Finding Shangri-La and Lettuce

The volcano Barú as we look out of our apartment window.

Volcán Barú out of our apartment window.

Even though we live in a studio apartment and our one window overlooks a rock yard, we have an amazing view of Volcán Barú.  It’s a beautiful and (supposedly and hopefully!) dormant volcano.  It reaches 11,398′ at its summit.  Due to the narrowness of Panama, you can see both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea from its heights.  We hope to hike up to the peak during the dry season.

Because of the volcanic soil, the areas around the volcano are extremely fertile.  One of the areas on the west side, Cerro Punta, reportedly grows 90% of the region’s produce.  The region, Chiriquí Province, yields a great portion of all of Panama’s produce.  As we drove through this town and the surrounding areas, it was easy to believe.  The hills were covered with various crops and looked like a patchwork quilt.

I think that one of the most amazing things about this place was how I felt as we drove through the valley.  The day was cloudy and the rain and mist in the hills created an otherworldly sense of being in a different time, place or even dimension.  It was surreal.  I felt such an incredible quiet and peace.  

Lining the road were various stands selling produce.  It reminded me of the old Blood Alley, near San Jose, CA, before Highway 101 went through.  Shop after shop full of the freshest fruit and veggies.  And the prices are pretty amazing.  We were able to bring home several meals worth of food for only $6.50.  And that included several snack-sized bags of chicharrones, Liz ;)!  The oval, red things are tamarillos or tree tomatoes.  Not my favorite but big here and apparently in New Zealand as well.  I looked for recipes online and most of them were posted by Kiwis.

Even with the incredible soil, I think that the constant moisture during the rainy season and the constant sun during the dry season may cause problems for farmers trying to grow crops year round.  Greenhouses are used to farm in the area as well.

One farmer using greenhouses is Rodrigo.  He’s up by the castle, a local landmark, about 10 minutes outside of Boquete.  As addresses aren’t really used in many parts of Panama, we got directions to his place from our friend, Melissa, who drew us a map.  The directions were basically to go up the main street, go to the right by the gymnasium, turn right again by the bus stop between the 2 beautiful gardens and follow the road around past the castle and by the big chess set.  Seriously.  What’s even funnier is that, believe it or not, we found the place exactly as she had described it :)!

Rodrigo is the coolest guy. He’s a 1961 Texas A&M alumni (go Aggies!)  Through the use of hydroponics he is able to farm lettuce year round, use a minimum of land and grow some of the most amazing and beautiful lettuce I have ever seen.  He spent about 45 minutes with us talking about his system & hydroponics, choosing crop types and his philosophy on health and life.  He’s in his early 70s and so has quite a few years of life experience behind him and is super interesting to converse with.  Plus he has toucans!  He lives in one end of the greenhouse, very simply and yet very contentedly.

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