Monthly Archives: September 2012

Sept. 19th – It’s International Talk Like A Pirate Day

Don’t know how? These guys will help you…

Fair winds, mates…

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Women Can Be So Ungrateful Sometimes…

I made her breakfast in bed the other day and instead of saying, “thank you,” all she did was scream “Who the hell ARE you and how did you get in my house?

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It Finally Happened

Living, as it were, in a total-immersion language learning situation it finally happened. In the last week I’ve started having dreams in Spanish. I don’t mean that ALL my dreams are in Spanish, but when I have one that’s located here in Panama the dream language is Spanish.

I remember the first time I had a dream in French. It woke me up. It was a “WOW” moment. When you start dreaming in another language you know that it has become a part of your subconscious.


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Hiking in the Chiriquí Highlands

Not all who wander are lost. – J.R.R. Tolkien

Nestled over a mile high in the highlands of Chiriquí Province, Panama, in the shadow of the country’s highest mountain, the dormant volcano Barú, is the boutique hotel and working coffee plantation Finca Lérida.

So, what are you going to do when you get there? There’s no swimming pool, no “rec” room with pool tables and video game consoles. Not a zip line in sight. Well, first of all, you can simply enjoy the tranquility of the lushly landscaped grounds as you wander from your room to the restaurant or coffee shop.

There are flowers everywhere:

And there are quiet little nooks where you can sit and reflect on how lucky you are to have found this place:

But to really capture the place you need to put on your hiking boots and go exploring.

The finca covers 150 hectares (370 acres) of which 43 hectares (106 acres) are devoted to coffee production. But that’s not all there is up there. It borders Amistad National Park, the largest nature reserve in Central America, with nearly one million acres of tropical forest jointly administered by Panama and Costa Rica. The first impression visitors to the finca have is the sense of the immensity of undefiled nature.

Winding through the finca and into the National Park are 10 kilometers (6 miles) of well-maintained hiking trails. Six miles may not seem like a lot to some people, but when you consider that much of the terrain here is more on a vertical plane than the horizontal your legs are probably going to tell you there are are lot more than ten.

There’s a wonderful, painted map of what’s in store for your adventure:

Though the artist did have a bit of a problem grasping a simple concept:

Coffee Tour

If you’re someone, like me, who enjoys a good cup of coffee in the morning you need to sign up for the coffee tour. It’s a four-hour hike through the Finca led either by Eddy or Cesar, both of whom speak English and will explain the process from plant to cup.

That says 5,577 feet above sea level.

You’ll learn that growing coffee is a labor-intensive proposition, especially when harvest time rolls around. It can’t be done by machines since the berries don’t all ripen at the same time. You have to wait until they turn bright red before the “cherries” are ready to be picked. As skillful  as the indigenous pickers are, sometimes one gets away.

The four-hour tour ends at the Beneficio where the coffee begins its transformation from the raw state to the finished cup of perfect nectar. You’ll learn that each “cherry” contains two seeds which we commonly know as the “bean.” and the process starts with equipment designed and patented by the finca’s original owner, Toleff Boche Monniche. Dusty proof of the man’s genius hangs on the wall where the original patent and the drawings submitted to the U.S. Patent Office can be seen.

In the “cupping” room you’ll sample the coffee from three different processes.

(Photo by: Victor Bloomfield)

Panama’s For The Birds

According to Wikipedia there are 927 species of birds Panama, more than 500 of them can be found in the Chiriqui highlands, including the magnificent Quetzal:

While bird books will tell you that the Harpy Eagle, the largest and most powerful raptor in the Americas is Panama’s “national” bird (unfortunately not found in Chiriqui) don’t believe a word of it. Unofficially the national bird is the common chicken which are found everywhere and it’s a rare morning when you won’t hear a rooster crowing within ear-shot of wherever you happen to wake up.

Finca Lérida loves its birds. Once you stop gawking at the magnificent grounds of the finca you can’t miss the fact that there are dozens of birdhouses scattered around the hotel grounds:

The birding trails go deep into La Amistad International Park and is a tour that will be savored long after you return home.

It’s not necessary to take one of the more organized tours the finca offers. Some might just want to stroll through this latter-day Eden. Eddy and Cesar are always available to guide you along the well-maintained trails. . .

(Photo courtesy of: Omar Upegui R.)

. . . leading you to this magnificent waterfall:

(Photo courtesy of: Omar Upegui R.)

You can choose the guided tours or simply explore on your own. If you prefer to strike out by yourself you will be provided with a trail map and given access to them for $10.70.

The Finca is open to the public and it’s not necessary to be booked into the hotel to enjoy the splendor of the Chiriquí highlands. But there is a big advantage to having a room at the hotel. After wearing yourself out on the trails you can go back to your room and decompress on one of these:


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A Mountain Retreat in Chiriquí Province, Panama

This morning’s cup of coffee wasn’t my usual brew. It came from a very special place and my ritual for brewing it was different, too.

After grinding the beans, I cupped my hands around the bowl of the grinder and shook the grounds lightly. I put my nose between my hands and inhaled the rich aroma, gathering in all the complexity of the beans. I poured the steaming coffee from my mocha pot to my mug and went out to my rocking chair on the front porch where I noisily slurped a bit of the nectar in a way guaranteed to draw disapproving glares had I been in a restaurant. I held it in my mouth for a few seconds and then spit it out into the flower bed. There was nothing wrong with the coffee, but I’d learned to do that recently at a coffee “cupping” at Finca Lérida in Alto Quiel, Chiriquí Province, Panama. As I savored the wonderful variety of flavors that toyed with my taste buds and palate I was instantly transported, as if on a magic carpet, back to that extraordinary place high in the mountains.

There aren’t enough adjectives to describe the beauty of this Shangri La. To say it is “breathtaking” is like saying the Mona Lisa is a “pretty good” painting. Calling it “awe inspiring” is akin to calling the Grand Canyon, in Arizona, a “pretty deep ditch” as you stand on its rim. Two-dimensional photographs and videos simply are inadequate to convey the magnificence of it all. The majesty of the surrounding mountains, the rugged hills covered with coffee plants offer the world some of the best, and, not coincidentally, most expensive coffees in the world, and sometimes being enveloped by clouds…

Sitting at 5,602 feet above the Pacific Ocean, Finca Lérida is, first and foremost, a working coffee plantation with a boutique hotel and gourmet restaurant. It is not a hotel that happens to have a few coffee trees scattered around for the guest’s amusement. The finca covers 150 hectares (370 acres) of which 43 hectares (106 acres) are devoted to coffee production. Finca Lérida borders Amistad National Park, the largest nature reserve in Central America, with nearly one million acres of tropical forest jointly administered by Panama and Costa Rica, which gives the visitor the sense of the immensity of undefiled nature.

A boutique hotel is defined as being a smaller hotel that is not part of a huge chain, but is top quality, has individually styled rooms offering customized service. This “customized” service is evident in the personalized, handwritten greeting left at bedside from the general manager of the hotel, Jessica Real:

The hotel is small having only 11 deluxe rooms like the one I stayed in:

There are four “standard” rooms that would qualify as being “luxurious” by most anyone’s standards:

There are six suites that feature a fireplace and a Jacuzzi:

And the Historic Suite (Casa Centenario) built by the original owner, Tolef Monniche back in 1929:

This was the home Tolef Monniche, a Norwegian engineer who worked building the locks on the Panama Canal. After suffering four bouts of malaria he set off to find his own piece of heaven high in the mountains. He built the lodge with his own two hands. It has a cozy living room with a fireplace, dining room, family room, library, and a second floor with an unsurpassed view of the carefully landscaped grounds meticulously maintained by four gardeners.

Every room has a 42-inch LCD TV with satellite cables (but I can’t imagine why you’d want to veg-out in front of a television here), Wi-Fi Internet connection and phone service. All rooms and suites are 100% non-smoking.

Just as neat and tidy as the grounds are, the rooms are also spotless and well-cared for. A Marine drill instructor giving the place a white-glove inspection would be hard-pressed to find a speck of dust anywhere.

What would a luxurious hotel be without a fine, gourmet restaurant? The one at Finca Lérida is presided over by Chef Gean:

(Photo courtesy of Omar Upegui R.)

Don’t let the serious pose fool you. Gean was nothing but smiles and good humor when I talked with him.

The dining room is light and airy and offers spectacular views of the grounds and the mountains in which it nestles.

(Photo courtesy of Omar Upegui R.)

Or you can dine al fresco:

I started my dinner, the evening I spent at the hotel, with a delicious roasted tomato soup topped by a healthy serving of fromage aux chevre (that’s a fancy way of saying “goat cheese” which happens to be one of my favorites and was what tempted me to order it).

The cheese was a fine complement to the dish and the garnish was picked fresh from the garden just outside.

For the main course I chose the trout topped with onions, tomatoes and candied cashews:

My dad was a chef. My first French girlfriend was the chef on a 180-foot mega yacht, and when I was captain of the Lady Ann in New Orleans the renowned Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme used to charter us several times a year for dinner parties he’d have for his friends, so I know good food. What I ate at Finca Lérida was as good as any I’ve had anywhere. And they stock a good selection of imported wines to go with your meal.

One thing you won’t find anywhere at the finca are machines dispensing carbonated soft drinks or packages of “munchies” made from chemicals you can’t pronounce. Instead there is a small coffee shop adjacent to the reception area

(Photo courtesy of Omar Upegui R.)

(Photo courtesy of Omar Upegui R.)

Here you can savor some of the finca’s coffees and fresh “dulces” (sweet pasteries). The coffee is also packaged either as whole beans or ground for you to take home so you can, as I was, taken back to this magical place when you brew a cup.

I’ll leave you, today, with this short video. Listen carefully to what Eden must have sounded like…

In an future post I’ll fill you in on the activities available at the finca either as a guest staying at the hotel or for those who might simply want a “day trip.”

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The Moon Says Goodbye to Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong, the first man to step foot on the moon was laid to rest yesterday, August 31, 2012. Coincidentally, there was a blue moon on the 31st. A Blue Moon is the appearance of the third full moon in a in a season with four full moons. It is never really blue. The term has also been used to refer to the second full moon in a month.

There won’t be another blue moon until July 31, 2015.

Blue moon

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