At the narrowest point of the land bridge between North and South America lies Panama — home to many expats and an increasingly popular vacation destination, especially for adventurous travellers. From the pulsing, cosmopolitan vibe of Panama City to rainforest jungles and little-developed islands accessible only by boat, the Central American country is full of diverse attractions, natural resources, and delights just waiting to be discovered.
In eastern Panama, near the Costa Rican border, the mountain highlands town of Boquete welcomes visitors with its soft breezes and wealth of activities. Dotted with coffee farms and a kaleidoscope of stunning tropical gardens, Boquete is home to about 6,000 permanent residents, many of whom have moved here from other countries, drawn by the peaceful lifestyle, beauty, a thriving cultural scene, and the nearly perfect climate.
While the town is easily walkable and home to markets, great international restaurants, and shopping, it’s the surrounding trails, farms, and bodies of water that beg for exploration. Here are our top picks for adventurous travellers.
Explore the mountain trails
Rising up behind the town is the imposing (but inactive) Volcán Barú, the highest point in the country, with the Rio Caldera flowing through it. Dozens of kilometres of hiking trails — mostly rated moderate, with a few easy and difficult ones — wind through the cloud forest where birds sing overhead, and past numerous waterfalls.
For flora enthusiasts, Boquete’s ancient and pristine rainforests boast a bouquet, with lilies, hibiscus, roses, carnations, sunflowers, and orchids growing along the trails. In addition to wildlife such as howler monkeys and sloths, the forests are also home to hundreds of bird species, including the Resplendent Quetzal (which was regarded as sacred by the ancient Mayans). Most hiking trails in Panama are not maintained nor have adequate signage, and trail maps are not comprehensive. Heavy rains sometimes leave certain hiking trails inaccessible, even for years, and many hiking trails are located on private property. Getting lost in the rainforest can put your life in danger, since sudden river surges, precipices, cold nights, and other hazards are real threats. Therefore, outside of the most accessible and popular trails, such as Pipeline, Lost Waterfalls and Los Quetzales, it’s advisable to hike with a certified guide from a reputable company.
Hiking trips range from free to $120, depending on necessity of transportation and/or guide. Naturalist tours are $25 per person, and horseback riding is $30. Rock climbing and zip-lining can also be found in the area.
The steep topography, abundant watersheds, and biological diversity found in Boquete make whitewater rafting an incredible way to experience the area with an adrenaline kick. World-class rapids provide exciting adventures on several area rivers, including the Chiriqui Viejo, Fonseca, and others.
And of course, between paddling and steering through the class 1–3 whitewater rapids found here, the lush tropical jungle surrounding you is a gorgeous backdrop for spotting wildlife if you’re lucky, or just taking in the scenery as you float through the many areas of tranquil water. You’ll pass by waterfalls, rocky beaches, and beneath Instagram-worthy bridges. River rafting is available during the rainy season (May through November) and the early part of the dry season (December and early January).
Full-day whitewater rafting trips range from $70–$95.
Coffee farm visits
Most of the coffee in Panama is grown in the Boquete region, meaning some of the world’s best beans can be found here, earning the region the nickname “the Bordeaux of coffee.” The Boquete area produces one of the most expensive and sought after coffees in the world: Geisha, which has been sold for up to $140 USD per pound at international coffee auctions — and that’s for green, unroasted beans. By the time they reach retail customers, top-shelf Geisha can fetch hundreds of dollars for an 8oz (227 g) bag. Geisha beans originally came from Ethiopia, but today Panama is the only place in the world where the beans are grown.
The rich, fertile volcanic soil on the mountainsides is home to dozens of coffee farms, many of which are open to the public for visits and tours. Located about six kilometres (3.7 mi) out of town, Kotowa Estates is one of the oldest coffee plantations in the country, dating back nearly a century. Walking through the greenery and seeing the process of how coffee beans are grown, harvested, and produced for end use is fascinating. The environmentally sustainable estate has also preserved about 202 hectares (500 acres) set aside as a wildlife sanctuary.
G Adventures’ Kotowa Coffee factory tour is $30 per person.
G Adventures runs a number of departures to Panama encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this enchanting country as you’ve never seen it — check out our small group trips to Panama here.