Boquete on the Rocks

Boquete, Panamá, haven for North American and European expats (ex-patriots) has gained worldwide attention for being a superb retirement community. Former residents of many countries have flocked to Boquete for a new life. The reasons for this include a moderate climate (yearly average 70º F), clean air, no hurricanes, and sometimes a lower cost of living.

Expats, however, arrived late on the scene in Boquete. The town is nestled in a valley with mountains rising on the sides. As such, it was a pass through to reach more distant lands. Miners going to the California Gold Rush of 1868 often stayed, but they found no gold here. There were no roads in the early days; most people traveled by horseback. The district was founded on April 11, 1911, but people have existed in the area since about 600 BC. This is evidenced by petroglyphs in the outlining community of Caldera.

There is evidence of even earlier habitation. Anthony Ranere from Temple University conducted an archaeological survey in western Panamá in the 1970s. What he found has astonished not only archaeologists but also general history buffs and inquisitive people. Outside Boquete, Ranere excavated a site which came to be known as Casita de Piedra, a natural cave-like indentation in the mountainside. His discovery shows this structure had been used for thousands of years for domestic life and work, as well as for shamanistic practices.

A natural cave-like indentation in the mountainside
Casita de Piedra –

In 2007, Ruth Dickau, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Exeter, arrived on the scene and discovered a cache of unique stones. Below these rocks was a piece of charcoal radiocarbon dated to be 4800 years old. A similar fragment was found in the layer above which was dated to be about 4000 years old.

Carbon dating further indicated the base of the rock shelter showed this area had been used about 9000 years ago. The way these rocks were placed, as well as their composition, suggests they were used by a shaman. If so, this would be the earliest material evidence of shamanistic practice in lower Central America, according to Richard Cooke of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panamá.

It is a known fact shamans used rocks and crystals in their practices. These rocks were often unusual in some way. Some of these would have been quartz, pyrite, and magnetic minerals, carved or uncarved. This evidence shows the Boquete site was most likely to have been used by a shaman.

Quartz, pyrite, and magnetic minerals

Why these pre-human beings gathered crystals is still a mystery to modern science, but it is possible to deduce crystals had some intrinsic value for these people, and if they were making cave drawings, they had a spiritual life and, if they had a spiritual life and, if they gathered crystals too small for use as tools for manipulating objects, the crystals may well have had a spiritual or energetic value to them. [attrib. to Richard Cooke, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute]

Crystals are more than a power object for the shaman. He and his practitioners believe these are living beings from the spirit world and they transmit energy for healing and can affect a change from negative energies such as sickness to health.

The receivers of shamanistic knowledge were hunters and gatherers living off the land. They gathered fruits, nuts, and roots and captured animals and fish. These people progressed to be herders and farmers. Farming is an indication people moved from finding food to growing food. This occurred some 10-15,000 years ago, a significant practice which is still primary for survival.

Expats have made their mark on Boquete, but Casita de Piedra shows a handful of rocks are an even bigger mark for the town. Even though this excavated site must remain in seclusion for its protection, just knowing the importance of its existence puts Boquete on the map.

Fact: Boquete is home to Barú Volcano National Park
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Behind the Scene in the Boquete Library

Boquete is blessed to have a wonderful library, thanks to a generous doner and others who raised over a million dollars to construct a 3-story facility. It holds the distinction of being one of the few lending libraries in the country. Until coming to Panamá, I thought all libraries loaned out their books. Such is not the case in Panamá. I find this hard to comprehend.

Boquete Library building

There are more than 40 libraries and branches in the country. The largest is the National Library of Panama, a branch of the Ministry of Education’s library system, with over 200,000 volumes. The Biblioteca Pública Morales has 280,000 volumes, while the University of Panama library has over 267,000 volumes. All of these libraries are located in Panamá City. Lastly, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Balboa has 44,000 volumes.

The Boquete Library has a growing collection of books. As of 2020, the catalog totaled over 26,500 books, with 30% being in English. There are also a few holdings in French, German, and Italian. This library is so much more than books. The intent is to have a place of pleasure and discovery; it is not intended to be a research library. Books are taken to the local schools for children and youth to use.

Children's library

The facilities offer a meeting room and hall for monthly rotating art exhibits, classical music series, and community talks. There are English classes for both children and adults and story times for children. There are computers throughout the library as well as Wi-Fi being available for personal computer use. Books can even be checked out via the Internet and picked up later.

Library shelves

When an architectural design for the library was created, it was modeled as a cross between a lending library and a Barnes and Noble bookstore. This meant the space would be bright and open, allowing for a comfortable and welcoming mode. This has proven to be true, as the number of users and patrons is high for the size of the community.

The Boquete Library is often ranked as the best public library in the country. Residents of Boquete are proud of their library as they should be.

Fact: The Boquete Library was the first lending library in Panamá
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The Day Panamá Changed the World

Were you to guess that it was the Panamá Canal with which Panamá changed the world, you would be right. However, you would be a little late in time. Of even more importance is the fact that about 3 million years ago, the isthmus of Panamá rose out of the sea and connected two continents. From this occurrence rose one of the world’s great natural events, the evolution of plants and animals migrating between continents. At the same time, this land bridge also brought about two distinct marine ecosystems, separating the waters into two oceans.

The years 1910-1912 saw the beginnings of study on the tropical biology of the Panamá Canal area. Scientists set about establishing a base for the natural environment which was about to be torn up with the building of the Canal. Specimens were then sent to the U.S. National Museum to preserve a bit of ecological history. From this was born, in 1923, the Institute for Research in Tropical America made up of private industries and universities.

This evolved in 1946 into the Canal Zone Biological Area under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institute. This is still based in Panamá, now known as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), where researchers are studying biodiversity and human culture throughout the tropics. Now almost a century later, the Smithsonian in Panamá is breaking new ground on the study of tropical forests and marine ecosystems and their astounding biodiversity. Pertinent to my former neighborhood up in the mountains, the Smithsonian, in collaboration with the University of Illinois, is also studying one of Panamá’s treasures – Geisha coffee.

Journalist Michaele Weissman’s God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee (2008) is an elaborate study in itself. Much of Central and Northern South America make claim to having the best coffee in the world. The inside cover of Weissman’s dust jacket poses three questions:

Geisha Coffee Beans –  
  •  Can a cup of coffee reveal the face of God?
  • Can it become the holy grail of modern-day knights-errant who brave hardship and peril in a relentless quest for perfection?
  •  Can it save the world?

She answers her own questions by saying, Yes to all three. God can be found in a cup of Panamanian Geisha coffee, as it sells for about $1300.00 a pound or $75.00 a cup! Climbing the Smithsonian’s hills, I saw row after row of Geisha coffee trees. There are also many rows of other coffee trees. Clearly, there is a comparative study going on.

Geisha Coffee Tree –

Today, the STRI has a staff of 40 scientists, while playing host to some 1400 visitors made up of students from undergrad to postdoctoral and tenured professors. There are some 350 research projects taking place in facilities across Panamá, though most are located in the Canal Zone.

Score another important kudo for Panamá. It’s no longer a sleepy little country. It has coffee to keep it awake.

Fact: 10,000 plant species reside in Panamá.
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A Little Local Color

I continue to marvel at my experiences living up on the mountain in my yurt. I would not go back, yet there are interesting things I reminiscence about that experience.

One of these is living among the coffee plantations and the indigenous coffee workers. I became acquainted with a man around the corner from me who had recently planted his first coffee tree farm. His plantings are arranged horizontally across a hillside. If you squint at the photo, you might see the tiny rows he has planted. I took the photo from high up on the road. He told me he would have coffee to sell in three years. I would love to go back then, view his progress, and drink his coffee.

His English was better than my Spanish, but we did manage to communicate some. He will eventually end up with rows of mature trees, much like those across as well as up and down the road from me there. Generally, these rows are numbered and display the name of the coffee they will produce. Half of the rows all seem to be the Geisha (expensive) coffee that I referenced in the last blog posting. This coffee originated in Ethiopia, but now grows in Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

Just down and up the road from my yurt is the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (offices in Panamá City) on one of the highest points in the area. It is a tough walk up and I made it only about 80% of the way but the view was worth it, as well as to see the rows of multiple kinds of coffee trees. This Institute has research centers scattered about Panamá where scientists come to study ecological issues, marine and terrestrial biology, animal behavior, coffee, and more scientific endeavors. The oldest of these centers was created at the time of the building of the Panamá Canal.

There seems to be no end to interesting finds in Panamá. I look forward to discovering more of them.

Fact: Dormant Barú Volcano (11,398’) up the mountain from Boquete is one of the few places in the world where you can see both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans at the same time

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