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What is paradise? If you found it, would you want to buy a second home there or perhaps even move there permanently? Is paradise determined by having a sunny climate year round, where the temperature only varies by 30 degrees, never going below 50 or above 80 degrees; or by living in luxurious accommodations coupled with a low cost of living, and having servants who work cheap and also happen to be nice happy people, living in an area of spectacular natural beauty with incredibly low crime and virtually no air pollution?
The online e-zines, travel brochures, even AARP’s Modern Maturity magazine often have seductive stories of life in exotic locations outside the USA where retired people can live like kings and queens on their lowly social security pensions in a place where the air is fresh and clean, the forests are lush with tropical birds, exotic fruits, and assorted wild flowers that cascade like rivers down the mountainside.
Boquete (which is Spanish for gap) is just such a place. It is located at 4,000 feet above sea level on the eastern slope of a dormant volcano named Volcan Baru in the Chiriqui (pronounced Chee-ree-key) province in the Republic of Panama. On a clear day, from the summit of the 11,000 foot volcano, you can see both the Pacific and the Caribbean. The province of Chiriqui, which is mainly rural, extends from the Pacific Coast to Volcan Baru on the west, the Continental Divide to the north, and more mountains to the east which descend into the Caribbean Sea. Boquete is situated at the tip of a valley made over the centuries by the Caldera River flowing south through magnificent cloud forests and spilling into the ocean.
Click on video below to see the town of Boquete from the perspective of a guy on a motorcycle.
Recently, Boquete was selected by Modern Maturity, the AARP magazine, as the “fourth best place in the world for Americans to have a second home.” This scenic mountain town is easily accessible by car, thanks to the newly paved road system that stretches into the farthest corners of Panama.
Thick white clouds cover the ground and spread like frosting on a cake to form a canopy over the lush rain forests each day during the wet season in the Spring. It’s an amazing site to stand at the edge of the forest and watch as the clouds descend to the ground and spill between the trees like lava, eventually obscuring the forest from sight.
High up in the mountains, the pristine water in the rushing streams is crystal clear from the daily rainfall, then turns to mud as it passes through various Indian vegetable farms rising up at severe angles on the surrounding mountain slopes.
The area immediately surrounding Volcan Baru is a nature lover’s paradise and plays host to 980 bird species, more than can be found in all of North America, such as the nearly extinct Quetzal, the Three Wattled Bellbird, Black faced Solitaire, Volcano Hummingbird, Long tailed Silky Flycatcher, and the Prong billed Barbet, just to name a few.
The rich soil and precipitation stimulates a dizzying array of flora and fauna everywhere you look. In hikes through obscure mountain paths, wild impatiens, of every possible color, seem to mark the way. Spectacular natural beauty and an endless variety of flowers, such as rare orchids, grow wild in abundance.
The entire region is dotted with coffee plantations. The coffee “cherries,” as they are called, are harvested by transient Guaymi Indians who can be easily spotted by their colorful attire as they travel throughout the region during the picking season between October and February.
The Indians live in tin-roofed grey wooden shacks, with dirt floors and no electricity. In front of each shack is a garden of wild flowers, over time grown tall in order to obscure their humble homes. The Indian women are dressed in brightly colored shifts, the men wear clean white shirts and black trousers, and the children are neat and tidy, dressed as miniatures of their parents.
Dotted throughout the region are clusters of big modern houses, often surrounded by seemingly derelict shacks that are actually the localpeoples’ homes. The big houses, which are often empty, are mainly used as second homes, and are built for wealthy Americans, Canadians, and Europeans using a cheap local labor force for construction. The houses have all the most modern conveniences and are filled with every possible item to give comfort to their owners.
One expatriate, Bill Hemingway, has lived in Central America for thirty years. He has a business named “Hemingway’s Hideaway,” which is a construction company for building American style homes in the area. He warns people who may want to retire to the Chiriqui province the importance of having a hobby: “We cannot reiterate how important this is. We have seen too many ex-pats come here to drown in drink.”
Let’s compare Boquete, the rural Panamanian town referred to by Modern Maturity as paradise, with what some people refer to as an urban paradise, the city of Baltimore, Maryland.
Baltimore is bordered on the east by the Chesapeake Bay, and surrounded by rivers on three sides. The rolling countryside expands into undulating lush green hills forming the foothills for the Appalachian mountains in western Maryland. There are extremes in temperatures ranging from below zero to nearly one hundred, and the climate includes all four seasons. Murders average around 250 a year, the roads are filled with potholes, parking is difficult, and property taxes are high.
To understand why anyone would consider Baltimore paradise, it’s important to really look at what Baltimore has to offer. Culture abounds in the form of several major museums, the National Aquarium, and a beautifully redesigned inner harbor. It is home to the 110 year old Lyric Opera House and the Meyerhoff concert hall is located on the next block, and home to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Both facilities are well supported by the community.
There are several charismatic neighborhood communities throughout the city, such as Mt. Vernon in mid-town and Fells Point, established before Baltimore, with its ancient buildings, commercial docks, and secluded quays. Every type of food can be found in Baltimore, with over 1000 restaurants in the city.
Baltimore is home to two major sports teams, the Ravens and the Orioles.
It offers first class healthcare facilities and is home to outstanding schools such as Johns Hopkins University, the University of Baltimore, and the University of Maryland medical school. Opportunities for business, growth, and development are apparent to even the most casual visitor to the downtown district, with old buildings being renovated and new skyscrapers being built. Home values in the city increased by a whopping 23% in one year! Baltimore is a major seaport, second on the east coast only to New York City. As a historic city, Baltimore has a policy of preserving many of its original buildings wherever possible. It is conveniently located near Washington, DC and is an easy commute to the Big Apple (a.k.a. New York City).
It is home to the first Catholic Cathedral ever built in this country and to dozens of other religious facilities, churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. Baltimore’s population is a mixed variety from every country in the world making the culture rich and diverse with a colorful nightlife and something for everyone.
The lifestyle in Baltimore is quite different from the sleepy breezes, crystal clean water and fresh air in the highlands of Panama. In Boquete, the buildings are all run down and crumbling, the restaurants are plentiful and unclean, and the nights are pitch black. There is no noise, no place to go, nothing to see, no library, cinema, museums or sporting events to attend. Everything on TV is in Spanish with the exception of HBO, which has Spanish subtitles. There are very few Americans or Europeans in the area to talk to, and those that are there are often missionaries sent by their churches to work with the Indians. The majority of the population in the area has little or no education and they live in the most appalling conditions.
Is it possible that paradise is more than the right climate, spectacular natural beauty, luxurious accommodations, and a low cost of living? Imagine just how comfortable could a person feel sitting alone on the veranda of a lavish house in the middle of magnificent rain forest surrounded by colorful neighbor’s living in extreme poverty?
The concept of paradise goes beyond the material world and into the psyche of individuals. For paradise to exist people need to feel connected to the essence of the community in which they live, to something greater than themselves, and that their lives share a common purpose, be it in the highlands of Chiriqui or downtown Baltimore, it really doesn’t matter.
The philosopher Thomas Merton had this to say about paradise: “I suppose what makes me most glad is that we all recognize each other in this metaphysical space of silence and happening, and get some sense, for a moment that we are full of paradise without knowing it.”
(Note: I wrote this after Bob and I took a trip to Panama in May of 2004. Additional pictures and video added August 2013.)