Panama City provides an easy day trip to El Valle de Anton. Located in the crater of an extinct volcano, El Valle is about 2 to 2.5 hours away by car. Surrounded by mountains and cloud forest, this area is rich in biodiversity and adventure. In addition, plenty of beaches hug the Pacific coastline between these two places, making this trip even more exciting.
Raphael, our tour guide from R and E Transfer, recommended we do the trip on a weekday, mainly to avoid the heavy local traffic that clogs the roads on the weekends. It was Day 3 of our stay in Panama when Raphael showed up, bright and early at 8 am. Having just finished our breakfast, we were ready for a long day. Our plan was to visit the butterfly garden, reptile garden and Chorro El Macho waterfalls in El Valle and to stop at the beach at Punta Chame on the way back. El Valle de Anton offers a lot more.
This was our first day with Raphael and he did not disappoint. He was well-informed, not just about Panama, but of the world, in general and kept a steady conversation. The drive to El Valle was filled with reminiscences from his childhood, growing up in his grandmother’s home, with his many siblings and cousins. We talked of coffee with cheese and eggs, empanadas and tortillas as a meal. How presidents are elected for a five-year term in Panama and can run for re-election after ten years. About the strict gun control laws which make it nearly impossible for people to own a gun in Panama. About how banking forms the backbone of the Panamanian economy, along with the Colon Free trade zone, the Panama Canal, construction, tourism and aviation.
There are many expat retirement areas on this stretch between Panama City and El Valle, especially from Canada and the US. Raphael told us that many US expats also prefer to live in the cooler Boquete region. We saw several high-rise condos and new developments springing up in the distance as our car raced past.
Once at El Valle, our first stop was at the Butterfly Haven. Full of various species of colorful butterflies, the place was a delight for all ages. We spent just over an hour here, reveling in the butterfly enclosure, reading the display about their life cycle and then watching a quick video.
From here, we made a quick stop at the Aroma coffee shop for a flavorful sip before heading out to the Serpentario Maravillas Tropicales. This is where about 14 local varieties of snakes and reptiles are housed. Our guide in this one-room herpetarium was a young local girl who handled them without fear. Many of the snakes were kept in large glass jars on a display table and some were in small niches set in the wall. When asked, she told our guide that she took up this position as she wished to overcome her fear of snakes. She certainly seems to have done so! We were so taken in by the girl, her fearlessness and the snakes that we forgot to take any photos of the place.
From the herpetarium, we made our way to La Piedra Pintada, the pre-Columbian petroglyphs. Etched on large rocks, many of the carvings are still visible. They were interesting to view especially given their age.
From the petroglyphs, Raphael led us towards a path that sloped upwards with wide steps. With a goal to reach the waterfalls, we climbed steadily. The surrounding vegetation provided us adequate shade but the humidity of the area kept us sweating.
After about 20 mins, Raphael stopped to talk to a local we met. He seemed to give some thought to his conversation and then told us that we would not be able to make it to the falls as it was a long walk (longer than he anticipated, I think). He wanted us to be able to spend enough time at the beach before heading back.
It was disappointing not to be able to see the waterfalls and normally, it would have made me very upset. But having talked to him for many hours that morning, we got the sense that he was making the best decision under the circumstances. Instead, we stopped at the local fruit and vegetable market and picked up vegetables for dinner and some mangoes and other fresh fruits to quench our thirst and hunger.
As we drove to the beach, Raphael convinced me that it was better to visit one of the more established beaches than to drive all the way to Punta Chame. There are no facilities on the beach at Punta Chame and we would have to cross private homes to access the beach proper. He took us, instead, to the Santa Clara beach. It was white sand, with good facilities for changing, showering, a restaurant and palapas with hammocks and tables. The beach was surprisingly clean, attracting a lot of visitors, of the winged variety and less so, of the human kind.
The menu had very little vegetarian options so we chose the ubiquitous pasta. It wasn’t the tastiest one we’ve ever had, but was sufficient to satisfy our hunger. We spent the next couple of hours on the serene beach, enjoying the view, the waves and some quality time together. The hammocks were truly relaxing, if a bit difficult to get used to, at the beginning.
Soon enough, it was time to leave behind the water and drive an hour and a half back to the hotel. It was already dark by the time we got back. We used our rice cooker and the veggies and fruits from the market at El Valle to make a quick meal, enjoying a simple dinner in the comfort of our suite.
In the end, although we didn’t visit the Chorro El Macho waterfalls and the Punta Chame beach, the beauty of the Santa Clara beach and the quality time spent there more than made up for any irritation we may have felt in not following our planned schedules. That’s the beauty of travel, one never quite knows what the day will bring, but keeping an open mind helps.