Panama: San Blas to Boquete

This morning we were up before the sun.  I felt well rested, but the fact that it was still dark out made it really difficult to get up and get moving.  We finished packing up and stepped out the door just as the sun was starting to paint the sky dark hues of purple, smeared with lighter shades of pink.  We could just barely see the palm trees illuminated against the lighting sky.

YandupSunriseWe had a quick breakfast of eggs and bread, and we headed down to the boat with two other couples to shuttle over to the airstrip.  The sun was mostly up under a heavy, overcast sky as the boat backed away from the pier.  We lucked out and had great weather, for the rainy season, while we were here, so I guess it’s good we’re moving on today.


YandupIslandLeavingAt the airstrip, we checked in with a woman in the small, concrete building and dropped our bags.  They weighed each one, which they didn’t do in Panama City, and were actually charging people for weights over the limit.  (I think the limit was 14-15 kilos, or roughly 30 lbs.)

We sat in plastic chairs alongside the runway for 20 minutes or so waiting for the incoming flight.  As we waited, we watched as all of the elementary aged kids, dressed in their navy and white school uniforms, filed across the bridge from the village and made their way to school.  They were rambunctious, and several stopped to hop up on the concrete wall along the runway and scan the sky for the plane.

Once the plane landed, we waited about 5 minutes as incoming passengers filed off and baggage was exchanged.  It took us about another 5 minutes to board, and we were off, just a little behind the scheduled departure, but luckily ahead of the rain.


As we ascended over the water, we got a great view of the Yandup island and the lay of the land/water around it.

PlaneViewYandupIslandThe flight was a short 50-or-so minutes back to Albrook in Panama City with a short stopover at another Kuna airstrip to pick up additional passengers.  We flew at a low altitude, along the water most of the way.  I knew we were almost back to the city when I started to see the boats dotting the water just outside the canal again.

PanamaCityPlaneViewBoatsWhen we arrived, things were a bit more rigorous than I expected.  We filed off of the plane onto the tarmac, and walked as a group to the entry hall.  We had to wait outside for about 10 minutes, with no real explanation of why we were waiting, before someone showed up to check all of our passports.  Even though we had just come from a domestic location.  After our passports were checked, we filed into the entry hall where our luggage was cordoned off, and waited another 5-10 minutes while they brought in drug dogs and had them sniff all of the luggage.  Once they were done, they called off the numbers on each bag and we had to swap our claim ticket for the bag.  We collected our luggage and filed through x-ray scanner lines where all bags and belongings were inspected.  Overall, it took us about 35 minutes from landing to exiting the entry hall area.

We had roughly 1.5 hours before our flight to David, and we weren’t allowed to enter the departures area yet, so we grabbed some snacks and camped out on a bench in the ticketing area to wait.

The flight to David was quick – about an hour – and at pretty low altitude again.  We flew over the water most of the way.  As we cut back over land and started to descend, there was a patchwork of landscape in different shades of green, divided by a water inlet.  In the distance we could see storm clouds looming.

PlaneViewBoqueteBy the time we were on the ground, it was pouring rain.  All of the ground crew were out in yellow rain suits, and there was a river of water rushing across the tarmac.  We sat on the plane for about 10 minutes waiting for the rain to let up so we could make it to the arrival hall without getting soaked.

PlaneViewBoqueteRainThe arrival in David was much easier.  No passport control, and no drug sniffing dogs.  We grabbed our bags and filed out to meet our ride to Boquete.  Randy at Mañana Madera Coffee Estate had arranged transportation for us from the airport to his place, and she was there with a sign with my name on it, waiting for us.  It was so nice to start off with a friendly, smiling face, someone who was expecting us and knew exactly where to take us without us having to worry about a thing.

By the time we got out to the parking lot, the rain was gone and the sun was shining.  It was super humid, and there were still rivers of water running alongside the streets, but it was sunny!  Traffic was pretty heavy and it was slow going getting out of the city.  Once we were out, though, it was a four-lane, divided highway with very little traffic, and beautiful views of Volcán in front of us.

DriveToBoqueteThe landscape was fairly flat and very green with lots of trees, and the mountains looming in the background.

DriveToBoquete2The drive took about 45 minutes.  We jammed out to some music and soaked in the scenery as we went.  There wasn’t much of anything of interest between leaving David and arriving in Boquete.  This is the farmland of the country, and it’s very undeveloped, but beautiful.

It was a little after noon when we arrived in Boquete, and we were starving, so we were dropped at Big Daddy’s Grill on the main drag downtown with the promise that Randy would be along to collect us soon.

We sat out on the back patio, which was an open-air, covered area with a few tables and a small bar.  I got the feeling this place doesn’t get a lot of locals, as it was just a bunch of gringos in there (ourselves included), and the food was pretty standard American fare, but it was good and priced well.  One thing to note, you have to pay in cash here, so be prepared!

KBigDaddysBoqueteWe started out with “Boquete’s Best Margaritas,” which I have to say were pretty good.  I got a chicken quesadilla and K had a burger and fries.  Both were pretty good.  And the bill for food, two margaritas and two beers was only $27.

BigDaddysQuesadillaAs promised, Randy showed up just as we were finishing our beers.  It was a 5 minute drive, up the mountain and out of town, to Mañana Madera.  We turned onto a narrow, gravel driveway and drove up a steep hill, past a huge hillside of potatoes and veggies, to the suites at the top of the hill.


Mañana Madera Coffee Estate:

We knew from reviews on TripAdvisor to expect something great, but what we got was beyond our expectations.  This place is AMAZING.  The suite was clean, modern, tons of natural light, spectacular views and all the comforts of home.

The suite has a tiled entry hall, that leads directly into the living room/dining room, and branches off into the bedroom/bathroom area.  There’s a full wall of windows with sheer curtains that let the light in, but preserve privacy.

MananaMaderaEntryHallThe bedroom is basic, but comfy with the main focus on the beautiful view right out the window.  The bed had clean, soft, comfy linens.  There were bedside tables on both sides with small reading lamps, a bureau for clothes, a comfy chair in the corner, luggage racks – all the comforts of home.  I was impressed that there were even flashlights, a deck of cards and batteries in the bedside tables.  No detail has gone unthought of here.

MananaMaderaBedroomThe closet had two hammocks – one for each of us – with pillows folded up inside, two blankets for use outside with the hammocks and even nice, good quality rain jackets for us to use while here!  That’s service!

The bathroom was equally clean, simple and modern.  And again, it had all the comforts of home.  There was even Aveda shampoo in the shower – which was a welcome relief for my poor waist-length hair that’s been using the sub-par stuff they left in our cabaña in San Blas.  The towels were clean, soft and fluffy.  There was a good quality hair dryer and even a nightlight left in the drawer for us to use.

MananaMaderaBathroom2The beautiful tiled shower was super clean, had natural light and great water pressure.  It really was just like being at home – maybe even better!

MananaMaderaBathroomThe living room/dining room is an open area with tons of windows and the basics for comfortable living while we’re here.  There was a comfy loveseat and footrests for each seat, a small TV/DVD player and a bookshelf full of books to read while here.  The TV doesn’t have cable or reception, but that was fine for us; there was a good selection of movies if we felt the need to watch something.  We also had WiFi with our own router right in the living room, so the signal strength was great.

MananaMaderaLivingRoomThe dining room has a small table with two chairs, a mini fridge, a small table with coffee maker, fresh ground Mañana Madera coffee, mugs and all the fixin’s for coffee.  The star of the show here, again, was the spectacular view right out the sliding door.

MananaMaderaDiningIt wasn’t captured very well in the photos above, but this was our view from the table in the dining room and from the bedroom window.

MananaMaderaViewFromPorchWe also had a dry erase board where we write down our breakfast order and what time we’d like to served and put it outside our door before bed.  Randy and Kat come around and pick them up in the morning and serve breakfast in the room.  The menu has things like oatmeal, fruit, Randy’s homemade sausage, french toast…all sorts of good stuff!

BreakfastBoardThe final touch was the pre-paid cell phone that Randy left with us for the duration of our stay.  He told us to use it to call him anytime we needed anything, or to make limited local calls.  He left a book in the room for us with a list of excursions we could plan, massage therapists that come to Mañana Madera for in-room massages, restaurants/menus, etc.

Seriously, I could go on and on about this place.  It has all the comforts of home right here in the jungle of Panama.  I am still torn between sharing this place with others and keeping it to myself so that it’s open when we come back.

Once Randy left us, we immediately headed out to the ranchito for some R&R and reading.  We grabbed our hammocks and pillows from the closet, and I picked up a book I’d been wanting to read for a while (Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer) off the shelf in the room, and out we went.

Right outside our door is a walkway connecting our room down to the ranchito.  It’s not a main thoroughfare through the estate; it solely connects us to the ranchito, so we have a ton of privacy.  The only patron of the path, other than us, is Chubbs the dog.  The path is flanked on both sides with tons of flora, including the coffee beans.

MananaMaderaWalkwayToRanchitoRight now the coffee isn’t fully ripe; there’s a mix of red and green beans on the plants.  Red is ripe, so it looks like it still has quite a ways to go.

MananaMaderaCoffeeBeansThe ranchito is a small, square, covered area with a few Adirondak chairs and a set of hooks on each side to hang a hammock.  The views of the surrounding area, including Volcán Baru are breathtaking, and there are plants all around that attract hummingbirds.

MananaMaderaKHangingHammockWe hung up our hammocks and climbed in.  The ranchito sits up above the surrounding area on a concrete platform, so when you lay back in your hammock, you feel like you’re hanging on the edge of the world, overlooking it all.

MananaMaderaKHammockIt didn’t take long before Chubbs found his way down to us for some ear scratches and company.

MananaMaderaKChubbsHammockHe ran back and forth between K and I, begging for pets from both of us, before crashing and napping under K’s hammock.

MananaMaderaRChubbsHammockReadingThere was a slight breeze that rocked me, and my hammock swallowed me up like a cocoon.  It didn’t take long before I’d dozed off.  We spent a few hours alternating between reading and napping – not a bad way to spend the afternoon!  The best part was no one else even came down there the entire time we were there.  It was so quite and peaceful, and the air was so refreshing.  It’s so beautiful, protected and isolated here, there’s no room for anything else – no worries, no pressure to be anywhere else or be productive.  I imagine this is what retirement feels like!

On our way back up to the room, Randy caught us and asked if we wanted to come with him and Kat to pick some wild berries and see some of the area.  Of course we jumped on the chance to get a look at the area, and spend some time doing as the locals do.

We hopped in the backseat of Randy’s truck and started off, headed further up the mountain from Mañana Madera.  We scanned the bushes along the road looking for berries, but didn’t find much of anything; it seems they’ve already been picked over.

Instead of berries, we got to see some other interesting places/things along the road.  At one point, there is a cool river, carving its way through a field of large rocks, and pouring under the roadway bridge beneath us, headed toward town.  The area is sparsely populated and unbusy, so the only noise we heard was the water spilling down the rocks along its path.

RKBoqueteRoadWaterfallJust off the bank of the river here is an old, abandoned castle.  It was built several years ago by a wealthy man for him and his wife, but unfortunately both passed away before it was completed.  Now it sits empty and partially vandalized.  Rumor has it that it’s also haunted.  It does give off a beautifully creepy vibe, though I have to admit my first thought was, “Wow.  That would be a great place to throw a party!”

BoqueteAbandonedCastleA little further toward town, we came upon walls of basalt rock formations like nothing we’ve ever seen before.  There were a few rock climbers up on the walls, and I started to feel a little bummed we didn’t bring our climbing gear along.  Each individual layer of rock is clearly defined, and looks like a vertical staircase of incredibly shallow steps.  The ends of the walls are a mishmash of jagged ends of the rock layers, poking out like a handful of misaligned toothpicks.  It was SO cool.  The photo doesn’t really do it much justice.

BoqueteRockWallAs we headed back, with no berries to show for our trip, we stopped to pick guajava (or guava) instead.  They grow wild along the road on short, wide bushes.  We picked several and tried a few.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever eaten a guava before, so I figured where better to try one, than right here, directly from the source?  Without even washing it…I like to live on the wild side!

REatingGuajavaThe outside was a lime green, the inside was a light pink and full of seeds.  I’m not sure that it was completely ripe.  The inside was really tart.

EatenGuajavaWith a small stash of guajava, we headed back home.  We got back to the suite with some time to spare before dinner, showered, got ready and read for a bit before our cab driver arrived to take us into town.

Randy has an agreement with a few cab drivers in town that he knows, and who know where he lives, that take his guests into town and back for a small, set fare.  He explained to us that, because he is outside of town, not everyone knows where to find his place, and they may give us the inflated gringo fare if we hail someone in town, so it’s best for us to stick with his guys.

Tonight, at Randy’s recommendation, we chose to eat at Hotel Panamonte.  We chose to eat in the bar area, rather than the formal dining room, and I think we made a good choice.  We walked through the main lobby and followed a walkway around a lovely, outdoor courtyard to the separate bar area.

The bar was a cozy, welcoming space with several little nooks set up with couches and coffee tables, over-sized plush chairs and a couple of fireplaces.  The center of the room had a lovely bar, and a few dining tables and chairs.  The room was dimly lit – mostly by firelight and dozens of candles about, supplemented by vintage sconces in strategic spots around the room.  It had a very comfortable and slightly romantic feel.  And, aside from the bartender, we were the only people in the place – one major upside of traveling in the off season.

PanamonteInsideMy photo doesn’t really do the place justice – my point and shoot doesn’t do well with low light, but I hate using a flash and overexposing/ruining the real ambiance of the place.  The link above to the hotel has much better photos.  It really is very beautiful.

We had a decent bottle of pinot grigio, which seemed to fit the ambiance of the place.  K had a delicious pork chop with mango salsa, served on a small heap of mashed potatoes.  I had chicken risotto in a tomato-based sauce, covered in huge green olives. The food was delicious, and servings were filling. So much so that neither of us even wanted dessert, which is rare.

PanamonteRisottoService was impeccable, though I’m not sure if this was because we were the only people in the place, or if it’s usually like that.  The server was great about being attentive without making it awkward with us being the only people there.

We used the cell phone Randy provided to give him a call as we were finishing up dinner, and he arranged for Jose to meet us back out front in 20 minutes.  It was a 10-15 minute cab ride and cost us $7 each way – not too bad.

We got back to the room and crashed on the loveseat in the living room to let our food digest.  I’ve been playing online trying to determine what we’ll do tomorrow and writing.  K has been reading and dozing off.  Our first day in Boquete was a pretty good one.  We’re excited to get out and explore some of the trails around here tomorrow!

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