Discovering El Valle de Anton, Panama in 2 Days
We learned of El Valle de Anton from a Panamanian. “El Valle,” as it’s known in country, is an idyllic weekend destination for frazzled Panama City urbanites. Located a two hours drive north on the Pan-American Highway is the valley, which is the crater of an extinct volcano. Intrigued by the description of this paradise for Panama’s affluent, we researched the area. The description grabbed us; lush mountainous terrain and perfect weather. We decided it would be a great location for some hiking, exploration, and bird watching.
The area was the balance we were looking for in Panama. A combination of beach and mountains for our vacation. We had just discovered our perfect, almost private island getaway in the Pearl Islands, now it was time to do some hiking in the woods of Panama.
The area became a weekend retreat due to its close location, cooler climate, and quieter town. In recent years, many have built rather large second homes in the area, known to the locals as millionaires row. Fortunately, as of now, El Valle, Panama has maintained its quiet, quaint town appeal. Its main town, Anton, has a few shops, a central artisanal and produce market, and few restaurants lining the main street.
Prior to leaving we had rented a car with Hertz at a price of $10 per day. Initially I had thought the website was glitching with the prices they had posted, but shortly realized, this was the cost of renting a car in Panama. We upgraded to an SUV with these prices.
The drive out of Panama City was relatively easy. In the City, not all local roads are marked with street names which made it a bit of a challenge, but once on the Pan-American highway it was more or less a direct 90 minute drive to the turn off to El Valle de Anton.
Along the way, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch, called El Rancho Interiorano for comida tipica, or authentic Panamanian food. The restaurant was an open-air structure with large, nicely crafted, wooden tables. Typical for Panama, it was a counter-service restaurant. We grabbed our trays, and made our way down the line.
At each point, we pointed out our choices, starting with rice and beans as the first options, followed by different types of protein. There was Panamanian Ropa Vieja (shredded beef stew), tamales, and chicken. We also tried Sancocho, which is a light chicken soup made with corn, potatoes, yucca, some herbs and a variety of chicken options. They offered the local dish of patacones–smashed, thin plantains that are then deep-fried resulting in a crispy outer area and softer center. Also offered are platanos or sweet fried plantains. All the proteins had a wonderful Caribbean spice which made the food much tastier. We watched as our kids devoured about four helpings of proteins along with rice and beans, then went on our way.
As we turned off the Pan American highway towards El Valle, the landscape became dense with trees, a lush green in color, and mountainous. The road was no longer straight and flat, but twisty and hilly. We felt an immediate shift in altitude and a slight change in temperature, as we drove on towards El Valle.
Day One: Half Day in El Valle de Anton
We arrived to El Valle, Panama about 2 ½ hours after we left the city, with a short stop for lunch. Immediately, it is clear why this area is not only a destination for tourists, but for wealthy city dwellers to have a second home alike. El Valle is stunning. Surrounded by dense, wooded mountains, an intense green valley, a small and quaint main street, and sounds of wildlife filling the air.
Where to Stay
We checked into our hotel, Los Mandarinos, a beautiful hotel with views of the surrounding mountains. It’s located about a mile off the main street on a small road. The hotel is complete with a restaurant and heated pool, manicured lawns and full assistance for any help with the area. The staff was very helpful, giving us a map of the area and assisting with places to eat, explore, and do. Breakfast is also included in the stay. It was also nice to have a heated pool in area as it was green season and although warm, there tended to be a cool breeze through the later part of the day. We mostly had the pool to ourselves late afternoon for a nice rest and dip.
El Serpentaria- Snakes!
It was later in the afternoon and most of the hiking trails and some other attractions close around 4:30, so our options were limited. After dropping our stuff at the hotel we headed out to the town and drove over to El Serpentario. This small but well-run snake, turtle and caiman rescue center was a great way to introduce our kids to some of the species living in and around the area.
We paid a small fee to enter and were guided throughout the exhibits. Our guide spoke in Spanish and we translated best we could for our kids. They did get to touch a small caiman, learn about the poisonous snakes–that we hoped not to encounter in the area–see some of the turtles that were once pets but grew too big for their owners, and in the end all got to hold a non-venomous boa-constrictor snake. The snake curled and wriggled and their hands, but they loved the experience. My husband and I, however, passed on the chance to hold the snake (shades of Indiana Jones). After the tour, we were given the chance to walk around a bit, but quickly realized snakes are very sedentary creatures and therefore not very entertaining, although interesting to learn about.
As the day was late, we headed back to the hotel for a rest and swim. We had wanted to have dinner at an authentic restaurant, but our hotel highly recommended Bruschetta Restaurant on the main road as a great alternative. They specialized in both authentic Panamanian cuisine as well as some pastas and of course per their namesake, bruschetta. What made the meal most pleasing was that we ate outside listening to frogs and lizards chirp as the night passed by.
Day Two: Full Day, El Valle de Anton
Slot Canyon Waterfall Adventure, Las Lailas Waterfall
Prior to arriving to Panama, I had reached out to our hotel asking what companies they recommended for adventure tours. They gave us the name of one right in El Valle, El Valle Mountain Tours.The company is owned by an expat Canadian couple, offering a couple of different tours of the area. They were easy to work with and prompt in answering our questions.
Immediately, the tour that stood out for our family was the half-day slot canyon waterfall tour. An opportunity to hike to a slot canyon, with swimming and leaps from high cliffs into the pools of water below, completely fits our needs in adventure.
The tour started at the tour company, located off the main road of El Valle. We were told to meet there at 8:45, and would need to pay for the tour in cash. If you don’t feel comfortable carrying cash throughout your trip, there are plenty of bank machines in El Valle.
Upon arrival we were also given the opportunity to purchase a bag of supplies, clothes and food, for some of the villagers living in the mountains. We did for $15 and were able to donate to a family in the mountains along the way. It was nice to see a tour company who regularly travels through the small villages support the locals in the area.
We climbed into a 4×4 Polaris (no doors, no roof) jeep and began our 45-minute drive to the canyon. Our guide Ali, pointed out many interesting facts about the town. The 4×4 turned off the road into the mountains and onto gravel and dirt roads with massive divets and rocks, as well as steep hills up and down. We crossed through streams and slowly maneuvered through roads typically washed out during green season (when we were there). Fortunately, it was the start of green season and there hadn’t been much rain.
Ali pointed out some of the plants, birds, as well as telling us about the community that lived in the area. Most kids walked an hour to school each way and most of their families received their water through thin pipes running up to the mountaintops. We did see some growing coffee and fruit to sell and watched as some waited for small vans to pick them up for the long journey into town to work.
What stood out for us was that no matter where the schools were throughout the area, they were all in fantastic shape. Manicured lawns, freshly painted, clean. Most of our schools aren’t this well maintained. The value on education is high and seen with the upkeep in the schools.
We arrived to the waterfall area and had a short 15-minute hike to get to the waterfall. The area was dense with jungles and the water was warm. Our guide showed us from where to jump into the first pool of water. It was high, but immediately the kids were up and jumping in. After some jumps and swimming we continued on towards the waterfall.
There was a small amount of swimming and climbing to get to the a second pool where the main waterfall spills into. This pool was a bit harder to swim in due to the currents created by the pressure of the water spilling in from the waterfall. However, the kids pushed on once they learned there was another rock area they could jump off of into the water. Our youngest even took it to the highest rock, a good 20ft up a cliff, and jumped in without a second thought.
We spent a good 2 ½ hours there, soaking in the beauty of the area and relaxing in the waters. It is an easy hike and a nice swim, perfect place for kids to have an adventure and overcome any fear of rock jumping. Not at all crowded, as we were the only family along with a couple of other visitors from Belgium.
Market and Butterflies
Our adventure left us hungry and ready for lunch. We stopped by a local, authentic restaurant, Doña Nellain El Valle that provided counter service, a favorite with the kids. Classic Panamanian format: we grabbed our trays and made our selection among the starches, meats, and vegetables. The Ropa Vieja was again a favorite and, after lunch, we walked across the street to the local market.
The market is busy on Sundays with locals selling artisanal goods, but was quiet on a Wednesday. It still had plenty of active stalls, selling artistic goods and the traditional molas, cloths individually crafted by the Kuna people of Panama depicting wildlife or indigenous scenes of Panama. We bargained, but not heavily, for some wonderful molas, shopped a bit more, explored the produce before heading out.
A short 2 -minute drive away from the market is the small Butterly Haven. The entrance fee was minimal and our tour started out in English with a brief description of butterflies, supplemented by some videos. After the introduction we were taken to an enclosed area where hundreds of butterflies were flying around. Given strict instructions not to touch the creatures, we were allowed to go and observe all of the butterflies in the enclosed structure.
After many butterfly encounters, we headed back to the hotel for a swim rest and to figure out dinner. Although we were leaving in the morning, I decided to have the hotel arrange for a bird watching hike in the early morning. The birds in the area are so abundant and beautiful, I couldn’t leave without learning about some of them.
We arranged for dinner at a lovely, nicer restaurant next to the hotel. We dined at Casa de Lourdes, located in a villa on a lake. Our meal was pleasant but, according to our kids, too fancy. The restaurant is in a beautiful courtyard, serving refined interpretations of Panamanian and global cuisine. The owner and chef is one of Panama’s most famous chefs, who left the City for the peace of El Valle. We enjoyed a three course meal in the tranquil setting, including some superb Pisco sours. Once their famous “heart attack” sundae came to the table, the kids suddenly became pleased with our dinner choice. The Casa De Lourdes also has guest rooms and should be considered for a stay El Valle.
Day Three: Half Day, Morning Bird Watching
We woke up early to meet our guide, Carlos Cellys,who picked us up at the hotel and took us for an early morning hike to spot birds. We were fortunate to see toucans flying above, some hawks, hummingbirds, many tangers, parrots, mot mots, and some woodpeckers. Moreover, it was nice to hike early in the morning before getting in the car for our trek back to Panama City. Our guide was knowledgeable, knew the area well, and knew where to take us.
Among the many areas he took us, he also took us to Chorro Las Mozas, one of the more well-visited waterfalls in the area. We were there before it officially opened and were able to do a hike without any other visitors while watching for birds. My understanding is the area can get a bit busy especially during the weekends.
El Valle is a great alternative to the more northern areas of Panama if your stay in Panama is short. There is plenty to do for 2 to 3 days, including what’s listed above as well as many hikes, a zip-line, and setting up some night tours. If you do not have a car, you can grab a bus from Allbrook domestic airport.
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