The attractive town of Boquete, Panama, is the main tourist center of the Chiriqui highlands, 270 mi/450 km west of Panama City. The Chiriqui highlands offer a completely different side of Panama. The area boasts cloud forests, waterfalls, raging rivers and magnificent mountain scenery. Known as "Little Switzerland" for its crisp alpine setting and Swiss-style housing, this exquisite town is tucked into a river valley on the eastern flank of Volcan Baru.

Boquete's central square has a bird-filled stand of giant trees, and there are several good small hotels and restaurants. It's a popular resort area, with springlike temperatures year-round, and the slopes are farmed with coffee. Be sure to take a tour to a nearby coffee estate, such as Finca Lerida, which, like several coffee estates, doubles as a bed-and-breakfast. Phone 720-2285.

Boquete is also the best starting point for ascending Baru Volcano. The now-dormant volcano reaches a height of 11,400 ft/3,475 m. You can drive, hike or ride horseback to the peak for a breathtaking view of both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean at sunrise. Be aware that the hike, especially, is quite an undertaking.

The resplendent quetzal bird nests in Baru National Park and is easily seen, particularly in the April and May breeding season, when the males perform swooping mating displays. The Los Quetzales Trail virtually guarantees sightings and is a far easier hike than the summit trails; it leads across the northern shoulder of the volcano to the slightly cooler and higher town of Cerro Punta.

Thoroughbred horses are bred in Cerro Punta, the highest settlement in Panama, and cattle farms, cultivated flower fields, hot sulphur springs, and strawberry fields and coffee plantations are also seen. Popular activities include horseback riding, mountain biking, canoeing, fishing, hiking and white-water rafting. The Cerro Punta area is also the main gateway to the International Friendship Park along well-maintained trails that offer the promise of viewing quetzals and other exotic wildlife amid the cloud forests.

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