Off the Beaten Path in Panama
If you are considering a vacation or fact finding mission to Panama in Central America you will be fascinated by the diverse cultures, temperatures, and terrain from province to province in this wonderful country. Each and every one has so much to offer tourists, snowbirds, or people wishing to retire here.
My husband and I live in Chiriqui province for half of each year and love it. Each time we are here we try to drive to a new and different area and thoroughly explore each one. We live near David, which is the second largest city in the country and a mere thirty kilometres from the Costa Rican border. Our trip to Volcan was a highlight for sure.
Come for the sun, stay for the cuddles!
Drive north on the Interamericana Highway heading towards Costa Rica, and in the space of half to three quarters of an hour the contrast will astound you. Temperature in David – high 30’s C. Temperature in Volcan – mid 20’s.
To reach that destination turn right at La Conception. Continue on through town (unless you are ready for a bit of a respite, or just plain curious), in which case this is a bustling city of approximately 40,000 people and is the 4th largest city in Chiriqui. It is twenty seven kilometres from the Costa Rican border and is well worth a look around.
Arriving in the town of Volcan, you will have climbed steadily to an altitude of approximately 4600 feet above sea level, through some of the most stunning and dramatic scenery in Panama. Picturesque mountains gravely overseeing things from a distance, vibrant, almost brilliant green foliage, gigantic sprawling valleys and undulating hills that appear to go on forever, often dotted with grazing cattle or magnificent horses.
The temperature will be cooling steadily as you climb higher and soon that pure, bracing mountain air will invigorated you. This is the high country and can change from brilliant sunshine and calm to blustery and rainy in the blink of an eye. Even then the temperature remains comfortable, cool yet not cold. And majestically, eternally looming over it all is the famous Volcan Baru, the highest mountain in Panama at a height of 11,460 feet.
Volcan is an agricultural town and besides the usual clothing shops, auto and tire repair establishments, churches, banks, and pharmacies, there are also saddleries, and feed stores. It is not uncommon to witness a herd of brahma cattle being herded down the street meandering from one pasture to another. There they go, plodding nonchalantly down the sidewalk, single file, not unlike pedestrians out for a stroll.
There are several good restaurants in Volcan where you can stop for lunch to fortify yourselves for the upcoming adventures.
Sitio Barriles is a must see for history buffs!
After that respite it is time to do some serious exploring. A few kilometers outside town is the site of a hugely important archeological dig. This fascinating discovery, Sitio Barriles, was once a thriving pre-Columbian village approximately 1000-3000 years ago. The land is owned by a Panamanian family who made an agreement to preserve the site. It has been determined that this village was of a sedentary nature where the inhabitants grew corn, did handicrafts, and boasted exceptional sculptors and goldsmiths.
Take time to explore all of the artifacts on the grounds.
One particularly fascinating artifact is a large stone engraved by an ancient technique which only shows a certain “route” when the rock gets wet. This rock alone is brimming with unimaginable mysteries. Another discovery, displayed at the site, is a carved statue of a slave carrying a chief or perhaps a priest, on his shoulders.
The details on some of the stone work is really amazing!
Returning to Volcan, one must switch back from the ancient mysteries to the practicality of present day reality. Aptly named Raquel’s Ark, it is a complex owned and operate by Raquel Frame Allen who has made rescuing and housing hurt and abandoned animals and birds of the wild her life’s work. Anyone who likes animals will delight in this sanctuary and can conveniently stop in when returning from the archeological dig as it is on the edge of Volcan on the same road.
Just look at that little face!
For me the highlight of this experience is cuddling the baby sloths who, without second thought, wrap their hairy little arms and legs as far around you as they can manage and snuggle in. Her menagerie of orphans also include toucans, kinkajous, and coatamundis, just to name a few. They are all humanely and properly cared for here.
Continuing onward, if you turn right on main street towards Cerro Punte ( at the sign), you will climb further through more lush greenery and an explosion of vibrant blossoming bougainvilleas and continue to ascend higher into the highlands. You will literally feel the temperature lowering as you proceed. Suddenly an amazing view assails you. Continuing for miles are terraced market gardens winding their way up the mountainsides. At the bottom, acres upon acres of covered greenhouses. Most of the produce grown in Panama originates from these very fields.
Dotting the roadsides throughout this area are gigantic plastic bags bursting with freshly picked carrots, potatoes, beets, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, broccoli, and more, all for the price of $5.00-$6.00 per bag. One of these bags would easily feed a veggie-loving family of 2-4 for about two weeks.
If you’re planning a trip to this beautiful area, make sure to check out a list of hotels in Panama.
Huge strawberry fields are also abundant here and, during their season, countless people venture up here solely to purchase these indescribably delicious sweet morsels. Local fruit/veggie stands, as well as roadside fondas and creameries, offer delectable servings of fresh picked strawberries and sweet new cream that are heaven in a dish.
One more stop when heading back home: Just outside Volcan is the showroom and studio of an exceedingly talented artist. His name – Jose de la Cruz; his studio – Arte Cruz Volcan. This gentleman is truly a wood carver extraordinaire. He honed his considerable skills in Italy, Honduras, and Guatamala and carves everything from small statues to wall art to intricately designed wood doors. As well he teaches classes in carving and has produced many other world class carvers.
Quite an adventure for one day of sightseeing. This is a fascinating yet laid back and peaceful little corner of Panama where there is something for everyone. Whether for a sightseeing visit or a day of hiking, this is the answer. Real estate is very reasonably priced here as, until recently,it has been virtually undiscovered by ex-pats, and rentals are very affordable. At the very least it is a terrific place to go for a day to enjoy cooler temperatures and purchase some of the freshest produce you will ever encounter.