Mountain Town, Coffee Country, Expat Paradise
Located on the slopes of Volcan Baru, at 3475m, the highest peak in Central America, Boquete enjoys a moderate climate year round. Due to the abundant rainfall (8 feet!!! yearly), it is lush and beautiful here. In the rainy season, the rain comes in the form of torrential downpours, but during the dry season there is a mist that comes down from the mountains called bajareque, which creates the most gorgeous rainbows. Baru hasn’t errupted in almost 500 years, but you can still see evidence of this event. There are black boulders everywhere. The smaller ones are made into beautiful dry stone walls. You can see a lot of these in an area called Potrerillos to the south of Boquete, where all the farmer’s fields are enclosed by walls. Bigger boulders have just become a part of the landscape. Last winter my husband and I spent 5 months in this lovely town and were able to explore the area. We’d love to share our favorites with you.
We were able to rent a furnished studio apartment for US $500 a month. Our place came with a tiny house gecko whom we named Pete. It’s great to have a gecko because they live on insects. The location was perfect for us, above a row of stores including a grocer’s, a bakery, a hardware store and a restaurant. There was also a bus stop just outside our door, so it was easy for us to get around. A bus or taxi to anywhere in Boquete costs 60 cents. It’s easy to find rentals in Panama online. Everyone seems to use Craigslist Panama to advertise. Prices for accommodations vary greatly and so do standards. Some of the cheaper places can be quite primitive. Another thing to consider is location; many rentals are actually out of town, located on winding mountain roads. These places often have stunning views of the valley, but are only suitable if you also rent a SUV or truck, since most of the roads are in pretty bad shape. There are also a number of inexpensive hostels and more luxurious hotels for shorter stays.
Getting to Boquete is easy. From Panama City you can take a very comfortable, air-conditioned bus to David for $15.25 to $18.25. You’ll need a passport to buy the ticket. The buses leave from Albrook Mall and the ride takes about 7 hours, express night buses take approximately 6 hours. The day buses stop for one hour to have a meal. It is also possible to fly to David from Panama City for $144 with Copa. There are 2 flights a day and the flight takes a little over an hour. From David you can take another bus to Boquete for about $2.00. They will let you off wherever you want to. It’s a good idea to ask the person you are renting from what to tell the bus driver. I love the bus terminal in David. It’s always bustling with people and you can catch buses to all the little towns in the area. The bus drivers are always calling out to people to fill up their buses and local people are often boarding after doing their big shopping in town, which might include live stock.
Boquete is a small town of about 19,000 people, so therè is a cozy country atmosphere. Because of its great climate and low-cost of living, it has attracted a large immigrant population. There are about 3000 foreigners permanently living here. Most of them are from the US; also quite a few Canadians, South Americans and Europeans. Many local business owners speak English. There is a library with a decent size English section and I thought it was really cool that tourists and short-term residents can get a library card.
A short walk from our apartment was the Boquete Visitor Center, located in a historic two-story yellow building with a small gift shop, a very good coffee shop, and a coffee museum that explains the history of coffee growing in the area. Outside is a small park that offers a great view of the Caldera River and the lower part of the town. Someone puts out food and water for wildlife and quite often it’s possible to see coatis here. They are related to raccoons but are active during the day and travel in a large groups. They are also incredibly cute which makes them popular with both locals and visitors.
Where to eat
I think, our favorite place for a casual lunch is the Sandwich Shop in Bajo (lower) Boquete. They serve all kinds of sandwiches and burgers. My favorite is the chipotle chicken sandwich, totally delicious!!! Traditions such as Taco Tuesday and Wing Wednesday are observed here as well. We loved all the tacos. Another point in its favor for my husband, the birdwatcher, was that along that street there is a woman who puts out fruit for the birds and we always got to see the most amazing jewel colored birds as we walked past.
For a dinner with friends El Oasis is awesome. They have beautiful grounds, and don’t forget to visit Oscar the tucan. If you call the day before, you can have a fire with your dinner in the outside pavilion. The menu is varied and all the food is very good. After we had eaten and paid our bill and, I think, most of the staff had gone home, we were allowed to stay and enjoy our fire while playing dominoes until late.
Another of our favorite places is Gelateria La Ghiotta, a wonderful gelatto place run by an Italian couple, located on the main street in Bajo Boquete. You absolutely must try the guabana and passion fruit flavors; they are amazing.
There are 2 good supermarkets in town and any number of small grocery and produce stores. But we love markets and there are several interesting markets in Boquete. The famous Tuesday market at the community center, open 9:00 am till noon, features arts and crafts, jewelry, organic produce, and prepared foods. I found the prices pretty high, but this is more than a market; it’s an event! All the expats and visitors show up here and it’s a great place to meet people who share your interests. Here we met a woman who told us how she sailed around the world and a man who offered to take my husband to see the resplendent quetzal, one the prettiest and most sought after birds in the world.
There is also the local market adjacent to the park in the center of town. Stalls here open whenever and you never know which vendors will be there. This is where Panamanians shop for pretty much anything great; fresh produce, meat, snacks, and even clothes.
For gift shopping there is also a craft market. Again, no set opening and closing times.
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Most people staying longer term also make periodic shopping trips to David, which has excellent malls and supermarkets where you can find any product you’re used to.
Who loves coffee?
Let’s go on a coffee tour. We head out of town to the north and soon the road winds up into the hills. On the sides you can see some beautiful estates or lush jungle. About 10 km out of Boquete on the left side of the road is an unassuming red brick building. There is no sign but this is where the coffee beans from the Suarez estate are roasted and it’s possible to buy both whole beans and ground coffee. It’s sold in 1 lb and 5 lb bags for $5.00 a pound. These are the most delicious beans ever!
A couple more kilometers up the road, again on the left you come to Finca Lerida. This is a coffee estate where you can walk along a path in the coffee plantation; it is also a great place for bird watching. The coffee here in Boquete is shade grown, organic so it’s very wildlife friendly. At the Finca there are guest rooms set in beautiful grounds swarming with hummingbirds that feed on the many colorful flowers. There is also a restaurant and a coffee shop. The staff is very friendly and will explain the whole coffee growing, drying and sorting process. We learned a lot about coffee there and also got to sample a delicious cup.
Meet the animals
We love animals! There are some amazing people in this area who rescue animals and whose sanctuaries are definitely worth a visit. The first one we went to is called Jungla de Panama, located in Palmira, about a 10 min cab ride from Boquete. We actually hiked there along the road. Jungla is run by Dorothy and Luis. Unfortunately when we visited the owners were not around so our tour was conducted by one of their helpers who only spoke Spanish so we missed out on some of the stories about the animals. But we were able to feed an owl as well as other animals and pet monkeys and a parrot. This is a wonderful place to bring kids but also enjoyable for adults. They ask for a small donation of $10 to help care for the animals.
The second shelter we visited is Raquel’s Ark in Volcan. To get there from Boquete you need to take a bus to David and at the bus terminal look for the Volcan bus. Raquel gave us a wonderful tour and told us the history of the different animals. For example she had 2 orphaned spider monkeys about 2 or 3 months old, wearing diapers, who enjoyed sitting on our shoulders and heads. Raquel told us that she would keep them for about a year and then they will go to another place where they will be taught how to survive in the jungle before being released. She is also caring for a jaguar and a jaguarundi, a small wildcat native to Panama. Both of them were sold as pets when they were cubs, but were too wild when they got older, so their owners couldn’t keep them. As part of the tour you also get to hold a sloth. I don’t know about you, but I absolutely love sloths and holding one was a fun experience for me. So 👍👍👍 for Raquel’s Ark.
Some friends we met in Boquete and who had been living there and in nearby Costa Rica for over 10 years told us about a sloth that lived in a tree in their yard. You never really know they are there but once a week it came down from its tree to do its business, which they bury, so no mess. This is a vulnerable time for a sloth and when this couple’s dog came bouncing along to check it out, it panicked and lashed out with its long arms. Those 3 inch claws can do some damage. The dog needed stitches but was ok and learned his lesson to stay away from sloths attending to private matters.
The park in David is a great place to relax in the shade and watch the iguanas that live there. The locals feed them veggies and they are not afraid of people. Some of them are enormous.
Medical and Dental
We were fortunate enough not to have to take advantage of the excellent medical facilities in Boquete. We did hear from friends though that they received very good care at the emergency room at the Boquete hospital for a very reasonable price.
I decided to have my teeth cleaned while we were there. For $50, I think, I got the most thorough cleaning ever! And for once it didn’t even hurt!
So in conclusion, I highly recommend Boquete. It has something to offer for everyone. Short term visitors enjoy taking advantage of the many eco tours that are offered. Many others enjoy escaping the winter in the north like us and love the relaxed lifestyle here. So come to Boquete and see for yourself!