El Valle

Golden frogs, mariposas, viento

A new day, a new adventure. We leave Santa Fe a day early and have booked Cabanas Merys on-line for the extra night in El Valle. We arrive at noon after an uneventful 4 hr drive east on the Pan-American carretera. We assume, partly because of the price, that the hotel will be well-signed and easy to find, but it’s not. We get out our map app but it locates the property in an illogical spot. We drive around the same block several times, but cannot find it.

Starving, we find a lunch spot with internet and on the hotel booking website  we find not an address but a description of the location, across from a bar. We find the bar, and there is Cabanas Merys, a run down duplex with bars on the windows, a weedy front yard and broken plastic chairs on the verandah. A toothless crone comes around the corner and introduces herself as the manager. Already I want to leave. Craig, of course, wants to check out the inside. We argue back and forth while the manager looks on.

When she opens the front door and we get a look at the room he gasps and I try to hold back the “I told you so”. Mindless of insulting the vieja, Craig says something to the effect of “we are so out of here” and bolts for the car, leaving me to explain that we don’t want the room.

The thing is it is still Carnevale, the town is booked and we have no where to stay. Optimistically we head to the Golden Frog Inn, where we have a reservation for the next night. Maybe they have had a cancellation or someone left early. No such luck. The manager there makes a few calls but finds no room anywhere, including a few friends who have casitas in their back yards.

The last resort is Los Mandarinos, the 5 star jewel in the crown of accommodations in El Valle. They have one room left. One very expensive room. We discuss our options: 1) Cabanas Merys, where we will likely be robbed or contract some nasty disease, 2) sleep in the car, as we know at least the passenger seat reclines, or 3) take the pricey room.

Less than 10 minutes later we are in, ironically, the honeymoon suite at Los Mandarinos https://www.losmandarinos.com. The last available room, it’s a costly fix to our lodging problem. But, way more comfortable than Merys or the Kia Sportage.

Much relieved, we stash our bags in the room and head to the Sunday market. The fruit and veg are impressive, but the art and crafts are not. Most look like they were made in China. After 15 minutes of desultory browsing we decide, having forked out a small fortune on it, to spend as much time as we can at Los Mandarinos.  In the pool, on our deck, in the restaurant. We do our best to get our money’s worth.

The next day we check in to the Golden Frog Inn http://goldenfroginn.com. Moderate in price but high in amenities. Pool, garden, friendly staff, happy hour with a free drink and snacks every evening, great restaurant. So great that we don’t bother going anywhere else for dinner each evening. It is too easy to go down the stairs, often shoeless, and enjoy a delicious meal in a gorgeous setting.

Population 7,000, the town is located in the flat wide caldera of the 6 km wide El Valle volcano. It’s inactive and the last eruption was several thousand years ago. Close to Panama City, it is a popular weekend and vacation destination for those wanting to escape the city’s heat and chaos. Many wealthy Panamanians own second homes here.

The tourist attractions follow suit. Lots of good restaurants. A mariposaria, a butterfly house. An orchidaria, an orchid house. A zoo claiming to be stocked with rescued animals, although the two coyotes seem very healthy and out of place.

One of the zoo inhabitants is a Panamanian Golden Frog, which is actually not a frog at all, but rather a toad. Found only in central Panama, they are endangered and protected. They’re also poisonous, emitting a neurotoxin that protects them from predators, and is lethal to those who come in contact with it. Hoping to not run into any on the hikes we plan!

There are several hikes up the steep, verdant slopes of the caldera. We choose two. The first is to the top of a portion of the caldera that looks like a reclining woman. Called La India Dormida, the sleeping Indian girl. It’s steep and rocky, through the forest/jungle, along a river, past several waterfalls and swimming holes, full of local boys jumping off the rocks, past a sloth sleeping in a tree. We crest the final hill at the neck of La Dormida and are rewarded with 360 degree views of the town and the caldera. Wow!!

It’s breezy at the top and has been windy in town since we arrived. As in huge gusts that bend the trees and awaken us in the night. I already knew the Spanish word for wind, viento, but had had little occasion to use it, until this trip to Panama. Perhaps it is because of the geography: the narrow isthmus of land between two oceans.

Here in El Valle we learn the expression “hace mucho viento”, it’s very windy. For a few days we get gale-force viento. So strong that I worry one of the corrugated metal roofs topping so many of the houses will blow off, fly through the air, and decapitate someone. Possibly me. Given the spots of mala suerte, bad luck, we’ve had, this feels like a real concern.

The second hike takes us up the other side of the caldera where, once again, we are promised views of not only both oceans but also the canal. As this is the cloud forest and the peaks generally have their heads in the clouds, we are not overly hopeful.

Called Cerro Gaital, the hike is through lush greenery… what else is new? Plant leaves the size of a small car. One fern leaf belongs in the Guiness Book of World records. It is taller than me and about 4 times as wide. One leaf!!

It’s clear at the top and we can sort of make out the blue of the Pacific Ocean to the south, but there is too much haze to the north to see the Caribbean. As for the canal, I don’t think so! That’s some kind of urban myth.

We stop for lunch at the little Spanish fonda called Don Quixote for some home cooking. A garbanzo bean chorizo soup for Craig and a Russian salad for me. The cook reminds me of my Aunt Katy and is pleased to be photographed in her kitchen.

Our last night here, over glasses of wine, sitting on our balcony, with its 180 degree view of the caldera, we watch the sunset. Every night is a different show of clouds and colour. Against this backdrop we talk about everything from the mundane to the philosophical.

We are getting all kinds of SNC Lavalin news clippings, jokes, u-tube videos and the like from family & friends. We’ve not had TV but Craig is getting the Globe & Mail on-line and fills me in on the shenanigans. Contrasted with politics and what passes for democracy in this banana republic, the liberals’ alleged behaviour pales in comparison. The past president of Panama is currently in jail for corruption and, at the same time, is campaigning for mayor of Panama City. The current president has just fired a bunch of top government officials for fraud. Anyone remember Manuel Noriega? And how about our neighbour to the south?

Not that Panama or the U.S. should set any kind of standard for ethical behaviour in government. But, as always when we travel, we are grateful to live in Canada and not in most of the places we visit. Great for a holiday, but wouldn’t want to be a local.

We joke that owning property here in Panama would mean spending a lot of time in the garden with a machete. Go away for a few weeks and the jungle would engulf your house.

But the weather is fine, the economy stable (mostly thanks to the canal), the currency stable (thanks to the US$), the produce fresh, the water potable, the people friendly. That’s ticking a lot of boxes for those who want to retire somewhere without a snow shovel. That’s not us though. We grew up in Saskatchewan; a little snow doesn’t bother us. So we’ll head home, now that the snow is gone, and get on with our Vernon plans.

Just one more stop: Playa del Carmen, Mexico. A week at the beach to rest up for reentry to normal life.






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