Panama has long been on my list of places to visit. While I have traveled to most other Central American countries, I finally made it to Panama this month and experienced two of the most pristine, lush hideaways that make traveling here so rewarding.
First, there was the Garden of Eden in Bocas del Toro — a hidden, pristine, and very private getaway, that feels very remote in this archipelago of ten islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama – yet it is easily accessible. Only a few places around the world have been able to retain the particular atmosphere and authenticity of Bocas del Toro: seductive, primitive, and unforgettable. It is a haven for snorkelers and divers, with crystal-clear impossibly turquoise waters and rainforest ecology; it’s also one of the most multi-cultural places in Panama. In Bocas, you have the option of staying on the main island, Isla Colon – the site of the only real town, Bocas Town, and its selection of bars, restaurants, and shops. Although Bocas del Toro has become quite popular with indie travelers in recent years, relatively low-key development has left an authenticity an unpolished vibe that is highly appealing to those looking to escape beach destinations full of mega-resorts.
Or, you can take a water taxi out to one of the other islands which are quieter and more secluded – some more than others. A 20-minute water taxi ride from Bocas Town will bring you to the Garden of Eden on Isla Solarte – a small three-room property that offers a true getaway-from-it-all in paradise. Technically, the Garden of Eden is not even an actual part of Isla Solarte, but its own tiny island connected to Solarte by mangroves.
Stepping out of the boat onto the Garden of Eden dock, you will likely be met by Kip the owner, and Zeus, the exuberant dog. The grounds are small but lush and gorgeous, with little paths that wind up to the rooms, dining area, pool, game room, and also down to a boat dock on the backside that is good for swimming and kayaking.
The three rooms are simple but comfortable and offer private decks with that essential island item: hammocks. At Garden of Eden, you can have all the remote downtime you want, but it’s also relatively easy to make your way around the Bocas archipelago to do activities. Keep in mind that it’s a 20-minute water taxi ride to Bocas Town if you want some shopping or nightlife, and you need to arrange for a ride ahead of time. You can also take boats to neighboring islands for beaches and other restaurants, or if you’re up to a 30-45 minute kayak trip you can take the property kayaks across to Isla Bastimentos where there are a marina, restaurants, and several beaches. Isla Bastimentos is also home to the Parque Nacional Marino Isla Bastimentos, Panama’s oldest marine park. Tours of all sorts are available for snorkeling, diving, fishing, jungle exploration, and cultural experiences with indigenous villages.
And of course, just hanging at the peaceful Garden of Eden or swimming in the pool are laudable pastimes. The property is Adults Only, and with just three bungalows it’s easy to rent the whole place with a few friends. The Garden of Eden offers quiet, upscale accommodations, free hi-speed internet access, and a full-service bar and restaurant. Two cabanas are located adjacent to the pool, with queen size beds and a futon that can open to a full-size bed; a private bathroom with hot and cold rainwater showers; and a veranda with a hammock and chairs to enjoy a fabulous panoramic view of the bay. The third room is a suite with both a king and a queen-sized bed, a private bathroom with hot and cold rainwater shower, and a large deck with a hammock, lounge chairs, and a ceiling fan.
Approximately three to four hours inland from Bocas del Toro is another popular destination, Boquete. It has become one of those “it” places that ex-pats have been flocking to relocate to in recent decades. Fortunately, it is still under the radar of places such as Costa Rica and Cuenca, Ecuador; and still retains an authenticity, a low-key vibe, that keep it from simply being gringo-land in Central America. The cool mountain climate, stunning views, great hiking, and coffee farming draw short-term tourists, retiring Central Americans and Western ex-pats alike.
Two of these ex-pats are Jane Walker and Barry Robbins from Vancouver, Canada. The couple left their home and stressful lifestyles in high-tech nearly twenty years ago, heading south to Central America yet unsure of where they would finally settle. After a year and a half of exploring the region, they settled in Boquete in 1996 and built La Montaña y el Valle – The Coffee Estate Inn, the first luxury inn in the Boquete area.
The Coffee Estate Inn is exquisite and magical; you can look at the photos and videos online, but they don’t prepare you for the riot of flowers and colors and scents that envelop you the second you drive through the gate. Jane and Barry have been avid gardeners all their life, using it as an escape from the stresses of the job back in Canada, and now turning that into a labor of love to create the stunning six-acre oasis that is their inn.
“There’s no ‘growing season’ here,” Jane says. “You pick up a plant and stick it in the ground, and it simply grows. It’s truly a gardener’s paradise.” Luckily for the rest of us, we have the opportunity to live that paradise if only for a short while. Three very private, luxurious bungalows are the only rooms at the inn, and the couple has thought of every small detail to make the stay wonderful and memorable – right down to heated floors in the bathrooms for those chilly mountain mornings.
The Coffee Estate Inn sits high up on a hill a few kilometers above the town of Boquete, so it is both secluded and peaceful as well as a quick, convenient drive into town as well as local hiking trails and other day trips. Jane and Barry provide loads of detailed information, both during the arrival orientation as well as in the information book left in each guest room; and they always make themselves available to answer questions or provide guests with area information. You can also take a coffee tour of the farm with Barry, who explains the process of coffee farming and roasting, along with interesting tidbits about the gardens in general and life in Panama. The tour is included in stays of three or more nights.
The Coffee Estate Inn remains a small and exclusive hotel by choice. The bright and airy bungalows face the volcano and have spectacular views. All are surrounded and separated by gardens and forest. Each bungalow has a large covered terrace, spacious living room, and dining area, kitchenette, separate bedroom with ensuite bathroom, flat-screen television with satellite TV and DVD, security safe, and free high-speed wireless Internet. Windows are screened. Each bungalow also has a fully stocked kitchenette with a toaster oven, microwave, mini-fridge, and of course – a personal supply of the estate’s personally roasted coffee beans, never more than three days out of the roaster.
“Coffee is one of those things that just gets in your blood,” says Barry. “This is the place we want to be. This is home.”