Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bocas Sailing

A highlight of our time so far in Panama is the day we spent on the water in Bocas del Toro. We booked an all day sailing tour with Bocas Sailing. We've always gone out on motorboats before and Erik thought it would be nice to do the sailing tour. It turned out that most of the day there wasn't enough wind to sail, but it was still nicer to be out on a 40-foot catamaran than on a little motorboat. There was room to move around and it felt more relaxed. One thing we've appreciated here in Panama is that children are usually given a discounted price, and we were pleased that they charged very little for kids. The next morning I happened to see the same boat heading out so was able to get a picture of it from the shore.
The catamaran was named Chewbacca, which the kids thought was pretty cool.  Here Pearl plays with the boat's namesake. If you ever go to Bocas with children, bring your own life jackets! The boat operators don't seem to have small ones for the kids. This was the only small sized one and of course it was still way too big for Pearl.
Erik snapped this one. 
Raphael and Erik enjoying the boat ride.
We got to see some dolphins coming up for air! They weren't leaping out of the water, just coming up long enough to breathe. They come up four or five times and then disappear for about two minutes. We watched for a while, waiting for them to come back up again, and got to see it a few times. 
After visiting Dolphin Bay, our next stop was a mangrove island surrounded by a coral reef. Much of the world's coral has died, so it was a rare treat to get to snorkel a living reef. I don't think I've ever seen coral so beautiful, like an undersea garden with corals in a myriad of fanciful shapes and brilliant colors. Nestled amongst the coral were starfish in various colors, seaweed, and "sailor's eyeballs", a large single-celled algae that looked rather like silver pearls.
I was so proud of Poppy, who really got the hang of snorkeling this time around. Last time we went, a few months ago, she had a hard time with the mask and breathing tube, but this time it clicked for her. I love snorkeling so much and am happy she is able to do it easily now.
Erik and I took turns getting in the water with the kids and staying on the boat with Pearl and/or Raphi.  Here they were hanging out in the cabin while Captain Marcell prepared sandwiches for lunch. He's from Germany and has been doing Bocas sailing tours for many years. He was knowledgeable about the area and we enjoyed visiting with him throughout the day.
Right up there with snorkeling was the rare privilege of drinking an entire soda. 
In typical girlie fashion, an empty soda bottle became a baby doll, wrapped up in a towel and snuggled by Pearl.
Beautiful green islands dotted the blue sea.
At the second spot we snorkeled, the fish were amazing! Captain Marcell has dubbed these Sergeant Major fish "piñanas" as they go crazy over pineapple (piña) scraps. In our family, they are sometimes called Murphy fish, because when Peregrine was four we snorkeled in Mexico and he confused the name with Sargent Murphy from Richard Scarry's Busytown books! Peregrine loves snorkeling as much as I do. Raphael did lots of swimming at this spot as well, but didn't want to try putting a mask on. Even little Pearl got in the water for a minute here. We saw many different kinds of fish here, so beautiful!
Isla Carinero from the boat.
There's something about a boy and a boat that just seems to go together, isn't there? 
We finally got to sail toward the end of the day. It was a nice, peaceful feeling to be gliding quietly along the water. We had a wonderful day out exploring! 

Friday, February 08, 2013

Bocas del Toro

This is a typical "living fence" that we've seen all over the Panamanian countryside. It appears that a cutting is put into the ground and then begins to grow. These are then strung with barbed wire like a typical fence, but the result is so much more pleasing to the eye, not to mention cost effective!

A glimpse of the Caribbean in the distance. It was neat to be able to see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans in one day!
From Boquete, we drove east and then north to Bocas del Toro province, crossing from the Pacific slope over the mountains to the Caribbean side of the country. The vegetation, while lush on both sides, was very different. I especially liked this tree whose new leaves were a brilliant red.
We parked our rental vehicle in a secure lot in Almirante, a small, rundown, litter-strewn town on the Caribbean sea.  Here the kids were waiting to board the water taxi that would take us to nearby Isla Colon. This area was visited by Christopher Columbus on his last voyage to the New World in 1502. He found the area beautiful, and as such named several places after none other than himself. Thus today we have Amirante (Admiral), Isla Colon (Columbus Island), Isla Cristobal (Christopher Island), and Isla Carinero (Careening), where his ships were careened, or turned on their sides for repair and/or cleaning. Later on this area was a haven for pirates, who are said to have buried treasure here.

The modern "treasure" of Bocas del Toro, apart from tourism, is a thriving banana industry. If you eat Chiquita bananas, there's a good possibility you've had one from here. Now that's a banana boat!
We stayed for three nights in the town of Bocas del Toro on Isla Colon. It had a very Caribbean feel, with many of its brightly painted wooden houses built on stilts over the water, and the requisite Bob Marley playing over bad speakers.  We stayed on the upper floor of this building and enjoyed spending time on this balcony, looking out over the street, and the large front balcony over the water.
Bocas was an interesting little town, a little too touristy for our tastes, although we enjoyed our time there. We found it to be expensive, and if we'd have had more time I think we'd have preferred to stay on one of the smaller, quieter islands. I'm sure we also would have tracked down some less expensive options than we found. We just decided to think of this week visiting Boquete as our "vacation". The town was jam packed with backpackers and travelers, surfers and expats. 
The kids were delighted to count the huge starfish visible in the clear waters. This one was beneath the dock attached to our building, which housed a restaurant on its ground floor. (Is it a ground floor when it's built over the water? Water floor?) 
Looking across the water to Isla Carinero.
There are so many hummingbirds in Panama! I enjoyed watching this one flit about and then rest on plant one morning.
Sunrise as seen from our deck.
Traditional dugout canoes are still widely used in the archipelago. 
I liked this colorful sign.
Some of the small grocery stores known as "mini supers" had beautiful displays of fruit, mostly bananas, pineapple, and papayas, in their front windows.
The house where we stayed is right in the middle of this picture. I was a little hesitant to stay right on the water with the kids, but it was fine. We just watched them very carefully! 
There was a large US Coast Guard ship in the waters off the island. Of course everyone had some speculation as to what they're doing there. 
One day we took a taxi across the island to Bocas del Drago, then walked down the beach to Playa de Estrella (Starfish Beach.) The water was warm and clear and home to many big starfish! 
Our beach meal consisted of whole fried fish, coconut rice, salad, and patacones, which are fried green plantain slices. They taste a lot like french fries. 

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Kotowa Coffee

Kotowa Coffee Plantation, Boquete, Panama

    Boquete, Panama, is sometimes called the Napa Valley of coffee, as it's known for producing some of the world's finest coffee. Its "eternal spring" climate combined with rich, volcanic soil and the proper altitude makes it ideal for growing coffee. We couldn't pass up the chance to tour a coffee plantation while we were in Boquete. We booked the tour through Boquete Tree Trek, and it ended up being a good deal since they didn't charge for the kids. They provided transportation from town up to the plantation, high in the hills above Boquete. We rode in the back of a canopied truck, bouncing along a deeply rutted, rocky road through thick jungle. We arrived at the plantation and were treated to a gorgeous view of the valley beneath us while more verdant mountains rose above. The air was clean and cool, while clouds raced by in a brilliant blue sky. The weather shifted rapidly from warm and humid one moment to cool and drizzly the next. Come, walk with us...

We started out by crossing a suspension bridge over a rocky stream bed. It's summertime in Panama, and although there are streams and rivers everywhere, the water levels are on the low side. 

This was the view from the bridge. I'm not a huge fan of suspension bridges, and walking across them with jumping, running children makes them even less fun. Or more fun, depending on how you look at it!
Before we got to the coffee, our guide pointed out this little yellow flower. He picked some and had us chew the stem for a minute, which served to numb our tongues! He said the indigenous peoples used it as an anesthesia for mouth troubles. 
This was Dennis, our guide. He spoke excellent English and was very knowledgeable, sharing lots of interesting information about how the coffee is grown and processed. 
This is a coffee blossom, and if you look behind you'll see some ripe coffee cherries. They are picked every 21 days throughout the several month harvest season, and on a single plant you'll see berries in all stages of ripeness. Most of the pickers are the indigenous peoples, whom, he told us, can make very good money picking coffee. 
Kotowa Coffee grows, among other varietals, the famed Geisha coffee. Panamanian Geisha from this area has won several prestigious coffee awards in recent years. The bushes produce very little fruit compared to other varieties, which contributes to its high cost. 
Dennis encouraged the kids to pick some coffee and showed them how each cherry must be carefully and plucked off its stem. Hand picking, while costly, allows for proper picking as well as selection of only the ripe cherries.
Here he showed us the coffee seedlings. Ketowa, which means mountain in the native language of the area, was started over one hundred years ago by a Canadian man. They practice sustainable and organic farming techniques.
The best coffee is shade grown, and the Ketowa plantation is nestled on a mountainside amongst tall jungle trees. The understory is lush, and I had to stop to admire the colors of this plant!
After we finished touring the plantation, we got to go to the coffee room and learn more about the history of coffee and how it's processed after it's picked. I was a little disappointed that we didn't get to see the processing operation, but it was done at a different location, so we got to see pictures of it instead. After our "lesson", we had a cupping where we got to try several different varieties of coffee.
The first step is to deeply inhale the aroma of the freshly ground beans. There were six or seven varieties, so we went down the line, smelling each and comparing notes on the differences and similarities.
The SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel. Erik used to roast coffee, so I have a little familiarity with this, but it's all pretty crazy! There's more in that cup of coffee than you might think!
Step Two: Hot water is poured over the coffee grounds, then left to brew for a short period of time. The grinds rise to the top, forming a "crust".
Each cupper is given a spoon with which to sample the coffees.
After the coffee has brewed for a moment or two, the cupper takes a spoon and "breaks the crust", releasing a potent aroma. The grounds are gently stirred into the water and should sink, while the cupper notes the particulars of the aroma of each type of coffee.
Any grounds that continue to float are scooped off the top, and then it's time to taste the coffee. This is done with a loud "slurp", spraying the coffee across the tongue. I believe professionals spit it out after this step, but we just swallowed ours. Erik is really good at the slurp, but I couldn't quite get the hang of it. (He's done this before!) says, "It is important to aspirate strongly since you are trying to cover the entire tongue evenly. Aspirating strongly will also cause tiny droplets of coffee to be distributed into the throat and into the nasal passage. The nose can act as another powerful tasting tool. Most of the flavor observed in a coffee is a result of aromatic compounds present in the coffee." So there you have it; it's a sophisticated slurp. The coffee is evaluated for taste, acidity, body, and aftertaste. I'm not a coffee drinker, and to me, coffee usually tastes bitter and coffeeish, but living with my coffee snob husband all these years has helped me come to appreciate the nuances and subtle differences in different varieties and roasts. Some are fruity, some are chocolaty, or nutty. I'd personally rather just eat fruit or chocolate or nuts, but it was interesting to do the cupping and taste the differences, and I was pleased to be able to notice the particulars. The geisha was really nice, even in my opinion! 
We had a great afternoon at Kotowa Coffee. This was looking down towards Boquete from the plantation.
This is coffee, after it's been "washed" and the hulls removed, drying in the sun. These "green" beans are sold to your local roaster, who will roast them to perfection for your drinking pleasure! Roasting is an art in itself.

Follow this link to enter a contest to win some delicious coffee from my brother-in-law's roastery, Voyage Coffee Roasters.