While on a road trip from my home near Dolega to Volcán, nestled in the mountains of the Chiriquí highlands, I discovered a relatively new restaurant that’s already popular… a hopping scene, in fact.
You’ll find this eatery just past Volcán, on the road to Cerro Punta and in a tiny area called Paso Ancho, the breadbasket of Panama. The Wandering Sloth, as it’s called, is owned by an expat couple from the United States, Eric and Nancy Stevenson. Quintessential restaurateurs, this couple is outgoing and upbeat, and it’s immediately apparent that they love what they do.
“Both of us have been in the food industry our entire lives,” explains Eric. “We both enjoyed corporate careers with national restaurant chains and spent the past 16 years as owner/operators of two 24/7 Waffle Houses in Pennsylvania.”
They became disillusioned when, in Eric’s words, “It became way too corporate for us.” So the search began further afield for their next project. After hearing and reading about Panama, they decided to check it out.
“We found Volcán on our second visit to Panama and fell in love with it—the lifestyle, the geography, and the business potential,” says Eric.
Selling virtually everything they owned in the States, they loaded what they felt particularly attached to into a shipping container, packed their suitcases, did the paperwork for their four dogs, and set out eagerly for their new adventure.
“The experience made us realize what was really important and indispensable to us,” he explained. “It’s not the expensive things you decide to keep but the precious keepsakes that are irreplaceable, like family pictures and things close to your heart.”
Nancy and Eric sought a welcoming establishment to set up shop in when they arrived in Volcán and found it almost immediately. With quite a history—having been a bar, a disco, and a speakeasy over the years—it was crying out for new owners. It was large, well-built, on a main road, with tons of potential, and best of all, up for lease.
As Nancy told me the tale, a local regular who was sitting in the corner enjoying his chicken-fried steak lunch, with a twinkle in his eyes, drawled quietly to her, “Don’t forget about the whorehouse.” Taking it in stride, which is Nancy’s way, she guffawed and explained that, “No, this restaurant wasn’t ever one… but apparently there was one right down the street at one time.”
For them, it was love at first sight. When they approached the owner, though, they were told it had been leased just the day before. Disheartened but undaunted, they continued with their search. Each time they found a contender, something would go wrong and the deal would fall through.
Getting discouraged, they were ready to concede defeat when the owner of their first choice contacted them. His rental had fallen through, making it theirs if they were still interested. A lease agreement with option to purchase followed quickly.
It’s as if it was meant to be…
Apparently, years before while discussing their dream restaurant, Nancy had declared that she would call it “The Wandering Sloth.” Odd perhaps, but she stuck to it and it became the official name of their new bar and grill. Amazingly, they soon discovered that just down the road was a wild animal rescue center, Raquel’s Ark, housing two rescued sloths. This is a popular attraction in Volcán; tourists flock to cuddle with these loving little creatures.
That sealed it. It was definitely pre-ordained.
Extensive renovations followed and lasted about three months. “We hired a contractor who hired Panamanian workers,” Eric explains. “Wages are substantially less for general labor in Panama than in the United States but there are some costs that you don’t have in the States. In Panama an employee gets four weeks of paid vacation and a thirteenth month of wages paid in three installments throughout the year. Their social security also covers their health care.”
Some building materials were a challenge. Although concrete blocks and cement are everywhere, specialty items are more difficult to find.
The second floor had been used as living quarters in the past, but Eric and Nancy have transformed it into a dart room, office, storage room, and a room for private functions. They are now furnishing the wraparound upstairs balcony as a kind of serenity space for hanging out and watching the incredible sunsets.
“We use local suppliers whenever possible. We’re fortunate to live in this area, all produce is readily available and extremely fresh.”
This flourishing establishment hit the ground running in December 2017 and has only become more popular over the years—with expats and locals alike. Eric says, “That was our goal right from the start. We were not interested in having a gringo-only establishment but were focused on making the locals feel welcome to enjoy the food, have fun, and to mingle both with each other and foreigners.”
The place is busy from lunchtime until closing most days. The food is pub food—delicious, huge portions, and reasonably priced, even for Panama. The menu has everything… burgers, catch of the day, pasta dishes, and sandwiches, all lovingly prepared, served with a huge smile and some great conversation. Their special dessert is fried ice cream served over a brownie; it’s creamy, rich, and heavenly.
Another popular dish was invented by Eric. Using his meat smoker, he experimented with smoking potatoes. This transformed his potato salad into a mouth-watering concoction.
A small stage stands in one corner, used for live entertainment on Saturdays. On these days, the place is pretty much standing room only.
The Stevensons have a full-Panamanian staff through which they have learned Spanish by immersion, and the staff has learned English.
“As far as our favorite things about Panama, both of us would put the people at the top of the list. They are the friendliest, happiest culture we have ever found. Quality of life is great, from the cost of living, to the sense of community, the cultural values, air quality, and medical care and cost,” Eric states.
With a smile he confesses, “One of the biggest things that is frustrating for us, if we let it be, is the lack of respect for people’s time. Mañana here simply means ‘not today.’ The other thing that irks us is driving. When we first moved here, a friend explained that widespread car ownership was relatively new in Panama and a lot of locals learned to drive by playing video games and watching Hollywood movies. We thought that was pretty funny… but after two years of driving here we think he may have been correct.”
Volcán is a friendly town in the mountains, boasting springlike weather year-round with spectacular scenery. A wee bit quaint and definitely off the beaten track but filled with loyal locals and expats who would not consider living anywhere else. The Wandering Sloth’s setting is flawless, and Eric and Nancy fit right in.
Oops, I must run. A fresh-baked brownie smothered in rich, fried ice cream is calling my name…