Orchid Extravaganza

Mother Nature, Sightseeing

Just a few days after the chocolate luncheon described in my previous post, I went with three friends down the same road to Volcán and beyond, to Finca Dracula (dracula refers to a type of orchid). This is a botanical garden high up in the mountains north of Volcán that specializes in all manner of orchids, along with other plants. I had been wanting to go there for quite awhile, so when the opportunity came, I immediately said yes!

We ate breakfast before exploring the lush grounds. Three of us had huevos rancheros (eggs on top of toasted tortillas, covered with spicy salsa), and the other person had French toast with fruit. I think she made the best choice!

French toast at Finca Dracula, topped with bananas, apples, strawberries, and blackberries. Yum!!!

Finca Dracula is arranged into several areas, including the Garden of Light, Fern Garden, Buddha Garden, Japanese Garden, Succulent Garden, and others. Click here to see a map of the property.

The orchids were in full bloom, and were so interesting with their different colors and shapes. Some even had little “faces”!

Multi-color orchids – one of my favorites.

Dainty white orchids with tiny spots.

I love this little guy! His hair sticks straight up, he has a goofy expression, and even has a little handlebar mustache!

Here is a gallery of more photos from our trip. Click on an image for a larger view.

 

 

 

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Chocolate Luncheon

Food

Recently, I went with a group on a culinary adventure to Volcán, a town on the other side of Volcán Barú – about eight miles from Boquete as the crow flies, but almost a two-hour drive by car. Unfortunately, the volcano is in the way, and you have to drive south to go north, to get back almost directly west of Boquete.

The route to Volcán from Boquete. Good roads and scenery, but a bit of a drive.

We rode in one of the small white “coaster” busses that usually transport people from one area of Boquete to another. The driver is a friend of Raquel’s, who organizes these outings, and he was able to reserve the bus for our trip.

Our group at the restaurant. About half of them were in the group I usually go places with, and I met two new couples on this trip. Nice folks!

The name of the restaurant is Cerro Brujo, which translates to “Witch Hill”. Nothing spooky about it, though – it was lovely!

The menu for this luncheon had a chocolate theme – all of the dishes featured chocolate in some form. Raquel does some marketing for The Perfect Pair, where we took a chocolate making class awhile back, and the owners of this restaurant are associated with them.

Following are photos of the offerings, all of which were beautiful and delicious!

Yuca and cheese croquettes with a creamy garlic/spice sauce and crushed chocolate nibs sprinkled on top.

I had the croquettes, but the salad looked delicious, too. It was beautifully presented and included four kinds of greens, multi-colored cherry tomatoes, seedless cucumber slices, and a creamy garlic dressing with cocoa nibs.

The main course – roasted chicken breast with a chocolate/spice sauce, and mashed sweet potatoes on the side. Roasted potatoes and carrots were also served.

Dessert! Strawberries flambéed with rum and served warm, alongside a rich chocolate brownie.

Both the food and the company were excellent, and the our table was on the covered terrace. It started raining soon after we arrived, and it was lovely to listen to the rain falling on the dense trees around us as we chatted before lunch was served.

There seem to be quite a few “foodies” in Boquete, and special food-related events are not uncommon. There are special meals like this, as well as community-wide competitions similar to those you would find at a county fair that are held in the town plaza. I remember one that was a “best strawberry dish” competition.

There are also challenges between chefs, pitting one restaurant against another to determine who makes the best chicken wings, hot dogs, barbecue, etc. They also had a “taco crawl” earlier this year (on Taco Tuesday, of course!), in which diners are shuttled to six restaurants around town and enjoy six tacos for one price ($17). Food culture here (of all types) is a real thing here, apparently!

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Boquete Garden Tour

Community, Crafts, Polymer clay

Last Saturday, a fantastic fundraising event for Dog Camp (a prominent local charity focusing on rescuing, rehabilitating, and rehoming dogs) was held – the Boquete Private Garden Tour. Three gardens were selected to participate in the tour, and the 45 attendees were transported by three charter busses. At each stop on the tour, there was delicious food and boutique shopping. A video compilation produced by one of the photographers on the tour can be viewed here.

The food was beautifully presented, and the volunteers who assembled the plates operated like a well-oiled machine.

My friend Kathleen leading one of the tour groups through her lovely garden.

The garden of one of my friends was featured on the tour, and I was honored that she invited me to be one of the vendors. I had neglected my polymer clay efforts for most of the past three years, because I had been working remotely all that time and felt like I couldn’t devote the time and attention to it. However, I am no longer working, so when this invitation was extended, I couldn’t say no. This is another example of the synchronicities that have appeared in my life:

  • Someone told a friend of mine that she had some polymer clay she wanted to give away, as she had too many other hobbies and needed the room. So my friend put her in touch with me, and gave me probably 20 pounds of clay, two pasta machines, and a Cuisinart food processor used to chop up and recondition hard clay.
  • I had recently met someone at a restaurant, and we became friends on Facebook. I saw a post where she mentioned that she hadn’t been able to work with her clay recently, so my ears perked up and I asked her what kind of clay she was talking about, and found that indeed, it was polymer clay! So we have had a couple of clay play-days since then, and she is becoming a real-life friend.
  • And finally, after telling my friend Kathleen about these “coincidences”, she invited me to be a vendor at the garden tour, which came at the perfect time.

With all of these seemingly unrelated incidents (but were they, really?), it seemed undeniable that the universe was prompting me to re-visit my polymer clay efforts. So I switched gears and got busy making items during the several weeks before the tour – ink pens, keyrings, earrings, and necklaces.

My display table at the garden tour.

I enjoyed meeting the guests – that was my favorite thing when I did craft shows in Oklahoma, and I must say that sales were good, too! I also handed out flyers saying that I was going to start hosting polymer clay classes, which interested quite a few people. It seems residents in Boquete are always looking for new and different things to experience – there have been painting classes, chocolate-making tours, coffee tours, salsa dance lessons, mosaic workshops, and any number of other participatory creative or cultural events. 

All in all, the garden tour was a rousing success, and they raised more than $3,100 to support Dog Camp. Kudos to all who volunteered!

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At the Chocolate Factory

Food, New things

I’m not Willy Wonka, but I did visit the chocolate factory in Boquete. It’s called The Perfect Pair, and they make and sell delicious chocolates, as well as offering specialty coffees to enjoy with your chocolates.

Our group took a chocolate-making class, where we learned the origin of the chocolate and the multi-step process that takes it from the cacao pods to the finished product. Cacao is not grown in Boquete – it comes from Bocas del Toro, to our north on the Caribbean coast of Panama. They buy the cocoa beans from there, then roast and process them in-house to make the various varieties of chocolate they sell. They don’t yet have the machine required to extract cocoa butter, but they will be acquiring one in the future. For now, they purchase the cocoa butter that goes into their chocolates from another Panamanian company.

Our tour guide, showing us the first steps in the chocolate-making process. In the pan are cacao beans and some cocoa butter. At the left, the roasted beans are ground into cacao nibs.

After the cacao is roasted and ground into nibs, it is further processed by machine into a finely ground mass. This is then combined with cocoa butter and sugar (and milk for the milk chocolate) in another machine.

In the lower right is the machine that grinds the cocoa nibs into the “mass” that is combined with other ingredients. The big machine in the center is where the cocoa butter, sugar, and milk (if needed) are added to the mass to make the different types of chocolate.

After the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, they go to the tempering machine. This machine brings the chocolate to the correct temperature and constantly recirculates it through the machine to ensure that the temperature is consistent throughout the batch.

This is the tempering machine, which keeps the chocolate at the proper temperature. If you look closely, you can see the chocolate pouring from the spout at the top of the machine and recirculated into the container below.

After the tempering process, the chocolate is ready to be poured into molds to make the finished product.

Here are some of the finished chocolates, ready to be sold.

After the tour, we got to make our own chocolates. We started by using some fine sugar of various (non-toxic) colors to “paint” the stained-glass patterns of our molds. Then the real fun began!

The actual chocolate making started with a pan of the chocolate that had come from the tempering vat, which we had to cool to the proper temperature for making the chocolate bars. To accomplish that, we worked in pairs – one person poured about half of the chocolate out onto a cool granite table and stirred it around, while the other person used a digital thermometer to keep an eye on the temperature. 

After the cooled chocolate was returned to the pan, it was thoroughly mixed together. With some final stirring and double-checking of the temperature, it was ready to be poured into the molds. The excess chocolate was scraped off, and the molds were tapped on the table to release any small bubbles. Then we sprinkled different ingredients on the warm chocolate bars to customize them with nuts, coconut, cookies, raisins, or sea salt.

After cooling the bars in the refrigerator for 10 minutes, they were ready to be unmolded by twisting the plastic molds slightly to loosen them, then flipping the mold over to reveal the finished product.

My finished chocolate bars. There were many colors that we “painted” on the mold, but unfortunately, only the blue was readily visible at the end.

They even gave us nice foil wrappers for our chocolate bars when we were finished!

This class was so much fun! Much like on our recent tour of the coffee farm, I learned a lot and gained a new appreciation of all the steps involved in making chocolates. Both processes are very labor-intensive, and takes a lot of time to go from the raw product to the finished chocolate bar or cup of coffee. 

This is just one more reason for me to love living in Boquete!

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Afternoon at the Ecoparque

Boquete, Sightseeing

Yesterday, the social group I belong to went on a “happy hour” excursion to a fairly new attraction in Boquete, the Ecoparque Cerro la Cruz (which loosely translates to “ecopark at the hill of the cross”). It is located high on a hill overlooking the north end of downtown, and features a large cross that is brightly lit at night and can be seen even from the other end of town.

The cross at the Ecoparque, which can be seen all over Boquete.

The park itself is lovely – there are many trails to explore, and the overlooks from that elevated point are spectacular.

The view of Boquete, looking south from the overlook at the cross.

The park is beautifully landscaped throughout the property, with thoughtfully arranged terraces full of flowers and shrubs.

The name of the park is artfully spelled out in flowers near the entrance.

Beautiful landscaping alongside the Sendero de Paz (Peace Trail).

The Peace Trail leads to a second overlook featuring a statue of the Virgin Mary. The entire park is indeed very peaceful and inspiring in its beauty.

The park has a play area for children, and several whimsical sculptures scattered on throughout the grounds. There are also activities for children or adults to enjoy, including a large slide and swings.

Some of our group gliding on the swings, taking a moment to relax and appreciate the environment. Across the street is a coffee plantation.

The large “rainbow slide” called the Avalanche, where people slide down it in large tubes. Exhilerating! (I did not participate, but it sounds like fun!) Also note the large caterpillar made from old tires at the left, next to the playground equipment, and the group of armadillo sculptures on the far right.

Another fanciful group of sculptures – the pig family.

Another section of the park features REAL animals – including a duck pond and petting zoo. My guide, who kindly drove me around the park in an ATV since I couldn’t walk very far, told me that many children who live in Panama City had never seen farm animals, only dogs and cats. They are amazed to be able to see and touch these different animals.

The mini horse and mini mule. So cute!

Peacocks, both white and normal colors. They also have several varieties of beautiful chickens in the petting zoo.

The duck pond, with the petting zoo beyond.

But wait – there’s more! Aside from all the trails to explore, the activities to enjoy, and the beauty and peace of the environment, there is also a very nice little gift shop and a cafe with drinks and sandwiches, along with a covered lounge area and outdoor picnic tables to consume your refreshments.

Our group had smoothies and sandwiches, as well as sangrias. The verdict was… delicious!

Overall, this was a very pleasant afternoon outing for our group. Everyone had a great time walking the trails, going down the slide, relaxing in the swings, and chatting while enjoying their food and drink. The park is thoughtfully laid out and has a variety of things to do and see. The views were spectacular, and the employees were very accommodating and delightful. Good job, Ecoparque!

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