It’s a stunning drive to Volcan—and that’s not just travel writer hype. As the road winds up into the mountains, one vista after another unfolds. I have driven this road many times over the past four years, and it’s still as invigorating as ever.
As I reach 3,000 feet, I turn off the air-conditioning and roll down the windows; the air is fresh and clean. The roadsides are festooned with thousands of red, pink and white impatiens. They look like they were carefully planted by a talented landscaper, but they’re a simply great gift of nature.
Passing through the small village of Cuesta de Piedra, I get a glimpse off to my right of the majesty that is Panama’s highest peak, the 11,400 foot Baru Volcano (pronounced “bah-ROO”). The jagged peaks of this sleeping giant carve through a swirl of clouds and mist.
Volcan sits in a valley that opens westward onto a wide plateau. At 4,200 feet, it’s easy to see why the town is famed for its “eternal spring” climate. It is framed to the north by the Tizingal Mountain and to the east by the slopes and volcanic plain.
The combination of spring- like weather and abundant fresh fruit and vegetables has led some writers to describe the area as the “Shangri-La Valley.” A brief look at the gravestones in the local cemetery reveals that many residents lived well into their eighties and nineties.
Volcan is a bustling town of about 10,000 people, of which about 250 are expats from the U.S. and Canada. The town has four supermarkets, four hardware stores, three banks (two with ATMs) and over 30 places to eat. If there is a global recession, the people in Volcan haven’t heard.
The local economy has been buoyed in part by nearby hydroelectric projects. This will soon make Panama virtually energy independent and pump millions of dollars into the local economy. But agriculture is the real driving force behind the provincial economy. Chiriqui provides up to 80% of all the milk, meat and vegetables consumed in Panama.
The greatest savings here stem from the climate. There is no need for air conditioning, fans or heating. I use an electric washer, dryer and dehumidifier, but my average power costs stay low at around $68 a month. I cook with gas that costs me about $2 a month; my water bill is $4 a month; and garbage pickup is also $4 a month.
At Dalys’s restaurant a bottomless cup of coffee will cost you 40 cents. A hearty breakfast is about $2.50. Dalys’s is famous for serving an enormous glass of wine for $1.35. If you want to eat tipico, or “typical fare,” for lunch, a tasty mound of beans, rice and chicken will set you back a princely $1.75.
Volcan’s supermarkets offer just about everything that would expect to find in North America. And at the local organic kiosk you can walk away with a bulging bag of vegetables—the freshest in the county—for less than $8.
Prices for homes range from $37,000 to $150,000, and there are also lots available on which you can build the retirement home of your dreams. If your pocket book is well funded, then the clear blue mountain sky is the limit; there are large land tracts, trout-bearing rivers and streams, and views to die for. If you are spending over $150,000, you’ll have a selection of North American-style homes to choose from.
Editor’s Note: Read more about Panama here.