A Thriving Business and an Active Social Life in Panama

“Bird heaven.” It’s often the first phrase that comes to mind when I’m in the El Valle region, just two hours by car from Panama City. On the western edge of the popular crater town is Potosí—a green oasis dotted with palms and flowering shrubs. Here, four little cabins sit nestled in the countryside, their hammocks inviting you to sink in and relax.

The longer you sit, the more likely you are to see colorful birds and other rainforest creatures, including sloths, iguanas, hummingbirds, and toucans. More than 50 species have been spotted on these grounds alone.

The four cabins belong to expat Dennis Wenthold and his wife of 48 years, Mireya. Though Mireya is Panamanian, the two met when they were both students at the University of Northern Iowa. After a brief stint in Panama in the 1980s, they pursued careers in education in Florida, where they stayed for over 20 years. But they remained eager to return to Panama when the time came to retire.

In 2004, the perfect opportunity came along. Mireya’s mother had been running a cabin rental business since 1980, and she was ready to sell. “We bought it from her thinking we might like to do this when we retired,” says Dennis. But it wasn’t until 2009 that the Wentholds were ready to start their new life in Potosí.

The decision to buy the business turned out to be spot on. Eight years later, they are still going strong. “We have been very busy running Cabañas Potosí,” says Dennis. “Our morning routine starts with walking the property, feeding our three playful dogs, checking our business e-mails, and serving our clients some morning coffee, fruit, and pastries.”

The different people who come and stay are a big part of the fun for Dennis and Mireya, who live onsite. Visitors are mostly from the U.S., Panama, and Canada, with Holland and Germany rounding out the top five. “Our clients come to us as tourists and strangers but leave as friends,” says Dennis.

“We don’t need this business to survive but it gives us something to do, to keep us busy. We love meeting and visiting with people from all over the world. Also, we have four great people from El Valle helping us with the house, cabins, and four acres of land.”

The beautifully landscaped property looks like someone laid a thick blanket of green over everything. It’s not hard to see why Dennis would choose to spend his golden years here. “We have a great view of the India Dormida mountain and are close to the Las Mozas waterfalls,” he says. There are many family-owned restaurants within a 20-minute walk of the property, and the El Valle village center is just a five-minute drive.

The cabins themselves sit in a garden. They all have front porches with hammocks (and free WiFi) so that guests can enjoy the cool mountain weather and tranquil setting. It’s a place, Dennis says, less for tourists in search of historical sights and more for people who love the outdoors.

“It’s great for people who love to visit waterfalls, hot springs, and mountain trails,” he says. Other nearby attractions include a butterfly garden, an orchid garden, and the famed “square tree trail”—the only place in the world to boast square-trunked trees.

“Rainy season runs from May to December and during this time the region is very lush,” says Dennis. “This is why there are over 300 species of birds living here, plus the migratory birds that pass through twice a year. Dry season is from January through April and is also the season when most foreigners visit El Valle, which is one of the top five tourist areas in Panama.”

With four cabins, Dennis and Mireya are kept just busy enough, with time left for themselves and their volunteer work. “We are constantly improving our property and business,” says Dennis. “But we are also involved in tourism, recycling, and other activities that help the community. Mireya, besides being the secretary of the tourism board for El Valle, also teaches English to about 40 people from the community.”

“Usually on Friday nights there is a happy hour somewhere in El Valle, where the expats get together to socialize,” says Dennis. “About 200 expats live in El Valle from 42 different countries.”

With a mild mountain climate and lush green surroundings, the area has a lot to offer. And yet it has retained its local flavor. “You just need to know that it is not the U.S. or Canada,” Dennis says. In rural areas like Potosí, life moves at a different pace and it can take time to adjust. “Go with the flow, because some things get done the day after tomorrow,” he says.

The easy pace suits Dennis and Mireya. “We close Cabañas Potosí for the months of May and October,” he says. As those months tend to be slow for business, they are happy to take the time off. “And according to research, people who take vacations live longer,” laughs Dennis.

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