A short visit to Boquete, Panama, home of Hacienda La Esmeralda – February 2010
There is nothing more exhilarating for lovers of great coffees than visiting the farms that produce them. As a purveyor seeking the finest coffees on earth I get to do this for a living! I search out quality producers and learn the intricacies of coffee production, about their many challenges, their often unique solutions, and I become submerged, far too briefly, within cultures which add breath to my life.
I travelled in late January to the small town of Boquete, Panama to assess the ever-rising quality landscape there and to renew my ties with Finca Lerida, Elida, Don Pache and the renowned Hacienda La Esmeralda, among many others. A dense patchwork of small, high altitude farms producing a great diversity of fine Arabica cultivars lies within the rolling quilt of cloud-laced mountains ringing Boquete.
La Esmeralda brought the uniquely flavored, universally neglected, Gesha “variety” to the world’s rapt attention. I use quotation marks because the plant is still quite wild in its growth pattern and may be still evolving; it came from the wild forests of Ethiopia less than a hundred years ago. Its debut in the Best of Panama’s competition in 2004 inspired one usually very professional buyer to blaspheme that he had found God in a cup. La Esmeralda has, ever since, continued to produce what most specialty coffee folks, I among them, feel is still the most consistent, highest quality expression of Gesha. Its cultivation is spreading in Panama, as well as in other countries. In the meanwhile, Boquete has become a small laboratory where several farms are experimenting with new cultivars and post-harvest processes to enliven the specialty basket of consumer choices.
Upon arrival in Panama we drove from the international to the national airport, across Panama City, which is bursting into a metropolis of blazing white modern condos and office skyscrapers. Panama’s army was dismantled after the US removal of Noriega (1989), resulting in democratic stability, as it did in Costa Rica way back in 1948, the only other Central American nation to eradicate its armed forces. Prosperity seemed to be everywhere—that is, at least, where our taxi went . . . . We passed by a dominant monument, Trump Tower, on the city’s four-lane highway.
A forty-five minute flight west from Panama City took my wife, Laurie, and me to the coastal town of David, which is a mere twenty-five miles north from the highland village Boquete. Panama seems to be undergoing a new invasion, this time by wealthy Americans and some not so wealthy, most seeking retirement and recreation. Real estate was in the air, literally. A fluent English-speaking real estate agent in our small turbo jet showed off property opportunities along the beaches of Panama, the mountains, the city, to the American tourist alongside him. Others around him took interest. If you Google Boquete, you will not see coffee on the first ten pages; all you will see are tourism and real estate sites.
We drove out of David, near sea level, and proceeded in a straight line, rising almost imperceptibly almost 3,000 feet to where Boquete lies, nestled in the folds of a very narrow mountain chain separating the Atlantic Coast from the Pacific, anchored to the left by Volcan Baru, over 11,000 feet high. On a clear day you can see both oceans from the top. Along the way to Boquete, lush agricultural fields gave way to a tilted plain of strewn black volcanic rocks stretching on both sides as far as the eye could see.
Boquete is charming, despite the real estate boom, mostly visible on the outskirts. The single standing Kotowa Café beckons just before you get to the town. Stop and have an espresso or
cappuccino. The coffee is good and the view amazing. Boquete lies before you, down below, split by a meandering river, framed on all sides by the mountains. The coffee farms above are within minutes of each other, located in unique micro-climates determined by the rise and fall of verdant rounded peaks and ridges lapped by the competing breathes of two great bodies of water on either side. This is the drama played out above the frontier-like village of Boquete, once the hidden home of the Panama Canal’s first builders and engineers.
The beauty of this coffee paradise is best described in pictures. Those interested in seeing some of the photos I took, in chronological order, during this all too brief trip, with explanatory captions, should click here.