An August 2003 trip
to El Valle by wanderluster
Quote: Mother Nature must've laughed when she created El Valle from the ashes of a gigantic volcano. At her playful touch frogs turned brilliant yellow, trees became square, mud became therapeutic, and strange symbols appeared on rocks. Man added a zany zipline adventure through the rainforest and a renowned handicraft market.
Toucans, waterfalls, orchids, square trees, bright yellow frogs, petrogylphs, zoo, Indian handicraft market, thermal mud baths and Spanish Colonial architecture harmoniously exist within sight of La India Dormida, the Indian maiden who reclines on the surrounding Cordillera mountaintops. Jagged peaks provide numerous opportunities for thrilling mountain biking and strenuous hiking, while the Canopy Adventure in the forested valley offers a heart racing zip-line ride over treetops.
Plentiful attractions, friendly people and inexpensive prices make this a popular destination for tourists and locals especially on Sunday, market day. Yet when we visited it felt rather deserted. My friend Donna and I squeezed in two days at the end of our journey, drawn to the Canopy Adventure and the best place to shop for Panamanian handicraft souvenirs.
Bring cash. There are no banks or ATMs. I don't remember anyone taking credit cards except our hotel.
Bring a rain jacket and protective camera gear. A monsoon struck both afternoons of our stay. And neither time was expected.
If you're not visiting Panama's tropical beaches in San Blas (big mistake!) and need a coastal fix, sandy Playa Santa Clara an hour away is a worthwhile side trip. Considered the nicest beach along the Pacific side it has more brown pelicans than people. Not to say it's for the birds, just that it's not crowded. You can even stay in a little thatched hut on the beach for a night at Balneario Santa Clara (507-993-2123).
Transport time takes 2 hours by car, and another by bus. Buses–actually air-conditioned minivans–depart every 30 minutes from 7am-3pm daily from the Albrook Bus Station. All destinations are clearly marked on ticket windows and buses.
You can also visit for the day with a guided tour group (). One day trip that stands out above the others is Panoramic Panama who include the usual attractions but include a stop at the Santa Clara beach–the most scenic spot on the Pacific coast.
Once in El Valle you can walk, take a local bus or a taxi. Taxi rates are .50 to get anywhere around town and you'll probably need them. One time Donna and I followed a sign to a restaurant, got lost and walked in circles in a mist that turned into pouring rain. (And naturally didn't see another taxi until we walked back to town.) The best thing we did was to hire a taxi at the going rate of per half-day.
Highly energetic and accommodating, he suggested a few sights, arranged horseback riding for us and zipped us around town with his tiny dog in the backseat. "Seven years ago, I came for a visit and never left," he said. "You will love it here." He praised the beauty of the mountains, the warmth of the Panamanian people, and the stress-free existence living in a village rich with simpler pleasures and surrounded by nature.
He clearly loves his new home and has a zest to share it with others. Although officially retired, he has no intention of slowing down or passively relaxing in the peaceful park-like property he created. Plans are already underway for an expansion of ten more rooms, and a new venture providing BBQ, horseback riding and camping excursions in the hills. His latest idea is to offer adventure tours throughout Panama, which he will personally guide. And what an entertaining guide he will be!
We splurged on the best room in his hotel -- the family suite. The Spanish decor and octagonal design were charming. A full wall of windows overlooked gardens below. Sliding doors led out to a wrought iron balcony with big wooden rockers. Clay tiles on the floor and ceiling and white stucco walls were warmed by the wood accents of bamboo furnishings and a ladder leading up to the loft. One queen-sized bed was tucked into an alcove and another in the loft. Plush towels were plentiful in the bathroom dominated by a square tub so large you could shower without a curtain. Cost? A mere $66.
When we first arrived Captain Koch was out. Our taxi pulled up to Los Capitanes set back among botanical gardens in an open valley. A Spanish-speaking gentleman came out of the red-tiled octagonal restaurant fronting the hotel. He greeted us and led us past flowering plants up to our room. Moments later he returned with ice water and glasses, then quickly ducked away. Confused about whether or not we should sign something to check in, we wandered downstairs and peeked in the locked office. Dark. Where had that gentleman gone? Hungry, we decided to have lunch.
We stepped into the adjoining restaurant and slid onto red chairs at a red table. The Spanish Colonial decor was lively and the breeze coming in the open windows felt refreshing. Guess who swung through the wooden doors to wait on us? Yep. And this same quiet gentleman also became the cook. Fortunately for him business was slow–just three rooms rented and two tables occupied. Food? Delicioso!
We had a delightful stay and highly recommend it.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 5, 2003
Calle de la Copoerativa
El Valle, Panama
The restaurant adjoins a small 10-room hotel and serves all three meals. Menu selections offer both German and Panamanian food. Excellent food. Donna and I voted this to be the best restaurant in El Valle. The chicken in white sauce entree was fabulous. Tender white meat and thick mushrooms in a rich creamy sauce was served with German fried potatoes and cabbage. Usually not a fan of German food, the meal was surprisingly outstanding–one of my favorite meals in Panama.
We were one of two tables occupying this casual quiet space. So perhaps it's unfair to say, but the service was attentively spoiling!
This busy café located on the main street below a hotel, next to a souvenir shop and a block away from the market does a steady business. Numerous tables are crammed into the small room where a television blares additional noise to bus, taxi and truck traffic on the street.
Panamanian selections are written on a chalkboard in Spanish. We ordered from the menu not exactly sure what we'd be getting but accepting that as part of the adventure.
Our Yuka al mo appetizer turned out to be fried yuca with cilantro, onion and parsley. Expecting a fresh squeezed juice, my batidos denaranga, an orange milkshake (like a dreamsicle), was a little surprising. Donna ordered the special of the day to see what a typical Panamanian dish would be. A plate of fried rice and a spattering of pork and vegetables left her hungry for protein. My ala plancho coivina was a yummy pan-fried sea bass served with French fries and vegetables.
Donna and I saw a sign for this restaurant in town pointing us to walk this way. So we did. The road passed some lovely homes then T-boned in the rural forested countryside. No sign. We gambled left and lost. Ten minutes later a monsoon hit, turning us into drowned rats by the time we somehow ended up back in town. Perplexed we hired a taxi.
The patio dining area was thankfully covered for rainy days such as this. We sat at a glass-topped cane table beside an artificial stream surrounded by trees and various plants and watched koi swim past while we ate our lunch. Business was booming. Day tours from Panama City include lunch stops here.
Seafood, chicken and pasta dishes range from $8-12. The house specialty chicken dish was rather tough and the accompanying sauce nondescript, but the service was fine and the setting charming.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 5, 2003
El Valle Restaurants
Throughout El Valle
El Valle, Panama
Judging the distance of the approaching platforms would be my biggest challenge. I certainly didn't want to brake too late and crash into the tree, or have to pull my weight across that rope. I wondered how fast my speed would accumulate, and if the height would bother me.
But I never got to find out. No, I didn't chicken out. The ride was closed due to yesterday's severe rainstorm. The cable section over the waterfall had fallen and a construction crew were already busy repairing it which would take a couple of days. My friend Donna (who had chickened out) looked at me with wide eyes. "And what if you had been on there when THAT happened?" she asked pointing to the jungly undergrowth.
But no one had been hurt. We ran into the owner the next day outside the local church. We'd met Raul Arias de Para previously when we stayed at his unique tree house lodge, Canopy Tower in Sobernia National Park an hour northwest of Panama City. El Valle was his home and the Canopy Adventure was his creation. He assured us that it was a safe operation–the zip-line closes whenever storms occur. And no one has been hurt on this ride. Ever.
It looked like a hoot. We saw it from below when we hiked the scenic forest trail. Admission to hike the loop is $2 and includes a bamboo walking stick to assist in crossing over slippery rocks and mucky places. The incline is minimal, making the trail suitable for most everyone.
Singing birds kept us company for an hour as we walked the rocky trial. The woods were otherwise quiet. No one else wandered around that day, except the construction crew. We walked under the zip-line, passed unusual trees and beautiful Chorro El Macho waterfall. On a nicer day we would've spent time soaking in the natural pool at the base of that picturesque waterfall. But today the entrance was blocked. One of the massive trees supporting a platform and securing the zip-line had split into pieces and had fallen smack into the path.
The Canopy Adventure costs $40. But here's a little secret: you can pay $10 to ride the last leg of the ride. (This isn't publicized, so don't go blabbing.) Perfect for those tempted, but afraid of committing to all six platforms. But a waste of money really ‘cuz once the exhilaration kicks in, I bet you'll muster the courage to do the whole run.
Canopy (Zipline) Adventure
1.8 miles west of Main Street's Handicraft Market
El Valle, Panama
The rock art in El Valle is limited to a single boulder on the NW edge of town known as La Pintada. You can take a bus from town for .15 or a taxi.
The hike leading to La Pinta's petroglyphs is as worthwhile as the art. The rocky path follows a creek through an emerald green forest lush from daily rain. It climbs past ferns, shocking pink flowers and creamy orchids hanging from mossy trees.
A young Guaymi Indian boy eating a popsicle came up to us and appointed himself as our guide when our taxi pulled away. Although the trail was evident and we couldn't understand a lick of his Spanish, he was entertaining to have around. His grandmother, who sold potted plants at the roadside, lagged behind as we climbed the forested trail.
Ten minutes into our hike we crossed a footbridge and came to a large overhang. I didn't notice the petroglyphs until the boy stopped and waited for his students to sit before he proceeded with his lesson. Behind him were squiggly lines in black and white, curled into snails, Q's, and spokeless bicycle wheels. I didn't see any animal or human figures, and if the boy attempted to enlighten me otherwise I didn't know it.
He was adorable as our teacher. He took his job so seriously, pointing to various squiggles in an organized fashion, his voice loud and confident throughout his memorized speech. He paused to ask if we understood Spanish–then despite our answer–carried on, accenting every 7th or 8th word dramatically. We stifled giggles listening to the pattern of punctuated words that he practically shouted. As if yelling them would help push them into our comprehension.
Just like I see at the rehab hospital when nurses and family members try to speak to stroke patients with aphasia. They ineffectively raise their voices to help patients comprehend when it's a language problem, not hearing loss. Ordinary words sound jumbled, like these foreign words to us. Funny how the impulse to speak loudly to people who don't get what you're saying is universally common.
I did understand some of what he said. Certain drawings represented three waterfalls in the area and a cleft in the rock makes howling noises–but exactly why I didn't comprehend. Was it the crying Indian maiden, angry gods or simply the wind? Local legend claims that the rolling hills beyond outline Dormida, Sleeping Indian Woman, who killed herself tormented over love. The waterfalls are her tears. Or so the story goes.
Any connection to the petroglyphs is anybody's guess. No one really knows what the befuddled images fully suggest.
West of Town
El Valle, Panama
Just $3.50 buys you an hour-long ride. Yes, an hour for less than a Happy Meal. The guide is paid another $3.50 for his efforts. So a guided hour-long ride for two people cost $10.50.
The Captain (owner of Los Capitanes) drove us to the horses. I expected a field, or stables. Instead he brought us to a fork in the road known as Kiosco Samy (.6 mile up Calle El Hato road leading to Hotel Campestre) where around fifteen horses were tied to a fence. A handful of locals were milling about, a few mothers with babies on their hips, but mostly boys and men. A matronly woman immediately came toward us and led Donna and I to our waiting horses.
She asked (in Spanish) if we wanted a guide. We looked at Captain who translated and nodded yes even before we could reply. Of course we needed a guide–even if we could ride we wouldn't know how to command the horse in Spanish. A young man advanced and introduced himself. And we were off.
Our guide didn't speak English. And we didn't speak Spanish. So the conversation was a little stilted as you can imagine. Nevertheless, both sides attempted some communication. (I was kicking myself for not taking Pimsler's audio Spanish more seriously–I was stuck on the fifth CD. But I did know lento and kept that in my memory. Just in case we lost control of our horses and needed to slow down. You never know!)
The horses followed a dirt road up a hill in a rural residential area. We passed several homes, all with clay-tiled roofs and manicured lawns inside decorative fences. Shapes were rather square in color washed fuchsia pink, brilliant orange, white or green; and windows were open to the elements but made secure by iron screens. Attention to plants, trees and shrubs was obvious here, and every lawn flourished with flowers.
Rolling hills forested in lumpy green provided the backdrop to these colorful homes, and eye-popping red or orange bird-of-paradise blossoms framed the roadside against tall grasses and ferns. Soft sounds added to the pastoral ride–water trickling down streams, lilting bird songs and the neighing of our horses.
Several times our guide led us into a trot, and one time into a gallop. He could tell we were inexperienced by our breathless laughing, and didn't push the horses too hard. We passed a group of children riding on our way back. "Hola gringos," they called waving and smiling.
Our horses followed the guide past a thick grove of bamboo and turned into the Los Capitanes property where we were staying.
We certainly didn't expect that kind of service.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on December 5, 2003
Calle El Hato
El Valle, Panama
Attraction | "Thermal Mud Pools"
I'd heard about them from a Panamanian woman sweating beside me in Gamboa's sauna. She hadn't used the communal thermal pools but highly recommended the mud. So we took her advice and visited the tranquil forested setting a short drive from El Valle's main road by taxi.
Our $1 admission covered everything: mineral baths, therapeutic mud, and showers. We crossed a bridge and followed a path past flowering plants leading to a sunken pool of muddy water. A man spoke to us in Spanish, but we couldn't understand him. In response to our blank stares, he pointed to two ceramic containers, lifted the lids, and gestured spooning the contents–white and black mud–into his palm and onto his skin.
Aha! We were to apply the mud, let it set then rinse off in the nearby shower. He nodded and left. We looked at each other, wondering if we should bother getting all muddy fifteen minutes to closing time.
Why not? We stripped down to our suits (having learned our lesson in Gamboa) and began to lather white mud all over our face and body. It was the consistency of homemade ice cream but thankfully not as cold.
A young woman rinsing under the outdoor shower watched us with amusement. Apparently, we were doing it all wrong. She indicated that the white mud–which we had plastered all over our bodies–was for faces only. We followed her distracted gaze. The man who'd given us the initial instructions was approaching. Hurry!
We scurried over to the other container and began slopping dark mud over the white as quickly as we could -- arms, legs, waist. Oops, missed that calf–ya got some white showing there. But we straightened up and stood there like the Cheshire Cat when he walked past and glanced our way.
Don't think he noticed our glaring white spots. But we did and began laughing again, pointing out each other's fine cover up job. A local man with white mud on his face and patches of dark mud on his arm strolled past to check his face in the mirror. Compared to him, we looked ridiculous.
He was applying mud to specific parts of his body to relieve arthritic aches. And we were preparing for a tribal dance–in full body paint.
The owner caught our eye and tapped his watch. Our mud hadn't set, but it was time to rinse. Emerging from the shower I touched my face. Incredibly soft. So smooth. The combination of sodium, potassium, magnesium, silica, bicarbonates and calcium had surpassed Gamboa's expensive spa treatments and even my swim in the mineral rich Dead Sea.
We didn't dip in the thermal pools, but I highly recommend the mud. If I were a local, I'd wallow weekly.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 6, 2003
Pozos Termales Thermal Mud Pools
.6 Km West Of Main Street's Handicraft Market
El Valle, Panama
*batea—decorated hardwood trays
* owl and frog soap stone figurines
* mola embroidered children's dresses
* beaded and wooden jewelry
* palm baskets, woven hot pads, woven plates
* Panama hats
* ceramic frogs, birds, mushrooms
At 7am, the market was bustling with activity as campesinos removed tarps from their stalls and prepared for business. It was smaller than I anticipated, a long city block crammed with tables of produce, flowers, handicrafts and souvenirs.
We ate breakfast at a nearby restaurant and lingered over scrambled eggs and bacon. There was no hurry. No crowds of tourists to contend with or masses of shoppers to compete with at Macy's Day After Thanksgiving Christmas Sale. In contrast, it looked rather sleepy.
Half of the space was a farmer's market. But since neither plants nor fruit were allowed on our flight early the next morning, we concentrated on the other half, maneuvering through narrow aisles absorbing the variety of handicrafts in our first look-see run.
Most shoppers were Panamanians. In fact, I don't recall any other gringos. A man from Panama City with a Nikon strapped around his neck approached me and said he was a professional photographer too. Too? I'm not, I told him. But we had a nice conversation about the uncooperative weather, equipment and Panama until I excused myself to go find my friend Donna. We'd managed to get separated in our shopping and I had no idea where she was.
I wandered among makeshift stalls in the open air and completed the loop without finding her. Time was limited. It was time to shop!
I bought a darling mola embroidered dress for my toddler, woven Panama hats for her and me, a rain stick with tropical birds painted on wood, a Kuna doll, flower-embroidered hat, leather purse, woven pot holders, beaded necklaces, bracelets, palm baskets, and painted gourd ornaments. And then I looked up to see Donna crossing the street.
She showed me her loot. "Where'd you get that?" I asked admiring an orange-and-yellow striped hammock. We'd both wanted to purchase hammocks since our Windjammer cruise in Panama's San Blas Islands, but I hadn't seen them for sale anywhere in the market.
"In that souvenir shop," she said pointing away from the market. "Just $15, too," she said, practically gloating.
I was already crossing the street. My bargain brain had engaged. "But our taxi comes in five minutes," she called. It didn't matter. I wasn't going home without a hammock when there was one steps away for $15.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 6, 2003
El Valle, Panama
The only place they supposedly exist is here in the mountain village of El Valle behind Hotel Campestre. Or so guidebooks claim. Out of curiosity I had to see for myself, and took a short taxi ride to the outlying hotel.
Relying on gestures and limited Spanish I inquired about the trail at the front desk. A young man pointed across the grassy yard back toward the entrance's long driveway. Donna and I took off with a Canadian couple at our heels. They'd just arrived in Panama the previous night on their honeymoon. They'd not encountered anyone thus far who spoke English, and were happy to join us.
We shared our recommendations in Panama and told them of our adventures while we walked to the trailhead. Soon we were at the red shed at the edge of the woods (right of the drive when you enter). A large painted map illustrated the trail, which followed and crossed a river before looping back. The arboles quadrados (square trees) were identified near the creek crossing and other species such as eucalipta and zamia were also marked.
Pink impatiens and thick ferns bordered the rocky path as we strolled through the woods. To be honest I've never seen impatiens growing wild in the woods, and they seemed out of place somehow in this forest. They added a nice punch of color, as did the bright red blossoms dangling over a creek strewn with mossy boulders beside us. It was a pretty walk, and in ten minutes we crossed the little bridge and were on the look out for the so-called square trees.
A gigantic tree stood near the path. Seven of us could've stood side by side in it's width. It's buttressed trunk was not exactly square, but not round either. More like a dinosaur's webbed foot, with roots extending ten feet or more from it's base. We took turns posing in front it and clicking photos of each other.
Then a few feet away we saw it. Had it not been for a sign identifying it as such, we would've missed it altogether: the square tree. It looked round, rather standard. But closer inspection did reveal a squarish base, sort of. Four ingrown roots extended outward ever so slightly.
The Canadians shrugged their shoulders and continued on their walk. And Donna wandered back to the strange buttressed tree to click one more shot. "Why don't they have a sign on this one? It's far more intriguing!" I had to agree.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on December 6, 2003
Hiking to the Square Trees
Forest near Hotel Campstre
El Valle, Panama
This particular Saturday morning only a handful of people occupied the seats. Traditional Panamanian music of guitar, accordion and vocals played over the speakers as we traveled along the InterAmericana Highway then scenic windy mountain roads. Plenty of people boarded throughout our three-hour trip, but the minivan never filled to capacity, which I cannot say about our return trip.
Sunday was market day, the busiest day of the week. And buses were filled BEYOND capacity.
Our hotel owner had dropped us at the last bus stop heading out of town, informing us that the PANAMA bus would take us to Panama City. At 2:30, the first such bus approached. I waved it down, but the driver simply smiled and waved as he whizzed by. At 3pm it happened again, and at 3:30pm, another. This time, it slowed and opened its doors, revealing a claustrophobic madness with no place to stand. Yet the couple beside us somehow squeezed inside.
Donna and I looked at each other. How did THEY fit on there? And how were WE going to cram on with all this STUFF? We glanced at our newly acquired palm baskets jammed with hammocks, rain sticks, mola dresses, jewelry, and Panamanian hats. Then scrambled to condense.
"There's no way we're going to make it," Donna said. "There's one bus left." She didn't have to remind me that our plane back to the States left early the next morning.
A local boy bicycling past overheard our dilemma. He spoke English! "Catch the SAN CARLOS bus to the highway, and transfer to a PANAMA bus headed to Panama City or you'll be stranded." He talked to an elderly lady beside us planning to do the same. Follow her! She nodded and smiled, correcting my mispronunciation autobus.
At 3:45pm, the bus arrived. Packed. But we merged ahead. I sat in the front wedged between the stick shift and two hefty men, my belongings piled high in my lap. And Donna was crammed somewhere in the back.
We swerved along the windy mountain roads and stopped frequently. What struck me odd was that the stops were unmarked. People simply stood on the road near their property to indicate they wanted a ride. And the driver seemed to know when and where they wanted off because no one ever yelled stop. Passengers exited quietly and politely, paying the man who operated the door for them.
One woman dropped her tiny baby as she climbed aboard. A chorus of sharply inhaled "Ahhhs" merged with the baby's cries, which were muffled by the mother's tight embrace as she settled into a seat.
My seatmate in the front changed often. One young gal who looked like a teen sat beside me with a baby balanced on one knee and a toddler on the other. I spoke with the girl and discovered that the baby was my own daughter's age, two-and-a-half. She was adorable with big brown eyes and a sweet little smile. I was instantly homesick. Bumping along, I winced when I watched her get airborne a few times and bruise against the dashboard. Such drastically different safety practices than back home. I wondered about the incidence of accidents. Was Panama one of those countries with high fatality rates resulting from bus travel? Right then, I did not want to know.
When we reached the highway, the old woman got our attention with "Gringo!" She ran across the street, yelling at a passing bus. Without her, we'd never have known how to get them to stop.
Once in Panama City, Donna and I prepared to exit after we crossed the Bridge of Americas, much to the horror of our elderly lady friend. In fact, the whole bus joined in shaking heads or fingers, warning us NOT to exit here. We tried to explain that it was okay, we were saving 15 minutes by taking a taxi to our hotel. Collectively, they continued, "No, no, no!" Their concern was touching as we two gringos stepped into the projects as the bus sped away.