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—
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
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
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.
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.
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 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
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
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.