Nestled within the confines of an extinct volcanic crater and overlooked by the Sleeping Indian and other cloud-capped mountains about 75 miles west of Panama City, Panama, lies the sleepy market town of El Valle de Anton.
As you climb the hill from the Pan-American Highway to reach El Valle, as it’s known among the locals, you pass through a series of landscapes, each greener than the one before. The base of the crater is very close to the watershed. You can dig anywhere in the valley and reach water in only a few feet, which accounts for the lushness of the countryside.
El Valle is known for its flora, hot springs, and climate, which, thanks to the slight elevation, is noticeably more comfortable than that back down at sea level in Panama City. Mineral pools, serviced by an underground river heated by magma from a tiny fracture deep in the subterranean rock, dot the crater floor, making El Valle a go-to place for health tourists who make the short trip to El Valle to recuperate after undergoing medical treatment in Panama City hospitals.
Among Panamanians, El Valle is something of a spiritual mecca. It’s a place to come to restore and reconnect with one’s soul.
El Valle town and environs are home to a community of about 6,000 full-time residents that expands a bit on weekends and holidays. The community has grown over thousands of years from a collection of tiny villages centered around a local market, which is still a center of activity for the region. Many of Panama’s oldest families own second homes in this cool and healthy mountain spot, making the hour-and-a-half trip out from the capital as often as possible.
El Valle continues to expand while sticking to its roots as a rural mountain escape. Services and amenities have expanded and improved in the past few years. Today, the quiet life in El Valle is supported by a mall, a commercial center and a big U.S.-style grocery store about a half-hour’s drive away.
The healing hot springs are open to the public. These 100-degree waters are rich with sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, copper, and zinc. They are said to heal and soothe the skin, relieve aching bones and muscles, and generally to promote health and even longevity.
The other main attraction of life in this part of Panama is the market, where locally grown organic produce is available for pennies on the dollar compared with U.S. prices and a bargain compared with costs in Panama City, too. Every day local farmers arrive before sunrise with their fruits and vegetables.
This is the only place in the country where you find a traditional farmer’s market operating every day. You could shop for your organic produce at the market each morning, or you could arrange to have it delivered to your home. One such to-your-door supplier is the Biodiversity Corner run by Tomas Garcia and Michael Ducharme.
The hot springs and the organic produce market have contributed to El Valle’s development as a healing center. Today there are spas and yoga and wellness centers around town, including Yoguini Spa, Crater Valley Adventure Spa, Cariguana Spa, and the spa at Los Mandarinos.
The most typical mode of transport in El Valle town is the bicycle. However, don’t worry if the hilly terrain makes the idea of cycling intimidating. Consider a golf cart, which has become the preferred means of getting around among foreign retirees settling here.
When you want to travel farther, to the beach or Panama City, you can take advantage of the frequent, reliable, and affordable bus service. A one-way ticket to Panama City is US$4. You can’t argue with the cost, but you must be careful when it comes to timetables. Arrival and departure times can be unpredictable and random. Sometimes buses turn up or leave when they are full, not according to any schedule. It’s best to ignore printed schedules, if you can find them, and rely on local advice.
Life in El Valle would not suit every retiree. This beautiful but remote enclave appeals to those interested in serene and healthy living as part of a predominately local (not expat) community. While you will find many ways to spend your time and many opportunities for making friends, you need to speak at least a little Spanish to take advantage of them.
Kathleen Peddicord is the publisher of Live and Invest Overseas, offering retirement and overseas living advice in her free daily Overseas Opportunity Letter and the monthly Overseas Retirement Letter. Her preceding essay was originally published by U.S. News & World Report.
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