Saturday, November 24, 2012

Insider's Guide to Exploring Panama's Highlands
By Jessica Ramesch
Boquete is Panama’s best-known highland town, with mild temperatures in the low 70s to mid-80s F... and misty rains that keep everything carpeted in kelly green.
But there’s much more to this highland region. I visit every year and I’ve found a rich tapestry, woven with the bright threads of local culture, welcoming people, and fun activities. To get ready to explore, visitors need only learn the names of the three main towns: Boquete, Volcan, and Cerro Punta...
You can hire guides to do so much in these towns—horseback riding, zip-lining, white water rafting, rock climbing, coffee plantation tours...even Spanish courses for longer visits.
There’s a new community center in Boquete where expats put on plays (in English). The yearly jazz festival is just one of the many music events that take place here every year...there are local bands, symphony performances, and more. And I’ve already lost count of how many different expat groups, social clubs, and charitable organizations there are here.
To get the most authentic highland experience, though, don’t restrict yourself to indoor activities... I’ve discovered a whole new world outdoors.
This is the land of the Ngöbe-Buglé tribespeople. Everything from their history to their adorable children is fascinating. When I moved to Panama six years ago, I read about how they fought—hard—to gain autonomy over their vast reserve lands. But when I saw them for the first time, I was in awe.

The women still wore their bright traditional dresses—solid blocks of color with geometric trim. In the men I saw vestiges of the warrior class...strong jaws and authoritative airs. I loved talking to them. They have such different views on how the planet is changing... from a world of green, supple, natural materials, to one of concrete blocks, emulsion paint, and hot tin roofs. They’re walking a fine line between adapting and preserving their culture.
To learn more about the ancient indigenous cultures, I went to the mysterious Sitio Barriles. Just a few miles west of Volcan, at Finca Landau, the site reveals just a little about the warrior-dominated society that originated here millennia ago. My favorite artifacts are stone statues of men wearing what we modern humans would call dunce hats. They look regal (and a little funny), riding on the shoulders of their fellow tribesmen.
One of my favorite experiences in this Highland area is a visit to Panama’s highest peak, Volcan Baru. The 11,400-foot dormant volcano is visible from nearly anywhere in the region. But if you’re not content to view it from afar, hire a guide, train up a bit, and hike to the top. On a clear day, I saw both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans from the peak. It’s a sight to make your heart burst (literally, from the exertion, but mostly figuratively!)
You can spot the resplendent quetzal, a bird whose beauty is legendary, on and around the Los Quetzales trail. The quetzal is my favorite bird...and in a country of over 900 species, that is saying something. With its fuzzy head, it looks almost like a stuffed toy—too perfect to be real.
If you are a lover of racehorses, visit Haras Cerro Punta. You’ll find Panama’s best thoroughbreds here. The first time I went, a guide told us we could actually ride a 2,300-pound, majestic Percheron. His name is Centurion, but he’s more gentle than warlike. My friend was happy to mount him...but horses never go where I want them to, so I passed.
Finca Dracula, right outside Cerro Punta, is perhaps the most magical place in the Highlands. It’s an exotic wonderland under a leafy canopy, studded with "vampire" Dracula orchids (and countless other varieties).
I’ve seen the blooms here many times. Now, when I visit, it’s to take in the whole atmosphere. There are spiky bromeliads popping out from tree trunks...feathery ferns sprouting from the ground...and emerald green hummingbirds, flitting from tree to tree. I like to call it 360 degrees of green.
Dracula orchids abut La Amistad National Park. It’s so big it spans two provinces in Panama and juts into neighboring Costa Rica. It’s my favorite place for a group hike...the La Cascada trail ends at a waterfall so pretty it’s used for stock video footage. I love taking my friends here on group hikes. Hot from all the exercise, we throw ourselves into the cold, cold water (shrieking and shivering). Then we enjoy a picnic of cheese sandwiches and fresh fruit...pineapple, passion fruit, mango...whatever’s in season. (And maybe a little wine...)
The Panama Highlands are like their own little universe, and you can explore for months and still never be done. That’s what’s kept me coming back all these years...