Earth : North America : Central America : Panama : Central Panama : El Valle
El Valle is a charming seven square mile village surrounded by a volcanic caldera that had existed for millennia as a deep lake. Then several thousands years ago the crater sprung a leak and when the lake emptied some of the richest volcanic soil in the world remained on the valley floor. This soil, called tierra negra or black earth, is so esteemed by local horticulturists that it’s sold in bags throughout the republic and you can see its affect on many of the sprouting fence posts lining local roads. El Valle’s cool 2,000 foot elevation has made it a coveted retreat for established Panamanian families since the early 20th century. The locals have been climbing the same hills and swimming the same streams for over 11,000 years which makes El Valle the oldest continually human occupied volcanic site in the world. The first real road, tracing the meanderings of the builder’s horse as it headed up the mountain, was built with donated funds and labor from the community in 1927 and repaved in 1997.
Because of its small size, and relative isolation from Panama City, El Valle is a stunning example of the cultural, environmental and culinary bounty of Old Panama. The flat terrain of the valley’s floor makes the bicycle the favored mode of transportation and during rush hour many, often loaded down with several family members, are seen quietly gliding down the main street. There’s no fast food in the village but a variety of smaller restaurants, four mini supers that stock fresh meat and dry staples, the farmers market for produce, an ice cream parlor, and even a weekend pizza purveyor. A sports bar set up by Canadians has closed recently. This interior village exemplifies pre canal Panama still somewhat insulated from today’s urban cities with their hurried pace, westernized foodways and consumerism.
Both the village environment and the nearby, often cloud shrouded, Cerro Gaital National Monument offer an excellent opportunity to view some of Panama’s 10,000 plant, 1500 tree, 1000 bird, 220 mammal, or 354 amphibian and reptile species. They might not all call El Valle home but a significant number do and the local zoo, although somewhat disheartening in it’s housing practices, also has several of the harder to find species. You can ride a bike, horse or even walk to waterfalls, square trees, mud baths, a zoo, a museum, the forest canopy tour, pre-Columbian petroglyphs, or farmers market. Tours of the local organic farm, guided birding and fauna surveys are also available. A orchid conservatory and the amphibian rescue station are also two world class eco sites in town.
There are frequent buses from Albrook, the Panama City transport hub. A long line of ticket counters offer numerous destinations, one of which is El Valle. A ticket goes for $4.75 (mar 2017). The ride takes around three hours, give or take; the bus stops frequently to pick up or drop off passengers. The first bus is around six in the morning, the last seems to be around 10 am. Note that you'll need to pay a platform fee om Albrook, to be paid with an electronic card. If you look sufficiently confused, someone will gladly lend you a card; otherwise you will need to buy one.
Several local taxi's are available as well the ubiquitous, van and coaster buses. Rarely will you see a red devil in the village and in most cases attractions are easily accessible by foot. You can also rent bicycles or a horse from a number of local purveyors. A few English speaking expat guides are available inquire at the Anton Valley Hotel. El Valle, or just "Anton" as it is frequently called, a weekend haven for wealthy residents of Panama City, has also become a retirement aerie for North Americans, and they are happy to give directions and assistance  when trying to spot the mythical rufous-vented ground-cuckoo and other such concerns and curiosities of life in the caldera.
Some of the local attractions are El Nispero, a local private zoo, a large waterfall called "El Macho" (admission $3.75, part of the local ziplining outfit, super easy walk), and a grove of square trees, a museum, mud baths, a etched hieroglyphic rock, lots of birds, bugs, butterflies, animals and attractive locals. On the weekends the local markets offers lots of unrecognizable fruits and produce along with the usual tchotchkes for the folks back home. Don't miss the little indigenous Kuna ladies in rear and to the right of the market during the weekends she's got lots of nice molas and crafts.
El Valle is a great jumping off point for exploring the wild interior of Panama. Tour companies offer rides into the mountains to see some really stunning waterfalls.
El Valle is a very quiet village with few of the venues available in a more urbane locale. A few neighborhood bars, with 50 cent beers, are located along the downtown main and they can become very noisy during the weekends especially around the many holidays. Not a place for those of you who would party. A lot of new age types have settled in the area for its reputed spiritual aura and you can get massaged, pulsed, yogaed or spa treated. Bring a thick book. Most activities are diurnal so when the sun goes down the town goes to sleep but you should include the orchid conservatory, the amphibian rescue center, the hot springs and the local cooking school in your itinerary. They're all stellar especially in an Eco context.
EL VALLE AMPHIBIAN CONSERVATION CENTER, EVACC
Many environmental biologist contend that the current wide spread species demise is the sixth mass extinction of the planets life forms. Global amphibians have been especially hard hit by an unstoppable fungus called Chyrtid or Bd. Survey samples have yielded only 40 or so of the 68 known frog species that used to inhabit the El Valle micro climate an area known world wide for its amphibian diversity. In an attempt to stave off this impended demise of local and other world wide species the EVACC was devised and spearhead by the Houston Zoo. This global heralded triage model takes infected species from the wild and washes them in a simple anti fugal solution that kills the fungus. It would be impossible to inoculate the infected amphibians in situ, even if a serum was available, to prevent the fungus. Instead over 200 collected varieties of frogs, salamanders, and toads are detoxed by being immersed in a solution of intraconazole once a day for 10 days and then and kept in clean room environment to wait out the plague or until a method of environmentally sound eradication is found.
Half of the new facility, located on the grounds of the local Nispero Zoo, is a clean room habitat and the other devoted to education and exhibits. When the “ark” was first launched volunteers would make nightly forays into the forest to obtain bugs for food. but recently an in house insect breeding program was developed that makes the supplying the nutritional demands of the residents much easier. Special exhibits relate to the local golden frog, a cultural icon and the republic’s emblematic conservation symbol, are interlaced with some extraordinary examples of Central American amphibians that are sure to astound. The center is a world wide model for cooperation between American universities, zoos and grass roots volunteers. On the grounds of El Nispero Zoo-Nursery that has many examples of the local fauna, flora and wildlife up close.
EL VALLEY ORCHID NURSERY
No trip to El Valle can be complete without a visit to this world-class eco-site.
A place where the orchidophile can experience orchidelirium since 6% of the world orchids are grown in Panama. Over 1300 varieties are thought to grow in the Cocle Province and of those 200 endangered samples that have been gathered from the local area by harvesters for preservation and propagation. Before the village was accessible by road oral history states that there were over 1000 varieties in the six square mile area of El Valle and of course there are examples that have yet to be catalogued in the more remote areas of the Republic.
The JICA, COSPA, APROVACA center is one of just a few in the world and is sponsored by a consortium of Japanese and Panamanian orchid growers. The center offers technical advice and in situ conservation and propagation expertise to village inhabitants who then assist in gathering field samples of endangered endemic species. Not the most thrilling of tours but certainly breath taking especially if you’re a flower lover and remember all orchids are edible. There are LOTS of orchids Amazing!!
Most other restaurants are local Panamanian. Edible pizza and one or two other choices offering local cuisine is cooked and served by untrained locals so be prepared for long waits. Best bet is to stay with braised items or be sure to ask if the beef's imported since that raised here in Panama is of an entirely different breed yielding very healthy but tough meat. The local places are cheap but you might find one that's acceptable and stick with it during you stay. Once or twice a month one of the local artist co-op has a vegetarian offering which for that date is the best food in town. Search the on-line sites for vacation rentals and house swaps and you can find lodgings with a kitchen if you'd like. Otherwise stick with the chicken and fish broiled or fried.
In general accommodation run the gamut in El Valle. The cheapest options start around 15$ available at Swami's Camping to 170$ at Los Madarinos. Ask for directions to the hotels or attractions at the tourist info center at the open aire market in town. But no matter what the price accommodations are all pretty spartan. Rooms are certainly comfortable at all but the most inexpensive hoteliers so consult the travel sites for credible inputs or explore some of the vacation rental/home exchange sites on the web.
THE ANTON VALLEY HOTEL A charming boutique hotel located on the main street of El Valle. Meticulous attention to detail, contemporary styled rooms in decorator hues, and top notch guest service are the benchmark for this number one rated, nine room, El Valle hotel. In room lagniappes include the usual shampoo, lotions and scented soaps and each room has up scale linens beddings and furnishings. Guest amenities included a cozy interior courtyard, hospitable patio overlooking the main street and church, satellite TV and room service from the villages best restaurant. In addition the Anton Valley Hotel has the best breakfast in town!
THE GOLDEN FROG INN The residence of a former Panamian President exemplary of the life style of the Republics old elite now reincarnated into a charming hotel with incredible view. 6 well appointed North American styled rooms including two suites. Guests enjoy morning coffee and fruit, a complementary evening mixer, and a fully equipped pool side kitchen. Internet access, a well volumed library and comprehensive concierge guest services are standard. Located a distance from the village and cradled by the lushness of the rainforest with its amazing plant and animal diversity.