. Of course development is inevitable and not a bad thing in bringing prosperity to the area, but it needs to be done in a careful way that sustains the appeal and character that is making Boquete more popular in the first place. I had first hand experience of this increasing popularity upon arrival when amazingly the first FOUR hostels I went to were all full. Reason this is remarkable is that in five months of travel I have only had one hostel on one occasion, in Antigua in Guatemala, not have a bed for the night without me booking in advance. So it came as a bit of a jolt to be trudging around in the rain wondering if I would actually find somewhere - in the end I found a decent enough place on the main square with friendly owners, if a little noisy at night as it backs directly onto a bar. On the Monday in pouring rain I hiked (or more accurate to say I trudged, squelched, slipped and stumbled) the "Los Quetzales" trail which runs from another town called Cerro Punta back here towards Boquete. Cerro Punta is on the other side of the Volcano Baru and not that far geographically but it still takes three and a half hours by bus to get there (more on Panamanian buses later!). Did enjoy some nice scenery on the way, near to a town at the foot of Volcan Baru called ... "Volcan" ... Panama somehow lacks creativity in its names - the most popular beer is called "Panama Beer". The area has almost a Swiss alpine feel with the chalet style houses in the hills and there is actually an area called New Switzerland (Nueva Suiza)
. So I set out at 8am (in clear weather) and actually started my trek at 11.30 am in torrential rain. It's a tough slog uphill at the start, first on a little road and then on a trail until you reach the ranger station and entrance to the Volcan Baru national park . From there the 6km trail gets increasingly treacherous in the wet and goes deeper and deeper into the forest as you have to negotiate loose stones, rocks, mud, wobbly stepping stones and a serious of wooden ramps, steps and bridges along the trail. Fell over a couple of times and got absolutely soaked and filthy but it was actually rather enjoyable, despite seeing very little in the way of wildlife and certainly no sign of the quetzal bird that gives the trail it´s name. Towards the end of the trail, just when I thought I was done, there was a real uphill slog - but luckily after a while there was a passing farmer on a tractor so I blagged a lift in his trailer (his dog was taking the extra room in the tractors cabin - I know my place) - at first on the trail I didn't actually know if this was better than walking as it was really back-jarringly bumpy and the tractors wheels were flicking mud all over me, but when we reached smooth tarmac I was grateful for the lift to the place to catch the bus back to Boquete. We picked up three more people on the way, a local bloke and an American couple who had been doing the trail and were as equally drenched if not quite as filthy dirty as me. The warm shower, dry clothes, huge Mexican restaurant dinner and early night upon return were without doubt very much appreciated. On the Tuesday I visited two different places - Villa Marta and Paradise Gardens. Villa Marta is a house, well more like a mansion, a couple of kilometres north of Boquete that is owned by an old man that apparently won the Panamanian national lottery. At the entrance to the driveway into the house is an arch which says "mi jardin es su jardin" (my garden is your garden) and the man allows anyone to come in for free and see the fabulous landscaped gardens of the mansion
. The garden is quite extraordinarily pretty with all sorts of plants, trees and many interesting garden features ... although my critical side says some of the wooden cut-out characters are rather bordering on the tacky and some nice stone carved statues would be better :) There is a little tower in the garden which you can climb up for fabulous views all over the surrounding area and a monster of a satellite dish that would not look out of place at NASA - was tempted to knock on the door and ask the old fella if he I can come round and watch the Champions League final on Sky Sports on Wednesday. The birds also get their own mansions with enormous bird houses and there are fish ponds, a bridge, a childrens play area, various statues, wooden cut-outs of animals and people and even a little chapel right in the centre of the garden. The mansion itself is split into two huge buildings, one overlooking the garden and another one set back in the driveway - all in all, have to say I could quite see myself living here, I really must start doing the UK lottery online. After Villa Marta I went on to Paradise Gardens which is a really wonderful place south of Boquete town. In 2005 an English couple from actually near to me, just down the M3 in Hampshire, came "to retire" to Panama but in actual fact they are busier than ever as they have basically built an animal rescue centre/sanctuary and surrounding tropical birdhouse and gardens. Paul was a stonemason back in England and has put his trade to use by building many of the features in the garden
. They are affiliated to ANAM, a Panamanian government organisation that protects animals/birds and basically they rescue or take in animals and birds that have either been maltreated or simply need a home, with a view to either re-releasing them to the wild if possible or giving them a permanently protected home if that is not possible ... some of the stories telling the creatures´ backgrounds are very sad, but the centre does a marvellous job. They have a whole range of creatures in the centre - monkeys, a margay, kinkajous, macaws, toucans, parakeets, cockatoos, tamarins and a tropical bird aviary/garden. My fave was a sweet little cappuccino monkey called "Monty" who was beaten up by his previous owner (totally incomprehensible to me) and arrived in a bit of state - it apparently took months of rehabilitation to get him to trust people and become the happy, playful and affectionate little monkey he is today - I was allowed to go in his cage and play with him along with one of the volunteers who showed me round the place. Jenny and Paul´s dream is to adopt a couple of jaguars they know about that need a home, but it may prove financially impossible as they need some serious funds to build a very large enclosure to house them properly. They´re looking at getting a good website up and running with sponsorships for the animals and so on to try and raise the funds. They have built an amazing project up from scratch in three years, learning all the time as they go along and I really wish them the best of luck in the future. Boquete has been really nice and calming but tomorrow I leave calm for chaos as I head to Panama City.
Dragged myself away from the temptation of any more mad nights out in Bocas town to move on to the tranquil highland town of Boquete which is a fantastic setting and a very pleasant little town in the west of Panama. The climate is cool in the highlands and this time of year very wet. After I was mentioning being lucky with the weather in Costa Rica´s rainy season, the bubble has burst here as it has really bucketed down every day. Boquete is very scenic, set in a little valley surrounded by green hills and with many wooden-panelled houses. It's famous for it's flower and coffee fair each year and area is full of coffee plantations. Having spent some time here I do have a fear that unless the powers-that-be keep a firm reign on things, Boquete becoming increasingly "discovered" by backpackers, tourists and ex-pats could result in some development which alters the character of the place. Just walking around you see a number of construction sites which have pictures on the developers´ notice board with huge modern hotels, condos or office space for the future that look out of place to me by comparison to today