El Valle, Panama is the laid back younger sister of flashy Boquete. Formally referred to as El Valle de Anton, this high-elevation town sits in the crater of an extinct volcano.
The environment is similar to Boquete– mountainous, misty, cool – but the tourism scene is not as apparent. There is plenty to do and a number of places to stay, but it flies under the radar of most first-time visitors. It’s not totally off the beaten path but it is very low-key, especially considering its close proximity to Panama City. Danny and I saw only 4 or 5 other travelers during our stay much to our surprise.
We landed in Panama City in the afternoon and went straight to El Valle. We’d arranged a private transfer so we could relax and take in the visuals. During our drive we were treated to 2 ½ hours of 80’s music videos and a lot of sudden breaking as we climbed in elevation, reaching our magical B&B just before sunset.
Casa di Pietra was serene, quaint, and downright enchanting. We considered staying in a hostel, but for the same price, we got this whimsical bed and breakfast located just off the town’s main road. We absolutely made the right choice. The stone exterior of the 4-room house made me feel like some sort of intellectual Italian princess. Our balcony allowed us forest views and a large bird friend to keep us company.
Breakfast was eggs, bread and jam, fresh orange juice, coffee, and a delicious empanada. We were the only guests so we pretended that this was our private home and we lived a magical existance as former aristocrats who abandoned the high life to live as tranquil Panamanian gardeners. That night we slept with our mosquito nets down, not because we needed to, but because it made us feel worldly.
The next morning we ventured out to hike La India Dormida, one of El Valle’s most famous residents. The silhouette in the mountain resembles a sleeping Indian woman, and we were excited at the prospect of walking on her face. We headed out early and followed the signs to reach the entrance, where we’d hike to the top and enjoy picture perfect views of the crater valley, and probably total enlightenment.
The problem is that Danny and I talk a lot. We talked so much that we missed the turn off to get to La India Dormida and ended up on a steep road that seemed to climb into the heavens. At the time, we thought we were on the right path so we kept trekking. Up, up, up.
At some point we realized our mistake but decided to keep walking up the road to see what we could find. Because we weren’t on an organized tour we were free to do as we pleased. And here was our reward:
We had unknowingly followed the road to a lookout point that gave us the views we were searching for all along. We didn’t arrive they way we’d planned, but hey, travel is about going with the flow. We spottedLa India Dormida in the distance and waved to her from our neighboring perch. We had hiked up the wrong mountain. Oh well.
We gazed down at the tiny town we’d come from, realizing just how far and high we were. Off in the distance was the Pacific Ocean, the horizon peppered with few high rises we assumed were resorts. We sat. We enjoyed. We soaked in the fruits of our mistake. It began to rain. We laughed. We left.
On the walk back down the steep road we decided to check out El Choro Macho because we had missed out on the waterfalls that come with hiking La India Dormida. For $1 we gained entrance to a small river and took our time walking along the edge to reach the waterfalls. This was refreshing for our sweaty bodies.
After we got all muddied and bloodied traversing slippery rocks, we scarfed down a delicious $5 lunch at a local restaurant and watched soap operas.
Normally, this kind of meal would inspire us to take a long nap, but we only had a short time left in El Valle. Since the preferred mode of transportation seemed to be the bicycle, we decided to rent a couple of our own and ride through town. This turned out to be one of my favorite moments from the whole Panama trip. It had been a few years since I’d mounted a good bike. After a few initial wobbles I was zipping down the road along like a local.
My breezy dress flapped in the wind and everyone saw my butt. I didn’t care. Butts are cool.
We road up and down just about every street and the 360 degree mountain view was unreal. I pedaled hard up a hill and when the incline became too much for my chicken legs I turned around and flew back down, just like I had growing up on a street aptly named “Hilly Way”. I made sure to lock this moment into my heart. This moment was free. I was flying, the mountains all around me, and my own two legs and arms deciding the speed and direction. No work, no anxiety, no problems. Just the breeze and my butt, united as one.
The next morning we left El Valle, but not before mistakenly taking a local bus around town with a bunch of school kids. We eventually boarded the correct bus, which was playing Mall Cop 2, unfortunately. We arrived with crappy 80’s music videos and left with a crappy movie. But in between was El Valle – a breath of fresh air.