Chiriquí Highlands

Shutterstock/4040110/Claudio LovoThe Tierras Altas de Chiriquí include the highland areas around Boquete, Volcán Barú and Cerro Punta. The mingling of Atlantic and Pacific winds creates a year-round spring-like climate. The so-called 'bajareque' (literally 'falling down') shrouds the area in a fine mist, creating cloud forests at higher altitudes.

Closer to the ground, the black volcanic soil creates highly fertile conditions. Coffee fincas and intensive farming that produces most of the country's vegetables are interspersed with tourist resorts, popular with Panameños seeking to escape the tropical heat during vacations
 (December to March). It's an ideal place to spend some time hiking, horse riding, fishing, rafting and birdwatching.

Daytime temperatures are cool; evenings and nights chilly. Some days can be rather windy in the dry season. Mornings are especially clear and beautiful all year round. Travellers entering Panama from the north should consider a visit before pushing on to Panama City.

Heading north towards Boquete in the heart of the cool Eastern Highlands, a well-paved road climbs gently from David, passing (after 10 km) a waterfall with a swimming hole, open-air restaurant/bar and space for wild camping. It passes through
Dolega
(swimming pool, one
pensión
, notable for its carnival four days before Ash Wednesday), before reaching (after 40 km) the popular mountain resort of Boquete, at 1060 m in the valley of the Río Caldera, with the slopes of Volcán Barú to the west. It is a beautiful panorama of coffee plantations and orange groves, strawberry fields and gardens.

Good lodging and facilities make Boquete an excellent base for fishing, riding, river rafting and hiking in the area. It is a slow-paced, predominantly wood-built town with several attractive landscaped parks, including the main plaza and the nearby Parque de las Madres. The fairground east of the river is the site for the annual
Feria de las Flores y del Café
, usually held mid-January. In April, a
Feria de las Orquídeas
is held with many varieties of local and exotic orchids, as well as other flowers. The
cemetery
, is worth a visit, there is a small museum of
huacas
(funerary sculptures) in the centre and a fine panoramic view from the 'Bienvenidos a Boquete' arch at the entrance to the town.

Boquete has gained international recognition as a producer of fine coffees and freelance tour guides Terry van Niekerk and Hans van der Vooren provide tours of fine local coffee operations . Very comprehensive, informative 2½- to three-hour tours that cover everything from plant to production, harvesting to roasting to a tasting of the final product.
Tours in English, Spanish and Dutch, minimum two people. The tours visit
Café Kotowa
. There is a
Tourist Office
(
CEFATI
), at the entrance to town. Helpful staff provide information about the area and there is a café, shop and small museum upstairs.

Volcán Barú

The highest point in the country, Volcán Barú rises to an altitude of 3475 m and is reached easily from Boquete, 21 km to the east, and not so easily from Volcán to the west. The summit lies within the boundaries of
Parque Nacional Volcán Barú
, which covers some 14,000 ha and borders the vast La Amistad International Park, to the north, which
itself spans the Panamanian-Costa Rican border covering much of the Cordillera Talamanca. Rainfall in the park ranges between 3000 and 4000 mm a year, and temperatures range from a subtropical 17°C to a distinctly chilly 7°C. Rich cloud forest makes ideal conditions for reptiles, amphibians and birds, with around 4
0 species endemic to the park.

From Boquete it is 21 km to the summit. The first 7 km is paved, sometimes lined with aromatic pines and goes through coffee
groves, most numerous in the area during the year-end harvest season, mainly tended by Ngöbe-Buglé (Guaymí) people. The paved road ends at a small, usually unstaffed, ANAM office, from where the
track winds up from the office through tall, impressive cloud forest, thick with hanging creepers, lichen and bromeliads. The steep cuttings are carpeted with a glorious array of ferns and colourful flowers; many birds can be seen, including bee hummingbirds, as well as wild turkeys and squirrels. The perfume from the flowers, especially in the wet season when there are many more blooms, is magnificent.

As the road rises, increasingly steeply, there are wonderful views of the Boquete valley, the Río Caldera running through a steep gorge, and the misty plain beyond stretching to the Pacific. Some 9 km from the park entrance is a sign on the right, 'La Nevera' (the ice-box). A small side-trail here leads to a cool mossy gully where there is a stream for water, but no flat ground to camp. This is the only reliable water source during the dry season, so take plenty with you.

At the summit the cloud forest is replaced by a forest of TV and radio aerials in fenced-off enclosures. A short path leads to a small cross and a trigonometric point, from where the best views of dusty craters and the valleys of Volcán, Bambito and Cerro Punta stretch out below. The high- altitude brush contrasts spectacularly with the dark green forest, wisps of mist and cloud clinging to the treetops. Occasionally horizontal rainbows can be seen in the haze, formed in the
bajareque
drizzle. There are many craters around the main summit, with dwarf vegetation, lichens and orchids. Even in the dry season, you will be lucky to have a clear view of both oceans.

Other hikes and excursions

Twenty-seven kilometres north of the Pan-American Highway (13 km south of Boquete) is a turn-off east to Caldera (14 km), from where a 25- to 30-minute walk leads to
Los Pozos de Caldera
, a well-known series of hot springs said to be good for rheumatism sufferers. River-rafting trips on the Chiriquí start from Caldera . There are six buses a day from David to Caldera, four a day from Boquete to Caldera, and pickups from the main road to the village.

Across the suspension bridge,
Conservas de Antaño
 is a very friendly family-owned business that makes old-fashioned fruit preserves.
Café Ruiz
, is a small factory known for its premium-grade roasted coffees. They welcome visitors for a guided tour, explaining the whole process from harvesting to hand selecting only the best beans and vacuum packing the product. Next door is
Villa Marta
, a private mansion with a huge landscaped garden open to the public, and a sign:
'Mi jardín es
su jardín
'.
Los Ladrillos
, a few kilometres further up the Caldera Valley, is a small area of basalt cliffs with octagonal fingers of rock in clusters. Beyond is
Horqueta
, a picturesque hillside area of coffee groves, with a roadside waterfall and banks of pink impatiens; beautiful views to the south.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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