If you are a nature-lover visiting the big busy Panama City, there is a place you can go to escape the hustle and heat of the metropolis, the perfect getaway. Set in a tranquil valley surrounded by mountains, high above the sea, inside the second largest volcano crater in the world, is nestled the small picturesque town of El Valle de Anton, offering much more than a quiet retreat in the beautiful countryside.
The first time we visit El Valle is with our new friends here in Panama Milen, Maylen, Ian and Kristo, a mixed Bulgarian-Panamian family, and a young couple: Ana from Costa Rica and Samuel from Panama. We met Milen Bojinov soon after arriving in Panama City and shared many wonderful moments with him and his family. They helped us with the Panama Canal buffer refund, took us to the fruits and vegetables market and all the other best and cheapest places for grocery shopping and for propane, invited us to their house may times, and came to sail with us around the gulf aboard Fata Morgana one afternoon.
Milen is an experienced sailor and the epic story of his Atlantic Ocean crossing with his friend Vassil Beyazov aboard an small salvaged sailboat Peterson 25 from Bulgaria to the Caribbean has been described in a book: The Feeling of Freedom, by Vassil Beyazov.
Milen and Maylen’s family just got bigger today, November 11, 2015 with the arrival of a little girl named Mylena at around 0900 a.m.! Congratulations and may your journey in life be the happiest of all, little princess!
One Sunday, we start early in the morning with two cars, Milen and his family in one car, Ana, Samuel and our family in the other, driving for over two hours, first on the Inter-American highway for about 1.5 hours and another half an hour on a narrow mountain road winding through a bizarre landscape of pine forests mixed with palm trees. The higher we go, the cooler it gets, and once up in the valley we find ourselves in a climate much different form the suffocating tropical heat of the lowlands. It’s fresh spring in El Valle de Anton, a beautiful sunny day. The town is charming, a preferred destination for everyone from the city, with handsome vacation homes and gorgeous mansions with Tuscan architecture, lush gardens with ponds and exotic plants, belonging to some of Panama’s wealthiest families. It is a main tourist destination too, offering a vast choice of accommodation, from cheap hostels to luxurious boutique hotels and eco lodges with stunning mountain views and renowned restaurants, surrounded by tropical forest and the sounds of birds.
It has been a while since we hiked up a mountain, so the first place we head to is La India Dormida (the Sleeping Indian Girl), a three-hour easy and pleasant hike, passing by a huge boulder with ancient petroglyphs, La Piedra Pintada (the painted rock), a small waterfall, a natural river-pool, and spectacular views of the valley.
The Painted Rock has large pre-Columbian petroglyphs without any archaeological explanation or legend attached to them, so you are welcome to invent your own legend and interpret the drawings and figures using your imagination.
We walk among thick forest in the beginning. By the end only rocky hills covered in thin green grasses enveloped in fog are all around us. Seen from the village below, these desolate naked hills- the rim of a huge inactive volcano crater- look like the contours of the body of a sleeping woman.
Next on the agenda is El Serpentario (the serpent sanctuary). At the end of a narrow muddy path, we find a small building containing a collection of about a dozen local snakes, who are no prisoners in cages, but injured specimens, ex-pets, and temporary visitors, some to be released back in the wild as soon as they are rehabilitated and ready for independent life. The young guy working with the reptiles is a Panamanian who studied biology in United Stated and worked with conservation programs in Florida. He is one of the most important herpetologists and conservationists in Panama with vast knawlage and passion for the reptiles, committed not only to work for the conservation of local snakes, frogs, caimans and others, but also to educate the population about the importance of the reptiles for the ecosystem, as well as to diffuse some Hollywood myths about snakes.
You fear what you don’t know. If you get to know the snakes, if you understand and respect them, their needs and behavior, what to do and not to do in their presence, you will find out that they are not your enemy, and that most of the stuff you know about snakes from films and TV is unrealistic and untrue.
Ivo has been terrified by snakes all his life. Ever since he was a little boy and saw Indiana Johns Raiders of the Lost Ark snakes have been his biggest nightmare. But only after a few minutes in the serpentarium his new best friend is a sleepy very friendly boa. An unwanted pet, she became one of the sanctuary’s permanent residents. She doesn’t mind being held by visitors, and when Ivo places her on his freshly shaved head, she coils around tightly and comfortably, and prepares for an afternoon nap.
A month later, we go back to show El Valle to our Aruban friends who came to visit us in Panama and this time we check out the Thermal Hot Waters and Mud Baths. Set amidst lush tropical vegetation are a few small pools with yellow waters coming from underground volcanic thermal springs.
This could have become the most awesome and fun experience and our very favorite spot in all of El Valle, if it weren’t for e small nervous guy who was constantly monitoring us, telling us what we can do and what we cannot do, like a prison guard. He wouldn’t let Maya, who quickly jumped in the kid’s pool, to come out of the pool and put therapeutic volcanic mud on her face like the rest of us, just because according to the rules, you have to do the mud first, and then, after you wash the mud off your face, you can go to the pools. But once in the pool, you have no right to come out, do the mud, wash it off, and go back in the pool.
– Why? I want to know. What is the logic behind this strange rule? And if Maya made a mistake and went in the pool first, why don’t you let her go out, dry herself with a towel, and put some mud on her face?
– No, no and no! the small guy is raving, ready to arrest us if we break the rule!
– Then, can we go out of the Thermal Baths, and then comeback after ten minutes, pay the entrance fee again ($3), and do the procedure the correct way this time?
– No, no and no! She (Maya) cannot use the mud and that’s that!
I am absolutely frustrated at this point, I start screaming at the guy and the entire experience is ruined…
I generally hate most rules, but rules that don’t make sense and people who are idiots just make me crazy. Unfortunately, the world is populated by idiots who make and follow stupid rules.
There is a lot more to see and do in El Valle de Anton. Besides hiking in the mountains, relaxing in the thermal baths, and meeting the snakes, you can rent a bike or a horse, visit a tropical zoo, do the zipline adventure or simply relax and watch the variety of birds. One day is not enough and once you visit this enchanted place, you will want to return again.
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