Panama Highlands: Birds, Coffee and the Scary Zipline

March 3, 2010
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BOQUETE, Panama –You would be right to imagine that there is simply no better place to see the beauties of the cloud forests’ birds and astonishing vistas — gorges, valleys, forests, fauna galore — than from among the very tops of those trees.

You would not be right to imagine that I saw much of that fauna, forests, valleys, etc. from the zipline here in the very very very high hills of Chiriqui Province. What I mostly saw was the insides of my eyelids, tightly clenched as I hurtled down the zipline here at highway speeds, strapped to a cable, rocketing through the landscape like a meteor.

A hummingbird at the Lerida planatation (Horgan Photos)

The cloud forest canopy zipline here is an amazing thing — a dozen links whereby, sanity checked at the door, we whistled down from the heights at truly amazing speeds, over the trees, through the trees. Having trucked high up into already high highlands, we were lashed to the cable and sent flying. Again and again. Everyone enjoyed it more than I did, and I enjoyed it a lot — as I can I say now, having survived.

They all did it more smoothly than I, me spinning like a helicopter rotor occasionally, usually braking badly and having to haul myself the last yards. And it was me alone who clonked his face into the pulley on one link, slicing a small but heavy-bleeding cut onto my lovely old nose. Everyone else whooped in glee at the thrill of the experience. I prayed that I wouldn’t make too huge a fool of myself; as if anyone cared. It was exciting, thrilling, heart-pounding craziness. But I did it and am proud of myself in a sheepish way.

Deibys Fonseca whistles birdcalls in the cloud forest

Getting to, standing on the various platforms and coming down again was a great chance to see the wilds of western Panama. Based in Boquete (pronounced Bo-ket-tay), having driven here after a flight to David (pronounced Dah-veed) we were awash in birds, beauty and coffee (pronounced coffee). Boquete is Boston or Chiang Mai to Panama City’s New York or Bangkok. It is a lovely town in the highlands, comfortable, cool and with flowers at absolutely every turn. Americans are coming here to retire in big numbers, so affordable, safe and peaceful is the lifestyle.

Presumably the peaceful part does not include them much taking the canopy zipline.

A young coffee picker from the highland hill people

The neat planners from Wildland Adventures next had us down to leave the elegant Panamonte Inn for a tour of a coffee plantation, which I patronizingly assumed would be a dull point in the trip. I was wrong, as usual. It was truly fascinating, informative, educational and fun.

Panama is a small country with only small bits of it suitable for coffee growth — unlike the coffee-giants of Brazil, Vietnam and Colombia. So Panama wisely goes for high-end quality coffees, vastly expensive and wondrous to the gourmet taste. The thinking, science planning and pateince applied to that is very impressive. Producing diamonds where Brazil and the others are producing coal, Panama growers work especially smartly to create their small crops of great coffee.

Coffee beans are hand sorted to ensure high quality for the plantation restaurant

We toured Finca Lerida, one of the most successful coffee plantations. It has a small eco-lodge facility as well as the highlands are famous, especially among the birders, for natural splendors. This is a small operation considering its worldwide success. Constant attention is paid to the soil, the plants, the climate and all the very special techniques required to produce a coffee that has sold for as high as $115 a pound. Yes, $115 a pound.

The climate change affects their operation and while we were there beans and buds were ripening out months ahead of usual, requiring picking and tending much longer than ever before. It rains during the dry season now, another troubling challenge to a system whose procedures go back for centuries. So much is done by hand as to make you think that they could barely survive at this — even without the new weather. But they adjust as best as they can. Picking the coffee by hand is done much as was done always but the aging, shelling and so many other processes are constantly being refined.

I never thought that so much could go into a making a cup of Joe.

We returned to Lerida the next day to do some cloud forest trekking. The difference between a cloud forest sand a rain forest is about 10 degrees on the thermometer, 20 percent on the humidity gauge. Cloud forests, though, are as jungly as their sweaty brethren below, and more hilly. Here we struggled along, listening to far away birdcalls and were advised that we had just missed this amazing creature and that rare species. Soon, though, there were birds everywhere. We saw tanagers, bellbirds, hummingbirds, and even two quetzals, the huge, shy long-tailed (three feet long!) prizes of the region. There were little birds and birds marked up like harlequins and yellow critters and black ones with red eyes and … well, lots of birds.

The elegant gardens of the Hotel Panamonde in Boquete

I can confess that my appreciation of birds before might have run to considering how delicious they might be but watching them in their jungle homes, in all the greenery, the Tarzan-vined trees, the eye-popping flowers is a new and treasured experience.

Boquete and the Chiriqui surroundings are as different from the canal, riverscapes and Panama City as they can be: cooler, calmer, thriving. Chiriqui province is the country’s breadbasket and farms and communities abound in the middle of unabused natural abundance. To me, it seems too far from home for a retirement destination but hundreds of others are making just that decision — and/or setting up time-shares for briefer visits. In the wilds of Panama. How about that?

Startling colors mark flowers in the forests

Next: The Caribbean coast, yet another new world, and nut$ and bolt$ of Panama travel.

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