Geisha, Panama’s Best Coffee—and Why I Didn’t Drink It

Coffee bar menu

When I heard about award-winning Geisha, Panama’s best coffee—which is one of the best/most expensive in the world—I really thought I wanted to try it.

Cafe Ruiz Coffee Tour

So, while in Boquete, known for its climate and fertile soil that’s ideal for coffee growing, I considered several tours. I then settled on one with Café Ruiz, one of the oldest coffee estates there that offers this hard-to-grow premium coffee.

As expected, I enjoyed the tour; I found the coffee process—all of it and not just about Geisha itself—quite fascinating. But what I didn’t expect was that I would find my tour guide, Carlos, even more interesting.

The reason?

Meet Carlos—a Local Ngobe

He’s not just a local, but an indigenous man. A Ngobe. And one who loves what he does for a living.

As he showed me around, we got to know each other in Spanish and in English. I mentioned to him that I’d volunteered, the day before, at the local Volcancito School in Boquete—one that serves underprivileged Ngobe children.

We talked about the fact that many of the children walk for close to an hour to get to school and are happy when they get a simple breakfast of hot farina. I recalled how sweet and eager to learn they were—and how I wished I could have done more as a volunteer.

“I was one one them,” Carlos told me. His Ngobe family struggled. In fact, when he was 12, he had to work while going to school. And it wasn’t for extra money; he had no choice; they needed the money.

Carlos--Cafe Ruiz tour guide

So what sort of work did he do?

He picked coffee beans. At Café Ruiz.

It was a grueling job, based on how he described it. Standing in the relentless sun, getting cut up by the plants, bitten by insects, etc. Fortunately, he worked in all the other stages of the process and eventually advanced to his current job, that of a tour guide—which he obviously enjoys and excels at.

Cafe Ruiz Coffee Tour

In between conversations about coffee cultivation and the rest of the process—its many and intricate steps—he explained that he was able to finish school and to educate himself, too. I’m not sure if he went to college or to tourism school (he probably did); his English was very good, he was super knowledgeable about coffee and he gave a fantastic tour.

So…back to the story.

There I was, enjoying myself—and feeling psyched about wanting to try the Geisha coffee. After the tour (which included a coffee tasting experience) concluded, Carlos walked me over to the coffee bar.

(By the way, we ran into 80-something year old Señor Ruiz, the owner, on our way. I was thrilled to meet him and have a chat in Spanish about coffee, etc.).

Cafe Ruiz Coffee Tour

Señor Ruiz

When we got there, I got my free bag of the basic Arabica coffee they give away as part of the tour price ($30, from what I recall). (Believe me, when I got home and tried it out in my French press, I was quite pleased.)

Geisha—$9 a cup

I now stood there, checking out coffee price list–the “coffees of the day.” Geisha, of course, was on the list.

For $9 a cup. (I didn’t even ask the price for a small bag of beans—fuggedabout it!)

Ouch, I thought. That’s big bucks for a small cup of java. But then—it’s Panama’s best coffee and I should try it. I’m a coffee lover, after all.

Cafe Ruiz Coffee Tour

“So, what’s the deal with the Geisha?” I asked Carlos. I truly respected his opinion; he was both knowledgeable and down to earth. No BS whatsoever (sadly, I do recall experiencing some with snarky foreigners who wanted me to take tours of their estates/farms.)

“Well, it’s good. Excellent. But if you’re a true coffee drinker, you might not like it.”

“Really? What’s it like?”

“It’s smooth–floral and citrusy. Good coffee for tea drinkers. ”

“Hmmm.”

At this point, thinking about my budget, which I’d already blown several times on this particular trip, I wondered if I really needed a $9 cup of coffee. By the way, it was served in a tiny cup. Larger than what you’d get Turkish coffee in, but not much bigger.

“Which of the premium coffees on the list do you recommend?”

Berlina–at $3–a Better Deal?

“The Berlina. It’s excellent. Full-bodied with a hint of chocolate.”

“OK, then. I’ll try that.” I’m a chocolate lover anyway.

As an added bonus, I would be saving several dollars by skipping the Geisha and going for this alternative. And I knew what I was going to do with that money.

Just when Carlos was saying goodbye and walking away, I called him back.

Although I’m a low-budget backpacker, I do tip. And this was case where it was more than deserved.I gave him $5, and he was overjoyed and I so was I.

Carlos, Cafe Ruiz tour guide

I then sat down and enjoyed the Berlina, which was great—just as he’d said. Not only was it flavorful, but it was truly satisfying to me personally.

To me, it was the best cup of coffee in Panama.

Your Thoughts/Experiences?

Have you taken any coffee tours in Panama or elsewhere? Did you try any of the premium/estate coffees? If so, how far did you go in terms of price? Did you try Geisha?

In my situation, would you—as a coffee lover—have tried Geisha and skipped the tip? Or done both? Just wondering….

Related Links

If you’re interested in taking a tour with Cafe Ruiz, click here. (Note: I did not receive any compensation for writing this post. I simply enjoyed the tour, highly recommend Carlos and thus, wanted to share this story with you.)

To learn more about the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca (tribe/reservation),click here.

32 Responses to Geisha, Panama’s Best Coffee—and Why I Didn’t Drink It
  1. AvaApollo
    May 29, 2012 | 1:40 pm

    It’s kind of sad they employ child labor. I know it’s a reality around the world, and it provided an opportunity for this boy who needed to work to support his family. Still, though, can’t help but be a little saddened by that harsh truth. Seems to me your tip money was well spent!
    AvaApollo recently posted..Meet Ollie, the Taiwanese Rescue RetrieverMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 11, 2012 | 1:05 am

      Hi, Ava. I agree with you that the child labor situation is sad. I hate when I see kids working when they should be in school.

      Thanks for your comment! I felt good about giving him the tip vs having the expensive coffee. It would have felt wrong otherwise…
      CB Driver recently posted..Village in Sumatra (Photo of the Day) #Indonesia #photography My Profile

  2. Craig Zabransky
    May 29, 2012 | 8:04 pm

    Wow, $9 US for a cup of coffee and that is on location, I wonder what the Geisha goes for Europe? And to be honest, I thought the reason you didn’t drink it was because of the name before I read the post.

    As a coffee drinker, I really still want to take a tour of a plantation, and after this post, I’ll make sure I am prepared to go over my budget….

    stay adventurous, Craig
    Craig Zabransky recently posted..The Morning March to the Tikal Temple SunriseMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 5, 2012 | 3:51 am

      Hola, Craig. Yeah, that’s some serious dinero for a small cup of coffee. In Europe, it would be $15 maybe. Yikes. :)

      Funny re: the Geisha name… :)

      Staying revved up on coffee, Lisa :)

  3. Annette | Bucket List Journey
    May 29, 2012 | 11:23 pm

    Makes me wonder if the extra $6 for the Geisha would have even been worth the money. There must be some sort of threslhold on how much better a cup of coffee could actually be.

    Glad you enjoyed your cup of joe :)
    Annette | Bucket List Journey recently posted..Getting Bit By An Ostrich. Not on the Bucket List.My Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 5, 2012 | 3:49 am

      Hi, Annette. Funny re: the coffee taste threshold–love that! Wonder if it’s similar to fine wine….hmmm.

  4. Sky
    May 30, 2012 | 1:05 pm

    It’s really cool that you wrote about this because my group actually took the tour of the Ruiz plantation when we were in Boquete as well! We had Señor Ruiz’s grandson as our tour guide, instead of Carlos, and I believe that it was a more informal deal as we didn’t get free coffee or anything. (Though one of my friends ended up spending over $300 on Geisha coffee – at $70 a pound!) However, it was such a neat process! I can’t imagine working on a plantation like that, though – some of the paths look so steep and the thought of walking up and down them with pounds of coffee beans just makes me shudder!
    Sky recently posted..Where Have I Been?!My Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 5, 2012 | 3:48 am

      Hi, Sky. You took a tour of the same plantation? How cool! I can’t believe one of your friends spent that; wow, he/she must have loved it!

      It is an interesting process, but I agree with you…cannot imagine working there. Looks like some serious toil!

  5. martha
    May 31, 2012 | 12:18 am

    Very interesting! I didn’t know there are all these kinds of coffee, even though I love coffee. Is there any way to find out whether these types of coffee are fairly traded? Do they still use child labor to pick them?

    • CB Driver
      June 5, 2012 | 3:47 am

      Hi, Martha. I think there are ways to find out, but I’m not sure how exactly. As for the child labor issue, that’s really tricky. I think one could see it while visiting one of the places. I didn’t notice any kids at Cafe Ruiz, but it was early in the day. Maybe, if they work there, they arrive later… Let’s hope they don’t work there at all (although it’s possible since Carlos did.) Sadly, it’s common in many countries.

      • Joshua Ruiz
        April 18, 2013 | 3:06 am

        Hello CBDriver/martha and everyone.

        Sorry for joining this late,
        I absolutely love the fact that people all around the world are very interested in learning more about coffee and the way it’s processed.
        It’s important to know about the whole journey a coffee-bean does before it’s ready for drinking.

        quote: “I think there are ways to find out”
        I hope I can help you with some questions.

        Café Ruiz does not have Child Labour. There are rules for kids if they want to work in Café Ruiz, which are:
        - they have to be over 14 years old.
        - they HAVE to be on school vacations (3 months in Panamanian school system)
        - they have to be accompanied by their parents/people officialy responsable during harvest time.
        - and very important : of one’s own free will: they are not being forced.
        - they choose freely if they want to work

        All the Coffee of Café Ruiz is being traded fairly.
        Did Cafe Ruiz certify “Fair Trade” ? no – simply because it’s very expensive for a small coffee company to pay high yearly fees.
        remember: In Panama every Coffee Grower is independent and stands on his own. In other countries (Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador etc.) coffee industry is managed by the state or by coops which have a yearly budget for certifications, publicity etc.

        Hope I could help.

        • CB Driver
          April 18, 2013 | 11:46 pm

          Hi, Joshua–thanks for sharing this info! Are you someone in the Cafe Ruíz family? Grandson of Sr. Ruíz?

          People are definitely interested in coffee–me included. I loved the tour I went on. I’m so glad that there is no child labor, etc. and those who do work there have to be on vacation from school, etc.

          I can imagine fair trade is expensive.

          • Joshua Ruiz
            April 20, 2013 | 5:13 pm

            Yes, I’m Mr. Plinios Grandson.
            I just finished an internship at Café Ruiz. That’s why the whole information is still “fresh” :)
            I was googleing about coffee tours in Panama and came across this blog, which I really liked. I thought I could answer some questions down in the comments-area.

            I also participated in Carlos Coffee Tour and gave Tours myself.

            It’s very nice to find blogs and websites with positive experiences about Café Ruiz coffee tour.

            If you have any questions I’m glad to answer some

          • CB Driver
            April 25, 2013 | 9:37 am

            Hi, Joshua. Nice to meet you! Now I understand how you found my blog, etc. So you also went on Carlos’ tour and gave some yourself? Very cool.

            Thanks for stopping by. :)

  6. Karen @ Trans-Americas Journey
    June 2, 2012 | 10:48 am

    What a lovely open-minded post! We also heard great things about Carlos when we were in Boqueste but we didn’t take his tour. We’ve toured a dozen coffee fincas/beneficios and just couldn’t justify $30 each for another one….Let along $9 for a cup of Geisha! Glad to read that Carlos’ tour lives up to expectations.
    Karen @ Trans-Americas Journey recently posted..Rear View Mirror: Travel Tips and Observations After 89 days in HondurasMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 5, 2012 | 3:44 am

      Thanks, Karen. Glad you liked it! Carlos was wonderful. But I hear you re: the price of these tours. I checked out a bunch of them before I chose this one. And I’m glad I didn’t drink the Geisha. That was just too much!

  7. Audrey | That Backpacker
    June 10, 2012 | 12:54 am

    A coffee for tea drinkers – that sounds like something I’d enjoy, though for $9 a cup maybe not…
    Audrey | That Backpacker recently posted..Introducing Backpacking Travel BlogMy Profile

    • CB Driver
      June 11, 2012 | 1:02 am

      Hi, Audrey. Yes, that $9 did sound like a lot. I do wonder, sometimes, what Geisha tastes like…

  8. Lou
    January 5, 2013 | 11:08 pm

    Geisha can also be spelled gesha. 9.00 a cup sounds right for gesha. It is my favorite varietal. If you do not drink specialty coffee or have spent time refining your pallet it might not be worth it. Geshas are prized for their floral characteristics, fruit acids, and sweetness. There are many micro roster who sell fto certified coffee.

  9. susan
    January 18, 2013 | 6:19 am

    Hi, I did the same tour in December 2011. It was an amazing tour, I enjoyed it so much. Although you probably don’t read Dutch, here are some photos: http://wp.me/p1BNhB-ev

    I didn’t try the Geisha back then, although I don’t remember why not, but I found it a few days ago in a bar in the Netherlands. It was 4,50 EUR, for a huge cup, and it was indeed tea-like. I even asked the waiter if he was sure i was coffee :) It definitely looks like tea, and it has a ‘light’ tea-like taste. I did like it, and especially liked finally tasting it. And despite of it’s tea-like appearance, it had heaps of caffeine :)

    • CB Driver
      January 20, 2013 | 12:27 pm

      Hi, Susan. Thanks for sharing your photos! Very cool seeing the beans in Carlos’s hand!

      You tried the Geisha in the Netherlands? Interesting that it does taste a bit tea-like yet has tons of caffeine. I think that if I’m getting the caffeine punch, I might want the strong coffee flavor, too.

      Maybe someday I will try it. PS: I tried the cat poop coffee in Indonesia. Kopi luwak. That was quite wonderful!

      • susan
        January 23, 2013 | 9:02 am

        Nice! Wonder what that one tastes like? Maybe my coffee bar will sell it someday ;)

  10. Marc
    February 18, 2013 | 11:40 am

    Great post! On our stay in Boquete last December, we visited Cafetales Don Alfredo, a small ecological coffee plantation run by a guy who can only be described as an inventor. Our guide (Felix) was also a knowledgeable local. Don Alfredo grows about 40 different varieties (Geisha among them) and creates a blend that has come in as the second best coffee in Panama for a number of years. We were told that the light roast tastes more like tea but has the most caffeine, and we were able to roast some beans light, medium, and dark and taste the difference by chewing the beans. Seems the more they taste of coffee, the less caffeine they contain. It’s the marketing machine elsewhere in the world which then turns the whole thing on its head. The question of fair trade coffee is a difficult one. I bought 4 large packs at Don Alfredo’s plantation and I guess you can’t trade fairer than that! BTW our coffee sample (not pure Geisha) was free…. :-)

    • CB Driver
      February 18, 2013 | 12:46 pm

      Thanks, Marc–glad you enjoyed it! I think I’ve heard of the other plantation. Sounds very cool. Interesting that the tea-like roasts have more caffeine and the more coffee-like ones have less. Hmmm. I wonder about Turkish coffee.

      I hear you re: the marketing machine…and fair trade issues. Great that you bought some while there and that your samples were free. My basic samples, during the tour, were, too. It was only later when I wanted to hang out in the cafe that I had to pay.

  11. marizol
    February 27, 2013 | 8:49 pm

    Wow!! This is so funny. Until I read this story, I didn’t know that the name I would like to give my future daughter is the name of one of the most famous coffees from Panama… Well, it is good to know, but I’m not sure if I still want to call my baby Geisha.

    • Joshua Ruiz
      April 18, 2013 | 4:28 am

      That’s funny … Café Ruiz has a product line called “baby Geisha” –> the first crop of a Geisha plant when processed is called “Baby Geisha”

      • CB Driver
        April 18, 2013 | 11:53 pm

        Baby Geisha? No way. That’s so cute. :)

        PS: Are you a Geisha drinker? Or do you like a different coffee?

  12. Matt
    August 17, 2013 | 4:29 pm

    First of all, it’s a shame you didn’t try the Geisha; it’s incredible. But, $9 is way too steep. You should try to find it elsewhere in your travels and give it a whirl. I bought 200g of premium Geisha beans at one of Sydney’s finest roasters (Campos). It was $19.50. I can produce 8 400ml cups of drip coffee with 200g. So that’s about $2.50 cup.

    • CB Driver
      August 18, 2013 | 3:06 pm

      Yes, $9 is a bit much. If I find it somewhere else, cheaper, I’ll definitely give it a try. Sounds like what you bought is reasonable.

  13. Baptiste
    April 18, 2014 | 8:18 am

    Hi have tried this famous coffee in what I consider myself to be the best place in Paris for coffee enthusiasts. A cup of expresso was 5€, which is far bellow the (abnormal) price in Panama.

    The coffee itself is extremely floral, with a dominant jasmin flavor which is unusual for coffee. As your guide said, it may be a great coffee for tea drinkers.

    • CB Driver
      April 20, 2014 | 8:33 pm

      Hi, Baptiste, and thanks for sharing this. The way you described Geisha matches other descriptions I’ve read. I do believe it’s ideal for tea drinkers.

      Maybe I’ll try it next time. :)

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