Atrractions in El Valle de Anton, Panama
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The Village of El Valle de Anton
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, a sports bar, two ATM’s and even a weekend pizza purveyor. 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, farmers market, or cooking school. Cooking classes, tours of the local organic farm, coffee roaster, artesian bakery, and guided birding and fauna surveys are also available. Any tour of El Valle would be incomplete with out a visit to the amphibian ark and the orchid conservatory; two world class examples of international/grass roots cooperating in addressing some of the ecological problems faced by us all.
THE SQUARE TREES OR ARBOLES QUARDRADOS OF EL VALLE
Definitely a misnomer… The trees might appear square from a convoluted angle after a few glasses of the local vodka-grappa called Seco but they’re hardly worth the hike unless your really, really bored. Not too many El Valle locals take in this site but maybe you want to so you can “been there ��" done that” and it’s free.
THE MUSEUM OF EL VALLE DE ANTON
Another highly overrated attraction that’s only open occasionally and has very little to offer even when it is. Just forget this one unless you’re stuck in the village with nothing else to do and even then you’ll still have to find the docent to open the doors who will charge you under a dollar to enter.
LA INDIA DORMIDA, THE SLEEPING MAIDEN OF EL VALLE
Eventhough a little Seco and milk might improve either your vision or perception you’ll still probably need a local to point out the outline of the reclining maiden. Just consider it part of the local ambiance and if you just can’t see it don’t worry have another Seco and milk …
THE CHURCH OF SAN JOSE
Open to the public and evident of the church’s architecture you’ll find throughout the republic with some nice statues inside. It is also a good point of reference since it’s across the street from El Valle’s “big” bakery and next to the library that has a bank of computers available for a nominal charge.
CERRO GAITAL TO THE CALDERA VIEW
Couple of approaches proficient hikers can take in this moderately difficult mountain ascent. This National park or reserve is often called a cloud forest but when you’ve reached the 3500 foot summit on a clear day you’ll get a vista that provides views of the El Valle caldera, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and sometimes even the canal. It is advisable to hire one of the local guides, who we can provide, for this three hour hike to point out many of the 300 bird species, mammals, and amphibians. Cost about four bucks unguided and can get pricy with a guide but it worth it if you’re into flora and fauna of El Valle.
LA PIEDRA PINTADA, THE PAINTED STONE PETROGLYPHS
El Valle has been populated for around 11,000 years making it the oldest continuously inhabited human volcanic site in the world. Perhaps, although I know of no empirical research to confirm it, these runes or glyphs might also be this old. But anyway one local expat told me that the larger was a star map for off world visitors while the smaller “toad” rock was a much later attempt at attaching visitors since it’s clearly anthropomorphic while the other larger representation clearly is not. You can find the rocks on your own but there will be a slew of local youths offering to guide you and you can pay them 50 cents for their time and humor if you like.
POZOS TERMALES, EL VALLES THERMAL-HOT SPRINGS AND MUD BATHS
A unpretentious down and dirty mud and hot mineral water spa favored by Panamanians for the healing powers of the thermal wells and the skin improving qualities of the mud. Back in the day the different minerals content of the various wells was said to make these El Valle waters colored but it may be another village myth. There’s also a bog area that will undulate under your weight as you jump up and down and when visit just remember to use the white mud for your face and the mud colored coating for spot application on the rest of your body. In addition to the waters that range from 93 to 100 degrees there’s a swimming pool that is often a bit muddled from the mud left behind by the bathers, a dollar or two gets you in.
CHORRO EL MACHO WATERFALL IN EL VALLE
Nice water feature and there is a small pool where you can take a dip. You reach the falls and the pool by taking one of two trails that each costs a dollar or two and it can be a good hike to take some photos of the El Valle flora and fauna. The entrance to the canopy zip line tour is also located here (see further description). Guided tours of the attached preserve are available for $25 or you can just wander around unguided for a couple of bucks.
CANOPY ZIP LINE TOUR
This is El Valle E ticket ride and it consists of gliding over the top of the rainforest tree canopy on cables strung between 100+ foot tall platforms. You’re required to hike to the first level platform, about a half hour into the rainforest, and then you don a harness and helmet and then be clipped onto the zip line. You’ll skirt above the Chorro Macho falls twice and you can stop midway through your zip if you’re brave enough for a birds eye view of the rain forest canopy below. This El Valle de Anton tour is rather pricy at $50 bucks but it does offer a prospective unknown to most tourists.
THE COFFEE ROASTERS OF EL VALLE
El Valle Coffee Roasters has been owned by Jose Zarate and Francoise Pilon since 2005. This very small boutique roaster purchases their organic coffee cherries from Chiriquí province growers who must prove 7 years of chemically free production for certification. If the timing is right you may be able to pick both a Robusta and a Arabica cherry off one of the coffee bushes’ in the yard, examine the structure and taste it raw. And hopefully Jose will be roasting a batch of beans in his Turkish roaster and even if he’s not you’ll still be able to purchase some of his coffee as a souvenir.
SERPENTARIO MARAVILLAS TROPICALES OF EL VALLE de ANTON
This small privately owned display, operated by argumentably the best nature guide in El Valle, has a number of snakes, spiders and frogs on display. The real catch is a guided tour with Mario Urriola the English speaking curator-owner who will make any foray into the rainforest a memorable and educational one no matter what your age. Unfortunately he’s hard to pin down .
EL NISPERO PRESERVE, ZOO AND NURSERY
More of a preserve than a zoo and you’ll be able to view much of the resident fauna that you might not otherwise see and or meet in most of the zoos back home. There’s also a huge nursery with more plants than you’re likely to observe on your El Valle tour unless you spend days and miles in exploration of the resident flora. The El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center is also located here and it’s well worth the visit (see the description). The El Valle preserve often recues exotic species from private owners such as ocelots, tapirs, monkeys and wild pigs that you’re unlikely to encounter in the wild. You’re might also meet a few golden pheasants and a couple of peacocks strutting around the property and it’s said that the resident tapirs belonged to former president Manuel Noriega … lucky birds. A couple of bucks and your in and we highly recommend this visit…..
EL VALLES ORGANIC FARM
Next up is the organic finca of Tomás García who is a government educator and certifier of organic farms. He grows a variety of crops on his 2 acre farm and also has a tilapia pond illustrative of the methods widely used here in the Republic on the subsistence-sustainable level. He’ll provide a brief synopsis of his farming methods and will even roast up a few coffee cherries and brew a cup of coffee for us much as your great grandmother may have. Imagine using the rain forest’s own natural pesticides to protect and nourish crops; a return to the past or portent of the future? You decide! Upon arrival we’ll check the daily harvest board listing organic medicinals, herbs, vegetables and ornamentals all fed by the natural artesian spring with many grown using the century old technology of conuco plant beds. You can visit the “laboratory” where Thomas compounds natural-organic insecticides, rooting solutions and soil amendments using components like molasses, citrus juice, vinegar, fruits, ash, rice hulls and wood shop shaving. A great example of sustainable agriculture and we label it a must do Panama ecotour….
THE THREE SISTERS COOKING SCHOOL
The program at The Three Sisters cooking school is the only eco/culinary/historical tour of it type in the lower Americas. If you’re looking for true cultural immersion in a short time frame within a small, easily traveled, ecologically rich geographic location then this tour has been designed for you! This eco tour is unlike any other in Panama and if you want to do more then just look you’ll remember this Panama ecotour for the rest of your life and is all easily accomplished right here in El Valle de Anton in less then a few days. The dietary transition from homemade/unrefined to convenience/refined foods is just beginning to evolve in Panama. Starch like tubers, vegetables and fruits are still culinary benchmarks yet to be supplanted by the darlings of global agribusiness, GM corn and soy, and their minions of feedlot dependant livestock. This may be one of the few opportunities you’ll ever have to experience a culture’s diet before its iconic dishes become ossified vestigial tokens only served at holiday rituals and celebrations. Our class will discuss the major and minor starches used to make the fritter-turnover matrix for many enduring Panamanian constructs like Carimanolas, Alcapurrias, Tamals, Tamales, Empanadas and Aranitas. We also offer classes French, Italian, Chinese, Thai cuisine .
THE VILLAGE BAKER OF EL VALLE
We’ll visit a panadero who bakes his hand kneaded bread in a wood fired clay horno as it’s been done for millennia and we’ll sample some of these hot micha rolls fresh from the oven. Perhaps you’ll purchase a dozen for sixty cents and have them for lunch experiencing their wonderful smoky nuance. This is a really small two man operation that only produces one bread but it’s a sought after product in the village and it actually grows mold after two or three days. He begins at 11:00PM and the last batch of micha rolls has usually been pulled by 9:00AM so this is usually a first stop.
THE FISHERMEN OF GORGONA
About an hours drive from El Valle we’ll visit the small fishing village of Gorgona where the community sets out to sea daily in open boats hand casting nets to take advantage of the Humboldt Current’s rich fishing stocks. The Humboldt is a cold water current that runs towards the equator upwelling over 3000 foot sea mountains to 124 feet bringing with it huge quantities of phyto and zoo plankton for larger filter and predatory fish to feed on. The current itself is home to schools of sardines, anchovies and mackerel and they in turn entice some 1000 species of fish, 1400 species of mollusks, 600 species of crustaceans and 30 species of whale and dolphins to the area in an ecosystem that includes birds and turtles. This current also prevents the air off the coast from cooling helping to stifle hurricanes and often making the coast of Chile, Peru and Ecuador quite arid. About 20% of the world’s fish tonnage is harvested from the current and this percentage doesn’t include the non marketed catch used for regional consumption. Although not directly in the Humboldt’s path the current pushes an astounding number of species towards Panama when they migrate to feed and some of the worlds largest examples have been caught in the waters around the republic. When you consider the added 205 varieties of fresh water fish in the streams, rivers and lakes it’s easy to understand why Panama means place of many fishes in a native dialect.
RENTING A PASO FINO HORSE IN EL VALLE
On your way to El Valle you may have noticed a rather smallish horse that had an rather unusual gait and it seemed to dance under its rider. These “fine walking” Paso Finos arrived with Columbus and their ride is one of the smoothest among all equines. Back in the day they were considered a ladies mount because of their cushioned easy ride. A few hours on the back of one of these graceful ponies and you’ll have experienced the Columbian exchange first hand since the breed has remained genetically pure since it arrival. About $8 an hour with a bit more for a guide or wrangler.
BICYCLE RENTALS THE CHOSEN MEANS OF TRANSPORTATION IN EL VALLE
The flat floor of the valley makes it the perfect place for bicycles and you can see whole families, often on one bike, gliding down the streets of El Valle. Many of the hoteliers in the village have bikes and if not you can easily rent them from several locations in town just ask at the tourist kiosk next to the open air market. You can hire them by the hour or in half and full day increments with prices ranging from $2 per hour to $12 per day,
THE EL VALLE de ANTON ARTISAN AND FARMERS MARKET
This village market has increased substantially since the last first lady had it remodeled and refurbished. It bustles on the weekends but still has a large number of produce purveys, a meat market, a café and a great many artisan outlets open during the week. On the weekend about half of the market is devoted to plant sales but my favorite stall in located in the rear- far left in a separate structure where a Kuna women has a pleasing selection of molas, clothing and crafts. Be sure to eat at the café and order some steak picado, hojaldres and a cup of coffee for about $4.50 great! You’ll find jewelry, carved stone and wood, painted feathers and other attractive collectables as well as the expected tchotchkes and kitsch for the folks back home. The El Valle tourist kiosk is also located here, for information and guidance, as are the regional governmental outposts and the post office. You’ll be able to gawk at a lot of vegetables and fruits you’ve never seen before.
EL VALLEY ORCHID CONSERVATORY
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. Cooperation between Panama and Taiwan has saved the national orchid, known as “The Espiritu Santo” , by devising a way to propagate the species in Taiwanese green houses and 3000 of the cultivars where reintroduced into panama in 2009. We rate this attraction a must do……
EL VALLE AMPHIBIAN CONSERVATION CENTER, EVACC
Many environmental biologist contend that the current widespread species demise is the sixth mass global extinction. Amphibians have been especially hard hit by an unstoppable fungus called Chyrtid or Bd. In an attempt to stave off this impended demise of the 68 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 solution of intraconazole once a day for 10 days. The 200 different resident species are then kept in clean room environment to wait out the plague or until a method of environmentally sound eradication is found. Special exhibits related 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. A world class example of man trying to preserve endangered species and featured on ALL the nature channels what an experience for the kids a real must do ….