Discover the Panamanian tradition of coffee growing in the highlands of Chiriquí | Travel

A worker sorts coffee beans at the Lamastus Family Estate farm in Boquete, an area known worldwide for its coffee varieties.
Mauricio Valenzuela/picture alliance via Getty Images

The summit of Volcán Barú, west of Panama, is one of the few places in the world where it is possible to see both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. But the place, with regular rainfall and cloud cover, and rich in nutrients volcanic soil naturally good for drainage, is prized for another reason: coffee production. The areas variety of geishatended and handpicked by the indigenous Ngäbe and Buglé communities, is one of the most expensive coffees in the world at over $1,000 per pound unroasted.

“They [the Ngäbe and Buglé] are those who have had the most contact with coffee in the last hundred years,” said Diwigdi Valiente, indigenous and climate activist. Travel + Leisure in 2021. “The reason coffee is so expensive is that these farmers are doing all these things right. They listen to nature, they listen to science and they also listen to people.

Coffee first came to Panama in the early 1800s thanks to an English captain who brought plants with him when he married a Panamanian woman. At first, coffee was planted along the coast, but locals soon realized that the microclimate of the Chiriquí Highlands at the foot of Volcán Barú was perfect for coffee to thrive. Coffee plantations flourished from then on.

Although the country grows a relatively small amount—13 million pounds per year compared to Brazil’s five billion pounds, Panamanian coffee lovers today consume more coffee per capita than most coffee producing countries. However, a large part of the coffee is exported and its cultivation has generated tourist activity. Created by tPanama Tourism Authority and the West Region Competitiveness Cluster in 2019, the ever-expanding coffee circuit connects 15 farms that offer tastings and tours of their fields and production facilities.

“All types of travelers, from families to nature lovers and adventurers, are invited to explore the coffee farms located in three main regions of the Chiriquí highlands: Tierras Altas, which includes Volcan, Bambito and Cerro Punta; as well as Renacimiento and Boquete,” explained Promtur Panama, the official destination marketing organization for Panama, in a 2021 statement. The Chiriquí Highlands, after all, have been dubbed the “Napa Valley of coffee.”

Here are five must-see farms:

Finca Lerida, Boquete

Accommodation at Finca Lerida

Accommodation at Finca Lerida

I Bird 2 via Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0

The world might not know Panama coffee if it weren’t for Finca Lerida. Norwegian engineer Toleff Bache Mönniche settled there (about 10 km upriver from Boquete, a small mountain town near the Costa Rican border) in 1924 with his wife, Julia, after retiring after years of work on the Panama Canal. The couple built their house by hand and that same year started the coffee plantation. In 1929, Mönniche exported to Germany the very first shipment of Panamanian coffee to leave the country.

Today, the 900-acre Finca Lerida has a restaurant, cafe, and rooms for rent for overnight stays. The visit of the property begins in the coffee fields, to discuss the local terroir, and ends with a tasting of pacamara, catuai, caturra, typica, and geisha varieties and a lesson in best practices for brewing a cup. Visitors follow trails ideal for birdwatching, with locals quetzal bird and over 500 other bird species in the surrounding landscape.

Finca Café de Eleta, Renacimiento

Neighbour La Amistad International Parka Unesco World Heritage site rich in biodiversity at the northwestern tip of Panama, Finca Café de Eleta has a responsibility to keep its coffee production safe for the environment. In 2003, the farm became a signatory to the United Nations Global Compact, a volunteer-based initiative that focuses on sustainability, engaging them to implement and measure sustainability initiatives. All wastewater from Finca Café de Eleta is organically treated and returned to the surrounding area, and solid waste is composted and turned into fertilizer.

Finca Café de Eleta was established in 1978 as a vegetable and sheep farm. The first coffee trees, of the catuaí variety, were planted in 1995. Today, the farm has over 457 acres ranging in elevation from 3,937 to 4,921 feet, growing varieties of bourbon, catuaí, caturra, geisha, maragogype, pacamara and typica. . Tours through the coffee tree nurseries and packing processes last two hours. Visitors can add an hour-long tasting for an additional fee or stay overnight at the farm.

Lamastus Family Estates, Boquete

Lamastus family estate

A worker harvests coffee beans at the Lamastus family estate.

Mauricio Valenzuela/picture alliance via Getty Images

The three farms that make up the Estates of the Lamastus family—Elida, El Burro and Luito Geisha—produce what is considered some of the highest quality coffee in the world. Elida Estate is not only the highest of the three, but also the highest coffee farm in all of Panama, ranging from 5,200 to 8,500 feet above sea level. The coffee plantation stops at 6 000 feet, however, due to Panamanian law; the rest of Elida Estate is an ecological park within Baru Volcano National Park.

Elida began producing coffee in 1918. Due to the high altitude and cloudy rainforest environment, the beans are denser with higher acidity than most coffees. Each coffee cherry (the coffee bean is the seed of the cherry) is hand-picked by the Ngäbe and Buglé indigenous people, which explains its higher than average price, up to $1,000 per green pound. During visits to Elida Estateparticipants can pick coffee cherries, observe the coffee making process, taste tree tomatoes (a fruit the size of a roma tomato that grows on trees and tastes like unripe tomatoes), and do a coffee tasting with the owner of the farm, Wilford Lamastus, or his son, Wilford Lamastus Jr.

Janson Coffee Farm, Tierras Altas

To Janson Coffee Farm, which borders the slopes of the Tisingal and Barú volcanoes at around 5,000 feet above sea level, producing coffee in harmony with the surrounding environment is the main objective. The team cultivates varieties of green-tipped geisha, catuaí, caturra and pacamara in soil that they manage with enzymatic microorganisms to maintain the ideal level of nutrients. None of Janson’s coffee is grown using pesticides or herbicides; the different plots are separated by forest steps which both control pests and allow the natural flora and fauna to flourish. The farm is powered by 400 solar panels and all waste is processed for use as fuel or fertilizer. The farm owners are also dedicated to reforestation, growing native seedlings in the nursery to replant outside the coffee fields.

Swedish farmer Carl Axel Janson started the farm in 1941, raising cattle. When the second generation took over, they opened Janson Coffee Farm. Today, the coffee, now produced by the fourth Janson generation, consistently earns top marks in the The best of Panama and Brewers World Cup competitions. Farm tours provide an overview of the different varieties of coffee trees grown there as well as the coffee production process from start to finish, and include a tour of the estate and nursery. A coffee tasting is a complement.

Cafe Don Pepe Estate, Boquete

Don Pepe estate coffee in the foothills of Volcán Barú opened in 1898, making it the oldest coffee farm in the region and the first farm in Panama to specialize in coffee. The Vasquez family, now fifth-generation owners, specializes in geisha coffee, but also in three different processing styles: natural, honey and washed. With the natural process, the coffee fruits are dried whole, which makes the coffee full-bodied with low acidity. The honey process extracts the layer of pulp before the coffee is dried, leaving a sweet acidity in the finished brew, and a washing process removes everything, leaving only the grain for a light body and fruity flavor.

Visits to Don Pepe run twice a day and cover the growing and making of their eight varieties: geisha, java, pacamara, bourbon, typica, catuaí, caturra and a blend. The visit ends with a tasting. Don Pepe Estate also provides transportation – they will pick you up and drop you off at nearby accommodations.

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