Travel Journal - Panama

020717  944p

At Sortis Hotel in Panama City. It is very nice. I’m at a steakhouse for dinner. Ordered some sort of white fish. White rice. All the sides had cheese or milk. I hope it’s good. Drinking a Panama Lager. It’s not that good. My waitress speaks no English so I’ve been thrust back into Spanish speaking. On the flight from Houston, the guy sitting in the middle seat got up and moved so it was awesome. The guy sitting on the aisle was clean cut and friendly-looking. Though we didn’t talk until we landed. He lives in San Francisco and works for a nonprofit that builds schools in Nicaragua. It’s called Build On. I thought he said Bill Don. We chatted a bit about coffee and Nicaragua. Then in line at customs talked a little. I caught a cab with a guy named Fitzroy. He wasn’t with a cab company and his English wasn’t that good. So I’m in his private car and he’s blowing all the tolls, and I’m thinking of all the terrible things that could happen. Wondering if he was actually going to take me to the hotel. If his friends were going to meet us and rob me. He was shady. But I asked him a lot of questions. He said he has 3 sons and a daughter. He said his dad lives in Manhattan and works for the Army. He also said he works for a taxi company and showed me a ticket pad in his glove compartment that he probably got from the real cabbies. 

Anyway, we ended up at the hotel even though his headlights barely worked and he didn’t stay in his lane very well. $35.

Walked into the lobby and there’s the guy who sat next to me on the plane. Tom Silverman.


Hotel room is very nice. Wish I could take my time, but my flight is at 730a tomorrow morning. That means I need to leave here at least by 6a. I’ve never taken this flight from PTY - it used to be at a smaller airport.

The girls here are very pretty, but maybe a little… well, not into fitness. I’m hungry.

Got an email from Aliss Hartmann asking if I would be there for lunch. I should be, but who knows.

It’s warm here. And I don’t think there’s any such thing as air conditioning. I like it though. Can’t believe it’s already 10p. East coast time.

So what are my goals for this trip?

x To have an adventure

x But not let that adventure get out of hand.

x To reconnect with the Hartmann family and find out what’s new.

x To cup coffees and hopefully taste some delicious and interesting things.

x To buy coffees and arrange shipping in consolidated container

x To see white face monkeys.


020817  740p

Wow, what a day. There’s no way to recap or express in words or pictures the rich experiences I had today. And again, one of the great things for me is that I have flexibility and desire to go on uncertain trips. But it is very nice to share invaluable experiences with someone I care about. I guess I just need to find that someone.

Right now I’m at Ojo de Agua - the original Hartmann farm. It is a few rough miles from the main farm and VERY remote. it is back in the forest and I’m staying in a cabin with no electricity. I’m cooking with an old cast iron propane stove by candle and lantern light. Frogs and all manner of buzzing insects serenade me through the open door. 

Light beaming from the rental car windows drew me outside because it looked like a streetlight - but from the porch I saw a nearly full moon floating above the mountains with wisps of airy clouds drifting by its round face. I feel a bit like a monk. Eating rice, ground beef and onion. A large-ish spider stares at me from across the table. And I’m having a Herzog Jan Dubbel in a very monk-like simple glass.

The food is ok. Not up to my usual standards. The rice still has a bit of chew. Before this, as an appetizer with a beer called La Lupulosa by Insurgente brewery, I fried some sort of tuber. Just looked like an 8” root about 1 1/4” diameter. I pared the bark off the outside and the inside was white and sticky. Sliced it diagonally like my dad did carrots and dropped the pieces in olive oil. Not bad. Sort of like fried potatoes. Had to shut the door because mosquitoes are biting me. Gets warm in here with the door closed - and it’s a shame to shut out the muted sounds of the wilderness.

Aliss says the white face monkeys usually come here around 6-630a.

I’ve finished my dinner and turned out the lanterns. Now it is just a candle. I went outside to disconnect the gas and the moon is so bright that it has a halo of light around it about 1 1/2 daylight hours from its center.

My alarm went off at 430a this morning. That didn’t leave a lot of time to sleep. I actually fell back asleep for 30 minutes. Took another shower and got dressed and packed. Made coffee. People always say you should get to the airport 2+ hours early. Sometimes 3. I planned to leave the hotel at 530a and get to the airport at 6a for my 730 flight. I asked for a taxi at the reception and he had to call one - 6 minutes.

He got me there, but his car had no shocks - every bump was felt. And he couldn’t drive too fast. $35. I arrived at the airport about 630a. 

Hold up. Something may have just come through a vent. Heard metal and then lots of loud banging. Don’t see anything inside or out. Bird? Bat? Monkey? Possum? Something must’ve been on the roof.

First line I came to for Copa was somewhat short. Priority only. Second line - a little longer - online check-in. Third line long. Then I noticed the 4th line - Domestic flights. That’s me. Only a couple people in front of me. So I breezed through. 

I was in group 5. Practically everyone boarded before me. But we boarded a bus. I was almost the first one off the bus, and one of the first on the plane. I slept some. Looked out the window some. Amazing-looking islands off the coast near David. The guy in front of me was Chinese I think. He kept compulsively looking at his phone. Even when it was supposed to be off. He kept slamming back into his seat, which was reclined the whole time. And I’m not sure he ever fastened his seat belt.

There was a Nestle professional chef on board - ready to go to work.

And a curly-haired, grey-headed, older black man who showed up in his pith safari helmet. I felt that he was hoping to round up a half-dozen porters in David and set off to explore the uncharted lands of Panama.

I’m sleepy and tiny winged bugs are biting me. Hurts.


020917  1010a

Slow going this morning. I was exhausted. Set my alarm for 630a, but really didn’t get up until 9 or so. Had trouble reconnecting the gas - didn’t realize the release had to be open. Now eating breakfast and having washed Sidamo Bokaso. It’s good. Cooked onion and bell pepper and then cracked a dozen tiny eggs into a bowl. From a quail or something. They’re cream and spotted brown. Codorniz. They are different. I think I like what I’m used to. 

There is a plant outside the window with leaves as big as my torso. Bigger even; I may have body dismorphia.

I am going to walk to the farm. One, I’m a little nervous about driving back and forth on these 4WD roads - barely made it here. And I need to wander and take photos. And think and observe. 

There are berries growing outside. I can see a boy picking them. That would be a good dessert tonight.


020917  724p

In the cabin. The sun sets early here - maybe at 630p. Again I have shut the door and windows, as the bugs come in toward the lights. 

This is the last page of my journal. Somehow that always makes me sad. I carry around with me these memories and reflections until it’s time to put it on the shelf next to many, many others. I started this journal on May 2, 2016 in the square in Concordia. All of my adventures throughout this time span are recorded in these pages. Thinking back about it all makes me feel morose. I hate that time passes so quickly, and I hate that the passage of time means that joyful events and relationships have expired. All these things are in the past - and we cannot go back. So I must forge on into the unknown future with the knowledge that I may look back and lament the passing of today.


020917  738p

Eating beef and potatoes and onion. Drinking Anderson Valley Poleeko Pale Ale. Just finished a Belhaven Twisted Thistle IPA. With all the gringos in Panama I’m surprised there aren’t micro breweries here.

After I got off the airplane in David, I had the terrible experience of renting a car. It’s impossible to not get taken advantage of. My rate went from $50 to 250. But I got full protection - even though it appeared the guy was making me decline protection. I hope not. 

The drive to Finca Hartmann was not without diversion. I drove straight through David, which is an experience. Then I turned the wrong way on the Pan-American highway. So I had to turn around. At some point I broke off the turn signal lever - I didn’t figure the car rental company would notice. And by the time I got to La Concepcion, the car in front of me stopped to turn left and my first instinct was to lay on the horn. So I think I adapted well.

Stopped in Volcan for groceries. Bought a bunch of stuff - onions, potatoes, some root, yucca and plantain chips, olive oil, bananas, tiny eggs, ground beef, rice, and a cooler and ice. And some pepperoni sticks. I tried to buy beer but it was 1110a and the cashier told me she couldn't sell it to me until 1130a. So I put the groceries in the car, milled around and got a soda at the panaderia next door. Then went back at 1130 and bought the beers. On the way to Finca Hartmann, I was driving carefully because I don't know the car and the roads are SUPER windey. And I was afraid of dumping over the cooler. I saw a truck on my side of the road that may have been sideswiped - he was off the road into the embankment of the mountain, and one of his back wheels was off the ground. 

At Finca Hartmann I was greeted by Aliss, who was just as nice and handsome as ever. We had lunch with her mother. She told me that her father died at 96 this past September. She told me of trying to deal with it and how her mother had struggled, and I know it all too well.

We chatted about other things. She said this year they had near perfect weather and the harvest was going to be very big, but there was a hurricane that did some wind damage. But since the crop was so big, the harvest still ended up larger than last year. Some of the wind damage is evident - trees stripped of leaves, and some big trees down. Including the amazing Strangler Ficus I usually visit. Aliss says it was probably over 400 years old. And how old was the tree it strangled? You could climb inside the tree and look up through the cylinder that once was the prey of the Ficus. The Ficus is an epiphyte. Birds eat the figs and poop the seeds into the branches of a tree. The Ficus grows downward from there to the ground, and then surrounds the tree with its tentacles. Eventually the tree inside dies and rots away leaving an empty shell. This tree was huge. But its roots were shallow. Thus is the lifecycle of a Strangler Ficus.

The candle flickers every time a small flying insect enters its flame - which is often. 

After lunch I met Aliss' boyfriend, Luis. He was an organic farmer in California, but grew up in Nicaragua. We walked around the farm a little and he told me things about varieties and nutrients and root systems and the lifecycle of a coffee tree. In one area a tree next to a sprinkler head was in full flower. They smelled so good - so fragrant. The effervescence of the most special flower.


They were worried about my rental car making the drive up to the cabin. And rightfully so. With 2WD, I barely made it, and was on edge the whole time. In one section I just kept my foot on the gas and spun tires, creeping along at high center, but hey, I paid for full coverage. I did notice today the front right tire is low. I hope it's not flat in the morning. And I hope I can make it to the farm and get some air in it - will that hold until I turn the car in?

Today I got a late start. Walked to the other farm and memorized directions on the way.

"Go up the hill, not toward the mill."

"Santa Teresa wants you to go left, not right."

"Go right at the cross beam, where the Texas hat sits on the fencepost."

"The entrance to the farm is at the stone posts."


Took photos and dilly dallied a bit. Ate lunch again - rice and beans, meat balls and juice. Very fresh beans, they told me.

We talked about Colombian food and Aliss told a joke about Fidel Castro getting his countrymen to dance. She said it's funnier in Spanish.

I met Aliss' oldest daughter, Juliana, who is 16. She and Ratibor's wife were roasting coffee and bagging it to sell in Panama City. She was vivacious and happy. Aliss' dog, Fido was sick today. Yesterday he followed us all day. But I guess today he was sick and they were VERY worried. The vets were out of town. And he laid around a lot, sad and limping along. But this afternoon he suddenly perked up and started running. So that is good. There are A LOT of dogs here. All cute and nice. Two followed me on the way back to the cabin. But when we got to the entrance to Finca Palo Verde (the main farm), I said "Van a la casa." They looked at me. And I said Adios. And they seemed to understand.


I cupped coffee after lunch.

One table, 13 coffees. All that is available at this time. 

When I got here, a guy named Sebastian from a company called Phil & Sebastian's in Canada was here with an assistant and they were sample roasting and cupping a lot of coffees. Things that aren't available to me. Africans, etc.

The four African coffees were brought here from Ethiopia. No one knows what they are - and there are probably thousands of varieties of heirloom coffees grown in Ethiopia. It's the birthplace. Aliss tells me it's a punishable crime to try and smuggle coffee beans out of Ethiopia.

The cupping was good. Good coffees. It took a lot of notes to narrow down what I was interested in. But there was one particular lot of a Caturra/Catuai natural that was really good. And a second that was pretty good. I bought both of those. When I said so, Ratibor cringed because I basically cleaned them out of naturals. 

I also bought 2 different Gesha lots - one was the most complex, excellent example of a natural Gesha I've ever smelled. The other smelled so strongly of coffee flowers. I am very happy with this buy. Now I can begin working on some of my holiday coffee packaging.

These are expensive coffees - not to mention the trip. And freight to the U.S. and then to Tulsa. But the coffees really are extraordinary. So I know my customers will be very happy.


On the walk back up to the cabin I saw the fallen Strangler Ficus. And I heard a large animal in the woods run off - it sounded like a dog, but I know it wasn't. What could it have been? Coatimundi? Jaguar? Pig?


When gusts of wind come I can hear them rustling the treetops for 30 seconds or a minute before they actually reach the cabin. It comes to a crescendo and I expect there to be rain afterward - but the most has been some seeds or debris from the forest falling on the roof.

Tomorrow I should rise early and make coffee and sit on the porch waiting for the monkeys. After breakfast I want to take some pictures of the Ojo de Agua Geshas. And go for a hike in the forest looking for interesting things.


Aliss and Luis bought a farm together - Finca Momoto. They are growing a few varieties and plan to only process them as naturals. This is a shift, but Aliss told me they cannot keep up with the demand for naturals and the industry is all looking for them. What a change from just a couple years ago when the majority of the industry considered them "fermented."


021017  651p

What a day.

I'm at Grace Panama. VERY nice. My kind of place. Checked out the room and then the fitness center and pool. Now I'm sitting outside at the restaurant in the hotel. On a sofa. Smells so good. I actually wanted some things off the bar menu but didn't want to sit at the bar. Just ordered a Stella, which I would never do, but the local beer and all the other choices are not good either. The ambiance is great here and I have it all to myself.

Last night I woke up a few times because the wind was blowing so hard. I got up at 630a to look for the white face monkeys but they hang out in the tree tops and judging by the way they are swaying I figured the monkeys were hunkered down somewhere.

I made coffee and 9 eggs with onion and bell pepper. I cooked them more thoroughly today and they were much better. After breakfast I moved the car so a worker could finish felling a tree. It was not going to hit my car but no chances. Then I went for a hike. Walked up to the 1 hectare Gesha plantings then followed a trail around the coffee to a place where the trail had been hacked in the forest with machetes. The trail went straight uphill. Later found out it was a 1300 foot climb.

It was blowing so hard. I was sheltered from it by lots of big trees but all around me trees were bending and wind howling through branches. I came to an old road bed and continued uphill though much easier. Then I came to a fork in the road. Uphill said to Amistad National Park, so I went. But before I reached La Amistad, I came to Tibor's farm, Guarumo. At the top of that mountain, one side natural forest and the other coffee, I felt the full force of the wind gusts I'd only heard until then. Tibor's poor Gesha trees were taking a beating.


I'm eating fried calamari and a mediterranean bread smeared with tomato and olive, garlic, etc. The calamari is good and has a garlic/wasabi mayo dipping sauce. I have to be careful not to fill up on my appetizer. Haven't eaten much today though and I'm hungry. And this tastes good. 


At the end of Finca Guarumo, there was a farm gate - the kind with barbed wire and a post at the end that straps with wire to the fence post.


I just have to stop right here and acknowledge that this is perfect. The music, the ambiance, being outside in the tropics, I can smell the wood fire from the kitchen. The lights are dim, the food is delicious. My soul is very happy right now. I acknowledge that I won't be in as perfect circumstances again any time soon. Maybe ever. I love it.


Over that fence starts La Amistad. It just looked like an unused road. But I'd love to follow it and explore. I was running short on time so I had to turn around and hurry back. The hill was so steep I slipped and fell on the way down. I saw a coffee tree in those woods that was about 18 feet tall but it had been recently knocked down by another tree falling. It had a few ripe cherries at the top and I pulled a few off, just out of sentimentality. The variety I discovered in the forest. Haha. No monkeys.


I have a saying when I'm hiking, that it's hard to look for fossils and bears at the same time. In this tropical forest, I thought: It's hard to watch for vines and monkeys at the same time.

Back at Ojo de Agua I hurried to clean up, shower, and load up. I left a little rum and some olive oil. And a couple of packs of chips.

I paused outside the door to watch that big, old cypress take its final fall to the ground. I hate to see trees cut down. Especially ones that big. Aliss told me her grandfather planted it, but it was starting to lean more and more toward the larger house and they worried the wind would blow it down and hurt someone or the house. So the tree had its lifespan, just like the big old Strangler Ficus.

The 2 front tires on my rental car were low. One very low. So I drove very slow in first gear to Palo Verde. Made it without too many hard rubs with rocks on the undercarriage. There was a cadre of dogs there to meet me. Fido seemed to be feeling all better. I was glad about that - he's a precious dog and Aliss really loves him. I chatted with Aliss and Luis some more. I like Luis a lot. He's very nice and a great resource for info.

Aliss told me that I could take a scenic detour from Volcan to Cerro Punta. So I did. It was maybe 30-40 minute loop. The area is beautiful - vegetable farms and fresas (strawberries). Up near Volcan Baru. Volcanic soil and lots of rain. A couple of beautiful horse farms. Looks like an easy, peaceful place to live.

The Hartmanns lost electricity before I left the farm and Aliss just messaged me and said they still do not have electricity and the storm is expected to last 48 hours. On the way out I saw MANY downed trees - mostly banana and plantain. They told me that these winds usually start late February or early March. Everyone kept saying "this is the first day." Apparently the winds usually last about 4 weeks. They are a little early this year. I guess each year they dread these winds and pray they don't do much damage. They are coming from the Atlantic.

One thing I didn't know was how big the Ngäbe Buglé Comarca is. I saw a map of it and Aliss told me where most of their coffee pickers are from. She said to get home they take a bus to a northern city and maybe a boat after that. And then they paddle canoes up the river to their homes. There are no roads in that province. Pretty interesting. They speak their own language too - not Spanish. 

When I reached David I saw 2 signs for airports. I chose the closer one. The route took me through the BUSIEST part of David. It was ridiculous. There are no stoplights anywhere, so cars on cross streets just butt in. But it works somehow.

I had the tires on the rental car aired up at a gas station just outside Finca Hartmann. Filled up with gas by the airport. $14. Turned the car in and checked in to wait. I noticed Air Panama left before us and it was a free-for-all. I like the semi-order of Copa. Even though they don't enforce any of the rules. My bag was between my feet. The woman next to me had hers on her lap. The guy across the aisle had a backpack between his legs. And the flight attendant stopped to tell me to push my little bag under the seat in front of me. The guy in front of me didn't even have his seat belt buckled.

Anyway, the wind was so strong that the takeoff was a tad rough. Cruising was fine - and short. Coming into Panama City the plane was drifting everywhere and I was nervous, but landing was fine. 

Trouble ensued at the PTY airport.. What should've been simple turned into a compoundingly bad situation. I was so thirsty when we landed I went to look for water. And didn't find any. But I went down the stairs to the exit at the far end of the terminal instead of the closer one. And I ended up in immigration again. Went back up but the airport person told me I had to do that again. So I waited in a long line. I could tell it was wrong when I talked to the agent but she sent me on. Then I couldn't get out of the airport. Because domestic flights aren't supposed to be there. Finally a guy just let me go through. Thank god. I was frustrated - and 2 hours had passed.


Getting warm out here. I need la cuenta.



At breakfast. Nice buffet. Fruit, fried yucca, smoked salmon, etc. Ordered an omelette. The light shining through my blue water glass makes a rainbow on my table, which is very fitting. I love this hotel. Even the arepa tastes good. Went to the front desk to ask when checkout is and the beautiful girl working at the reception said noon. I asked her if I could check out at 1p and she said no problem.


Just asked about the Panamanian corn tortilla (arepa). So good. They say you boil the corn, then cut it from the cob, then grind it and add salt - a little butter if you want, and grill or pan cook in small rounds - these are 2.5 inches diameter.