Some innkeepers have hospitality wired into their genetic code. Meet Jane Walker and Barry Robbins, Canadian expatriates who have turned their 2.5 hectares of forested land above Boquete  valley into one of the most appealing places to stay in the country. They call it La Montaña y El Valle: The Coffee Estate Inn (tel./fax 720-2211, www.coffeeestateinn.com , US$159.50 s/d).
You get a sense of the couple’s obsessive attention to detail as soon as you make a reservation. (And it’s a popular place, so advance reservations are a must.) They immediately send out a fat information package with solid advice on what to do and how to get around in Boquete and other parts of Panama .
The inn consists of three large, modern, immaculate bungalows set on a hillside just northeast of Boquete. They’re essentially small apartments, and they’re tastefully decorated. Each has a balcony, sitting room, kitchenette, flat-screen TV with cable TV and DVD player, safe, wireless Internet access, and a terrific view of Barú and the valley. (The estate is at 1,300 meters.)
Barry and Jane are always finding ways to make a great place even better. Guests can enjoy Barry’s homemade breads and scones for breakfast, and twice a week those who are interested can dine by candlelight in their bungalows (US$19–25 for main dishes).
Offerings include rack of lamb, braised halibut, five-spice roasted duck, and so on. This is incredibly romantic for couples and a treat for anyone else, as the staff festoons the whole bungalow with candles and artful flower arrangements. Appetizers and simpler suppers are available every other night of the week. Options include a smoked salmon platter, vegetarian moussaka, and cannelloni stuffed with spinach and beef (US$10–12 pp).
The property is a working coffee farm that produces more than 2,000 kilos of coffee a year. The coffee grows in the shade of a pretty, well-tended little forest that attracts more than 100 species of birds and lots of other highland critters. More than 50 indigenous trees have been identified so far. As usual, though, orange trees are especially well-represented. They produce thousands of oranges a year, so help yourself to as many as you like.
Stays include a free, optional tour of the owners’ coffee operation from soil to cup. The (free) coffee you drink here has never been out of the roaster more than two days. You can buy souvenir packs to take home. They have also concocted a delicious coffee liqueur, called Barubica, which is also for sale.
Barry and Jane are a great source of information on the area’s attractions. Guests are invited to walk through the couple’s lovely gardens and more than a kilometer of trails on the property and use their extensive library, which also has a computer with free Internet access.
Note to those who like things funky: Barry and Jane run a tight, gleaming ship. The inn has more in common with a modern first-world country getaway than some bohemian third-world tree house. But this is a great place to pamper yourself, which can be especially fun if you’ve been roughing it for a while. Stay here a couple of days and you may find yourself thinking of Jane and Barry as Mom and Dad. Still, if you want to be left completely alone, they’ll respect your privacy. This is a popular place with honeymooners.
To get there, take Avenida Central north past the church and follow the signs. The entrance gate is past El Explorador . The last stretch of road is rough and rocky but doesn’t require a four-wheel drive if driven carefully. A third person in the room is another US$55. Children must be 14 or older.
Valle Escondido Resort Golf and Spa (tel. 240-2454, http://resort.valleescondido.biz , starts at US$154 s/d), also known as Hotel Escondido, is part of the Valle Escondido gated community. Accommodations include rooms in the hotel, bungalows dotted about the complex, and, for longer stays, condominiums. The rooms are pleasant and feature patios, flat-screen TVs with cable TV and DVD players, and free wireless Internet. If you stay here, try to get a room that looks out on the lovely river. Guests are welcome to use Valle Escondido’s pools and fitness center. Golfers must pay to use the nine-hole golf course. There’s a formal restaurant, Sabor Escondido, on the grounds, and a café that features a riverside deck shaded by a banyan tree. I’ve found food at both places inconsistent, depending on the quality of the ingredients available. Note that Valle Escondido is close to but feels quite separate from the rest of Boquete.
As the name suggests, Rancho de Caldera (tel. 772-8040, toll-free U.S./Canada tel. 877/810-0898, cell 6612-2147, gina [at] ranchocaldera [dot] com, www.ranchocaldera.com , standard rooms US$176 s/d) is in Caldera, about a 25-minute drive from Boquete . This is one of the nicest places to stay in western Panama, but prospective guests should know it has a very different feel from Boquete proper: There’s no bajareque, no view of the volcano, and no cool mountain air. “It’s swimming-pool weather,” as the owner puts it, who thoughtfully has supplied a lovely pool and deck next to the restaurant, with a view of the surrounding hills.
The main accommodations consist of three sets of three rooms set along a rise with a view of the 20-hectare former cattle and horse ranch as well as the hills in the distance. Rooms are very large, cheerful, and decorated simply. The east-facing wall of each is a six-meter-wide sliding-glass door that opens onto a private porch; guests can watch the sun rise over the hills in the morning if they can manage to wake up early in such comfortable surroundings.
The standard rooms (US$176 s/d) have a king or two queen beds, a well-stocked modern kitchenette, flat-screen satellite TV, air-conditioning, and an iPod docking station. Some rooms have bathtubs; see the ranch’s website, which lists each room’s features in detail. The junior suites (US$198 s/d) add a full kitchen, dining/living area, and massage chair. Prices are a bit higher for rooms closer to the pool and restaurant. Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the property.
For those on a tighter budget, there are also two far smaller and more modest rooms in the main house. They have no TV, no air-conditioning, and share a bathroom, and the owner’s home is on the floor above, but they are perfectly nice and a fantastic deal at US$66 s/d, especially since all the ranch’s public facilities are available to guests in these rooms.
There are still some horses at the ranch. These can be hired for US$20 pp for about 90 minutes, or US$35 pp for a trip to and from the Caldera hot springs. The owner sometimes invites guests up to watch a movie in her lovely home, which has a large movie screen that lowers from the ceiling.
It’s not easy to get to the ranch by public transportation, so those without a car should either be prepared to walk the last couple of kilometers to the ranch or willing to pay around US$25 for a taxi to or from Boquete. Heading south from Boquete, make a left at the Caldera turnoff and continue straight towards Caldera for 10 kilometers.
Note: Do not confuse Rancho de Caldera with Montañas de Caldera, a gated residential community between the rancho and Boquete . As you reach Caldera you’ll see a church and soccer field on the left. Turn left here and head uphill for two kilometers. The last 700 meters is on a one-lane track, so drive cautiously. A couple of large, friendly dogs greet new arrivals.