We’re deep into the middle of the “dry” season here in Panama. It’s only rained a couple of times since the wonderful fireworks displays of Christmas Eve and New Years, and it usually stays dry until sometime at the end of April or early May. The afternoons have been incredibly hot. I rarely use the air conditioning which is why I’ve come up with a couple of $8 electric bills. For the most part I’m very comfortable if I’m in some shade with a breeze blowing, but over the last month I’ve shut the doors and windows around two or three in the afternoon and cranked up the a/c.
Everyone’s lawns have taken on the color of a shredded wheat biscuit with tiny hints of green poking though like bits of mold. The river, only a few yards away from the house has been silent and normally I can hear it running over the rocks but recently it’s been nearly dry, and you can easily walk across it in quite a few places without getting your feet wet. A patina of fine dust coats everything inside and out.
Yesterday morning when I got up it was gloomy. I thought it was just breaking dawn and was surprised that it was nearly eight thirty, and I almost never sleep that late. It stayed overcast all day which moderated the heat of the afternoon and a couple of times a few drops of rain fell, but only a very few. Not enough to wet anything down.
This morning it was also overcast, but a slow, steady rain was falling and it still is three hours later. What’s remarkable is that almost instantly the lawn, which was 95% brown is now more than half green as the rain soaks down to the roots of the grass. I doubt that the dry season is over, yet, but it’s nice to see some rain again.
The weather here in Panama, the last couple of days, has been really lousy. While we are in that part of the “rainy season” when our rainfall is greatest what we’re been going through now is unusual. Just to recap what I’ve said about the “rainy season” before…It doesn’t normally rain 31 (that’s 24/7). Most mornings are glorious. Blue skies, puffy white clouds until early afternoon. Then things start to cloud up and just before early evening the sky dumps several inches of water in a couple of hours. Yesterday morning (Wed. Oct. 24), was one of those very rare days when I woke up to rain. I can’t remember more than three or four mornings like that in the two and a half years I’ve been living here. Worse than that, it rained all day long. Not the usual downpours we’ve all come to know and love, but a light, steady rain that just didn’t stop. And it’s still raining this morning and probably will all day long.
Why? Believe it or not, Tropical Storm Sandy which is hovering over Cuba as I write this. We don’t get hurricanes here in Panama. It’s too far south, but that doesn’t mean the storms don’t effect us. They do! Hurricanes are giant weather factories with far-reaching consequences. If you remember your high school science lessons you know that hurricanes, cyclonic disturbances, rotate in a counter-clockwise direction, and that’s what’s changed our weather pattern here.
Look at this NOAA photo of Sandy.
That’s Panama just under and to the left of that huge patch of red. As you can see, the storm is drawing its strength from water vapor all the way into the Pacific Ocean and dragging the bad weather across the isthmus. We’re only about 50 miles or so between the Pacific and the Caribbean here. And it’s causing big problems.
In Tonosi, at the foot of the Azuero Peninsula about 300 houses have been affected by flooding when the Tonosí river overflowed its banks.
(Photo from Panama Guide.com)
Here in Chiriquí Province the river in Puerto Armuelles (about an hour and a half away by bus from my home) over on the Pacific side on the border with Costa Rica, has been threatening to overflow its banks. People in Nuevo Chorrillo, in the district of Arraiján, near Panama City, are living under the threat of landslides from the super-saturated hills above their homes.
While other rivers are threatening homes the river a mere 25 yards or so from my house is doing fine. I’ve written about, and posted videos, about how fast the river can rise to frightening levels in a matter of a few minutes. Right now it’s what I would categorize as “high normal.” Most of the huge boulders as still well above the water level. Since the rain has been light but steady the watershed isn’t being overwhelmed and there’s little to worry about right now.
Ignorance, they say, is bliss. There are certain times it’s better not to know some things.
For instance, yesterday two men were working to clear out the weed-clogged field next door so that it could be planted with corn. They worked for about six hours and during that time they killed two small fer de lance snakes.
The fer de lance is one of the most poisonous snakes in the world. If there were two next door you can be sure there are a lot more around. Sometimes there are things I’d just rather not know about.
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:
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.”
It’s no secret that I love my neighbors here in Boquerón, and I feel their love in return. They’re always bringing me things to eat. I’ve had some fantastic homemade tamales that can’t be beat. During mango season I was deluged with the things, and there was a bumper crop this year. Nearly every day when the avocados were in season one or another of my neighbors would bring me some. I got guacamoled out. Recently I wrote about the pibá. Today I was given a large “pipa” (pea pah). That’s a young coconut filled with delicious, refreshing and healthy coconut water.
There’s a coconut palm in my back yard that has a lot of nuts growing but they’re not ready to be picked yet. Just on the other side of the front fence, in my neighbor’s yard is a huge palm…
It’s at least 60 feet tall. (I measured it by visualizing the 65′ Hatteras I used to run in New Orleans standing on end against the tree) From time to time while sitting out on the front porch puffing one of my stogies I hear a loud thump as one of the nuts falls to the ground.
Yesterday my neighbor brought me one. It was filled with enough water to fill a large glass. The water is not only refreshing, but it’s loaded with potassium and antioxidants. With the water transferred to the glass my neighbor cut the nut open reveling the soft, sweet “pudding” inside.
According to Wikipedia, unless the coconut has been damaged the water is sterile and it has been used as an intravenous hydration fluid in some developing countries where medical saline was unavailable.
While Boquete is touted by many publications as one of the best places outside of the U.S. in which to retire, I try to avoid what many of the locals call “Gringolandia” and which I refer to as the “Gringo Ghetto” preferring to live among the natives, like a native. Living as I do certainly has its advantages. I can’t imagine the gringos in Boquete receiving the treats I get from the locals, though I may be wrong in some instances.
It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here. Lots of bloggers post every day. I did when I first started this project several years ago. Others post every other day, and some, like my cyber-friend Linda at http://shoreacres.wordpress.com/ who writes finely-crafted posts and puts up one a week.
Me? Well, none of my posts are finely-crafted. They’re essentially first drafts, quickly written and carelessly checked for misspellings. I post them when I feel like it.
Recently I’ve been negligent about posting anything. There are several reasons. 1) Life gets in the way and other things that take precedence. 2) Nothing noteworthy has been going on and 3) Sometimes I just don’t feel like it.Number 3 has been my excuse lately.
It’s not like I’ve been comatose since the last post, so I’ll give you a few updates over the next couple of days.
As my regulars know, I bought myself a motorcycle for my 70th birthday.
I call it the “Orange Arrow.”
As luck would have it I threw out my back a week after I got the bike. I was in severe pain for the first week afterwards. In so much pain I was THISclose to going to see a doctor. But it’s getting better now and I only get a twinge every now and then.
But another problem came up. I found out that my Panamanian driver’s license isn’t good for motorcycles and if I get caught riding without an endorsement I’m going to get a ticket. What are the odds of getting caught? Excellent. There are traffic cops all over the place daily setting up road blocks everywhere and checking people’s licenses.
I went to the license bureau last week to see what I need to do to get the endorsement. It was pretty discouraging. It seems that I have to go to a driving school which will cost me a couple of hundred bucks. Then I have to take a written test (in Spanish) and pass a practical test. Then I have to go through the whole licensing rigamarole all over again…photo, eye test, hearing test, another $40 fee.
The worst part is that now that I’ve turned 70 I have to go to a gerontologist or an internist and get a letter saying that I’m physically and mentally fit to drive a motorcycle. I could probably pass the physical part okay, but isn’t there something suspect about a septuagenarian’s mental health if they have gone and bought a motorcycle?
I’ve written quite a bit, with videos, about the rainy season in Panama. The “dry” season in Panama runs roughly from the end of November through April and does not lend itself to good video opportunities. Sort of on a par with taking an action picture of a rock.
It’s hard to say if this has been a typical dry season or not since I haven’t lived here long enough to have developed a meteorological memory bank. The river that runs past the house has been little more than a winding rock pile for months.
We’ve been several months without a drop of rain. Full-blown drought conditions. Diary farmers in the district of Macaracas are experiencing serious difficulties. This dry season has resulted in a 25% decline in production. The most critical areas are the districts of El Cedro and Corozal, where 80% of surface water sources have dried up and the grass is low. Serious, large-scale brush fires have been reported throughout the country as a result of the tinder-dry conditions.
When I’d leave the house to go catch a bus into David I’d crunch across the straw-colored front yard. Here and there were tiny tufts of green but easily 90% was as dry as dust. But the yards around here aren’t sodded plots. They’re covered by indigenous plant life. Stuff that has survived these conditions for millennia. So not everything is brown.
The trees have remained green, but look at the ground beneath them. (Sorry, the color of the pictures is horrible. I think I damaged my still camera when I was documenting the final sunrises in Potrerillos Arriba and I’m now using my video camera’s still photo mode.)
April is fast approaching and the weather pattern here in Chiriquí Province has been changing. It started about a month ago. I woke up one morning to find it raining quite hard and it continued into the early afternoon. This was unusual because during the rainy season the wet stuff generally comes in the middle of the afternoon. It’s rare to find it raining in the mornings. But that was just a tease. We didn’t get any more rain for days afterwards. Clouds would build up in the afternoon and it looked like it was about to rain but nothing came of it. Then it started last Thursday and we’ve had rain every afternoon since then. Right now it’s quite gloomy and I can hear thunder from all points of the compass.
The newly arrived rains haven’t changed the river yet as you can see from the photo above. The ground’s too dry for that. La tierra is thirsty and drinking up the rain as it falls. In a couple of months, when the ground is thouroughly saturated it will run off and the rivers will rise again.
The rain, though, has had a profound effect on the grasses. With just a couple of successive days of rain green patches are springing up where it had been brown.
There are four treelings? Treelets? Saplings? in the back yard. I watered them nearly every day, but one seems to have succumbed.
I have no idea what kind of a tree it is supposed to be. The leaves seem to be that of a mango. But the mangoes in the neighborhood are thriving and loaded with an abundance of green fruits now. I’ve not given up hope. The leaves, while they are a dreadful brown, have remained supple and pliant. Hopefully it’s simply resting and not like this…
Well, January is just about over and we’re definitely in the middle of the dry season. So far this month we probably haven’t even had an inch of rain. One afternoon it rained very gently for about an hour and that’s it.
You may remember this video I shot a couple of months ago when we were getting a lot of rain every day…
As my regular readers know, I live in the small pueblo of Boquerón, Panama, in Chiriqui Province west of the country’s third largest city, David. I rent a house in a middle-class neighborhood where my neighbors are mono-lingual. They all speak nothing but Spanish. When I first moved in and I’d see them on my walks to the bus stop we’d exchange the normal greeting of “Buenos Dias,” or “Hola.” But recently I’ve noticed that almost all of them have stopped saying that and they say, “Hello,” instead. I can’t quite put my finger on when I first became aware of this change, but I find it rather amusing. I still answer them with the traditional “Buenos, como esta?” though, and if I stop to chat it is always in Spanish, of course.