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A budding affection for Boquete

Far from the monotony of the historic canal, this endearing and little-known town in the cool, lush highlands boasts a wild bounty of colorful flora, fauna and scenery.

November 03, 2002|Yvonne Michie Horn | Special to The Times

Boquete, Panama — It has always bewildered me, this fascination with cruising through the Panama Canal. The water goes up, the ship goes through, the water goes down. I know the canal is an engineering marvel, but as an exercise in appreciation, I'd rather count rivets in the Eiffel Tower. Since "canal" and "Panama" go together like "horse" and "carriage," I relegated Panama to my Z list.

Then I learned about Boquete.

A contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle, my hometown newspaper, wrote about a Panamanian Shangri-La in the cool highlands of Chiriqui where there were rushing trout-filled streams, a lush mountain rain forest, abundant orange groves and coffee plantations, and a picture-postcard town chockablock with flower gardens. This idyllic place, the writer went on to say, was known only to the well-to-do of Panama looking to escape the mugginess and mosquitoes of the lowlands.

Panama leaped to the A list.

Last spring I enticed my traveling companion, David, who does not share my views about the canal and has been through it three times, to come with me to Boquete, a town of about 3,000. As our plane circled Panama City, I could see dozens of ships waiting to take the shortcut across the isthmus. Poor devils. I was on my way to paradise.

From Panama City we took an hour's flight to David (not to be confused with my companion), the capital of Chiriqui province and, with about 75,000 residents, Panama's second most populous city. As we made our way through its traffic-congested sprawl, we began to worry that we had taken a wrong turn to "idyllic," supposedly but 25 miles away.

But at the outskirts of town, the two-lane road began a winding climb. With every turn the air grew fresher, the grass and trees greener. As the odometer clicked the last of the 25 miles, we began a sudden steep descent and found ourselves in a deep valley surrounded by craggy mountains. In its center, Boquete. Not until later did we learn that boquete does not mean "bouquet," as we'd assumed, but actually "hole." No matter. Boquete is one flowery hole.

Flowers, flowers and flowers

Amodest sign at the edge of unpaved Jaramillo Alba Road above town announced the presence of La Montana y el Valle inn. We beeped our horn, as instructed, and iron gates slid open, revealing an asphalt-paved but gravity-defying downhill drive. Owners Barry Robbins and Jane Walker, Canadian expatriates, greeted us and showed us to our cottage. Besides their own residence, Barry and Jane have three housekeeping cottages, with two or three bedrooms and well-equipped kitchenettes.

"When we bought the site in 1996, the locals considered us daft," Jane said as she led us to our cottage. " 'Crazy Canadians, they bought land you can't get to, and when you get there you can't build on it.' Evidently they'd never heard of stilts!"

The cottages are situated for absolute privacy. Ours had a stunning view across the valley to the mountains beyond. A light mist enveloped us as we admired the scene -- the every-afternoon bajareque that Jane described as a "warm blizzard full of rainbows." As if on cue, a perfect rainbow arch touched down on either side of Boquete. Jane smiled. "We are rather smitten with this place."

Jane and Barry came to Boquete after working for years in Canada as information systems consultants. Not surprisingly, the two are well organized. Information sheets arrived by e-mail before our departure covering topics from inn policies to a list of nearby explorations and activities. We would have no trouble filling our allotted four nights.

Initial excursions took us to flowers, flowers and more flowers. We passed maintenance crews using machetes to hack at colorful clouds of bougainvillea threatening to take over the roads. Impatiens, in every shade of the impatiens rainbow, interspersed with frothy flings of blue forget-me-nots, blanketed hillsides. Aerial gardens of orchids, aroids and bromeliads nestled in the high branches of trees. Lacy tree ferns towered man-high; mosses muffled almost every available surface. Nearly every front yard in Boquete seemed to sprout a hand-lettered sign, "Se venden plantas" -- plants for sale.

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