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The Ultimate Guide to Panama (Part 2): Coffee, Rum, Beaches


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In continuation from Part 1, and a repost of my original article in USA Today.

Here’s the ultimate list of where to eat, drink, play, and stay while enjoying Panama’s best coffees and rums.


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Panama City

Because Panama’s best coffees are expensive and were, until now, marked for export only, the third wave coffee scene in the city remains nascent. Currently, only two noteworthy roasters with retail cafes operate around town.

Exterior of Bajareque in Casco Viejo

Exterior of Bajareque in Casco Viejo

Bajareque (multiple locations) Locals use the slang term “bajareque” to refer to the mist that shrouds the coffee trees in Boquete. Owned by Wilford Lamastus, son of Elida Estate producer (also Wilford Lamastus), the narrow flagship roastery and café in Casco showcases the family’s beans. Try a cup or buy a bag of Geisha from the famed El Burro Estate. On a hot day, grab one of the best pre-bottled cold brews you’ll ever drink. The coffee’s natural sweetness will convince you there’s sugar inside.

View from Cafe Unido into the American Trade hotel

View from Cafe Unido into the American Trade hotel

Café Unido (multiple locations) The second outlet of this local (and most prolific) coffee roaster is in the American Trade Hotel. They offer pour overs from a rotating selection of Panamanian producers, fermentation styles, and regions, and always have Geisha by the cup or as freshly roasted beans to take home.

Casa Sucre

Casa Sucre in Casco Viejo

Casa Sucre Coffeehouse Located on the ground floor of a renovated Spanish colonial home from 1873, the American owners of this airy café, have fostered personal relationships with specialty coffee growers including Cafe de la Luna, Bajareque, and Finca Lérida, to name a few. They focus on espresso-based drinks more than filter brewing methods.

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Bocas Town, Bocas Del Toro

Getting to Bocas requires a 4-hour drive from Boquete (or a short flight from Panama City.) The lure of the sea is strong, especially after residing in the cool mountains for a few days. The $20 bus service, run by Hola Panama, departs from downtown Boquete and shuttles back and forth daily between coast and hills.

The Coffee Shop, located in Bocas del Toro. Owned by the nephew Ernesto Velasquez, of Elida Estate owner Wilford Lamastus. PHOTO CREDIT: Ernesto Velasquez

The Coffee Shop in Bocas Town

The Coffee Shop Bocas This idyllic island sports Caribbean charm and a laidback lifestyle that’s infectious. People tend to show up and never leave. Such was the case for the nephew of Elida Estate owner Wilford Lamastus, Ernesto Velasquez. He has set up an outpost in the bohemian town with exclusive rights to sell his family’s coffee, naturally. Open daily, he offers different preparations from filtered brew to iced coffee. And there’s probably nowhere else in the world you can drink geisha from a tin shack by the beach.

Visiting a Coffee Farm

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The easiest way to visit Boquete is to fly from Panama City to David on Copa or Air Panama, and then take a bus into the mountains. If you are staying at Finca Lérida, staff will collect you for the hour-long drive. Surprisingly, the town of Boquete offers few retail café opportunities to try great, local coffee (a major, missed opportunity). You need to head to the farms.

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Elida Estate World-renowned coffees from this property owned by the Lamastus family, can now be accessed by consumers in situ. Just two weeks ago did the family begin accepting tours, although anticipate a rustic experience, as expected from a working farm. They own two choice sites on steep hills skirting Baru Volcano, the highest area of the country, and grow Catuai, Typica, Bourbon, and the coveted Geisha. Tours last 2-3 hours, include a cupping, and the chance to buy coffees at the end. Book at local hotels or through Bajareque coffee shop in Panama City.

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Finca Lérida Not 200 meters from Elida, but a world away in experience, this farm specializes in coffee tourism, less so in export quality specialty coffee. Enjoy an informational walk through the coffee trees, followed by the processing center, and finish with a cup of joe in their café. Snag bags of beans for gifts in their store.


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Panama City Cocktail Bars

Panama City’s drinking scene is on the cusp of a boom. For now, you’d call it burgeoning, but big names from New York hope to close a deal on a new spot imminently. In the meantime, the mood of the more sophisticated venues leans towards “yesteryear;” a nod to 1920s speakeasies born of American Prohibition coupled with the thriving social culture of Panama during that time.

Dining Room/Bar/Lobby at American Trade Hotel

Dining Room/Bar/Lobby at American Trade Hotel

American Trade Hotel Order a drink prepared with rum and fresh fruits in the breezy Lobby Bar. Restored details (tile floors, wainscoting), and a mix of modern and period furniture set to a soothing palette of cream and blue, summons the refined elegance of a bygone era.

Geronimo Bar in Panama City

Geronimo Bar in Panama City

Geronimo Designed to evoke a clandestine speakeasy, this bar behind an art gallery is not very well hidden. But you’ll forgive the concept flaw after sucking down a few cocktails imbued with Ron Abuelo, especially after joining one of the free salsa classes hosted on the gallery floor.

Hooch in Casco

Hooch The most recent to open, Hooch also boasts the most ambitious mixology program focused solely on the art of the drink. The name references Prohibition Era booze, the theme of the bar set in a former motorcycle shop. Owners produce homemade syrups and bitters for a range of signature creations.

Visiting a Distillery

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Ron Abuelo in Pesé

Whether through an organized group or driving yourself independently, rum connoisseurs should not miss visiting the Ron Abuelo distillery. Uniquely for the country, they control 100 percent of their production process: from growing and hand-harvesting the sugarcane, to distilling and aging the spirits at their estate. Workers continue to transport a small percentage of cane to the distillery by ox and cart, which you’ll see on your visit, along with the full production process, from field to still.

After the tour, head into the tasting room for a guided explanation of each of their four core expressions, all of them dark and oak-aged. As an additional reward for making the trek, you’ll get to sample their recently released trio of cask-aged rums using oloroso sherry, cognac, and port barrels.


Panama City

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The American Trade Hotel Set in a landmark building, this Ace Hotel property repackages old colonial bones into a stylish, modern throwback. Ornate tile floors, high ceilings, and indoor trees, create a movie set atmosphere. Amenities include an excellent restaurant, coffee shop, and jazz club, plus small rooftop pool.


Room at Finca Lerida, Boquete

Room at Finca Lerida, Boquete

Finca Lérida For a quintessential coffee farm experience, stay in one of the expansive rooms of this lush hotel. Nestled into the mountains, rambling gardens host a diversity of avian life, especially hummingbirds. Join a coffee tour in the morning, hike the hills in the afternoon, and dine on fresh potatoes and locally caught trout in the updated restaurant. They also brew a decent coffee-infused beer.

Palo Alto Inn, the bar at sunset, in Boquete

Palo Alto Inn, the bar at sunset, in Boquete

The Inn at Palo Alto Slightly closer to the action of downtown, but far enough removed to be tranquil, this small inn has tropical flower-filled grounds set alongside the river. Rooms are modest but colorful and roomy. Take coffee and fresh cooked breakfast on the patio and watch the sun rise over the valley.

Bocas del Toro

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The Hummingbird on Bluff Beach Recently opened by two entrepreneurs who fled the corporate world, this off-grid eco-lodge boasts stylish details with modern conveniences on a wild stretch of surfing beach. At breakfast, good coffee and ripe exotic fruits are precursor to tasty egg dishes. Lunch and dinner also available. At night, locals and guests mingle around the bar.


Hotel Bocas del Toro Billing itself as a boutique property, this hotel located downtown on the waterfront suits visitors who prefer to be within walking (or stumbling) distance of the bustling nightlife scene. Décor is mariner-inspired with accents of teak and hardwood floors.


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The Ultimate Guide to Panama (Part 1): Coffee, Rum, Beaches

Isla Zapatilla, an Island off Bocas del Toro

Isla Zapatilla, an Island off Bocas del Toro

This article first appeared in USA Today Travel on June 1, 2016

The release of thousands of documents exposing secret offshore accounts of politicians and actors, recently rocketed Panama onto the global radar. But the country’s best assets are not the ones bankers are hiding, rather the ones bartenders and baristas are pouring.

Connoisseurs of booze and caffeine have known what the rest of the world is just discovering now: Panama produces some of the finest coffees and rums in the world, and both beverages have become increasingly easier to enjoy in the country.

Easier to enjoy in Panama, you wonder? Because of the high quality and cost of the raw materials, coffee growers and several rum brands have largely exported their goods to markets capable of appreciating them — and paying premium prices for them.

But the revival of Panama City is underway, especially in the historic Casco Viejo district. A UNESCO recognized site, this “new” capital of Panama founded in 1673 (the first Panama City founded in 1519, burned down in 1671), evokes a smaller, grittier Cartagena. Indeed, Panama and Colombia were once united.

Dining Room/Bar/Lobby at American Trade Hotel

Dining Room/Bar/Lobby at American Trade Hotel

Examples like the American Trade, a stunning Ace Hotel project spanning several restored buildings, testify to the gentrification of the historic quarter. Only two decades ago, building owners had all but abandoned the dilapidated, pastel-hued relics to squatters; on the opposite side of the peninsula, developers chased modern glass-and-steel dreams, instigating a high-rise building boom not unfairly compared to Miami’s.

Now that the city’s gaze has returned to its historical roots, local products have enjoyed increased appreciation. Both denizens and tourists who want to drink the country’s best coffees and booze, can visit my list of spots in Part 2 to do so.


What makes Panamanian coffee so unique?

Volcán Barú, the highest mountain in Panama, soars heavenward near the western town of Boquete. On a clear day, hikers who tackle the grueling six-hour trek to the summit are rewarded with views of both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Further down its steep, emerald-hued slopes, rich in volcanic soil and bird life (some 250 species have been identified), grows the country’s most renowned and expensive coffees.

Panamanian coffee was not always so well known or capable of commanding remarkable prices. One estate, Hacienda La Esmeralda, caused a sea change, shifting perception of and demand for Central American beans. Owners, the Petersons family (largely run by Rachel Peterson), discovered an unusual variety of tree growing on their property called Geisha. Before recognizing its distinct (and later prized) cup profile, they initially replanted the cultivar across their farm for practical reasons: disease resistance.

River in Boquete

River in Boquete

In 2004, Hacienda La Esmeralda submitted Geisha lots to the Best of Panama competition. Organized by the country’s Specialty Coffee Association, judges ranked the entries and then put them up for auction online. The Petersons won the competition four years in a row, and several times since. At auction, the coffees broke record after record, jumping from $21/lb in 2004 to $350.25/lb in 2013 for a small lot of naturally processed coffee – one of the most expensive single estate coffees ever sold.

Farmers hoping to recreate the synergy between the Peterson site and the variety (and reap the resulting prices), have planted Geisha across Panama and neighboring countries. Due to the diversity of micro-climates, no two coffees will taste exactly the same.

Geisha does, however, have flavor and aromatic tendencies. The best examples tend to be bright and citrusy, often tea-like in delicacy and complexity, with a whiff of jasmine-like florals.

While Hacienda La Esmeralda only accepts trade visits, a number of farms in the region do offer tours and tastings. Their neighbors at Elida Estate, also an internationally respected producer, recently opened their doors to consumers.

Rum cocktail in Bocas

Rum cocktail in Bocas

The Provenance of Panamanian Rum

Because of the suitable climate, sugar cane has long been an important crop for Panama. Recognizing the “incredible abundance of this resource” said Simon Ford, co-founder of The 86 Co., he and his partners decided to look to the Central American country to create a ‘carta blanca’ style of rum in the spirit of Havana Club.

The 86 Co., founded by bartenders, develops spirits for bartenders. Their final product, Caña Brava, has been marketed solely overseas. Same goes for Don Pancho’s line of aged expressions called Origenes. Pancho distills both his brand and Caña Brava, and was the former Minister of Rum for Cuba where he crafted spirits for 35 years before relocating permanently to Panama.

Both of these brands are finding success. But according to Ford, The 86 Co. wants a route to the domestic market to supply the growing interest in specialty cocktails and artisan products.

Ox and Cart at Ron Abuelo

Ox and Cart at Ron Abuelo

Not all rums have built their reputation outside of Panama, however. In 1908, a young Spanish immigrant named Don José Varela Blanco moved to Pesé and established the country’s first sugar mill. By 1936, he, along with three sons, began distilling alcohol from fresh pressed sugar cane juice. Nearly a century later, Luis Varela (his brother Juan Carlos is Panama’s current president), third-generation family member and head of the Varela Hermanos, S.A. company, continues to distill spirits from estate-owned crop, including the premium Ron Abuelo line.

Ron Abuelo is now one of the nation’s oldest and most popular rums. The sugar cane fields and distillery are located in a fertile valley of the Azuero Peninsula. The region features a unique climate called the Arco Seco, or Dry Arch, defined by the area’s lack of summer rain, and rum lovers who wish to taste the spirit in its place of origin, can visit the distillery or drink it in bars throughout Panama City.

Part 2: Where to Drink, Stay, Taste, and Play in Panama


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Does a Rum Brand Ambassador Have the Best Job in the World?


Cristóbal Srokowski mixing a maracuya daiquiri in Panama City.

Today in the Village Voice, I explore the rise of Panamanian rum. In tandem, I interviewed the brand ambassador of Ron Abuelo, Cristóbal Srokowski, whom I met over a couple of ginger and passion fruit daiquiris in burgeoning Panama City.

Brand ambassadors, whether for spirits or wine, lead seemingly glamorous lives. They mingle with celebrities, host events, give seminars on booze, and regularly travel the world meeting new people. It would seem life is a full-time, professional party for these lucky individuals.

Cristóbal Srokowski hails from Spain where he was “discovered” by the Ron Abuelo team while bartending in Barcelona. He now serves as the brand’s global ambassador. Does he think he has the best job in the world? His answer: most of the time.

How did you get the gig with Ron Abuelo?

Four years ago, I found Ron Abuelo in one of the biggest beverage fairs in Barcelona. After tasting it, I immediately acquired it for my venue, Harry’s Bar Barcelona. A few days later, a Latin American gentleman appeared in the bar asking to drink rum. I offered him a “new” one that I just discovered: Ron Abuelo from Panama. After mixing him a few daiquiris with Ron Abuelo 7 and passion fruit, the guy asked if I would like to collaborate with Varela Hermanos (parent company of Ron Abuelo) as the bartender for some events. It turns out, he was Alexis Guerrero, European area manager of Ron Abuelo! Next, I met the Abuelo export director who decided to give me a chance as the brand ambassador. One month after signing the contract, I was traveling for my first time to China!

Is serving as a brand ambassador the best job in the world?

Being a brand ambassador is amazing, I cannot complain but…everything has a price in life. Traveling all the time and changing your home country every six months, gets tiring. It is not an easy job; you have to be the “Mr. Happy” and “Mr. Perfect” all the time. Remember: you’re the face of the brand so you cannot afford mistakes. But if you’re open-minded and hungry for adventure and love meeting new people, being a brand ambassador is a dream job.

What are your responsibilities?

For me, there are generally five components to ambassadorship:

  • Public relations and marketing, social media developing, brand building ideas, and brand development;
  • Sales;
  • Mixology: Developing drink recipes and rum applications in gastronomy;
  • Events creation and organization; and
  • Education: preparing masterclasses for consumers, sales teams, bartenders, and wholesalers.

On top of this, I must always have a good attitude and put forth a positive image, be willing to meet different people, listen to everyone, and be able to adapt to any kind of situation.

What are the drawbacks to the job?

Being far from my beloved Barcelona and my friends, and of course changing time zones and countries four times every month.

What do you like about Ron Abuelo?

This question can be answered in one word or thousands! In short, I would say that the most important part of my product and my company is that we are a family business. My boss, Luis J. Varela, has a certain charisma; he absorbs you and makes you feel part of the family. He falls between a scientist and a magician in the way he assesses the rum blends. And the rum itself has a unique profile and taste. All of the expressions have their own character and beautiful notes!



Clearly ambassadorship has its perks and pitfalls, and it’s probably not the career choice for someone who is married or has children. To read more about the rums and story of Ron Abuelo, visit the Village Voice.

Below, Srokowski shares two of his favorite Ron Abuelo recipes, including the cocktail that earned him the job.

San Isidro (long drink)

1 ½ oz Abuelo 7

1 oz passion fruit liquer (Giffard brand, if available)

¾ oz lime juice

Directions: Add all ingredients to cocktail shaker, shake. Top with Fever Tree ginger beer. Garnish with mint sprig and fresh ginger.

Francis Drake

2 oz Ron Abuelo 7 years

1 oz Passion fruit juice

4/5 oz Cinnamon syrup (Giffard brand, if available)

Dash of curry powder

Directions: Add all ingredients to cocktail shaker, shake. Pour into martini glass and garnish with half a passion fruit of strawberry.


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Welcome to 2013. Try a Painkiller.

Happy New Year! Before I get back to wine related topics, I thought I would share some photos from my Christmas and New Year’s holiday spent with the family in Tortola.

We had a sun-and-rum-soaked two weeks down in the British Virgin Islands. As expected, local liquor stores had limited wine inventory, so we drank rum. Lots of delicious, inexpensive, dark, spicy rums that we mixed into all kinds of juices: guava, papaya, passionfruit, pineapple.

The Painkiller is the national drink, founded at the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke. The cocktail, so delicious and simple to make, just may perk up your grey, dreary January days. Here is the recipe:

2-4 oz. of Dark Rum
4 oz. pineapple juice (or 4 oz of any combo of juices you like)
1 oz. cream of coconut, preferably Coco Lopez brand
1 oz. orange juice

Shake, strain and serve over ice.
Grated fresh nutmeg on top!

Cow Wreck beach bar on Anegada

Cow Wreck beach bar on Anegada

The most beautiful sailing ship I will never afford

My regret is not enough time in this hammock

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