The Capital City
Take to the hills
Bambito, Volcan and Cerro Punta
Last update: November, 2009
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 dragons' 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. Mass tourism has not yet arrived.
Panamanian leisure seekers ascend the slopes of the mighty Volcano Baru at week-ends and keep the hotels fairly busy, but from Monday to Friday you can take your pick.
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), or Padafront (314-6263). Cars can of course be rented in David.
Chiriquí’s central cordillera is the homeland of the Guaymí (Ngöbe-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 cabins can be rented.
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. One is at Boca Chica and is called "Gone Fishing Panama Resort". Tel.: 6573-0151.
Cala Mia Resort is a luxury desert island destination, situated in the Chiriqui Marine Park. With two beautiful beaches, infinity pool, spa and Michelin-trained chef, it treats its visitors royally, while maintaining an eco-friendly ambience.
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.
resplandeciente quetzal. Foto cortesía de Hotel Los Quetzales.
Take to the hills
Most visitors, however, will want to take to the hills. The immense bulk of the dormant 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.
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.
Paradise Gardens is another attraction and is also a wild animal rescue and rehabilitation center. open 10 a.m to 4p.m. every day except Wednesday Call: 6615-6618.
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.
Whether or not you plan to "take the waters" at the Caldera hot Springs, you would enjoy the short drive from Boquete to Rancho de Caldera, a boutique hotel with magnificent views which welcomes guests for lunch or dinner at their restaurant Madre Tierra.
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.
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 boquetevisitorcenter.com
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 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.
You can visit the Dracula Orchid farm. Mr. Erick Olmos, the administrator, is usually on hand to give you a guided tour of the farm which has one of the most complete collections of rare American orchids in the world (2,200 different species). He will show you how orchid plants live and bloom in their tropical garden and also demostrate the laboratory where modern methods have allowed them to mass produce more than a million plants in vitro.
Los Quetzales Lodge & Spa in Guadalupe is a comfortable hotel constructed entirely with magnificient local hardwoods. Log fires take the chill from the brisk night air. Los Quetzales, situated in the Friendship National Park deep in the cloud forest, also offers cabins which are ideal for bird watching and hiking. The Resplendant 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.
farms provide much of Panama’s fresh vegetable produce.
Suggestions for eating out in Chiriquí