West of the Península de Azuero lies the rich agricultural province of Chiriquí. Here you’ll find David, Panama’s second city and a crossroads for travellers heading through Central America. North of David, you can escape the flat heat of the city and take refuge up in the cool of the Chiriquí Highlands, a beautiful region of cloudforests, fertile valleys and impressive mountain scenery. The varied landscapes all share the same basic characteristics of head-clearing air, cold nights and a deep, relentless green. National parks here – including Volcán Barú and La Amistad – are well protected, offering wonderful natural encounters and endless hiking opportunities. The substantial town of Boquete has many attractions of its own – particularly coffee- and flower-related – but it’s also a great base for activities, from rafting to hot-spring soaks. In contrast, the lowlands of the Golfo de Chiriquí hold other pleasures: from the laidback beach scene at Las Lajas, a broad belt of sand midway between Santiago and David, to Isla Boca Brava, further west, which affords access to islands with white-sand beaches and bird-rich mangroves. Western Panama is also home to the country’s most numerous indigenous group, the Ngöbe, whose women are instantly recognizable by their traditional, brightly coloured, long cotton dresses.
BOQUETE is set in the tranquil Caldera Valley, 1000m above sea level. Some 37km north of David, it is the biggest town in the Chiriquí Highlands, and sits smack in the middle of Panama’s two coasts. The road to Boquete ends in the highlands, so those wishing to travel on to Bocas del Toro from here must go back to David before catching a bus onwards. The slopes surrounding the town are dotted with coffee plantations, flower gardens and orange groves, and rise to rugged peaks that are usually obscured by thick clouds. When those clouds clear, however – most often in the morning – you can see the imperious peak of Volcán Barú, which dominates the town to the northwest. Foreign investment targeting retirees from the US has flooded the area in recent years, seeing the construction of all-inclusive luxury condos and the clearing of cloudforest to make way for golf courses and retirement homes, causing various tensions within the community. For all that, Boquete remains an attractive destination offering a host of activities.
The main attraction of Boquete is the opportunities it affords for exploring the surrounding countryside. As well as the climb to the summit of the volcano – a strenuous day’s walk or a couple of hours on a bone-shaking drive – there are plenty of less demanding walks you can make along the narrow country lanes.
One of these walks, heading out of Boquete to the north towards the hamlet of Alto Lino, takes you past the Café Ruiz factory, a ten-minute stroll from town. Tours explore the coffee-making process.
January’s Festival de las Flores y del Café (wferiadeboquete.com) sees Boquete’s otherwise tasteful and discreet appreciation of coffee and flowers give way to lusty, noisy rejoicing. Throughout the ten-day celebrations, which coincide with the coffee harvest, the local fairgrounds explode with flower fireworks – you’ll never see so many orchids – and the locals plant their own gardens accordingly. Stalls spring up selling food, handicrafts and coffee to the thousands of visitors wandering around, followed everywhere by loud, live music. In the evenings the rum is cracked open and people dance around the fairgrounds until dawn. Book accommodation well in advance and avoid the fairground area if you want to get any sleep.
The fairgrounds bloom again in April for the orchid festival, while the annual jazz festival in March is also a big crowd-puller (wboquetejazzandbluesfestival.com/festival-2018).
Almost 2000m above sea level in a bowl-shaped valley surrounded by densely forested mountains, CERRO PUNTA is the highest village in Panama. In the eighty or so years since it was settled, the town’s fertile soil has produced some eighty percent of all the vegetables consumed in Panama – there are little patches of cultivated land everywhere you look – although this agricultural boom has not done the surrounding forests any good. The town’s altitude gives it a crisp atmosphere, and the taste of the food and the smell of the orchids seem all the better for it.
Everything in tiny Cerro Punta is spread out along the main road from David and a side road leading towards Parque Internacional La Amistad. The scenery, together with the fresh mountain air, makes Cerro Punta a perfect base for hiking – the pristine cloudforests of the national parks of Amistad and Volcán Barú are both within easy reach and two of the best places in Central America to catch a glimpse of the elusive quetzal, early in the morning in the dry season (Jan–April).
Three Spanish settlements were founded in this area in 1602; DAVID was the only one to survive repeated attacks from indigenous groups. It developed slowly as a marginal outpost of the Spanish Empire, but in 1732 it was overrun and destroyed by British-backed Miskito groups raiding from Nicaragua. As settlement of Chiriquí increased in the nineteenth century, David began to thrive once again. Today, despite being a busy commercial city – the second largest in the country after Panama City – it retains a sedate provincial atmosphere. Hot and dusty, its unexceptional modern architecture spreads out on a grid, with recent attempts to restore original colonial structures in the east side. While it is not so much a destination in itself, plenty of travellers stop here en route to or from Panama City, Costa Rica, Boquete or Bocas del Toro, and find they enjoy the visit. At Carnaval, of course, things spice up considerably, and David also has a festival all of its own: the Feria de San José thunders its way through ten raucous days every March.
David centres on Parque Cervantes, a fine, tree-shaded place to people-watch with a cup of freshly squeezed sugar-cane juice (caña) perked up with tropical lemon, or a dose of coconut water (agua de pipa). Three blocks southeast of the park lies the oldest part of the city, where the crumbling colonial mansion that was home to successive generations of the distinguished Obaldía family, and former city museum, has sadly been left to decay. A couple more blocks southeast lies the city’s ancient bell tower, and the cathedral – worth a peek inside to take in the garish modern murals.
The attractive Pacific island of ISLA BOCA BRAVA has two beaches – both quite plain – and its patch of rainforest is crisscrossed by paths that are nice to ramble around while you seek out howler monkeys, armadillos and the like. The island’s small size ensures that you’re not in any danger of getting lost. You can also arrange a snorkelling trip to nearby islands with white-sand beaches.
PARQUE INTERNACIONAL LA AMISTAD covers four thousand square kilometres of rugged, forested mountains teeming with wildlife (including five cat species), on either side of the border with Costa Rica. Although most of Panama’s share technically falls in Bocas del Toro, the sliver that is in Chiriquí is best prepared for visitors, with three well-marked trails, including a 4km return trip to a 55m waterfall.
Covering an area of 140 square kilometres, PARQUE NACIONAL VOLCÁN BARÚ runs between Boquete across the northern flank of Volcán Barú, Panama’s highest peak, and Cerro Punta, Panama’s highest major settlement.
Hiking the well-known Sendero Los Quetzales between Boquete and Cerro Punta (10km; 4–6hr at a moderate pace with stops) can be done in both directions. The trail, which allows you to travel between the Highlands’ two principal settlements through stunning scenery, is immensely satisfying, especially as it avoids a lengthy bus journey up the mountain from David and down again. There are trailheads at El Respingo, near Cerro Punta, and Alto Chiquero, near Boquete.
Starting from Cerro Punta you get more downhill walking, though this is much more difficult and slippery after rain. From Boquete there is more uphill, though only the last section is very steep – and it is easier to climb than descend after rain. In this direction, you also get into the forest earlier and are therefore more likely to see quetzals.
Note that, due to the large numbers of visitors combined with floods and landslides during the rainy season, the trail has been closed several times over the years. A guide is highly recommended, and you shouldn’t attempt the hike after very heavy rain since the river you have to ford will likely be impassable.
Volcán Barú is Panama’s tallest mountain (3475m) and an extinct volcano that dares all visitors to take it on. From the park entrance (US$5), south of Boquete, a 13.5km-long boulder-strewn road, passable only with a customized 4WD, winds up to the cloud-shrouded peak. It’s a steep and strenuous four- to eight-hour hike, and another six hours or so back to Boquete.
From the top, the cloud cover breaks every so often to reveal the sight of at least one of the oceans. Your best chance of catching the breathtaking view of both the Pacific and Atlantic is to climb in the dry season (late Dec–April), in the dark (head torch needed), setting off around midnight or 1am, to arrive at the summit at dawn. Although the trail is for the most part clear and not technical, a guide is recommended in case the weather turns foul and foggy, or someone twists their ankle.
Take waterproof clothing, dress in layers and wear good hiking shoes.
The impressive 12km band of soft tan sand that is PLAYA LAS LAJAS lies 124km west of Santiago and 81km east of David. At weekends and during holiday periods it attracts hordes of city-dwellers desperate to escape the heat, who fill up the handful of hotels and cabañas or camp under thatched shelters lining the back of the beach. At other times, the place is deliciously deserted. There’s nothing to do but play in the waves, watch the formations of pelicans and chill out. It’s perfect for wild beach camping, and there are a couple of local restaurants. A new dive centre offers dive trips to Coiba and Islas Secas (wlaslajasbeachdivers.com) but will take people out snorkelling too.