The third biggest city in Panama, David, is close to the Costa Rican border. From here there is a good road up into the mountains to the town called Boquete. Allegedly the 4th best place in the world to retire, which has led to a heavy gringo presence in the area.
Boquete has a cool climate as it is at over 1000m and this makes it ideal for growing coffee. Panama is the smallest producer of coffee in the world but has won the world coffee championships 5 times over the last 10 years.
After our border crossing we arrived at Boquete late in the evening and needed somewhere to stay. After driving through the town we headed along the river that flows through town and found a big gravel layby in the road next to the river. This made a good place for us to park overnight and after about 8pm there was no traffic at all.
Our first day in Boquete we decided to go on a coffee tour to learn about how coffee is made. We chose to go with Café Ruiz which is one of the most prestigious Panamanian brands. Their tour was also one of the most comprehensive taking you from planting to drinking of coffee.
We started off by being taken to one of Casa Ruiz’s (the company name) 11 farms where they undertake the first few processes of the coffee process.
Coffee growing in Panama is done on relatively small farms where the coffee plants themselves are planted in fields with a mixed crop of other fruit trees .The other fruit trees provide shade and protection from pests as well as providing a secondary crop. The coffee beans are of course the seeds of the coffee plant (which is not native to the Americas although many plants from the same family are native). If planted the bean grows roots and is eventually lifted into the air where it becomes the first leaves of the new plant.
A new plant takes five years before it is ready to be harvested.
In Panama the harvesting of the coffee plants is done exclusively by hand. The advantage of this over machine harvesting is that the coffee cherries (the fruit that contains the bean) can be harvested at its peak ripeness as the cherries on any one plant ripen at different times. In Boquete most of the harvesting is done by the Ngobe-Bugle indigenous people. In the past children as young as 10 have worked on the harvest but now there are rules in place and only children over 14 can work for a limited number of hours during the school holidays.
Once the cherries have been harvested they must be dried and this can be done in two ways, by the wet method or the dry method. A combination of both is used in Panama.
In the wet method the cherries are immersed in water. The bad cherries will float and are removed. Throughout all the processes the bad beans are still retained and apparently sold to manufacturers of instant coffee such as Nescafe ! After the bad cherries are removed the cherries are allowed to ferment. This makes it easy to strip the fruit off the bean by further washing. After this the beans will be dried for up to 4 weeks to remove the moisture content.
The other method – the dry method involves drying the cherry intact and then removing the skin from the bean at the end of the process.
Drying can happen in two ways: sun drying on the ground or drying in machines heated by burning wood that dry the beans more quickly.
After the beans are fully dried they will be placed in sacks and stored for a length of time before moving to the next steps in the process. This storage period is to age the beans but is not excessive and will only be for a few months.
The beans have to be sorted after this. The first sorting is done by machine where they are sorted by size and density. The worst beans go to the instant coffee makers and the best are retained to make premium coffees.
Once the initial sorting has been done the beans are then sorted by hand for colour and any defective beans are removed. This is done by local women who earn USD 12 a day for a long day of work.
After this the beans are bagged up and mostly sold. The roasting tends to be done in the buyers markets to local tastes. However some beans are roasted in Panama for local consumption. The best Panamanian coffee is based on an Ethiopian Bean called Geisha. Geisha roasted beans have been sold for up to USD180 per pound!
Our coffee tour finished with a coffee tasting where we compared the different types of roasting processes. Neither of us really like coffee so the nuances were lost on us but the different roast definitely taste different. The lighter roasts allow more of the original coffee flavour to come through whereas a heavier roast promotes more of a burnt taste.
On our second day in Boquete we drove up towards the Volcan Baru national park where we went on a fairly strenuous walk through some cloudforest along a river to three different waterfalls. The walk was very pretty and we enjoyed it but without a guide we didn’t see much in the way of wildlife.
Our final stop off in Boquete was to visit some private gardens that are open to the public – called “Mi Casa es Su Casa”. They were beautifully laid out and there were lots of brightly coloured flowers – this is a great example of local philanthropy.