Katarina is from Slovakia and Pedro is Panamanian but his father was English. Panama is a cosmopolitan place. The house is lovely, large, spacious and very comfortable with plenty of quiet sitting areas and a large terrace. Breakfast is plentiful with fresh fruit, bread, cheese, eggs and local delicacies like maize tortillas. We enjoyed a very relaxed stay here.

One morning we went with a guide Feliciano, (arranged by Katarina), complete with his machete, to walk in the forest looking for Quetzals. We found them after a couple of hours and watched them high in the canopy for 20 – 30 minutes. They are amazing. The male has long tail feathers at breeding time (now). They seem such a hindrance in the trees, blowing about in the breeze, but obviously the lady Quetzals like them. It was difficult to get good pictures because they are high up, usually straddling a branch, and they are too long to capture easily in one shot because of the tail. Our best efforts are attached.

A couple of days we went up to Finca Lerida, a coffee plantation first established in the 1920s. It is now also a hotel and restaurant with trails up into the forest. It is full of numerous different types of humming birds, and we also managed to see the Three Wattled Bellbird, (strange appearance with 3 dangling wattles, not pretty but has a beautiful sound) and a pair of Emerald Toucanets.

Pedro is a coffee producer, in the high grade market. He explained that small specialist producers like himself now market very expensive coffees in small batches almost like wines.

After a few days we realised that Boquete is characterised by three things, coffee, which is grown everywhere and the delicious smell of roasting beans wafts around the town, the Bajareque, a strange form of precipitation which feels as though you have just walked downwind of a fine sprinkler, it can be felt but not often seen, and thirdly, retired US citizens! The coffee and Bajareque make the place special, the US citizens we are not so sure about. We did have some fascinating conversations with them. One man told us he had been arrested for shouting 'warmonger' , amongst other stronger terms of abuse at Tony Blair. When he realised we held the same view of Blair we had a lively discussion. However, eventually I concluded that I am a learner conspiracy theorist compared to him!

The strange thing about the presence of so many US retirees is that they seem to inhabit a parallel society, being in the town but not really part of it.

Another group who also seem to have their own world are the Ngove-Bugle indigenous people. They live on the edges of the town in their own 'villages' which consist of 2 or 3 long single story blocks with almost cell like accommodation. The men wear ordinary clothes but the women wear special brightly coloured dresses trimmed with zig-zag braid (sorry, I can't remember the correct name) that are baggy and totally shapeless (see pics). I was puzzled when I first saw the dresses and they made me slightly uncomfortable but I didn't know why. They seemed incongruous. Surely their traditional wear would have been of natural material, not cotton, and why so big and baggy? Then suddenly the light came on! They were identical to the skirts we made at school. It was a painful memory. We suffered so much with those ugly garments, sewing by hand, undoing, restitching etc for a whole year while the wizened ancient nun who taught us (not an accurate description, she behaved more like a superintendant in the workhouse), threatened, bullied and slapped our hands until they were finished by which time they were filthy! Then we took them home and put them in the old rag bag. No-one would dream of wearing them.

So why were the Ngobe-Bugle ladies condemned to wear these dresses? Jim started investigating and quickly found out that when the missionaries arrived here local women wore very little, so for reasons of modesty these monstrosities were created, probably by the same nun!

Katarina was able to arrange 4 Spanish conversation classes for me with Victoria, a young woman from Venezuela. I needed the chance to practise and Victoria was very patient but made the lessons fun. I really enjoyed our sessions and hope she did too.

We were loathe to leave such a comfortable place where we felt very much at home but the time came to move on to Santa Fe, another hill town to the east, which is similar to Boquete but as it was 20 years ago before the influx of tourists and retirees.

After Santa Fe we had booked to go to one of the towns on the Azuero Peninsular, famous for its lively Carnival. Katarina and Pedro warned us that it would be literally non stop partying for 4 days but we wanted to see the costumes and parades. It had been almost impossible to book a room and we had only managed it when the lady at Cerro Lodge phoned and made a reservation at twice the usual nightly rate. Jim and I both felt dubious about the hotel as it had been so difficult to contact them originally so we decided to ask the owner in Santa Fe to call and check before we left. It was as well we did. They denied knowledge of our booking and had no space. We might have travelled 5 or 6 hours to find that we had nowhere to sleep. They had obviously managed to sell the room at an even higher rate!

I was a little disappointed but then as we moved east on the Saturday, the first day of Carnival and we saw the traffic passing in the other direction to the Azuero towns I was relieved we had not gone. It seemed as if the whole of Panama City was heading to the Carnival.The traffic was bumper to bumper for 50 kilometres or so.

So we changed our plans and extended our next stop in Gamboa, at the Canopy B & B from 4 to 8 nights. Gamboa is a 'company' town built in its strategic location half way along the Canal to enable the appropriate dredging and maintenance to be carried out efficiently. Building started in 1933 and the US Government paid $2.7 million to provide housing, a post office, fire station, police station, clinic, churches and a golf course. It is about the size of a large village. It became almost a ghost town when the Canal Zone was handed over to Panama. Nowadays much of the housing is used by scientists, technicians and students associated with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. They have hundreds of different projects running, some to help preserve bio-diversity, others with less creditable aims such as the one that studies insects in order to design more effective drones for military purposes. The STRI is located on a rainforest island in the lake which is part of the Canal.

The Canopy 'Family' as they call themselves specialise in bird watching activities and have 4 different locations, 2 of which are in Gamboa, the Canopy Tower and the Canopy B & B. The Tower is the old Signals and Radar Station built by the US when they controlled the Canal Zone. It is on the summit of a hill in the rainforest so provides a 360 degrees view of the top of the canopy, hence the name, and it is an astounding location for birding. We would have loved to stay there to be able to view at dawn but it is horrendously expensive and the accommodation is basic as the building was never intended for tourists. It is so poorly insulated that there is a machine on the wall dispensing free earplugs to aid sleep. We made a visit to the Tower for early morning birding, then walked the mile down to the road with a guide and saw 40 bird species as well as Howler monkeys and Geoffroys Tamarinds, a tiny species of monkey.

The B & B is very comfortable but the amazing part of being in Gamboa (apart from watching ships sail along the Canal) is that it is completely surrounded by primary rainforest, but because of the Canal, there are a few roads and trails which make it the most accessible rainforest area in the world. We can walk out of the door and two minutes later be on a forest track. The variety of birds and wildlife is stunning, on every walk we see something different be it a new bird or our latest discovery today, a tiny nail sized frog designed to look like a dead leaf complete with 'veins' as found on a leaf. It is certainly not the place for anyone with a phobia about insects.

One day we went to visit another indigenous group, the Embera. It is difficult trying to interact in a genuine way with tribal people as the usual tourist visits are often patronising or 'Disney' type events. We did some research and found a company set up by an American woman who married an Embera man.

The Embera used to live alongside rivers in the eastern province of Darien but they were forced to move west and many settled along isolated rivers in central and west Panama. They wanted to retain the same lifestyle and by growing some cash crops to sell in the towns they managed to do that. The extra income allowed them to buy necessities and pay for the older children to be educated in the town. The government provides free education in the village school until Grade 9 and then in the town. But the children have to sleep in the town during the week and their accommodation costs $30. All went well until the area was designated a National Park. The local Embera had land taken off them so they were no longer able to grow cash crops or hunt. They were reduced to subsistence farming again to feed their families. It was about this time that Ann, the American woman, came to the village as part of a film production team, met and married an Embera man and set up the Embera Village visits.

The whole village participates and shares the income. They can continue to live as they always have but they are able to support their families with the extra cash.

So our visit felt like a joint enterprise, an equal partnership, not something done to them. It took a bus journey of half an hour and then a canoe ride upriver for more than an hour to reach their village. We were met by the band, we walked around the village, had a talk from a senior man about the history and lifestyle of the village in Spanish, and translated by our guide, then his father took us for a walk in the forest to show us medicinal plants and tell us how they are used. Again it was translated so both times it felt as if the Embera were talking directly to us, and I did manage to understand most of their Spanish. They told us to take any photographs we wanted. We had lunch of patacones and Tilapia, a fresh water fish, then the women danced and gradually the children and men joined in. Finally they took the hands of some visitors. Jim and I don't dance! But out of nowhere a little boy, no more than 3 , took my hand all on his own and took me to join in. How could I refuse? He danced me round doing the Agouti dance until it finished. Then I realised a woman had managed to get Jim to dance too. It was a very comfortable, pleasant atmosphere because they want visitors as a way of retaining their way of life and by sharing it with others they can do that.

Late one evening we heard a bird calling. We checked the bird call on the App on my iPad and decided it was a Spectacled Owl, very exciting. We quickly put clothes on and raced out to look for it without success, so back to bed. Half an hour later we heard it again and raced back out but could not see it. Then a few minutes later it was back. I could not be bothered to dress again but Jim went out and was back in a few seconds telling me to dress quickly. Four or five neighbours had also got up to look for it and finally managed to spot it just by our room, our first owl in Central America, and we were right it was a Spectacled Owl. We felt so proud!

The next night on the same corner we saw a group of Geoffroys Tamarinds, a tiny monkey. One had something attached to his neck (see photograph ). I think a member of the Smithsonian had recruited the animal into one of their research projects! I wonder if the little Tamarind told his family that he had been abducted by aliens and now they were monitoring his every move?

We have now moved to El Valle which is set in an ancient volcanic crater, reminiscent of Lanzarote but covered by forests. It is very beautiful and we look forward to seeing more birds and animals here.

Additional photos below
Photos: 59, Displayed: 32


11th March 2014

So cute, worth getting up for
11th March 2014

Well spotted, I wouldn't have noticed that.

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