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!


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!


High-Altitude Lighthouse


One of the more surprising things I discovered in Boquete is the existence of a lighthouse on the highway just south of the town. I wondered why anyone would build one there, because we are about a two-hour drive from the Pacific Ocean to the south, and further than that from the Caribbean Sea to the north – and the lighthouse is more than 2,000 feet above sea level.

Looking north at the Boquete lighthouse, with Volcan Barú looming in the background.

I asked several people why it was there, and the story I got was that building it was an attempt to achieve a Guinness world record for the lighthouse situated at the highest point above sea level. If that is true, they fell woefully short in their attempt, as the lighthouse with the highest elevation is on the Oberalp Pass in Switzerland, at 6,712 feet (2,046 meters) above sea level. But kudos for giving it a shot!

On the grounds of the Boquete lighthouse (called El Faro in Spanish), there is a playground for children, a tricycle track for the younger ones, and people can climb up into the lighthouse and look through binoculars at the surrounding countryside. It seems to be geared toward hosting birthday parties and such for kids. I think it would be pretty cool to have a birthday party there! You can see more information on their website. I haven’t been to the top of the lighthouse (stairs are the bane of my existence!), but I can imagine the close-up views of Volcan Barú would be stunning!

El Faro is special to me, because it’s a landmark that puts me on notice that I’m approaching Boquete when I’ve been traveling. It is located just outside the checkpoint going into town (visible at the pedestrian overpass in the background of the photo above), which marks the “official” entrance to Boquete. I always look for it, and it always makes me smile when I see it in the distance, because I know I’ll soon be home.

Arial view of the lighthouse, looking south toward the town of David.


Coffee Tour

Boquete, Food

Last week, a group I’m a member of toured one of the many coffee plantations in the mountains surrounding Boquete. The one we visited was the Don Pepe Estate Coffee farm, which was established in 1898 and now includes the fourth generation of the founding family. This farm produces several varieties of coffee, including the expensive Geisha variety that is very popular in Asia.

The office and gift shop.

Our tour group.

I had no idea the process was so involved, and so hands-on! First, the plants take about seven years to start producing the coffee cherries (the fruit that contains the coffee beans), so much patience is required to even get started in the coffee business. However, the plants live about 75 years, so once they’re established, they have a long productive life.

Our tour guide (a member of the third generation of owners) picked some coffee cherries for us and showed us what the raw product looks like. There are two beans (which are actually seeds) inside each cherry.

Our tour guide among the coffee plants.

Ripe cherries ready for harvesting (photo from their website).

Every cherry is picked by hand at just the right stage of ripeness, and our guide explained to us that they have to be careful not to damage the short stem that they grow on, because it will take two years for the plant to grow another stem and flower in that location if it is broken during harvesting.

Some of the processing equipment.

After the beans are extracted from the fruit pulp, they are dried in long racks in the open air. These racks are shielded from the wind in the dry season by the green mesh covering shown in the photo, and from the rain by the white tarps seen in the background in the rainy season.

Coffee drying racks. There are six of these long racks – that’s a LOT of coffee!

After the beans are dried, they are aged for several months in the storage area before being packaged for sale.

After the tour, our group went to the office for a coffee tasting, where we sampled five varieties of the coffee produced on the farm. Some of the varieties had more or less caffeine, and the Geisha coffee tasted a bit like tea, but with an extra kick – I think it had one of the higher concentrations of caffeine. It wasn’t appealing to me, but since it’s kind of like tea, I can see why it’s so popular in Japan and other Asian countries. We also sampled some tea that is made from the cherry pulp. It was very good – I bought some to take home, along with a package of two of the coffee varieties.

The coffee tasting table.

Boquete is a true center of “coffee culture” in Panama, and a significant percentage of the local economy. I learned a lot while on the tour, and gained a new appreciation of the amount of human labor and complicated production methods culminating in pouring a morning cup of coffee.


Laid-Back Holidays

Food, Holidays

The holiday season was good for me this year, although it was very low-key compared to some of the pre-covid celebrations in Panama

Thanksgiving this year was celebrated with a home-cooked dinner at my friend Terri’s house, with all the traditional American-style dishes – turkey, ham, dressing, green bean casserole, broccoli/cheese/rice casserole, mashed potatoes and gravy, and cranberry-orange jello salad, with cherry pie for dessert. Everything was delicious!

On Christmas Eve, I had dinner at Ngadri, a fairly new local restaurant that focuses on locally grown ingredients. I had eaten there a couple of times before, and this menu did not disappoint. It started with a festive cocktail that featured intriguing botanical snippets, garnished with a little candy cane.

Welcoming holiday cocktail

The appetizer included crispy vegetable chips and shrimp in a light creamy/citrusy sauce with diced green apples. The tartness of the apples contrasted nicely with the shrimp and sauce. The main course featured ham with a guava sauce (very good), mashed taro (like mashed potatoes), and asparagus in a cream sauce.

Vegetable chips and shrimp appetizer

The main course – delicious!

The dessert was adorable – a little gingerbread house that was shared by three of us. Great presentation, and the gingerbread cookies were crisp and tasty. Good food and good conversation were the theme of this evening – there were nine of us at the table. I knew most of them, and met others for the first time. We lingered over dinner for more than three hours, enjoying the food and camaraderie.

The modern-style gingerbread house dessert. So cute!

My dinner companions

Christmas Day was a quiet at-home time, watching several holiday movies and enjoying a glass of wine. A couple of days after Christmas, I cooked my own holiday dinner with a turkey breast, dressing and gravy, and cranberry sauce. And just before Christmas, I bought myself a present – an electric ice cream maker. Merry Christmas to me! LOL!

New Year’s Eve was VERY casual – one of the restaurants had a “PJ Party” theme for brunch that morning, so I invited my new neighbor to join me and wore my lounging-around-the-house attire. Nothing too special about the menu, although it was good – an omelette and diced potatoes, with a couple of Bloody Mary’s. The evening was spent at home, watching the ball drop in Times Square and enjoying the fireworks go off all around my house at midnight.

However the holidays are celebrated, life is good – and may 2022 be better than the last couple of years! Cheers!