When Ryan and I stayed in Austin, TX with Nick and Laura, my goal destination changed.
After mentioning that Panama was my goal, Laura told me that her mom, Gina, lived there and had just finished building a resort. She showed me the website for Rancho de Caldera. It was unreal. The photos from the resort looked like a desktop background that comes standard with Windows, called “Paradise” or something. Laura called her mom and told her about me and my trip to Panama. Laura told me that her mom said that when I get down there, I would be welcome at Rancho de Caldera, and could stay a few days. My goal destination was no longer vaguely “Panama.” It became concrete: Luxury in the mountains of Panama.
After a such a long gap between leaving Laura and Nick in Austin and getting down to Panama, I was unsure about the situation, so when I contacted Gina, I only asked if I could stay for one night. Gina was happy to hear from me and offered to pick me up in David to help me avoid having to cycle up the mountain. It’s easy to “flow like water” when you get an offer like that. Gina had to run some errands in David anyway, so I was happy I was part of the return loop.
Five years ago, Gina bought 50 acres of land in Caldera, and moved down from Cleveland, with her husband, Chris. Just a few months ago, they were able to finally open the resort and restaurant. Unfortunately, she told me that they’re getting divorced, and they’re currently in the middle of it.
Gina’s goal for the ranch is to be completely self-sufficient. There is solar, wind, and hydro power along with a backup generator. She has a large patch of fruit trees, a vegetable garden on the roof of the restaurant, and she’s working on building a greenhouse. And she’s got income from the hotel and restaurant, and horses, which she leases for horseback riding tours.
When Gina and I arrived at the Ranch, she showed me my cabin. King-sized bed, satellite tv, massage chair, bathroom with amazing shower head, wifi!, grind and brew coffee maker with some fresh Panamanian coffee beans, and a panoramic view of the mountains through the sliding glass doors that open out to the patio. I really wanted to stay longer than just one night, so I tried weaseling my way by asking Gina if I could help around the Ranch in any way. I wanted to be useful to earn my stay. She had mentioned that some potted plants needed planting, so I offered to do that, but she told me that I could just relax.
After Gina left, I looked around the cabin, taking it all in with a “Wow” on my face. I tried everything out, and did a thorough search to find all the cool, luxurious things that I had at my disposal.
Then I went for a swim in the pool. I had waited a long time for this. The pool is the centerpiece of the photo on the website, which was the image I had had in my mind since Texas. It was sort of unreal being in that pool and looking out at the mountains. For the rest of my time at the Ranch, I made sure to get in the pool at least once each day.
At lunch, Gina and two others were at one table, and then Chris, her ex-husband was sitting alone at the next table. I sat down with him. After some initial silence, he started talking to me about how the Ranch was a vision he had in one of his dreams 25 years ago. Chris also talked openly about how he and Gina were getting divorced. It seemed awkward to me since Gina was sitting at the next table. Chris was open about a lot of things, which was cool because I was in that initial stage in a new environment where I needed to build trust and comfort. He mentioned that he was moving some stuff over to another house, so I offered to help. I wanted to be useful!
We moved some furniture and a couple of dusty rugs. Chris continued telling me about his recent life — his “awakening,” quitting drinking and smoking, and more about getting “dumped.” And it was impressive to hear about his life accomplishments and varied career. But it seemed more like a monologue. As we drove through the town of Caldera, I changed the subject, saying “It’s a pretty humble town, isn’t it?” Chris, turning it around, “Yes, and that’s the thing I am working on. Humility.”
Gina told me dinner would be at 6:30 pm. I arrived on time with my crumpled long-sleeve shirt and patched-up jeans, my good clothes. It was a classy occasion as Craig, the chef, served a three-course meal with dimmed lighting and smooth music. The first night we had some badass soup, filet-mignon, and an apple dessert. His descriptions of the food were a lot better than mine. He told us that “Tonight, I went a little French,” following it up with a list of the exotic ingredients and “sprinklings” of things. It was probably the classiest meal I’ve ever had.
Each night, Craig had a new, exciting, and beautiful three-course meal. We had Indian, then country-style fried chicken and mashed potatoes (somehow done really classy – I loaded up on this meal as there were big portions, family-style), and Italian on my last night.
So I ended up staying four nights, and this is how it happened.
After dinner on the first night, I started building up to asking Gina if I could stay another night, “Gina, I was wondering if ….” and she knew right away, “You want to stay another night? No problem. We’d love to have you.” I got a tingle of goosebumps that went through my body. It was exciting, and a relief, to be able to stay.
Then the second night, my CouchSurfing contact in Panama City, Miguel, emailed me asking where I was. It turned out that he was in nearby Boquete and would be returning to Panama City in a couple of days in his truck, and would be happy to give me and my bike a ride. Flow like water, take the path of least resistance, and seize the opportunities that are presented to you. I don’t know if it could have been any better: Living in luxury for a couple of days until my ride pulled up to escort me to Panama City. I told Gina about it, and she was excited for me too, and reiterated that it would be a pleasure to have me stay a couple more days.
The next morning, Gina invited me to brunch in Boquete. A restaurant there was serving brunch for the first time and she wanted to scout the competition. We picked up her friend Howard on the way. There’s a lot of Americans living in that area, especially in Boquete. Howard took an interest in my trip, and related a few stories about his journey across America in his van when he was about 25. What’s with that age? It seems that a quarter-life crisis is common. Seeking adventure. He had fond memories of his trip and gave me a lot of encouragement on mine.
Brunch was buffet-style. I loaded and loaded. It might have been embarrassing for Gina, as by the third plate I was getting comments about how much I was eating. Hey, you gotta Flow Like Water, and take those opportunities. I’m just living the mantra.
The owner of the restaurant gave Gina a tour of his greenhouses, as she’s about to build one herself. He had one built out of bamboo, which itself is a “sustainable” building material as it regenerates quickly. It was impressive. It seemed lots of expatriates in the area were striving for self-sufficiency.
That night at dinner, it was the one with fried chicken and mashed potatoes, I ate a lot again. It was served family-style so these big bowls of food were passed around. I was at the end of the table, receiving it last, so I had the advantage of not having to leave any for anyone else. I tried to fly under the radar and not mount the food too high. I probably had two full plates, way more than anyone else, undetected, but then Craig asked, “Does anyone want this last biscuit?” Typical scenario, no one wants to take the last one. After a few seconds of no response, I offered my assistance. The straw that broke the camel’s back. People started chiming in about how much I had eaten and Gina told everyone how much I had eaten at brunch in the morning. Then there was a discussion about how many calories I must use when I’m cycling. I guess that kind of gave me an excuse for overeating, so that I didn’t look like I was just gorging selfishly.
Visiting the Rancho de Caldera was an awesome reward for me after reaching my goal destination of Panama. The luxury I lived in at the Ranch was a huge change from what I had experienced throughout Central America: eating the food of the common man, dumping cold water over myself with a basin (showers), and sleeping on straw mat beds. I made a lucky connection meeting Laura through Ryan, and Gina was incredibly generous to me. Definitely the most luxury I have ever experienced (Second Place goes to the First-Class Delta flight from Atlanta to Dublin me, my mom, and my sister got one time because the flight was overbooked). If you’re not networking, you’re not working.