Part 1: Among the Trees
The rugged truck-bus dropped us off at the end of the road and we continued on foot. Helmets and harnesses tightly secured, we headed out into La Amistad International Park, an immense forest that straddles the border between Panamá and Costa Rica. Vicmar and I were lucky that day; the conditions were perfect and nobody else had booked the 8AM zipline and canopy tour. With our four guides from Tree Trek Boquete leading the way, we hiked into the forest, unsure of what to expect.
The guide pointed to what looked like a knot on a gnarled branch along the edge of the path.
"Look- a hummingbird nest!"
"Damn, left my phone down in the locker," I said. There are some adventures where it is best to leave your phone behind. I didn't need to be dangling from a steel cable 100 feet in the air worried about my phone falling into the river below. An important reminder that some moments are just for you- not everything needs to be documented for social media or a blogpost. (But damn, I really regret not taking a picture of that hummingbird nest...)
At 1800 meters above sea level, we reached the first platform. The trail ended and the 4.5 km, 12-cable zipline began. From this point on, there were only two ways to go: back or down.
"This is it," the first guide said. "Do you remember your training?" Vicmar and I looked at each other and nodded unconvincingly. When we looked back, he was already gone. The high-pitched hum of the steel cable faded as he zipped off into the canopy.
The second guide strapped himself into the zipline, as he ran through the steps out loud.
"Gloves on, right hand on the cable- that's your brake hand. Only brake when we give the signal. Left hand here on the rope in front of you. Keep your legs crossed and have a good time. Enjoy the view!" He jumped up, crossed his legs and sped away through the trees, giving us the thumbs up as he went.
"Who's up first?" The third guide asked as he approached us. I looked at Vicmar, "You're up, babe," I said. She had the most experience and I was starting to feel a little nervous; there was a pit in my stomach and the adrenaline was making me sweat. Without hesitation, she jumped up and clipped herself into the zipline. She picked up her legs, crossed them at the ankles and let gravity take her down the line. The high-pitched vibration of the steel cables followed her into the trees. I was next.
My heart raced as I zipped through the canopy, rapidly descending the mountain. The trees whipped by as I accelerated and the forest floor dropped out from under me. Below, the hanging bridges criss-crossed the Río Cristal which wound it's way down the mountain. By the third cable, I was starting to get the hang of it. And after a few gentle corrections from the guides, it began to feel natural- like a baby bird learning how to gracefully fall out of the nest.
There was a moment when I was hurtling through the canopy. The trees went whooshing by and then suddenly I burst out into a cloudless, blue sky. There in the distance stood Volcan Barú, the highest point in Panamá at 3,474 meters above sea level. Time seemed to stop. The only sound I could hear was the humming of the zipline. This was the closest that I've ever come to flying.
However, I am not a bird. And the next platform approached much faster than I expected. The canopy closed in around me and the forest floor crept up. We were at 1700 meters above sea level now, and I could see the Gesha coffee farms on the slope of the mountain. I hit the brake system and landed on the platform, probably less gracefully than Vicmar did.
Part 2: Solera Rum Tasting
But first, food. It is very important, when you go to Tree Trek Boquete, to do things in the correct order. You definitely shouldn't go zip-lining on a full stomach. It is just as true that you shouldn't do a rum tasting on an empty stomach. You should always plan for breakfast; it's just good sense. Fortunately, the Río Cristal restaurant at Tree Trek Boquete had everything we needed to prepare for the next adventure. Due to the fertile, volcanic soil and crisp, mountain climate, vegetable production in Panamá is concentrated in the area around Boquete. Everything tastes so much better there, fresher. Or maybe I was just starving after the canopy tour. I ordered the traditional Panamanian breakfast: stewed beef with peppers, fried eggs, queso blanco and hojaldres. Let me take a moment to talk to you about hojaldres. Hojaldres are a Panamanian fried bread and basically the most wonderful food. Who can say no to fried dough for breakfast? Put eggs and steak on top of it, dip it in sauce. There's no wrong way to eat an hojaldre.
After breakfast, we entered the Carta Vieja rum cave. The familiar, musty smell of oak barrels filled the air. I have spent a lot of time around barrels. I could talk about barrels all day and I wouldn't get tired. I reached my hand out as we walked past them, feeling the grain of the wood, the subtle differences between the American and French oak. I leaned in, almost pressing my nose to the barrel and took a deep, relaxing breath. Barrels are like a living organism. Even though the wood is dead, the barrels breathe in and out. They swell and contract with the temperature and humidity. The rum evaporates through them as the oxygen seeps in through the pores in the wood. The barrel infuses the rum with a multitude of flavors that characterize the finished product: vanilla, dark chocolate, cinnamon, toasted marshmallow, almond. When people discuss tasting notes, whether for wine, coffee, beer or rum, it can sound pretentious or made up. But these flavors are actually chemically present in the wood and in the beverage as esters or other chemical compounds that produce flavor or aroma.
The Carta Vieja Solera is located at 1668 meters above sea level. Why is the altitude important? Because high altitude and low humidity slow down the aging process, imparting a refined finish to the finest rums in Panamá. A solera is a dynamic system for barrel-aging. The word solera comes from the word "suelo" in Spanish, which means ground. A portion of the rum in the barrels closest to the ground is removed for bottling and replaced by the rum in the second row of barrels, and so on up, with fresh rum being poured into the top row of barrels. It is dynamic because the rum is constantly moving through the system, which creates a more homogenous final product that has been thoroughly blended. This is the Spanish method of rum production, as compared to the English method, which is a static system. In the English method, as practiced in Barbados and Jamaica, the rum is distilled, sometimes spiced, and then put into a barrel to remain until the aging is complete.
The Carta Vieja solera system uses a combination of French and American oak barrels, whose different qualities imbue the rum with different flavor profiles. Each of the six rums that we tasted is produced and aged differently. The 8-Year Double Cask, which took home the gold at the 2021 New York International Spirits Competition, is aged for seven years at low altitude in American oak barrels, and spends it's last year maturing here at the high-altitude solera in French oak barrels. In comparison with French oak barrels, American oak barrels are more porous. This means that the aging process is faster, as more rum evaporates out of the barrel and more oxygen seeps in. The flavors imparted by American oak are darker, more intense: dark chocolate, cinnamon, nutmeg. French oak, on the other hand, is softer, silkier, and imparts a refined palate to the rum. You can feel it in the aroma and aftertaste of almond, vanilla, and caramel. The interplay of the rum and the two different types of barrels gives the 8-year Double Cask its complexity.
"But it's all a question of taste," the tour guide said. "For me, what makes a really good rum is good company. So, I'm very happy that you are all here. Now let's taste some rum."
Vicmar looked at me and raised her eyebrows.
"Ready for the next adventure?" she said.
"Always, baby," I replied. We took our positions in our COVID-proof tasting cubicles and removed our masks. In front of us, three tasting glasses of rum sat in a triangle. A fourth glass stood apart. A number 2 pencil lay diagonally on top of a sensory evaluation sheet.
"Let's see," said the guide. "Tastings are all about sense memory. During your whole life, you have tasted many things, whether drinks or foods. And this gets recorded in your memory. For example, if I say that I smell vanilla, and you have never tasted or don't like vanilla, you might not detect it. So it has a lot to do with individual perception. Just say the first thing that comes to your mind."
In the triangle, we had the Claro (3 years), Añejo (6 years), and the Golden Cask (18 years)- all aged in American oak barrels. The 8-year Double Cask was in the standalone glass. We held each glass up one at a time to the light to inspect them visually. Was it transparent? Golden or amber? Does the light pass through it? Tilting it at an angle and turning it slowly, we watched as the "lágrima" or tear dripped down the inside of the glass. This is a measure of the viscosity of the rum, how thick-bodied or light it is. The thicker it is, the slower the tear moves down the glass. The number 2 pencil scratched some notes on the sensory sheet. I closed my eyes and took a quick sniff of the Añejo, tapping into my lifetime of sense memory. Raisins, almonds, leather, tobacco, coconut. The smells swirled in my mind, the perfect blend. Each sip tasted and felt different from the last. First, the spicy sting of the alcohol on my tongue. With the second sip, my mouth began to water from the sweetness of the rum. After that, I could taste more of the subtleties of the flavor: the silky smooth vanilla, the spicy cinnamon.
We took the fourth glass out on the veranda. After that much rum, it is necessary to sit down. In the distance, we could see Volcán Barú, slightly obscured by the afternoon clouds. The next canopy tour flew through the air overhead, almost miniature at this distance. The Volcán View balcony is also where the hummingbirds come to drink. A dozen or so hummingbirds of all different colors zipped in and out to the sugar-water feeders, pausing near the bonsai tree. They drink 100 pounds of sugar per month, the guide told us.
We were feeling the effects of the rum now. Vicmar left the conversation and was focused solely on taking photos of the hummingbirds. The violet one was shy and skeptical. It was her favorite. Meanwhile, I was focused on the Gesha coffee liqueur we were tasting- a collaboration between Kotowa coffee and Carta Vieja rum. A tiny green hummingbird landed on the feeder closest to me and looked around.
"Cheers," I said, raising my glass to my new hummingbird friend. I brought the glass to my lips. She plunged her beak into the sugar water and began to sip. We sat there for a moment, me and the hummingbird. Earlier today, I was flying, I thought to myself and chuckled. And now, here we are, drinking sugar water. We're not so different, you and I. The bird finished its drink and flitted away. I shook my head and returned to reality. Now that the tour was over, and we were good and drunk, it was time to exit through the gift shop. We bought two bottles of rum on the way out (The Double Cask and the Gesha Liqueur) and I have no regrets. We climbed into the truck-bus and bounced our way back down the mountain.