In this guest post, Warren R. Johnson shares his unique and inspiring story about living in a yurt among coffee bushes and howler monkeys high in the mountains of Panamá. Here is his story…
I lived a comfortable life in the United States, enjoying a cabin in the woods. I had a nice kitchen and good friends nearby.
Yet, in 2020, I grew concerned with the politics and cost of living and decided to look elsewhere for a new life. I took tours of Panamá and Mexico to explore going south.
I chose the Republic of Panamá because it required the shortest time to secure a Permanent Visa. Hurtling through the skies was brisk. Far from brisk was dealing with airports and QR scanning codes. I arrived intact but exhausted—I slept 11 hours the first night.
Yet, if you had told me I would be living in a yurt at 5,260 feet above sea level on a tropical mountainside among coffee bushes, I would have asked if you were crazy.
But you guessed it. I found myself in Villa Gauguin, a compound of cabins and yurts in Western Panamá. I could find no other rentals.
Living in Boquete, Panamá
I chose my new residence in Boquete as I wanted to be up in the mountains for cooler temperatures. I expected the town would be a mixture of first- and third-world existences, and I was right.
Boquete is a town of about 25,000 people, 5,000 of whom are expats. The town, nestled in a valley with mountains surrounding it, lies at the western end of the country. Agriculture is king in this region.
After six days in a hotel, I found myself living in a yurt among coffee and vegetable plantations.
There in my place in the tropics, the clouds come in on little cat’s feet, a la Carl Sandburg. At times, I was in the clouds or above the clouds.
If a breeze blew the clouds away, I could catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean and some islands beyond. I lived without a kitchen and with a three-unit, double-sided bath house next door. Replicas of Gauguin paintings covered the bath house.
Up there on the mountain, it gets cold in the evenings and mornings averaging in the 50s and 60s. I prefer the balmy 70s during the day.
Cold or not, at 9-degrees latitude above the Equator, I must always wear a hat to protect myself from the sun. “Even mad dogs and Englishmen don’t go out in the noonday heat,” said Noël Coward.
Life Among the Coffee Bushes in Panamá
There are only two seasons—wet and dry. The coffee bushes love the wet season. I am surrounded by these bushes, and I watch their berries turn from green to red. I know then they are ready for harvesting.
Everyone raves about the geisha coffee. It is a variety of coffee bean from a tree that originates in the Gori Geisha Forest of Ethiopia. Panamanians rave that it tastes unlike any other coffee in the world. It should. It sells for about $1,300.00 a pound.
Coffee is a major economic commodity for Panamá and is rivaled only by the income the Panama Canal produces.
One day, I was out hiking among the plantations. I met a coffee grower sprucing up his property alongside the road. Between his broken English and my broken Spanish, I learned how proud he was of his coffee plants.
His fields are far below the road, spread up the mountain side. I don’t know how he traverses these steep slopes. His plants look tiny from above because they are; he has only recently planted his fields. It will take three years for these bushes to grow and produce coffee beans. His bushes will do well because the alluvial soil there is so rich.
At harvest time, large noisy trucks go up and down the road taking these beans for processing. They will first be laid out in long trays to dry in the sun. The trucks commence hauling early in the morning and continue until after dark.
Joining them are the fruit and vegetable trucks. Again, thanks to the soil and climate, there is an abundance of these foods. I am in the breadbasket of Panamá which supplies food and coffee for the rest of the country.
My Daily Rituals in Panamá
My morning begins at any hour with the sound of roosters. At the same time, the howler monkeys join the morning ritual.
Howler monkeys hide in the trees and are rarely seen. Do they have a history of being fired upon, or are they only timid? Even my native coffee grower friend said he has never seen a howler monkey.
Although they aren’t easily seen, they are heard!
At first, I thought the sound was a small whiny dog; later I heard squeaky sounds. I have come to know these monkeys, even though we’ve never met. I am always looking up in the trees hoping to see them.
Another ritual I observe several times a week is going down the mountain to get groceries and run errands. Small, white buses serve the outlying areas such as mine. There is usually an attendant who opens and closes the door and collects the fare at the end of the ride.
These buses seat a dozen people. But, since the driver is trying to earn the best living he can, he packs the bus as full as possible. The attendant jams two people into one seat and even adds a box in the aisle for someone to sit on. Panamanians have little sense of personal space and are willing to sit cheek by jowl.
One day, an indigenous woman squeezed in next to me with two children on her lap and began breast feeding the younger one.
Riding the Buses in the Mountains of Panamá
Beside overcrowding, having to wait for buses is the biggest nuisance.
They do not observe a schedule, so I’m not sure when they are going to arrive. I have waited between two and 50 minutes. Despite these problems, I actually enjoy riding the buses.
Since my bus line serves the coffee and vegetable workers, I am usually the only white person on the bus. As I live in the only white community on the bus line, when I return, they never have to ask me where I want to get off. Once, I did tell a new attendant where I wanted to go and he gave me a look telling me it was obvious.
Some guy in front of me whipped his head around so fast I thought he might break his neck. He stared at me for a moment and turned back. To this day, I wonder what he was thinking. Did he not know or expect there would be a white guy on the bus? Did he wonder why I was riding this bus?
Other people in my community either drive a car or take a taxi, but I’m all for the adventure of mixing with the locals.
Leaving the Mountain
Living up a mountainside in a yurt among coffee bushes and howler monkeys seems like a bad dream. However, it was a marvelous experience.
I was there for three months until this compound was put up for sale and we residents had to leave. I moved down the mountain into town, leaving the mountain behind. I don’t expect to replicate that experience again anytime soon.