Quite A Pricey Cuppa

We’d seen signs for a walk yesterday not far from the two trails we did called Sendero de los Quetzales which sounded like it would offer a pretty decent chance of wrapping our eyeballs around the flappy green fuckers. Though we did do a whole walk called the Toucan Trail and we didn’t even get a glimpse of them so there’s that. It turned out they closed this walk in 2019 and never reopened it. Fortunately we found this out before we went so we were able to make and activate a plan B which involved Tarrant’s favourite liquid. Coffee.

The plantation we went to also grows tea which is a more beautiful plant and a more sophisticated drink in every way.

There are a metric fuck tonne of coffee farms around Boquete on account of the fact it has the exact perfect conditions to grow a variety of arabica coffee called geisha, and whilst this is grown in many places the stuff that comes out of Panama is considered the best and it’ll go for up to US$3000 for half a kilo. Please do not adjust your sets. That’s not a squashed insect on your phone screen. Three thousand of your American dollars and quite frankly if you can afford to spunk that much on half a kilo of coffee you probably need to start thinking about ending world hunger or something. I think that’s an extreme ceiling, most won’t sell for that much.

You get two of those beans inside one cherry. They’re covered in a sweet coating.

I feel like this post will just become a coffee related fact dump but our tour guide was brilliant and came across as genuinely passionate about the subject. Like, she even paused halfway through an explanation to excitedly exclaim, “It’s so interesting isn’t it?!” I mean yes, it really is, but having it told to us by someone who actually cares makes it even more so. It was a great tour and I highly recommend it.

So we were shuttled from the Tree Trek office in Boquete to their operation up in the hills in one of those huge overlander things that have more usable floor space than our last flat in Brighton. I want one so bad. We probably couldn’t afford to run it unless we were literally living in it but they’re so fucking cool. I digress though. We got to their base of operations and met our guide whose name I forget but as I said, she was brilliant.

This bridge is scarier than it looks.

The first thing we did was cross a terrifyingly rickety bridge to the plantation. Before we even set foot on it our guide pointed towards the end with, “Do you see the hole in the bridge? Be careful!” Comforting. Then we all gathered around a tall bush which we were informed was the bush of the famous geisha coffee. It looks like any other coffee bush. Apparently it only produces half a kilo of coffee a year, and as previously mentioned that shit retails at US$3000 for half a kilo, so we were stood there gawping at three thousand dollars worth of foliage.

The mighty geisha coffee tree, so named on account of the fact the variety is from a village in Ethiopia called Gesha. Africa is the birthplace of coffee, they used to eat the cherries as fruit, but when the plant spread to the Arab world that’s when someone, somehow, realised that if you processed the beans in a very specific way you could grind them and make an infusion worshipped by millions

So to grow coffee you need to take the bean and plant it. They keep it in a greenhouse for three years, then they move it outside for a year so it can get used to Boquete’s crazy microclimate, then it starts to bloom. From flower to ripe coffee cherry is about nine months. Basically once you’ve planted your little coffee bean you’re looking at the best part of five years before you can get any coffee out of that bad boy.

The bushes are just starting to flower here now. This is nine months of coffee growth in one palm, from flower bud to ripe cherry.

Why does geisha coffee cost so bastard much? Well it’s because it’s an absolute princess that demands very specific conditions for it to even consider coffeeing. It only likes to grow between 1100 and 2200 m.a.s.l. I can’t remember exactly but I think this plantation was around 1700 metres. I could be wrong. It also enjoys a specific climate which the cloud forests can offer, and the volcanic soil around here is perfect for it. The (coffee) cherry on top is the size and location of Panama. That’s the reason the shit grown here is THE shit. Sure, other Central American nations grow geisha but Panama gets winds from the Pacific AND the Caribbean, and nowhere else can claim this.

This is a caturra coffee bush, also arabica (there are, like, nearly 120 varieties of arabica) and it produces 3kgs a year. It’s considered traditional coffee on account of the fact it just tastes like coffee and I’m really not sure what else you’d want from your coffee aside from that caffeine injection straight to the brain.

Even when everything is right it still only produces relatively tiny quantities and it’s hand-picked (by a local indigenous group called Ngäbe-Buglé, you can recognise the women in town by their long, brightly coloured dresses) because they only want the ripe cherries. Battering it with a machine removes everything. So there you go. Instead of being all like, “maybe this coffee isn’t viable to grow on a commercial scale, guys”, they just charge an embarrassing quantity of money for it. And people pay it because coffee experts say it tastes the best.

This machine is hand operated and is about 90 years old. A machine next to it would wash the beans as this machine removed the cherry which would then go off to be organic compost.

We headed back over the bridge to look at some old machines that strip the red outer shell from the beans and wash the sugar coating off. Obviously, on a commercial scale these machines are much bigger and are operated mechanically. Then the beans need to be dried but given that Boquete is an inherently damp place this would take up to ten days if they left it to the sun so they use a machine which does the job in two days. The dry beans go through another machine to peel the yellow skin off leaving the silver skin. Then it’s ready for roasting or export.

The beans on the left are dried using the washed method. The beans on the right are natural.

That’s the washed method, that’s how they process the caturra coffee. For the geisha and a third variety grown here, a hybrid called pacamara which will also cost you your first born child, they use what they call the natural method whereby they don’t remove the red cherry outer layer before they dry them. The whole thing gets dried together so the bean can absorb the sweetness, then they go through a machine which squeezes, washes, dries and peels them all together.

Usually you’d roast a few kilos at a time but for the purpose of the tour she just roasted a few in a little pot.

We were taken to a lovely, warm room out of the drizzle where there were several cups laid out full of roasted beans. Our guide showed us a small roaster and gave us a mini demonstration of how it works. She only used a few beans so it took seconds to get a light, a medium, then a dark roast. Yeah mate, now it smells like coffee. Then she started grinding the beans on the table for us to have a good sniff. We had light, medium and dark roasted caturra processed the washed way, then we started getting fancy.

Light to dark roast.

So the shit processed the natural way for, y’know, the fruity notes and the floral undertones or whatever, doesn’t smell like coffee. We got all the way to the geisha and yeah nah, that just smells… I don’t even know but I guess this is why I’m not a coffee expert. I’m a tea human to be fair. I love tea. I drink coffee when I travel because it’s just easier but at home I’m all about that leaf infusion. When we got to the tasting, guys, what in the coffee nebula is this geisha shit?? I don’t like it. There, I said it. Tarrant wasn’t too keen either and I’d trust her coffee related opinion over mine.

Our guide told us Panamanians don’t like it because it tastes like tea and they don’t like tea. Like, what the fuck kind of tea are you drinking, Panama? Because this tastes fuck all like tea. It tastes fuck all like coffee too. I’m not sure what it tastes like but it’s definitely not $3000 per half a kilo worth of flavour. Back in 2017 we visited Indonesia and tried kopi luwak which apparently used to be the most expensive coffee in the world until geisha showed up. It’s the coffee that’s been shat out by a civet but at least it tastes like coffee.

Tarrant posing with the world’s most expensive coffee.

I’m kind of glad I don’t like it to be fair because I’m not forking out that much money for a cuppa and I’d be devastated if I’d been introduced to the nectar of the gods just to have it snatched away by having to have money for other things such as rent and bills. That concluded the tour then. We hung out in the restaurant to wait for our transport home where I drank a tea because I’d consumed enough coffee for today, thankyouverymuch.

Yeah nah it’s just not that great.

The tea was from the same company, Kotowa, you can see their tea bushes from the carpark, and it was actually very good. We can’t warrant throwing another thirty dollars at another tour, at least not here, so their tea making technique will have to remain a mystery but it was nice to have a delicious black tea. Coffee is fine and the process is super interesting but tea will always be my first hot liquid related love.

Halfway Up Volcan Barú

Neither of us particularly wanted to spend six hours walking up a volcano just to freeze half to death at the top then turn around and spend six hours walking down said volcano but, y’know, FOMO, and we’d rather attempt something and fail than not have a bash at it at all. We duly took the shuttle to the trailhead and started hiking at midnight as per The Done Thing™ and straight away it was a tedious plod up a hill in the dark. It started drizzling about a quarter of the way up so it became a tedious plod up a hill in the drizzle and about halfway up it stopped pretending it was anything other than rain and so it was a tedious plod up a hill in the rain.

To be fair the sunrise at the bottom was quite nice.

Three hours in we were having exactly zero fun and Tarrant’s ankle injury had opinions about all of this so we made the executive decision to turn back. We met a group coming up and they said they were hoping it would clear or we’d be above the clouds and those creeping tendrils of FOMO encircled my brain. But no. Even if we were 100% guaranteed a perfect cloud inversion with the fiery skyball making its grand entrance to a chorus of angels it wasn’t worth risking more damage to Tarrant’s ankles, plus we still needed to get down this fucking hill. That was no mean feat. It was another three hours down a hill then we waited about half an hour for a bus back to the hostel. We were shattered after such little sleep too. Volcan Barú is hard!

Jump to “Useful shit to know…”

Boquete, Chiriquí, Panama

Stayed at: La Casa de Doña Cata, Boquete

La Casa De Doña Cata. No curtains or personal plug sockets or anything fancy but the beds are comfy. There are no lockers though and you’re only given a sheet so it does get cold at night. Showers are warm which is nice after a day of hiking. You’re given pancake mix for breakfast and you can make as many as you want, and there’s free coffee all day. It’s noisy, however, with the common area being right by the dorm and people staying up late drinking. Great location in town though.

Useful shit to know…

  • We went on the coffee tour with Tree Trek Boquete who are located in Kotowa Coffee House in Plaza Los Establos.
  • We did only go with them as this is who our hostel works with but they were great.
  • They also do a bunch of other stuff including ziplinging and tea tours. There’s (expensive!) accommodation up there too.
  • The coffee tour cost US$30 each. This included transport from their office in town and back.
  • We left at around 10am and were back by 2pm.
  • We had 40 minutes at the end of the tour to chill in the restaurant before the truck brought us back.
  • English is spoken in the office and on the tour.
  • Take a warm layer, it gets chilly up in the hills.
  • To climb Volcan Barú at midnight you can arrange a shuttle with your hostel.
  • If you’re not staying in a hostel, many of them tout themselves as tour desks too so I reckon you’ll be able to choose a hostel and book a shuttle through them.
  • This will cost US$8. Ours picked us up at 11.40pm.
  • The shuttle is one way, you’ll need to take a local bus back for US$3. You can wait where you were dropped off.
  • If you want to do this in the daytime you can take a local bus to the trailhead for US$3 but I don’t think the buses run until late. You’ll need to find out when the latest you can be back at the trailhead for the bus back is.
  • You don’t need a guide for this but if you really want one you’re looking at around US$85 per person.
  • If you don’t want to walk at all the 4×4 tours are around US$125 each and I there’s still a bit of hiking to be done at the top.

How To Get From Santa Catalina To Boquete By Bus

  • We took the 7am bus from Santa Catalina.
  • It leaves from the corner of Calle Principal and Vía El Estero, around 7.634036, -81.258441.
  • It took an hour and 45 minutes and cost US$4.65 each.
  • Interestingly it cost US$5 coming the other way.
  • You’ll be dropped at the terminal in Sona. Buses to Santiago start about 250 metres north of here but you can just wait out the front of the terminal and flag one down.
  • Sona to Santiago took around an hour and I think it cost US$2.10 each. I didn’t check my change properly but it was about that. There was definitely change from a fiver for two people. It actually cost US$2.50 going the other way.
  • You’ll be dropped in front of the terminal in Santiago.
  • Walk through to where the platforms are, turn right and head all the way around to the north-western corner of the terminal.
  • You’ll see signs for buses to David. I believe they leave every half hour. The bus was there but we waited about 20 minutes for it to leave.
  • It took just under three hours and cost US$9 each.
  • We were dropped at the terminal then just had to walk through to the platforms and turn right to find the bus to Boquete.
  • It took an hour and 15 minutes and cost US$2 each.
  • Total cost: US$17.75
  • Total time: 8 hours and 15 minutes including waiting time between buses.

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