Fitting in and Making Friends in Panama

El Valle is alive with activity when I arrive at noon on a Sunday. The reason? The artisan market in the center of this tiny mountain town, which boasts traditional crafts, a large and colorful flower section, and a range of farm-fresh fruit and vegetables at knockdown prices.

The market opens daily, but Sunday is when it’s at its busiest with buses bringing tourists to check out the bargains on offer. But after the last vacationer leaves at 5 p.m., the town returns to its usual state: quiet, easy and relaxed.

It’s this tranquil atmosphere that draws expats to El Valle, Panama-a place where rigid schedules are unheard of.

“That’s kind of hard to learn, when you retire and come down here, that if you want to read your book at one o’clock in the afternoon, you don’t have to feel guilty about it…” expat Judy Eaton, told me when I met her in El Valle recently.

A busy, stressed R.N. in her native Nebraska, Judy has just one obligation these days—an expat-led recycling project that takes her an hour every Monday morning. After that, she’s free to spend her week as she sees fit.

The busiest expats here are involved in various community projects, she said… but many more are not involved in any activities.

“You can be just as busy here as you want to be… It’s totally up to you.”

Even outside of these projects, the sense of community is strong in El Valle. The expats I met here were warm, welcoming and open to new faces—from anywhere in the world—joining in their social activities.

Not that get-togethers are any more rigidly organized than anything else in the day-to-day life of an El Valle expat.

“A lot of stuff down here is very spontaneous,” Judy says. “You might be taking a walk in the evening and someone says, ‘Stop and have a drink of wine.’ And then a few minutes later, someone else shows up.”

And the diversity of expats who live here is impressive. Jimmy Farrelly, another expat who lives here with his wife, Tovef, counts 21 nationalities—including French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish and English—among his circle of expat friends.

“We have a good camaraderie here. We get together in the evenings and debate the affairs of the world and don’t fall out about it. You have people, of course, with all different political backgrounds and we still get on together.”

People frequently host parties and dinners at their houses in El Valle. But if you don’t feel like cooking for friends, there are plenty of places to eat well together—and very affordably. In one traditional Panamanian restaurant, I had a big plate of pollo guisado—a stewed chicken dish in a local sauce accompanied by a mound of fries, rice or fried plantains—for just $5.75.

Dinner for two at Italian restaurant Bruschetta, including two seafood mains, two massive desserts, beers and coffee, cost $35.07.

The cost of good food in El Valle may be easy to put a price on… but the good company and the community spirit to be found here? They’re absolutely priceless.

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