As any good party hostess knows, a delicious layered dip is always a hit. What makes the layered dip so special is the combination of ingredients. Some of which might be delicious alone, but when mixed together contribute to an entirely new creation. A well-crafted dip enhances its individual components, resulting in a flavor sensation. Sometimes, the best dishes come from unlikely pairings.
And this is how Boquete is like a 7-layer dip.
Boquete is a small mountain town where several distinct categories of people have converged to form a vibrant, festive community that doubles as an international tourist destination. Like a 7-layer dip, the different groups who populate Boquete feature their own unique attributes. Some seem to have little in common with others. Yet they have blended together in this particular geographic location of Western Panama to form a community, elevating the experience of the town to a sum greater than its parts.
The groups who make up the 7 layers of Boquete, in no particular order:
Standard Issue Panamanians
These are the everyday country natives who live in the province. They work in the labor jobs: gardening, farming, cleaning. Their wages hover between $2-$4 per hour, and they work long hours to get by. They build their houses room by room as they make enough money to do so and take buses and taxis because owning a car on Panamanian wages is much too expensive. Their children, the ones you see running around neighborhoods kicking soccer balls, attend Panamanian public schools, though, like most of the working class around the world, they may wish to send them to private school. Standard issue Panamanians flock to fairs on holidays, ride their horses around Boquete and often have little English, but a desire to learn.
Think of your real estate agent, your teacher or lawyer. These folks are also native Panamanians, but they work in professional jobs. Their wages are attached to the gringo market, meaning they may make more than the average native laborer because their clientele consists, at least partially if not mainly, of foreigners, who typically have more money to spend on services. They send their kids to private school, though perhaps on scholarship. Their children don’t run the neighborhoods. They stay inside doing homework and have play dates with cousins. Theirs are the Panamanian kids attending art classes and Tae Kwon Do with expat kids. They are likely your neighbors in Volcancito or Alto Boquete. Many speak English and have travelled to or lived in North America or Europe.
The Indio, who live in the mountains, are members of the Ngöbe Buglé tribe, easily identified by wide facial features and the women’s brightly colored dresses. Many are migrant farm workers who travel from the Comarca Reservation (on the border of the provinces of Chiriquí and Bocas del Toro) to pick beans during harvest time. They are literally the backbone of Panama’s coffee exportation economy, yet make as little as $1.75 per 5-gallon bucket of ripened berries. Their children walk up and down the mountains, the babies cradled in their mothers’ arms, the older kids unattended, going to and from public schools. The Indio also enjoy fairs as families, and are regulars in town on Saturday nights, but stick to their own. Their culture is at a crossroads as they attempt to avoid the technological age that is ravaging Pachamama, yet have no choice but to participate in the repercussions.
This group varies drastically by country of origin, political beliefs and economic status: North Americans, Australians, South Americans, Europeans; socialists, democrats, libertarians and (a shockingly large contingent of) republicans all call Boquete home for at least part of the year. Most cite socio-economic and political motivations of some kind as a primary reason for their relocation to Panama. A majority of expats are pensionados (retirees), some getting by on social security alone, others living off millions in investments. This group also includes families with young children seeking integration with a larger world community. Yet the one thing that binds this group together is that they are not and never will be Panamanians. Having a cedula and speaking fluent Spanish will never completely erase the gringo tattoo emblazoned on their forehead.
This group seems self-explanatory, but can be divided into expat and native tourists. Expat torísticos include those scoping out the area for potential relocation, families exploring Costa Rica and Panama on vacation, and those who’ve heard of Boquete as a destination for healing energy and alternative medicine (which it is). Native torísticos from Panama City flock to the cool country climate on weekends, and during holidays and breaks, temporarily infusing the province with urban flare. The population of Boquete swells during tourist season, as does revenue for the local economy, providing a means other than farming for many native Boqueteños to make a living. Tourists bring their external expectations, attitudes, cultures and norms with them from December to April, contributing strongly to the experience of Boquete.
Hostel Hopping Backpackers
These are the “kids” traveling through Central America, either solo or in pairs. Yes, they are tourists of a kind, meaning they are non-residents. But their stop in Boquete is part of a greater regional itinerary, as they seek to explore and understand the geography, history, archaeology, and culture of this part of the world. Their length of stay is not usually determined by school vacations or national holidays, but ranges from days to months, depending on how they vibe with Boquete.’s energy. They are most often on a budget, so rarely take the local tours or do other touristy things, yet are prevalent enough to fill an accommodation type created just for them. Typically, (but not always) backpackers are young adults who bring their verve and optimism to Boquete, and are willingly inspired by their surroundings.
Unsavory characters exist everywhere in the world, and Western Panama is no exception. Places tucked away in the crevasses of our collective settled world geography seem to court them. I think it’s because such characters need a remote destination to avoid major detection, but also need enough action to perpetuate their vices, crimes or shady behavior. Key West is one of these places, and so is Boquete. Don’t misunderstand me and freak out. Boquete is not a hotbed for criminal behavior. But neither are all of its residents full of sunshine and hibiscus flowers. Unsavory characters can be natives or expats, especially those who arrived about a decade ago and put their stamps on certain markets. They can be cruel or snide to those coming in. Be aware that this community exists, then promptly ignore it by flying under their radar. There are plenty of good people in Boquete, just use your smarts and skirt around the ones who aren’t.