There’s basically one main drag in Boquete, flanked by tile sidewalks, scattered with locals and tourists alike, swept by breezes coming off the nearby mountains and glowing in the warm sunshine. Passing tour operators every third storefront or so, I struggle to determine which ones have local integrity and which are just backpacker shuttles. Adventure abounds in the valley surround. The green mountainsides rising up around Boquete shelter rare quetzals, preening among the foliage in readiness for a lucky hiker to catch a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse; ziplines shiver over the cloud forest waiting for the next adventurer to make the line taut; the singular basalt rockface calls to avid climbers; and all prepare for the day with a cup of that world-famous coffee you’ve heard so much about…
Start with a Coffee Tour. Most excursions in Boquete immerse you in the stunning cloud forest ecosystem, but nothing invites you into the ongoing narrative of the Panamanian people indigenous to this mountain valley quite like a coffee tour.
While the temperate climate and affordable real estate may have put Boquete on the map for the global expatriate community, its preexisting reputation as a producer of fine coffee still stands, and while Panamanians can’t take ownership of the new gated community on their old farmland, they can still claim their award-winning coffee as their own – and they proudly do.
Every farm has a story all its own – beginning with a single farmer or family, facing “growing pains” both figurative and literal with the passage of seasons and the advent of industry – but all of them faced the same dilemma when the influx of new investors and landowners in their community precipitated a tough choice between selling out to the real estate developers or maintaining the integrity of the land and their life’s work by keeping their farms. The farms you see today have prevailed, and you should ask them why that matters.
If you’re a coffee-lover, a coffee tour is an obvious choice, but whether you wake up in the morning lusting after that first rich, piping-hot sip of the good stuff or not, a coffee tour in Boquete is more than worth the while for those who truly wish to understand the beauty of this valley and what it means to the people of Panama. As we discovered, even non-coffee drinkers can develop a surprising taste for it, if only in Panama.
Caffeinated and ready to go. We set out for Boquete in pursuit of the best coffee tour to recommend to Panama visitors, and while we found our favorite, we also found that it’s hard to go wrong. If you want to learn about coffee you could most likely buy in Whole Foods back home one day (and trust me, you’ll want to), do Kotowa, the biggest plantation; on the flipside, you can check out a tiny, hyper-local operation that most people in Panama don’t even know about at Finca La Milagrosa; however the tour we’ll never forget took place at Café Ruiz: a perfect exhibition of modern practice inspired by local tradition, revealed through the most comprehensive and engaging tour of all the ones we tried. What truly sold us on Café Ruiz was our guide, Carlos, who provided the narrative for one of my most memorable afternoons in Panama.
You might be tempted to do the shorter (45-minute) tour (especially if you’re planning on tackling some of those other worthy adventures in Boquete), but do the full tour – it takes you through not only the entire process of how various Ruiz coffees are grown and produced, but also the entire history. The tour is completely interactive – it’s nothing like a stuffy museum exhibit, and even the 3-year-old on our tour had fun running through the rows of plants and picking berries from the tree. You’ll walk through the farm, open your palm to hold beans in various stages on their way to becoming coffee, taste the ripe fruit, shake the hands of the coffee berry pickers, and even don a lunch-lady ensemble before walking through the packing facility. If you’re lucky enough to have Carlos as your guide – he’s worked nearly every stage of the coffee process, starting at age 6 as a seasonal berry picker – you’ll never appreciate a cup of coffee more than when he pours it in the final stop in the tour: a cupping.
Planning your tour. Coffee tours run all year long, but the picking season (December – March) is the best time to go because the coffee fruit is ripe and you are encouraged to pick them off the bush for a taste (or a dozen tastes). I went in March, the end of the season – the final berries of the year were weighing down the branches and bursting with tart, juicy flavor. We took several coffee tours (in pursuit of the best one), in both the morning and afternoon, and all were pleasant due to the temperate climate of the cloud forest. If you wish to hike or bird watch, I would suggest doing those things first thing in the morning (when it is coolest and there is hardly a soul on the trails) and taking your coffee tour in the afternoon. If you’re hoping to try some of Boquete’s invigorating adventure activities, such as ziplining or rock hiking, I’d do your coffee tour in the morning so your caffeine buzz has you ready to let loose in the afternoon.
Coffee cupping. After your first coffee “cupping” you’ll realize that guzzling a good brew in blind pursuit of caffeine is like ruining a fine wine by making sangria with it. Cupping is the process of observing the tastes and aromas of coffee, and your guide will talk you through it. Yes, you can taste the famous Geisha coffee at Café Ruiz (as well as the other farms mentioned) and determine for yourself if its light lemony flavor so popular among Japanese java drinkers is for you… or if you share the Panamanian preference for the rich chocolately flavor of the Panamaria bean. You’ll be able to taste three different varieties of coffee plant, roasted for varying amounts of time, in order to further your understanding of the brew.
The experience. Organic coffee production takes on a profound meaning in Boquete. I expected to taste some good coffee and learn how it got to my cup, and I did. But what increased my appreciation of coffee exponentially was seeing how coffee and other fruits of the land are woven into the lifestyle, emotions, history and future of the people indigenous to the Boquete valley.
Before tourism blossomed in the Boquete area, coffee was grown here uncelebrated. Entire families of the indigenous Ngobe Bugle people would hike down the mountainside each morning to work on the coffee farm – our guide, Carlos, grew up this way, and had to abandon his formal schooling to do so (not that you would know from listening to him – he’s tri-lingual and tri-humorous). Not to create a false impression of an oppressed or disadvantaged people; this was simply the way of life up in this agricultural mountain town – life revolved around the farm, and the rest of the world was very far away.
Today, Café Ruiz graciously embraces the plight of the indigenous Ngobe brought on by the incursion of commercial industry and tourism. It is no longer possible for the people to make a living by farming the land, so to help, Ruiz has built homes for their workers on the Café Ruiz property so that they don’t have to make a dangerous trek on a path now frequented by whizzing vehicles. Ruiz has also created an on-site grocery and convenience store that their workers can afford on standard Panamanian wages (prices at the store in town are now too inflated for them to afford), and ensures that children attend to their schooling before working on the farm.
On the Ruiz farm, giggling children peek their heads out of doors to wave at us; sun-wrinkled men in straw hats rake coffee beans drying naturally in the sun, and younger men work the big processing machines, deep in concentration. Family life prevails and people are happy. Carlos summed it up best: they love this land, and being on it is all that matters. I’m sure starting the day with a cup of the world’s purest coffee doesn’t hurt either. Sometimes the simplest things in life are the greatest luxury.
Tour Café Ruiz.
The Café Ruiz shop can be found easily by driving North up the main town road in Boquete, right before the split in the road you will see the Café Ruiz sign to the right. For a current listing of tour offerings and times, or to book yours, visit the Café Ruiz website.