By Mike Smith - The Cottages of Napa Valley
Almost 20 years ago I went to Boquete on my Dad's recommendation. There are flower farms, Orchid breeding gardens and coffee plantations on the ridge. I took a guided birding hike up with a wonderful family that remembered my father from five years before. Both the Atlantic and Pacific were visible from the peak. They showed me the climax tree on the ridge of the tropical cloud forest and I was amazed to see that it was a Quercus rapurahuensis, the Talamanca oak.
The birds were amazing, the soils rich and dark with humus. Our bird book said that Boquete has up to 6 microclimates. We saw a wild Toucan, amazing hummingbirds, an Elegant Trogon and what might have been a Quetzal in the distance. Everywhere was like a garden compared to the dry country below the ridge. The climate seemed perfect at the higher elevation. There was a flower festival going on, and Panamanians came from all over. I saw many indigenous people at the festival and learned they were here for the flower and coffee harvest. They come from tribes all through the Atlantic forest. I talked with one group and heard they were harvesting at a coffee plantation in Boquete, and that I should go visit. It turned out to be the highlight of the trip.
We got a tour of the plantation, and heard about the history of the farm. We roasted some fresh beans in an antique metal roaster over a charcoal fire. The smell was ambrosia, and we learned how quickly the roasting went from near perfect to over-cooked. They ended with serving us fresh coffee from the modern roasting ovens. Nectar! I swear it was the best coffee I had ever tasted.
I told our host about the native people that sent me there, and asked if drinking was as big a problem there as we have on the reservations in the US. He told me an amazing story. "Yes, it's a problem. On their own, they would drink away all their earnings." He said they asked them permission to with-hold most of their payroll so as not to drink it all away. The Indians said, "But that's why we come here. To make money to get drunk." They asked them, "Aren't there things you would like to buy to bring home for the family?" [Yes,] "Well, we'll give you enough for you to get drunk, but not to loose everything." They had to convince them that they were honest, as not everyone is. In the end, everyone celebrated enough to be happy, and indeed had money left over for necessities back home. This became the most sought after farm to work for, and relationships were established that lasted for years.I was pretty impressed with the global view of the owners of the farm, but I was still surprised to see how 'ahead of the times' they still are. I saw their new packaging for the coffee pods and the infrared roasting research. I was impressed again that this small out-of-the-way plantation was so 'with-it!' I know their coffee will always be a little more expensive, and like good wine, the problem is that IT'S WORTH IT! So, if you are ever in Panama, take some extra time and go visit Boquete. I guarantee you will want to stay longer than you planned.
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