OpenRoad Driver Volume 15 Issue 1 - Page 73

Volume 15 Issue 1 » 73 On the Elida Estate Coffee Farm I join master coffee taster Lan Laws, breathlessly following him through steep slopes densely packed with coffee plants. “The weather here in the highlands allows the Geisha coffee plant to develop more slowly, which means its fruit gains a deeper flavour,” he explains, splitting a red pod to reveal its two fruity seeds. Elida is one of 150 coffee microfarms, many of them started by American expats soon after their work on the Panama Canal had completed in 1914. They ventured up to Chiriquí and were enchanted by the cool mountain air, the densely forested slopes and the towering peaks of Volcán Barú. So they settled on the slopes and devoted themselves to growing Arabica coffee. On a coffee tour I taste the four flavours of coffee produced here: Geisha, Typica, Caturra and Catuai, all grown best in the highlands at elevations of 1,700 to 2,000 metres above sea level. Harvesting and sorting the coffee beans is a labour intensive job most often completed by the Ngöbe Buglé, Panama’s largest indigenous group. Expert fruit pickers and sorters, I watch them gather intently over a long table, carefully examining the dry coffee beans and sorting them by size and colour. Boquete is relatively new on the tourist map, its first hotel opening just eighteen years ago. Today the small town of 19,000 still has a strong expat population, especially after 2010, when the American Association of Retired Persons named it a top retirement destination. But its dusty streets and small storefronts that sell fresh mangos, rambutan and citrus have also become a hub for adventure travelers coveting whitewater rafting, hiking, ziplines, canopy treks and coffee tours. Panama City’s Casco Viejo is filled with relics from the ancient past: churches dating back to the 1600s, historic plazas and narrow streets buzzing with activity. While my teenage daughters zipline and shriek through the treetops at adrenaline- pumping speeds, I choose a quieter walk through a series of hanging bridges suspended over the rivers and slopes of the Palo Alto mountains. Along the way my guide Isabel points out 450-year-old mamoncillo trees, a hummingbird nest and some of the 1,100 species of orchids that proliferate in the cloud forest, so called for the moist air that hangs over its upper canopies, creating a distinct microclimate.