Monday, August 27, 2007

Casco Antigua

Modern Panama City, home to 8 of Latin America´s 10 tallest skyscapers, is actually the third city. Casco Antigua is the 2nd Panama City, and my personal favorite. It is an architectual wonder. Pictured here is the plaza inside the governor´s palace. The 1st city was sacked by Henry Morgan. This story is told in the great pirate book entitled ¨The Sack of Panama". The original city site, Panama Viejo, had been founded in 1519 and abandoned in favor of a more defensible site, now called Casco Antigua, in 1673. You can and should visit both. Casco Antigua provides a stark contrast as you walk many blocks of magnificent old edificios while gazing across the bay at the modern steel and glass skyscape. Here you will find cobblestone and brick streets, wonderful museums, cafes, art galleries, gift shops, and many artisans displaying their work. I recommend you save at least a half day to stroll the streets of Casco Antigua ... or several half-days, if you have the time. I am returning this evening to enjoy the sunset.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Coffee Heaven

Coffee from Panama has won the international cupping contest during seven of the last 11 years. Three times the winner was Cafe Ruiz, which we toured today. The other two winners are Cafe Lerida & Cafe Geisha. These small-scale family farms choose the environmentally friendly, shade grown technique. Coffee is grown beneath fruit and native hardwood trees. In this picture from Cafe Ruiz you see a hummingbird nest in the coffee tree.

Cafe Ruiz is located in the Boquete valley, pictured below. Boquete is situated in the rainforest of the fertile western highlands of Panama. Here the cloud forest´s abundant moisture and the volcanic soil combine with ideal growing conditions to produce some of the world´s best coffee. Panama is at the same latitude as Ethiopia which is home to the Arabica tree, the oldest and best tasting species of coffee in the world.

Coffee is harvested by hand in Boquete, from October through March. There is amazing attention to quality through the following 12-step process, according to our guide Israel of Casa Ruiz:

  1. Selection by hand of only ripe beans.
  2. Sorting by density with water. Beans that float indicate damage from insects, fungus, or sunlight, so only the beans that sink are utilized. Floaters are sold to other companies which put their brand on the coffee - Cafe Ruiz will not.
  3. Pulping to remove the liquid that would lead to over fermentation.
  4. Fermentation
  5. Washing
  6. Drying
  7. Resting to age the beans for 4 months to allow for detection of defects that passed through the processes above.
  8. Peeling off the parchment.
  9. Sorting by size (there are 13 sizes), density by air (weight), and color. Only the green beans go forward. Yellow indicates the bean was picked too soon, black too late, and blue or red indicate fungus.
  10. The good sizes are mixed back together.
  11. Batch roasting to allow for selection by taste.
  12. Final grading
There are three grades:

Specialty - for export. This grade constitutes 80% of the yield of Casa Ruiz farms. There are 11 major farms and many other small, family farms which bring their beans to Casa Ruiz for processing.

Premium - This grade receives all the processing above, except for color processing, and is not exported.

Standard - This grade is also for the domestic market.

The most award-winning farm in the Casa Ruiz enterprise is La Berlina, which sells for $25 - $50 per pound, at the farm, depending on the yield in any given year. It consistently places in French, USA, and Panamanian cupping competitions. I bought some of this for my friend Seth, who is a coffee aficionado, and will post his remarks soon.

Cafe Geisha has sold for up to $130 per pound, at the farm. Sorry Seth, I can´t afford it!

Cafe Ruiz doesn´t export roasted coffee, but they do roast. We saw the company´s first roaster - a bowl that was placed in a fire, their first roasting machine, from France, and every machine they have used since then. Five roasts are observed. Approximate times follow:

  1. Gourmet - 13 minutes
  2. European - 14 minutes
  3. Latin - 15 minutes
  4. Italian - 18 minutes
  5. French - 20 minutes, at which point the beans lose all subtle flavors and become like Starbuck´s beans - burnt.

We had the pleasure of meeting Plinio Ruiz, son of the 85-year old Plinio Ruiz who was the 2nd generation of coffee growers behind his father who homesteaded in Boquete in the 1890´s.

Join us in October and we´ll tour the fields, processing plants, roasting room, and cafe!

To buy coffee from C. America in the USA, roasted by my friend Seth the same day he ships it to you, visit (Seth stocks Cafe Ruiz when available.)

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Isla Cañas

Thousands of sea turtles nest on Isla Cañas every year between August and October. This island is a marine preserve near Panama´s southernmost tip on the Azuero Peninsula. Visitors are welcomed at an intepretive center before heading to the beach. We watched this beautiful pageant after a horse-drawn carriage ride along the beach. After dark, the Hawksbill turtes dig a nest with their fins and lay 80 - 100 eggs each. Green, loggerhead, and sometimes leatherback turtles also nest here. The mothers disguise their nests on the moonlit beach and return to the sea while their eggs incubate in the warm sand. The entire process takes less than 30 minutes ... locating a site, digging the hole, laying the eggs, filling the hole, tamping the ground, and covering the site. They will return before the eggs hatch. Visitors in October will be greeted by baby turtles. This tour returns to the mainland after midnight. We overnight at Playa Venao, one of Panama´s best surfing beaches. Surfers, bring your boards!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

La Amistad International Park - World Heritage Site

Amazingly, you can boat all the way from Panama´s Bocas del Toro up the Rio Changuinola and connect to the Rio Teribe to reach the rainforest by water. The Naso bring sustainable agriculture to new heights. The Naso Kingdom is the last kingdom in the Americas. Each family farms what it needs and there are also communal farms. Here a raft carries extra produce for sale to Caribbean communities down river.

A journey into a Naso home brings shared stories, songs, dances, and food. Pure happiness and pride is evident in the absence of machines. The rainforest provides the Naso everything needed to sustain a good life. The Naso political system is a model with much to offer to the world. This is an excellent destination for children to compare and contrast the simple life with the technological life. Mine were inspired, not to give up their computers, but to view their importance in a different context.