Did you know that Panama produces some of the most flavorful coffee in the world? A relatively new player on the gourmet-coffee market, the country produces traditional shade-grown-coffee varieties that are generally considered to be more complex and distinctive than those produced by its more famous neighbor, Costa Rica. Most coffee plantations in Panama are centered around Boquete because of the high altitude required for prime coffee growing, and because of the region's fertile volcanic soil. Coffee tours are available and highly recommended -- really, you'll never look at your morning cup of joe the same once you've taken a tour with one of the companies below. Even coffee snobs will glean insight not only into the meticulous growing process but into the economics of the local Ngobe-Buglé indigenous labor and culture, the "shade-grown" theory to protect the environment and to grow a better bean, the effect coffee has on the world, and what coffee producers really think about Starbucks. Tours are capped off with a "cupping," which, much like a wine-tasting (and almost as fun), gives you a chance to sample different flavors, strengths, and roasts. In addition to the following companies, see Finca Lérida's tours below.
Café Ruiz is one of the oldest and most respected coffee producers in the country. A tour entails a three-stop visit to the plantation, the processing plant, and the roasting-and-packaging facility (transportation is provided). This is an ideal tour for those interested in seeing large-scale production as opposed to a boutique operation. Tours, led by a jovial and bilingual Ngobe-Buglé Indian guide, are offered Monday through Saturday from 9am to noon, or from 1 to 4pm; the cost is $14 (£ 7)per person. Alternatively, you can visit the roasting facility for a 1-hour informational session and cupping. Café Ruiz, by the way, sells to Peet's Coffee.
Café Kotowa is a boutique coffee farm founded nearly a century ago by a Scottish immigrant, and it's still run by the same family. Kotowa, the indigenous word for "mountain," has earned a reputation for producing award-winning coffee beans, and though they've since moved on to modern production means, the farm's antique, water-powered mill still exists and is part of their fascinating tour. Visits to Kotowa are one-stop -- first you amble through the coffee plantation behind the mill, then you tour the production-and-roasting facility, and finally you have a cupping in the old mill. The tour is led by Hans, of Coffee Adventures (tel. 720-3852; www.coffeeadventures.net), who pioneered coffee tours in Boquete, and who is animated and amusing. Tours are Monday to Saturday at 9am and cost $20 (£10) per person, which includes transportation from Boquete to their farm in Palo Alto. Children must be 10 or older, unless they're part of a private tour. Private tours cost $30 (£15) per person but can be scheduled at any time, including Sundays.
Finca Lérida also offers coffee tours.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.