Thursday, March 26, 2009
Chiriqui, Panama...Boquete, David & Boca Chica
My wife and I just returned from a nice 3 day sojourn to the northern state of Chiriquí in the Republic of Panama. It is about a 5 hour drive to David, the major city of the state of Chiriquí from our home in Panama City. We were ready to get out of the city for a few days and also had some real estate projects to check on in that region for some clients.
It had been about 3 years since I made it up that way for a stay of any kind. Our whirlwind 3 day tour started out in Boquete from where we branched out to the capital David, Volcan, and Cerro Punto which is near the highest point in Panama at the Baru Volcano. The third night we stayed at Boca Chica which is a new tourist development area about 60 kilometers southwest of David. Probably the easiest thing to do is summarize each areas highlights one at a time. You also can see a few of our favorite photos HERE that might be of interest.
Boquete is 30-40 minutes into the mountains from the city of David. It has experienced a tremendous amount of development and increased tourism in the past 7 years or so. The temperatures drop 10-20 degrees very quickly in Boquete from what you experience in David and at sea level. It used to be a quiet valley primarily focused on growing some of the best coffee in Latin America. Now you will find many of the coffee plantations being sold off and turned into residential tourist homes with a large amount of new residents coming from the retirement wave in North America. Some call this area "little Switzerland" as you can easily get the feel and cool breezes some associate with the Alps of Europe. It truly is a refreshing change from the relative heat and humidity of Panama City and most of Panama's touristic destinations. They even have trout streams up in these mountains much like you would find in my home state of Michigan or out in Colorado. This area features many outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, white-water rafting, touring beautiful gardens...and I was happy to see increased options in town for dining out. My initial sense of the area years ago was that it was too "sleepy" and small for this city boy. It was quite obvious in just these 3 years how fast the area has grown, with lots more traffic and buzz to go with it. Some of the locals probably feel a bit displaced in their own hometown.
Chiriqui...and Boquete in particular...were hit heavy by the worst torrential rains and floods during the rainy season this past November. I remember seeing a number of videos on YouTube a day or two after the storm. Many of the videos have been taken down for some reason. HERE is one of the most impressive depictions still online depicting some of the spots that are in my photo journal as well. Hard to believe the devastation happened so recently. I was impressed how fast they have cleaned up much of the devastation, but you can still see the washed out bridges and HUGE boulders and trees that were washed down the Caldera River during these downpours. My Photo journal also shows you a brand new hotel that never got opened and is still sitting in the rubble waiting for something to happen. It has also been published that the unusual weather patterns have destroyed almost half of the coffee crops for this year which is obviously hitting the poor farmers hard even in the middle of the continued development in the area.
The first foreigner to put Boquete on the international radar was Sam Taliaferro who bought a big stake in the area about 12 years ago and built out one of the first significant developments here, "Valle Escondido"...or "Hidden Valley". I had hoped to run into Sam while here, but found out he was on vacation in the USA. We did enjoy driving through the development and observing some very nice homes and condos built around the areas only existing 9 hole golf course. I have included some photos from there including the hotel that I have heard is an excellent place to stay while in the area. I follow Sam's informative blog and I get quite a bit of traffic to this blog as well from the linkout he has been nice enough to include.
Hotel-wise we chose to stay at "Boquete Garden Inn"...a small bed and breakfast type hotel run by a young English couple who recently purchased it. In my photo journal I have included photos of our room and the beautiful grounds of the place. I thought it a good value at $97 cash per night including breakfast for both of us. The service staff were all top notch for Panama which most people know I am critical of Panama's overall service factor. The staff at Boquete Garden Inn has it going on...
We wined and dined very well indeed. The first night we had a fabulous steak dinner at the Panamonte Inn and Spa, which reportedly is a fine place to stay and be pampered as well. Again, service was EXCEPTIONAL in this fine dining room and we had one of the best value meals I can think of in our 4+ years of living or traveling in Panama. We both had the Angus Filet steak...I think the Chiriqui beef is exceptional here. The grilled octopus appetizer we shared was also first rate in a great sauce. The next night we took in the Peruvian restaurant "Machu Pichu" and once again we had a stellar meal of excellent Peruvian style seafood. We started out with a huge appetizer platter for two of various seafoods...calamari, ceviche, fish rolls, shrimp, etc. For main course I had the langostinos in a parmesan cheese sauce all mixed together on a half conk shell with mashed potatos. My partner seemed quite happy with her Peruvian style steak. We were quite pleased when the bill came all this food plus a bottle of wine cost us only $50. Unbelievable value! Once again, the service in all these places including the hotel was way above normal Panamanian standards. I was very happy to see that.
DAVID and VOLCAN
The second day we took a road trip back down the mountain to the "big city" of David. I had stayed there 3 years earlier, but it was new to my wife. There is a lot more traffic now than I remembered back then and they have a number of new stores and USA style commercial establishments. There is also a new hospital which I'm sure is a happy addition for the aging foreigners who have moved to this area. As the "boomers" age and retire, it will be critical for developments in these countries to be located very near critical healthcare if they want to sell to this demographic. We are being very conscious of this in our developments we are involved in closer to Panama City.
We had lunch at the "Renegado" (Renegade) which I had read about in a local's blog. It's a small "hole in the wall" place from the outside, located on the main highway headed out of David towards the Costa Rica border...but we had a tasty and low priced quality lunch at this place even though we were the only customers at 1PM. I had their Oso Bucco which is hard to find...especially of that quality. My wife had a tasty chicken dish with a nice Spanish style sauce on top. It’s hard to diet when you eat in all these wonderful restaurants.
After lunch we headed towards Costa Rica on the highway and then back up the mountain but on the other side of the pass towards Volcan and CerroPunta. I had heard this was the new up and coming area to compete with Boquete. Land prices are much cheaper here and quite honestly it looked to me more open for farming and development...less "steppy" than the land around Boquete. There were some properties advertising for less than $3 per M2 which is getting to be scarce in Panama with the recent boom and all. Yet...there wasn't really much going on in this area except a lot of farming, and some nice horse farms at that. But, you really have to like being with yourself to live up in this area…It takes about an hour to wind your way up to Cerro Punta which is like the "great divide" of water running either to the Pacific or to the Caribbean. It even got a little rainy this day in the midst of dry season...so we didn’t get out and hike like I had thought we might. The interesting thing is that when you get up to where the Volcano and national park is...you're only 6 Km from Boquete. But...to get back to Boquete we had to wind all the way back down the mountain to David and then all the way back up to Boquete. I understand they are planning a road to connect the two regions, which would be a good idea. But, who knows when the budget and will power will really be applied to that concept.
After our second night in Boquete we were actually planning on returning to the city, but first I had business interests in checking out a new tourist development on the Pacific coast called "Boca Chica" which would be right on the way home. I knew that the road and been newly completed with blacktop recently, so to me that is a sign of commitment towards development of an area. We easily found the turnoff to Boca Chica at the Horconcitos intersection of the Pan American highway and traveled about 25 minutes before finally seeing the water and bay of Boca Chica. The whole 20 kilometers was almost all fresh new blacktop roads...with nothing hardly along it accept the village of Horconcitos. Somebody sure had some pull to get these kinds of public funds put into that much road in the middle of nowhere.
I had also heard of a new boutique hotel there called "Seagullcove Lodge". They had a nice website and I was quite keyed up to see it in person and perhaps be able to refer clients and tourists to this new place in an up and coming tourist zone. We found the entrance gate which is very private. It is owned/operated by a Spanish couple (who it turns out had built and sold the “Boquete Gardens Hotel” we stayed at the two nights before)...and while Ms Pilar was kind enough to let us take a quick peek at their facilities (which were very nice), she refused to let me take any photos and didn't sound too interested in our promoting their business through any of our websites or even word of mouth. We weren't trying to "sell" them anything nor looking for "commissions", but she was adamant right from the gitgo that they were very picky about whom they allow there...and nothing was available there for "the public"...which we took to include us…even though there were NO guests at that moment. Strange way of doing tourism business in Panama...but we have seen similar attitudes before in this industry between Costa Rica and here. I often wonder what drives these types of peculiar people to go into service or tourism oriented businesses? So...without née a glass of water or use of the bathroom, we exited these plush but "frigid" grounds looking for warmer welcomes.
Fortunately, we found them right next door at the "Gone Fishing Panama Resort". This is a large villa style house overlooking the most beautiful salt water bay I have seen in Panama. Their website isn't as "fancy" as Seagullcove Lodge's, but the place was immediately more inviting and wide open to guests or visitors. Bruce and Donna Skinner built this place about 4 years ago and it features 6-7 rooms and then the wide open common areas all built or finished with beautiful teak wood. Quality and class are evident everywhere here, and yet there is a laid back attitude about Bruce and Donna as well as their staff. At first we felt like we were invading a private home...and there was a small group of people at the small bar out on the patio overlooking this tremendous bay and islands that lie just off of Boca Chica. Maybe we were a little paranoid after our first stop and we weren't sure at first if we were intruding or not. Fortunately here we were quickly offered drinks and use of the bathrooms. As we got to know everyone at the bar (all gringos), we soon felt right at home. Drinks turned into lunch, and then lunch turned into deciding to stay in their featured "Blue Room" (see photos in my online journal HERE) with a wonderful balcony with hammock. After settling into the room we headed for their small but adequate and refreshing "infinity pool" at just the perfect location for viewing the bay and feeling a part of this whole unique corner of God's universe. The lodge features a limited menu of a couple choices per meal...but dinner was a great combination of a creative vegetable salad with nuts mixed in and a healthy portion of spaghetti and meatballs. I had smelled the sauce cooking for hours in the kitchen so I knew it was going to be good. The nicest room in the joint was $125, and the whole day of two meals for both of us, drinks and a bottle of wine with dinner came out to a total of a C-note. Again...great hospitality at a very reasonable price. We also were impressed to hear about Dr. Donna's private school that she is developing for the children right there in Boca Chica. Good deal. Thanks Bruce, Donna, Ari, and the rest of the kind staff for making our last night of our trip so enjoyable. We WILL be back! Gotta go fishing next time...
So...there you have it. Chiriquí in the northern part of Panama is still on the up and coming. Not everyone will like living there. It is a bit isolated and away from many amenities Panama City has to offer. It is a unique combination of wealth living with or next to poverty. This provides a quality of life that I personally embrace. One of the great values of living in an emerging country like Panama is that every day you see great wealth mixed with great poverty...and life's battle between wealth and poverty is evident at every turn. To me this helps one keep perspective about the world at large. Without some wealth around, the poor will never have a chance to improve their lives. They will not have better jobs or get better educations for their children and grandchildren. Yet, I also believe it is important for those of us more "well off" to be involved and expose ourselves to those less fortunate. We can continue to pursue our fortunes while balancing it with helping a few people below us to step UP a few levels. I see this in Donna's sponsoring of her private school in Boca Chica. I see this with our Peace Corp friends like Amy who is spending two years of her young life living with and teaching the Embera Indians English and how to do business or trade with the first world. I see this poetry in motion between the Ranch owners and the ranch hands in the many rural areas I traverse and develop in this country. We are all learning from each other if we allow ourselves the opportunity and exposure...and we can do so without pride or injustice.
Life is good in Chiriqui...whether you are living there...or just visiting.