There is a magical quality to the Chiriquí highlands. In a misty land of eternal spring where bright flowers grow at the roadside, the traveller is rewarded with surreal images of surpassing beauty.
They may be of herds of horses galloping in the mist on a highland thoroughbred ranch; peaceful vistas of terraced farmland below majestic peaks; shards of sunlight reflecting from gurgling trout streams and rivers rushing through gorges; crags like dragons’ lairs and around every bend in the road – a rainbow.
Chiriquí lies on the Pacific shore of Panama’s western province bordering Costa Rica. It is a place to discover. Mass tourism has not yet arrived.
Panamanian leisure seekers ascend the slopes of the mighty Volcano Barú to the resorts of Boquete and Volcán at week-ends and holidays and keep the hotels fairly busy, but from Monday to Friday you can usually take your pick.
The high farms of Chiriquí look Swiss in their greenness and husbandry. Homes and haciendas on the slopes yodel Swiss chalet architecture.
Unsurprising perhaps, since a Swiss farming colony arrived there years before the first road. Following them were Yugoslav farmers.
It isn’t all mountains. The province has just about everything, from the casino at the comfortable Gran Hotel Nacional in the capital city of David to deep-sea fishing and white sand beaches which stretch to infinity.
Birdwatchers will find almost 1,000 species. Distinguished residents include the Resplendent Quetzal who claims Chiriquí as his southernmost abode.
Several transport options are available for the 486 Km journey from Panama City. Domestic airlines fly from Marcos A. Gelabert airport, Panama City, to David international airport. The flight takes about 45 minutes.
By road up the Pan American Highway the journey can take five or six hours. A rental car affords the opportunity to see something of the central provinces on the way, and there are frequent and comfortable buses from the national bus terminal at Albrook. Call Transporte Panamá-David (314-6228). Cars can of course be rented in David.
Chiriquí’s central cordillera is the homeland of the Ngabe-Buglé Indian tribe. The easiest place to meet them is at Tolé, just off the Pan American Highway, where they display their crafts, the colorful women’s dresses, and the chaquira, a wide necklace woven with strings of fine beads.
The capital city
The city of David is on the coastal plain. It is a market town and center for the thriving agriculture and cattle industry which is the mainstay of the province. It is not quite a frontier town, but the feeling is there.
The famous island of Coiba is about 60 miles from the Chiriquí coastline. The former penal colony is now a wildlife refuge and fishermen’s haven. Speaking of fishing, boats can be chartered at the port of Pedregal, ten minutes down the road from the city’s main plaza.
For beaches, Las Olas Beach Resort at La Barqueta Beach to the west of the city welcomes visitors, and to the east, an hour down the Pan American Highway is the extensive Las Lajas beach where there is a hotel. Cabins can also be rented.
La Isleta, an “agro resort”, restaurant and marina situated just past the customs’ stop at Guabala, is worth a visit. The restaurant is excellent and kayak, fishing and farm tours are offered.
Small beach and fishing resorts are being developed in the area around Horconcitos which is off the Pan-American Highway about half an hour to the east of David. At Boca Chica you will find Seagull Cove (851-0036) and Gone Fishing Panama Resort (851-0104) and Bocas del Mar, Tel.: 6395-8757. The Boca Chica Plantation Resort is in the Istana Properties residential project.
If you are in David on a Sunday, you may find it fun to take in a rodeo at one of the clubs in the cattle country around David where visitors are treated as honored guests.
Take to the hills
Most visitors, however, will want to take to the hills. The immense bulk of the dormant Volcano Barú beckons to the north of the city, its 11,490 foot peak usually gloriously visible early morning; often cloud-capped later.
The volcano has two resort areas, Boquete on the east slope and Volcán, Cerro Punta and Guadalupe on the west. From David, a road takes you straight up with a steady rate-of-climb to the town of Boquete which nestles in a verdant valley against the volcano’s flank, and you enter another world, settled early last century by Europeans and Americans to grow coffee and flowers. Some of them were bound for California’s gold rush but stayed to exploit a more reliable harvest.
Mountain slopes around the valley today reflect the dark green lustre of the coffee plantations which produce a connoisseur’s bean exported to Europe and the U.S.A. Your hotel can arrange tours of coffee installations, called beneficios in Spanish. Coffee is harvested between September and April, mainly by Ngabe-Buglé Indian families.
Your hotel, too, can arrange to send you up to the peak of Volcán Baru in a four-wheel drive to see the sun rise on two oceans – an awesome and perhaps for some, a religious experience.
Boquete is headquarters for the river rafting companies which will send you on the white water of the Chiriquí Viejo and Estí rivers for class 2, 3, 4, and 5 adventures.
Horseback is another way to go. Local guide Eduardo Cano (720-1750) will take you on a 2-6 hour ride in spectacular country. Or hiking… public trails in the Palo Alto cloud forest are easy to follow and sneakers are fine. To go higher, waterproof hiking boots and a guide are recommended.
Big event of Boquete’s year is the Flower and Coffee Fair every January. You can walk around the fairground on the banks of the Caldera River to see the flowers at any time. They are best in December and January.
Other gardens to enjoy are El Explorador, open weekends and holidays and by special request (entrance fee $1), and the renowned formal gardens of the Gonzalez family which are open to the public free of charge.
Other events of note are the Orchid Fair in April and the Ecological Fair in June.
If bathing in hot springs or cold rivers appeals, the area of Caldera is your goal.
Very recently a new wave of immigrants has begun to settle in the highlands, especially Boquete. These are folk from North America and Europe seeking a retirement home, a second home or an investment such as in the field of tourism.
Boquete is expanding with numerous gated communities under construction bringing with them amenities such as restaurants and small hotels to enliven the town.
Boquete has one of the most spectacular golf courses in Central America. Lucero Golf and Country Club is the centrepiece of an upscale residential development on 70 acres of mountainside 15 minutes from the town. The 18-hole championship, 72 par course, has awe-inspiring views which can almost put a person off their stroke. Another course, nine holes but no less beautiful, is at the well-known Valle Escondido which has a fine hotel and cottage accommodation.
To make the most of a visit to the area stop by the Boquete visitor center on the main street as you enter the town. Call: 720-2545
Boquete Tree Trek
One of the most original and exciting ways to appreciate the beauty of the rain forest is on a zip-line canopy tour. Boquete Tree Trek offers this unique experience for adventurous types to contemplate the canopy along 13 zip lines while soaring through the cloud forest from one treetop station to another.
For those who prefer to keep both feet on the ground, there is still plenty to do and see at the Boquete Tree Trek Mountain Resort, an adventure destination with great hospitality and wonderful views. Visit
Bambito, Volcan and Cerro Punta
To find the road up to Volcan, Bambito, Cerro Punta and Guadalupe, Chiriqui’s other mountain resort area, you head westward out of David on the Pan American Highway to the town of Concepción, still on the coastal plain, and turn right at the road sign for Volcan, about 20 minutes from David. There is a new, more scenic road which goes from Dolega, on the road to Boquete to Cuesta de Piedra on the road between the Pan American Highway and Volcan.
Onward and upward, the air grows cool and the drive is sometimes through banks of cloud. You have reached sweater and three-blanket country.
The road levels off on a high plateau where lies the town of Volcán on the western flank of the volcano close to the peak. It is a small town, but with amenities enough—several good little restaurants, the San Benito handicraft shop, three hotels and a number of groups of cabins. Finca Guardia offers rides on fine Arabian horses through the green highlands of Volcan. Their miniature horses will delight children. Call 6616-2521.
Six kilometers west of Volcan is an archaeological site known at Sitio Barriles because of barrel-shaped boulders found there that are believed to have been an ancient form of wheel for moving large logs. Guided tours of the site are really interesting.
Statues from Barriles, now on show at the Reina Torres de Araúz Museum in Panama City, indicate that ancient Panamanians may have been of Asian and African origin and dating puts the civilization at 2000 BC to 250 AD. At Barriles you can learn of the mysteries which link the culture with Easter Island and other parts of the world.
Even more magical mountain country lies a little further on. Bambito Hotel is a spectacular landmark amid manicured lawns, lakes and fountains in a cleft in the steep hills.
The town of Cerro Punta, another 10 minutes and maybe a thousand feet higher, is almost as far as you can penetrate into the cordillera without donning stout boots and hacking a trail with your machete. It is at the head of a broad and magnificently fertile valley; a land flowing not only with milk and honey but strawberries from the rich volcanic soil and cream from the fat black-and-white Holstein cattle grazing in lush pastures.
This, more than any other area of the mountain, was settled partly by Europeans to whom small-holding and husbandry was a cherished way of life. Their successors, Panamanians now, till the soil with the same fervour today.
Driving the loop road which passes the village of Guadalupe is delightful. It skirts the impressive acres of a thoughbred racehorse stud farm, Haras Cerro Punta. Do not leave the area without taking the tour of the farm.
Dracula Orchid Farm
You can visit the Dracula Orchid farm which has one of the most complete collections of rare American orchids in the world (2,200 different species). A guide will show you how orchid plants live and bloom in their tropical garden and also
demonstrate the laboratory where modern methods have allowed them to mass produce more than a million plants in vitro.
Los Quetzales Ecolodge & Healing Spa in Guadalupe is a comfortable hotel constructed entirely with magnificient local hardwoods. Log fires take the chill from the brisk night air. Situated in the Friendship National Park deep in the cloud forest, it also offers cabins which are ideal for bird watching and hiking. The Resplendent Quetzal, that rarest of birds, can be seen here in the right season.
Apart from this there is really nothing to do in Cerro Punta. The solution is – do nothing. Just being there is enough.
Chiriqui is blessed with two national parks. The Friendship National Park and Volcan Baru National Park are divided by the Chiriqui Viejo River. Boquete, Volcan, Cuesta de Piedra and Potrerillos are in the Volcan Baru Park. Guadalupe and Cerro Punta have a foot in both Volcan Baru Park and Friendship Park which stretches over to Bocas del Toro and also into neighboring Costa Rica.