The Costa Rica Experience Moves Next Door

Jeff Koyen - The New York Times September 22, 2007
IT'S a Friday afternoon in Boquete, Panama, and the main street resembles Anytown, U.S.A. There is a mom-and-pop coffee shop with round tables, premade sandwiches and a dessert case. Nearby is a tiny video store, with posters advertising “Misión Imposible Tres” and “La Guerra de Los Mundos.” And down the block is a small deli that serves cheeseburgers with rice and beans.

At midday, when the air is warm but crisp, a casual pace falls over the town. Crocs-wearing tourists mingle with old-timers, making fishing and hiking plans for the following morning.

What feels at times like a newly minted resort town in New England or perhaps Southern California is actually the latest stop on Panama's growing tourist route. Tucked in the highlands near the Barú volcano, in the western Chiriquí region of Panama, Boquete is emerging as one of Central America's latest eco-tourism destinations.

Surrounded by green mountains topped by misty, craggy peaks, Boquete offers plenty of outdoors adventure, like hiking, climbing, bird-watching and white-water rafting. And thanks to a 3,000-foot elevation, the area's microclimate deducts 10 crucial degrees from the incessant lowland heat.

Wispy clouds meander overhead in the morning, but release their grip by midday. It's warm in the daytime, bracing at night, and perfect for growing bananas, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, strawberries and coffee — Chiriquí's main crops.

But unlike most eco-tourist hot spots, Boquete draws people not just to its natural beauty, however lush it may be, but also to its snowbird enclave. In the last two decades, a thriving community of North American baby boomers have built homes in and around town. Attracted first by the Napa-like weather and low cost of living, and then by the lax real estate laws — not to mention potable tap water — several thousand foreign families now own homes in Boquete, according to Tom Byrne, a 39-year-old developer who moved there from Ireland.

And while Boquete's real estate market was once dominated by porch-swinging retirees, the latest wave of arrivals tend to be younger couples in their 40s and 50s. Many are opening so-called hobby businesses — restaurants, touring companies, bed-and-breakfasts and wellness spas — geared for tourists.

While tourism is still light, at least when compared with Costa Rica next door, that is changing. At Amigos Restaurant (Central Park Plaza), opened by two Canadians in the center of town, a few older gringos were sipping beers on a recent Friday night. But the majority of customers were younger tourists, armed with Lonely Planet guides and digital cameras, filling up on hamburgers and French fries.

Boquete “is like Costa Rica 15 years ago,” Mr. Byrne said.

The comparison is apt, but not entirely accurate. Like the popular mountain towns Monteverde and La Fortuna in Costa Rica, Boquete is capitalizing on its forests, rivers and abundant wildlife.

But development in Panama is following a more upscale track. Tourists arrive in rented S.U.V.'s from David, Panama's fourth-largest city, and stay in the high-end hotels hidden off the main road and perched up in the hills.

One that is popular with honeymooners is the Panamonte Inn and Spa, which offers first-name service, candlelit dinners and spa wraps and massages, with garden cabins starting at $126 a night.

Another upscale hotel, La Montaña y el Valle Coffee Estate Inn, opened by Canadian expatriates, has three secluded bungalows set among jade green coffee trees and exotic flower gardens for $130.

Amenities like high-thread-count sheets and aromatherapy massages have cemented Boquete's reputation as a counterpart to Bocas del Toro, Panama's epicenter for Caribbean-style carousal. Whereas the coast is ideal for the partying singles set, there's nary a nightclub pushing beats into Boquete's fresh night air. After sunset, when most of the tourists have retreated to their luxurious hotels and hillside B & Bs, the town square is as quiet as a church.

Morning is when Boquete springs to life. Most days, a steady stream of blue rafts can be spotted bobbing down the Chiriquí Viejo, Gariche and Dolega rivers. One of the region's oldest outfits, Chiriquí River Rafting runs daily trips, from beginners' to Class IV rapids, starting at $60.

For those who want to remain dry, Coffee Adventures offers tours of the Kotowa coffee plantation, which claims Panama's oldest coffee mill, for $22.50. Visitors hike through rows of coffee trees, meet the pickers and, of course, sample fresh brews in the mill's cupping room.

Panama also offers magnificent bird-watching. The forests in and around Boquete are home to a dazzling array of quetzals, toucans and parrots.

But for adventure-seekers, there's only one way to appreciate Boquete's natural beauty: “tree trekking” or zip-lining. Boquete Tree Trek offers half-day trips for $60. After a bumpy uphill ride in the back of a pickup truck, nervous tourists are strapped into harnesses and sent on free-falls through the dense jungle canopy — 12 times.

Then it's back to the hotel for a hot stone massage. And maybe a nice bottle of red wine with dinner. But you'll want to turn in early and sink into the crisp white sheets as a gentle mountain breeze lulls you to sleep. There's plenty to do in the morning.