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Travel News Embracing the Peace in Panama’s Mountain Highlands

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Embracing the Peace in Panama’s Mountain Highlands

Castles, waterfalls, and coffee galore: This charming Panamanian mountain town is the perfect place for a relaxing nature retreat.

Meet Boquete, Panama

By the time my ten-hour bus finally rolled past the colorful cafes lining the main street of Boquete, Panama, the calm of the little mountain town was gladly welcome. The foamy latte that followed was a fitting introduction to the Panamanian Highlands.

Nothing is extreme in Boquete (pronounced Bo-Keh-Tay). Even the mountaintops along the horizon feel more like gentle hills than dramatic peaks. Peaceful waterfalls can be found on the slopes, their rivers running through the valleys below. Boquete, Panama, is a funny little town. The kind of place where you only find yourself because it’s on the overland, backpacker-heavy travel route through Central America. 

“Something Close to Heaven”

An AARP article from the early 2000s proclaimed that “the mountain village of Boquete offers something close to heaven for American retirees.” And people listened. American expats can be found all over Panama–and Boquete is no exception. But the ones you’ll find in Boquete have a palpable chillness about them. They’re more like friendly destination guides than a cranky old neighbor yelling at you to stay off their lawn. 

The landscape is decidedly green thanks to the wet climate, but it’s a welcome rain. It feels right here. The coffee trees that thrive in the altitude and the rich volcanic soil rely on the heavy precipitation. The lush, waterfall-strewn mountains embrace it.

Even as a guest in Boquete, the clouds feel at home to me. They bridge the gap between sky and earth in a cozy, reassuring way.

We’d spent most mornings watching the rain from the balcony of our hillside castle (yes, a castle!), overlooking the coffee plantations and Volcan Baru. Beneath alpaca wool blankets, we sipped mug after mug of fresh brew. 

Legend has it (fine, the receptionist told me) that a husband built the chateau as a gift to his wife, who had always dreamed of living in a castle. After she died, a Canadian couple bought “the only castle in Central America.” They decided the only logical thing to do was convert it into a hostel! Bambuda Castle Hostel is now complete with a basement pool and hot tub. There’s also a rock-climbing wall built into one of the exterior towers. Private, grass-covered dome rooms blend into the garden—fit for a Hobbit.

Inside, by the fireplace of the great room, is a stack of board games. One rainy morning, we grabbed ‘Clue’ and taught our friends from France–who’d never heard of it–how to sleuth out the killer. (Turned out to be Colonel Moutarde, dans la cuisine, avec le pistolet.)

Local Breweries and Lost Waterfalls in Boquete, Panama

The Boquete Brewing Company

As it happens when traveling without a plan, New Year’s Eve rolled around, and we found ourselves still in tiny Boquete, Panama. After dinner, we wound up at Boquete Brewing Company, a local brewery on the main strip of town, a few hours before midnight. 

Local IPAs in-hand, we grabbed a seat on one of the outdoor picnic tables as an old-timey rockband played a cover of Californication. The shivering, smiling faces of Times Square attendees flashed on a TV screen behind the band. When the ball touched the ground, the gravelly streets of Boquete exploded with fireworks. The outdoor patio of the brewery morphed into a commotion of hugging, kissing, and beer-splashing cheers among strangers and friends.

The Lost Waterfalls Hikes

Groggy-headed on New Year’s Day, we took advantage of the sunny skies to explore “The Lost Waterfalls,” a three-hour hike in the cloud forest outside of town. The single trail branches off on three occasions to the individual falls. With un-thought-through excitement, I ventured behind waterfall #1, reveling in the blissful solitude beyond the wall of water. I spent the rest of the hike covered in mud, drenched from head to soppy wet sneakers, but utterly zen.

For days we did little more than read books, side-by-side with old friends and new, on the castle’s balcony. Occasionally, we went down to the grass to kick the football around or opened the lid to a new board game. We took turns playing our soul songs on a speaker while sharing a bottle of wine. 

And for my typically self-critical mind, which thinks I should always be writing, or learning something new, or being in some way productive, the best way to start the New Year was with this lesson: sometimes doing nothing at all is exactly what your soul needs. 

As one of the murals on the castle walls so wisely explains, “…because minds are like parachutes, they only function when open.”