El Valle is a beautiful little mountain town located in the largest inhabited volcano crater in the world. It enjoys a lovely spring climate all year round. I spent hours wandering the streets of the town enjoying being surrounded by the amazing views and greenery, feeling very safe and at peace.
If you have a spare couple of days, I suggest a brief stop here, a great opportunity to relax or regenerate your travel mojo.
Things to do
Getting around town to the various sites and attractions is really easy, with signs posted everywhere you go. If you get a bit lost don’t be afraid to stop and ask any of the locals. They are some of the friendliest people I have met in my time in Panama.
You should also spend a half-day by cycling. Bikes are available to hire at either your hostel or one of the rental places around town. Most people seem to get around by bike and you can feel relatively safe on the roads around town.
You can easily spend a few hours just wandering the town and taking in the spectacular greenery. For the adventurous traveler there are several hikes to attempt, including the challenging La India Dormida -The Sleeping Indian Girl.
Another great hike is the Cerro Cariguana. It is best done at around 4:30pm to get a great view of the valley with the dramatic background of the sunset. Take a flashlight or headlamp to get back to town in the dark.
If you want to do a short hike, you might like to visit the Arboles Cuadrados or the Square Trees. I say ‘might’ because you will have to use your imagination on this one, but it is a pleasant walk.
I visited Chorro Las Mozas while in El Valle and enjoyed a dip in the river after a short walk to the waterfalls. The walk is a bit tricky at times, but shouldn’t take longer than 10 minutes.
It costs $1 to enter, but if you get there before opening hours you should be able to enter without charge.
The other waterfall in town, Chorro Del Macho is certainly more spectacular but does cost $5 to enter. There is a small suspension bridge and while you can’t swim at the waterfall, there is a man-made pool you can have a dip in.
The Pozos Termales are located very close to the centre of town. With a $3 entrance fee, it’s a cheap way to recharge your batteries and chat with other travelers and locals. You can even smother yourself in natural mud for an instant facial.
Many travelers I met couldn’t get enough of the experience, but keep in mind that these hot springs are not as hot as you might be used to (think warm) and this is definitely not a luxury spa experience. Keep that in mind and you should have a nice time relaxing in the waters.
If you would like to see some local wildlife check out El Nispero Zoo which has a great frog exhibit. This includes a chance to see the Gold Frog which is native to El Valle.
There is a Butterfly Haven with a $5 entrance fee that includes a guided tour. You can see not just butterflies in their different life stages, but also hummingbirds and local birds in their garden. This is a great rainy day activity as the space is fully covered.
If you’re into creepy crawlies then a visit to El Serpentario is a must! It is a small snake house with a $1 entrance fee. You get to be as up-close and personal as you wish to a variety of snakes and even get your photo taken with a boa-constrictor.
There is a local market located in the center of town with two sections - local produce and arts and crafts.
There are several restaurants and cafes in El Valle. I did find prices to be on the higher side, but there are some great local options and more international style fare. Vegetarians should find it pretty easy to find something to eat at most of the restaurants in town.
If you’re on a budget you could find a hostel with a kitchen to create your own dishes with local produce. The local bakery, Cano Panaderia, has delicious fresh bread and well-priced sandwiches. Another great option is Carlitos. While most of their food is quite pricey, they have empanadas for $1.40 including vege options.
Where to stay
There are a lot of options in all different price brackets in El Valle. From boutique hotels with lush gardens to hostels and locations all around the town.
I stayed at Bodhi Hostel in their 27-bed dorm. For $15 you got a comfy bed with privacy curtains, individual fan and light, as well as a pancake breakfast. It wasn’t anywhere as horrific as I imagined a 27-bed dorm could be, but I didn’t stay there when it was at full capacity.
They have some lovely small touches that I haven’t seen in any other hostels I’ve stayed at, including a little bag in your bed to put small items that are handy to have close by (a pair of glasses, for example) and a little cubby to put your toothbrush and toothpaste near the sinks. They had just started up a free morning yoga which looked like a lot of fun.
Getting there and away
Getting to and from El Valle via Panama City is super easy. There is a direct bus that leaves from the main bus terminal in Panama City every 30 minutes. It’s about 2.5 hours and costs about $4.50.
Heading back to Panama City you will need to catch the same bus, which will say “Panama - El Valle” in the window, from the main road in El Valle.
Try to do the trip in the daylight so you can take advantage of the spectacular views on the way. Also make sure to look out for the outline of La India Dormida!
Getting to anywhere else is a little bit trickier. You need to catch a local bus to San Carlos (approx. 45 minutes) which passes through the main street every 20 minutes. From there, you need to wait at the bus stop on the highway for a bus to pass by. Depending on where you're heading to next the best options are usually a David or Santiago bound bus.
I went to Boquete after El Valle and found the experience to be pretty easy, but also quite long. Be prepared with some snacks or bring along some change to grab some on the way from the local vendors who hop on the bus. You can read a more detailed report of my trip here.
Have you been to El Valle? Any other experiences you'd like to add or favourite places to stay or eat at?