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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 wild 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 dragon’s lairs and around every bend in the road— a rainbow.
Chiriqui lies on the Pacific shore of Panama’s western province bordering Costa Rica. It is a place to discover. Organised tourism, aside from the occasional birdwatching group, has not yet arrived.
Panamanian leisure seekers ascend the slopes of the mighty Volcano Baru at week-ends and keep the few hotels fairly busy, but from Monday to Friday you can take your pick — no reservations necessary. Rejoice in a land where you can almost feel that no tourist has ever trod before.
The high farms of Chiriqui 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 Resplendant 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 an hour.
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. Companies to call are Transporte Panamá-David (314-6228), Padafront (314-6264) or Cinco Estrellas (314-6285). Cars can of course be rented in David.
The Guaymi Indians are Panama’s best-known Indian tribe after the Kunas of San Blas. Chiriqui’s central cordillera is their homeland.
The easiest place to meet the Guaymi is at Tolé, just off the Pan American Highway, where you’ll also find one of Panama’s favorite tourist souvenirs— 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 visitor, and to the last, an hour down the Pan American Highway is the extensive Las Lajas beach.
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.


El resplandeciente quetzal. Foto cortesía de Hotel Los Quetzales.

Finca La Suiza
If a day in the jungle seems like a good idea, an excellent option is to go to Hornito, on the road to Bocas del Toro where you will find Finca La Suiza, a lodge run by a Swiss couple who live on a couple of hundred hectareas of virgin rainforest where they maintain jungle trails, 20 hours of them if you have the energy. Hornito is an hour by bus, less by car, from David. Entrance is $8. It is a magnificent experience. Tel 615-3774.
Take to the hills
Most visitors, however, will want to take to the hills. The immense bulk of the extinct Volcano Baru 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 Volcan, 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 instalations, called beneficios in Spanish. Coffee is harvested between September and April, mainly by Guaymi Indian families, the women in their colourful dresses.
Your hotel, too, can arrange to send you up to the peak of Volcan Baru in a four-wheel drive to see the sun rise on two oceans — an experience somewhere between awesome and religious.
Boquete
Boquete is headquarters for the river rafting companies which will send you on the white water of the Chiriqui 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 still unspoilt but infrastructure such as restaurants and small hotels is enlivening the town.
The Hotel Panamonte, Boquete’s longest established hotel, still offers the finest dining on the mountain in unpretentious elegance and with old-world courteous service.
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 where a large billboard points the way to Hotel Bambito.
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 Volcan 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, two 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 616-2521.
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. Bambito hotel is a five star establishment offering elegance and luxury which contrast deliciously with its rugged surroundings.
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 succesors, Panamanians now, till the soil with the same fervour today.
Driving the loop road which passes the village of Guadalupe is delightful. You can visit the Dracula Orchid farm or you can go and see a Resplendant Quetzal. Ask at Hotel Los Quetzales at Guadalupe— which also offers cabins deep in the cloud forest.
Apart from this there is really nothing to do in Cerro Punta. The solution then is, do nothing. Just being there is enough.


Chiriqui farms provide much of Panama’s fresh vegetable produce.

 

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