The five and a half-hour drive to Boquete treated us to panoramic vistas of the lush green mountainous Panamanian countryside. The main road up and down Panama is the Panamericana Highway. Once away from Panama City the road becomes much less congested and the four-lane blacktop smooth highway makes for an easy drive. In Panama, a driver needs to be very cautious of speed traps. The motorcycle cops are everywhere. They sit under the trees in the shade or just over a hill with their radar guns out and ready. It’s hard to see them until they step out from behind their motorcycles and the bright fluorescent green safety vests can be spotted.
We noticed something very different about how the traffic cops stop a speeding vehicle. In the USA, it is a big event with flashing lights and a bit of a chase. The driver usually sees the cop but keeps going hoping to get away as if proclaiming innocence until the cop is right behind the speeding vehicle. And then there is the “oh crap” moment as the driver realizes they are caught. Only then do they pull over.
In Panama, the cop steps out of the shadows and point his hand at the speeding car. The car then pulls to the side of the road where the cop is parked. If necessary, they will reverse on the road’s shoulder backing up towards the officer. There are no flashing lights or high-speed chases. One commonality in all countries we’ve visited are the waiving arms of the speeders protesting innocence when talking to the officer.
The speed ranges from 60 kph (37 mph) in town, 80 kph (50 mph) outside of town and 100 kph (63 mph) on the good highway. There are no warnings the speed limit is changing. There is just one sign and the new limit is imposed. Most Panamanians ignore the speed limits keeping the traffic police busy on the sides of the road. When seeing a cop with radar, they will flash their headlights to warn other drivers. So far, we have been fortunate not to be caught speeding. However, I recently realized I might have been driving illegally with one of our rental cars.
Driving in foreign countries is always a bit of a challenge. We need to understand the laws and street signs. Most people would assume so long as they are in a country legally and have a valid driving license (from their home country) this should suffice. In Panama, the tourist visa is issued for 180 days upon arrival. However, the traffic laws only recognize a foreign driver’s license for 90 days. After 90 days it is required to obtain a Panama license (much easier said than done). If stopped by an officer and presenting a foreign license the officer will check the passport entry stamps to ensure the driver is legal (tourists in Panama are required to carry their passports at all times).
Being past the 90-day mark could be a huge problem for a tourist involved in an accident. It is considered driving without a valid license. Driving without a license voids the auto insurance making the tourist personally responsible for any damages to the rental car and other vehicles if at fault. We just found out about this law and thought when we rented our first rental car in June we had already been in Panama for over 90-days. Out of curiosity, we double-checked. We found we were legal by just 5 days. Phew! We have since left and returned to Panama and our visa entry stamp was renewed. We can rent cars until mid-October and not have to worry about the license requirements.
Most traffic signs are fairly universal but there are some mysterious ones. We notice in Panama City, rather than street signs saying “no left turn”, the signs say “right turn ok” and vice versa. It took a little bit of time to get used to this. This particular sign made me laugh when we noticed it on the way to Boquete. It serves as a caution for animals crossing the road. However, look at the scale of the monkey and armadillo compared to the road. If I ever see a monkey this big on the street, I don’t think seeing it will be a problem. We dubbed this sign as, “Watch out for King Kong standing on the giant armadillo”.
Painted blue hearts are occasionally spotted on the highway. At first, we thought how nice that someone is sharing the love. Lots of hearts everywhere! Share the love. Lots of love. We kept noticing them and realized they must be symbolic. We Googled it. The result was very sad. The blue heart marks places on the highway where fatalities have occurred. Seeing as many blue hearts as we have made us realize how precious life is. Now when we see the blue hearts we wish we hadn’t Googled it. Sometimes being naïve is blissful.
Arriving in Boquete, the road winds over a mountain and the first glimpse of the town can be seen in the valley. At first sight, it reminded me of towns in the Alpine mountains of Europe. I was excited we might have found utopia. Then once in town, I realized it is not as charming and picturesque as Alpine towns. Boquete is a hodgepodge of a town. It serves as a farming community, an expat community and a hot spot for eco-tourism.
Because of the altitude, the temperatures or climate of Boquete is mild. The year-round temperature is about 21-27 °C (70-80°F). None of the buildings in town have heating or air-conditioning. In the higher altitudes above the town, heat is required. Most of the restaurants are open-air or have all the windows open for ventilation. This perfect climate makes it very attractive to expats looking for inexpensive homes, a beautiful setting and mild year-round temperatures. We were told there are about ten thousand USA citizens living in or around Boquete. Because of this, almost everyone there speaks some English. One person we were chatting with told us he had lived there for ten years and still spoke very little Spanish. He said there is no need.
We stayed in the most awesome Bed and Breakfast. Cindy found it online and on Trip Advisor and it had nothing but four and five-star reviews. After staying there, we can see why. The property consists of small cottages set on a hillside overlooking Boquete with the volcano in the distance. Every cottage has a spectacular view. The landscaping on the property is incredible. This area of Panama boasts very fertile soil and a perfect gardening climate. The owners, Brian and Dayanara, have planted flowering trees and shrubs on just about every square inch of their amazing garden. Because of this, hummingbirds are abundant as are the aromas from the flowers. When sitting on our patio overlooking Volcan Baru, the scents or the lush landscaping wafted past. Panama, in general, has very clean air. The smell of the flowers is enhanced because of the lack of any pollutants.
Brian is from California and Dayanara is from the Boca’s region of Panama. They are excellent hosts and work hard to ensure every visit is perfect. The cook to order breakfast was accompanied by locally grown coffees and fresh seasonal fruits. Cindy and I prefer to eat late lunches and then a snack for dinner. Our room had a small refrigerator and microwave so we could snack while catching up on some Netflix movies in the evenings.
The restaurants in Boquete are the best we have encountered in Panama outside of Panama City. We had just about given up on ever getting a good meal in Panama. We find the food very bland. As you’d expect, the city offers plenty of exceptional dining options. The rural areas are a different story. With the exception of our local Mexican Food restaurant, we have yet to find anything else to rave about. This is not the case in Boquete. Perhaps it is because of the large number of USA Expats, I am not sure. But, whatever the reason, we were glad of it. Our first dining outing was an Italian Bistro where I ordered a meatball sandwich and Cindy had a chicken pesto Panini. Wow! Delicious.
In case you did not know this, all British people are born with a genetic trait to qualify them as an expert on fish and chips. We read on TripAdvisor about a local restaurant called Fish House. Several comments remarked about the fish and chips. The last decent fish and chips this Brit ate were in St. Petersburg, Florida at The Moon Under Water. This St. Pete eatery has the best fish and chips in the USA. I think it is fair to say, Fish House has the best fish and chips in Central America. Our table by the open window looked onto a fast-flowing creek. I think a trout could be caught from our table. We ate there on a Wednesday and were elated to find the Fish and Chips were the special and served with a free beer. Free beer with fish and chips, what more could a guy ask for in life?
If British people are born with a genetic trait to identify quality fish and chips, then Americans are born with a similar trait for hamburgers. One day for lunch we decided to eat at a recommendation from Brian, we stopped at the Soul Kitchen. The dining area for this restaurant is all open air. It is covered by a large tin roof and has fans and chandleries. It is very unique. We ate here twice. The first time we ordered nachos and Philly Cheese-steak sandwiches. The nachos were to die for. The Phillies were yummy, enough to make us want to try other things on the menu. On our second visit, I had my heart set on a pasta dish I saw a fellow diner order. However, the special was for a burger and free beer. You already know how I feel about free beer. Our waitress told us (in English) the burger was 100% Angus Beef with no filler. Most hamburgers in Panama have filler mixed in with the beef. I am not fond of the taste. I guess it all depends on what you are used to. When she told me this and about the free beer, I was 100% sold as was Cindy. We can both honestly say, these are the best hamburgers we’ve eaten since leaving the land of burgers, the USA. The burgers at the Soul Kitchen rival burgers we had in Colombia at Portho’s Steakhouse. And, those were simply awesome.
I know I am going on and on about food here. Please understand there are certain places in the world known for cuisine. And then, there is the rest of the world. For the most part on our travels, we have been in the rest of the world. Finding a town of great restaurants is a thrill equivalent to a child visiting Disney World. We did have one disappointment. It was a place raved about on TripAdvisor call Fresas Mary. It turned out to be a tourist trap. It is one of the very few places in our travels where we have judged a book by its cover. It was touted as all things strawberry (fresas in Spanish means strawberry). We passed. Instead, we decided to try a place called Sugar and Spice. It was on the main street across from The Fish House and next door to a hostel. Each time we passed Sugar and Spice, we noticed a lot of people there. A good sign.
Sugar and Spice did not disappoint us. It is a full-fledged bakery and deli. The smell upon entry will make you hungry even if you aren’t. Big racks of freshly baked bread filled the area behind the counter. In the glass case counter, all sorts of freshly made sweet treats made my mouth start to water. Cindy opted for chocolate cake and I settled on a giant slice of carrot cake. We sat outside on their covered patio watching the world go by sipping a latte and mmmmming with every bite of cake. It started to rain. We didn’t care. We were protected by the patio and the rain brought even cooler temperatures. One of my favorite things in life is a treat from a bakery as a late afternoon snack with either a cup of tea or a latte. I personally think if more people in the world took the time to do this, they would be much happier. Life’s sweet indulgences are a secret to happiness.
In the mountains surrounding Boquete, are farms and coffee plantations. They range from boutique operations to large scale commercial sites. This is also the area where the local Guaymí people live and farm. The men wear normal work clothing but the women sport brightly colored traditional dresses. Sadly most of the Guaymí farmers live in poverty conditions. During our sightseeing drives up into the mountains, we would often see a mom with young children walking along the roadside. They walk everywhere. I think the local bus might be too expensive for them. The bright-eyed smiling young kids will wave and yell, “Hola” as we pass by. The ladies rarely make eye contact.
Unlike the Kuna Yala people of Panama on the Caribbean side, the Guaymí indigenous people have started to participate in the cash economy. Due to poor education, providing labor is about the only abundant resource they can offer. According to an article I read, the Guaymí people have few choices in life. They can work in the local fields, travel as migrant workers or try their luck in the larger cities with informal jobs. Very few of the women speak Spanish (they have a traditional dialect) which further hampers their ability to participate in the economy.
The contrast between “have’s” and “have not’s” is very apparent in the hills. The mountains are spotted with large homes with boutique coffee plantations and pristine gardens, most likely owned by an expat or rich Panamanian from the city. On the other end of the scale are rows of concrete huts that obviously have no electricity or running water. Cindy and I had couldn’t help but wonder about what it must be like to grow up in the hills and about the opportunities these young happy kids have.
Besides the mild climate and spectacular scenery, another attraction to the area for expats is the low costs. Homes prices by European, Canadian or USA standards are very inexpensive. Most are not taxed or have a long tax exemption. An abundance of low-cost labor for services such as upkeep, cleaning, and cooking is also attractive for expats. If you are into gardening, the perfect climate allows for a garden where flowers bloom year-round. We noticed wild orchids. This was the first time either one of us has spotted a wild orchard or also the first time we have seen coffee plants.
Coffee is big business in Boquete. A lot of tourism is built around coffee tours and tastings similar to wine in other parts of the world. We did not do a coffee tour. Neither one of us drinks coffee and thus do not possess an appreciation for good beans. Our B&B was called the Coffee Estate Inn. They roasted fresh beans in the mornings. It smelled awesome. I tried some. Meh. I’ll stick to tea.
Eco-tourism is a booming industry in this part of Panama. I have previously mentioned the mild climate. This makes hiking the incredible trails in the parks, camping and mountain climbing available all year. The rainy season is from May to November. Mother Nature still provides a lot of good sunny days during these months with the exception of the rainiest months of October and November. In addition to upscale hotels and bed and breakfast places, there is a great selection of hostels. Simply put, there is a room available regardless of your budget. One of the more clever ideas for a hostel was one that doubled as a Spanish language school and taught you lessons while staying there.
Making a trip to the grocery store in Boquete is a reminder of all the cultures making up the town population. Farmers, eco-tourist, tourists, expats and locals all shop in town. On Tuesdays, the farmer’s market gives the opportunity to purchase vegetables grown locally. Our Tuesday was hampered a little bit as a morning rain took its time to pass through. We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast while taking in the view from our B&B. When we finally did arrive at the market, most of the stalls were being disassembled. That was a bit of a shame. We even managed to get a primo parking spot in town. The rules of parking in Boquete are, if it is not a driveway or blocking a gate then it is a parking spot. We saw some very creative spots.
Both of us really enjoyed the side trip to Boquete. While it wouldn’t be our ideal retirement community, I can certainly understand the attractions for others who have chosen to live there. We never tired of the magnificent views and all Boquete offered. It’s funny to say this but, taking a weeklong break from the boat was wonderful.