Displaying the 20/20 vision which can only ever come from hindsight I knew that I’d made a mistake by starting the holiday on the beach. Not having expected it to be quite so lovely, nothing after then could match up.
Leaving Bocas was actually pretty straightforward, and a national holiday was in full swing as I passed through Isla Colon en route to Almirante. Somehow, the sight of hundreds of happy young islanders parading up and down in full regalia gave the town a better complexion, and I resolved to actually hang around Bocas Town on my next visit.
It’s marginally cheaper to buy separate boat and bus tickets to Boquete, however not markedly so, and was undoubtedly far more hassle so I just paid my $30. This gets you a boat to the mainland on an alarmingly small Panga and then straight onto a minibus for the remaining 3.5hrs to Boquete. The road there gets seriously wiggly though, you have to cross a mountain range and even though I have a seriously strong constitution, I had to miss out on lunch whilst trying to maintain composure.
We stopped at a fairly clean place for lunch but I really couldn’t manage anything other than the crisps I’d stashed in Bocas. However the ‘look forward at all costs to avoid chunder’ tactic definitely paid off as I had my first Sloth sighting, languorously crossing the road in the pouring rain, looking more than a little bedraggled.
It rains a LOT in the Central Highlands, especially in November. This rain started shortly after we left Almirante and didn’t let up for at least the next 12 hours. A shame, as it’s clearly quite a scenic road. Nonetheless, we arrived in Boquete bang on time and then the second benefit of the shuttle revealed itself as I was taken directly to my home for the next couple of nights: Bambuda Castle.
It’s nothing short of incredible, a monument to expatriate folly as it was only built a few years ago by a Dutchman who then moved on to pastures new. As hostels go, it’s pretty cool, with swimming pools all over the place, roaring fires and oh… it’s a castle.
Since I’d done well on budget accommodation in the islands I decided to moderately splash out on one of the ‘bungalows’, funky hobbit holes in the grounds with en suite bathrooms and huge comfy beds. A decent deal for the $50/night but really would have benefited from a heat source. When it’s damp and claggy up in the hills you don’t warm up easily!
Sadly too, despite the detailed instructions the hot shower was a bit inconsistent too. After 5 nights under a rainwater dribble I was hoping for more. The next day, completely soaked to the skin and freezing, I had a slight moment of rage when it wouldn’t co-operate.
Sure enough, the rain didn’t let up all evening. As Bambuda was a few miles from town, I was pretty relieved to partake in the evening meal, served a la familia around a big table. Another big stripe in my bilingual wings as there was a glum-looking bloke sitting next to me since he couldn’t speak English. So I spent the rest of the evening chatting to him in Spanish on one side, and in English to the right of me. Roberto was from Italy and was working in Panama. Highly usefully, he was also up for a bit of hiking the next day so I looked a bit less likely to end up becoming an Idiot foreigner death statistic the next day when I was due to hit the hills.
The next morning represented a remarkable weather turnaround. Close to miraculous, in fact, given how utterly cloud-bound Boquete had been for, I gather, the last week. The skies had cleared and the sun was out. Time to hit the trails!
There are loads of walking trails around Boquete, the most well known of which is the Sendero de los quetzales, naturally the home of the iconic birds and an allegedly tough hike. A few foreigners have disappeared on this route in the past. You can start from either Boquete or David, I decided to do half of it to prevent a long bus journey back.
We summoned a taxi to the trailhead, whilst this was booked via the official office it did seem a bit of an overcharge for $15, and the driver was positively certifiable with the speed he carried up the narrow road there.
You register at the little hut there with a lovely friendly ranger. Not that I think he ranges much, just mans the phone and radio in his hut. Another introduction to being a long way off the beaten track… “Are there rangers on the trails?” “No hay”. Get yourself into trouble, and you need to find your way back to the hut. I’d already established from the hostel owner that “No hay” 911,999,112 or indeed any other emergency service round here.
We’d planned to do half the path, up to Mirador La Roca. In fact, the trail itself doesn’t continue that much further although the other end then requires a 15km or so hike out to the main road I gather. Half would be fine.
The first few kilometres of the track are pretty tame, gently winding into the hills up a wide farm track. Perhaps it was the constant drizzle, however it was all feeling a lot like a slightly more exotic version of England, with a very similar landscape, albeit with some tropical additions.
Indeed, our joy at the sunny morning was misplaced, since the rain came and worsened steadily. Entering the junglier, steeper part of the trail was a blessed relief. Past some suitably spooky houses and into the realm of the howler monkeys…
I didn’t get the impression that the trails were very busy at this time of year, possibly unsurprising given the godawful weather which is, I gather, a fairly consistent feature of this season. We passed a bedraggled German couple in the first trail shelter before the first river crossing and then, a little later, a terrified American pensioner coming rapidly back down the trail… “There was something…it was making noise… it was following me!” Spooky. Onwards and upwards…
Sadly, despite the fact that we too heard the howler monkeys but never saw hide nor hair of them, due to the thick jungle and even thicker rain. But on we pressed, emboldened by the regular signposts counting down our kilometres left… It does rather seem that the Panamanian national parks have responded to the issue of people disappearing on the trail with loads of new signposts. As it is at the moment, I genuinely don’t see how you could get lost.
We reached the turning to Mirador La Roca in good time, well within the 3hr turn-around time we’d considered. So, in the manner of all blokes when in company with other blokes, we thought “Why not continue on to Alto Respingo, it’s not far”… However this idea was swiftly canned when, around the next corner, we saw a huge drop that we’d invariably have to walk back up to get to the ranger station. The rain by this point was positively biblical, and I sensed that Roberto was not loving life. Quick trip up to the ‘viewpoint’ then get the hell out of Dodge.
Allegedly it’s an amazing view from up here. However, visibility was now down to around 10 metres and my camera had long-since been confined to my drybag (Which itself had delaminated in protest at all the moisture) so you’ll have to imagine it. Amusingly, I can’t even find any images on the Internet showing what it’s like, so I presume that the fog never really lifts…
It was a rapid descent back to the ranger station in the breathtakingly persistent rain. Determined not to pay another king’s ransom for a taxi we enquired about the next bus, which was a good hour and a half away. So, we (probably I) decided to take our chances walking back down to the road. I never really trust bus schedules somewhere this remote. But in any case we ended up waiting at the bottom of the road due to not knowing the way, then taking the bus back up to the ranger station before returning to Boquete. Meh, it’s all bankable exercise.
I haven’t been so soaked for a while. Dreams of a hot shower dashed, it was left to another hearty family dinner to warm me up.
The next morning was picture postcard perfect. Even more so than the previous morning, and with the benefit of hindsight, this sun lasted a damn sight longer. I had a flight back to Panama City leaving in the evening, so this left a good morning ahead of me. I decided to just go for a local wander.
The countryside around Boquete is lush, probably due to the amount of rain. It’s generally a very fertile and lovely area of a calm, civilised country which is probably why the American Association of Retired Persons has it as one of their recommended places to live: https://www.aarp.org/home-garden/livable-communities/info-07-2010/best-places-retire-panama-boquete.html. In fact, the hills are littered with expats of all varieties. Hell, I don’t blame them. I’d live here.
There are a few trails around the town of Boquete. I didn’t fancy anything crazy, just a bit of a bimble. I wasn’t wearing any proper hiking kit or shoes, since all of this had been drenched the day before with no apparent prospect of drying out. “Sendero El Pianista” is a little further out of town however the receptionist at Bambuda had recommended the walk up to the nearby Cerro, with a great view over the town.
It so happened that I had company. The (probably) stray dog above had been hanging around the street corner near the hostel so I said hello. He then proceeded to follow me for the remainder of the day. Which would have been great apart from the fact that there is at least one pet/guard dog at quite literally every house around here, and whilst I’d have passed without incident the presence of a strange dog did trigger them somewhat.
Be warned, calling this route a “Sendero” is hilariously optimistic. It suddenly gets very steep, you then walk through a poor family’s garden (Me apologising profusely for the behaviour of what was now ‘my’ dog) and further up the hillside. It’s not even really a sheep track. And it’s not doable in ‘town’ shoes after loads of rain. This wasn’t what I had signed up for. I slid back down the hillside in defeat.
I returned to Bambuda to grab my stuff before lunching in town. Unfortunately my new friend, despite my best efforts, joined me. Right into the hostel. Thankfully the bloke who seems to run the hostel (and was a bit of a knob, it’s a definite type, maaaan) wasn’t in, and the kind Panamanian lady there gently shooed him out.
I grabbed a cab, bid farewell to Bambuda and had a wander around town. Boquete’s a strange place, it has the feel of a bog-standard South American provincial rural town, the same as many others the continent over. But it’s also extremely gringo-friendly, with a huge range of restaurants. I decided to treat myself to an Italian lunch, served in a bright airy restaurant partially filled with American retirees. A different experience.
To get anywhere significant from Boquete you need to get to David, a larger city an hour to the South. There are buses every half an hour, so it’s not a big deal. David seems a bit ‘grittier’ than Boquete, and it’s a major transport hub between Panama City and Costa Rica (along the Pan-American highway). It didn’t feel unsafe, just busy. I grabbed a cab to the airport, again pulling off magical Spanish voodoo by getting a fare of $3, lower than even Lonely Planet thinks it runs to. Another cab, another great chat about the relative merits of Panama and the UK, and the woman he was due to take out tonight.
A flight back to Panama City seemed somewhat superfluous, given that the bus only took 7hrs, but hey, it’s a short holiday… $109.