El Valle de Anton

by Female Abroad

If you're looking for a taste of the rural side of Panama, a drive from Panama City to El Valle de Anton is the perfect way to experience it. As you leave Panama City behind, you'll quickly find yourself surrounded by lush greenery and mountains in the distance.

If you are planning on driving like we did, then you will want to pick up the car when you leave Panama and not before, as it can be difficult not only to drive around Panama City but also to find parking. We picked up our vehicle from Hertz at Albrook Gelabert Airport, which was pretty simple. Truthfully, I had reserved a car at all of the rental locations and then made a last minute decision based on who offered the closest options to what was "reserved" online. Usually, branches of car rentals that are not run by head office will make changes / amendments / run out of/ or never carry things you book online so it is good to have options!

Once on the road, the journey takes about two hours, and the roads can be a bit winding and bumpy, but the scenery is more than worth it. You'll pass through small towns and villages, where you can stop for a quick bite to eat or to stretch your legs and take in the local culture. Or if you are like us, you'll get stuck behind a bus and then construction, which extends the trip to four hours and does not make you want to get out as you do have to make it into the city by nightfall. The reason for this is that there are no street lights, the roads are not well maintained, car jackings do happen, police are known to look for "bribes", and the wildlife is different, so I have no idea what a sloth crossing the road will look like.

A reminder along the way of these unsafe roads are the blue hearts painted along the road. It took us a while before we finally got an answer on these since locals (and the internet) are not very open to explaining them. It turns out that the hearts mark where people have died, with the little hearts being children and the larger ones being adults. Once you realize this meaning, it makes for a somber drive.

As you get closer to El Valle de Anton, the landscape will begin to change, and you'll start to see the towering mountains that surround the valley. After all, this area used to be a volcano and is now the world's second largest extinct volcano but the only one with a town inside it. Once you arrive, you'll find a charming town with plenty of opportunities to explore, whether you're interested in hiking, bird watching, or simply relaxing in one of the many hot springs.

The main drag is covered in family owned and operated shops that sell everything from "high-end" Italian food to empanadas, fish, and more. Our favourite were the empanadas, fresh fruit smoothies, and the cheap beer at the local grocery store (U$ 6 for a 6 pack). During the day there are also souviner shops and stalls that come to life with people trying to force you to buy their varried wares, after all this is a very busy place to visit in the summer. We are here in the off season which is a great time to go as the rain comes and goes, temperature is manageable, and the bugs are not too bad. You also must try a Nispero Fruit, which is native to the area and can be found in right season; it has a unique flavor, somewhere between an apricot and a peach.

Our Air BnB was built by the owner and his father in a forested part of their property. It was muggy and rustic, so at night we slept under a mosquito net with a fan that sparked when it turned a certain way, and we did have the windows open until we learned about the wildlife of the area; jaguars and vipers. Our nights consisted of drinking beer on the patio while playing card games and watching the clouds move along the volcano's rim. It was also here that we learned cockroaches fly, lizards will find a way to get through the roof, and if you decide to use your phone in a pitch black room, something will fly into your head and you won't know what it is!

If you are interested in hiking, there are a ton of gorgeous spots to do it. Other options are hot springs, a butterfly farm, a local American expat that makes his own craft beer (by appointment), and just driving around the area. One thing to note, though, is that once you get out of the volcano on the opposite side, the GPS and internet cuts out, so at a certain point you better hope that you have a map as the locals will give you weird looks if you get lost and some won't even speak with you even if you know Spanish. During your drive, do not be surprised if your vehicle gets snapped at by sunning Vipers, this was what made us google "wildlife in the area" and had us closing our windows at night.

Overall, El Valle de Anton is a perfect way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and experience the natural beauty and charm of rural Panama.