Panama’s Best Little-Known Mountain Town

In the heart of rural Panama, nestled in the crater of an extinct volcano, El Valle is a place of orchids, rainforest greens, and canary-yellow flowers. Though it’s relatively unknown beyond Panamanian borders, locals argue that no other town can match it. And not just because of the singular beauty of the velvety-green mountaintops.

Proximity to Panama City and to beaches like Coronado makes El Valle one of the world’s rare “have-it-all” locations.

Here, you can live right in the middle of a display of nature’s bounty, teeming with life…and yet be close to important conveniences. And the number of expats discovering this tiny town is growing. Over the course of my visit I encountered quite a few of them and counted many nationalities. Ask them why they choose to live here, and you’ll hear a range of answers.

From beautiful terrain to great communications to low cost of living—right down to the friendly people—El Valle ticks all the boxes. Climate is always high on the list. The weather in the crater valley is usually 10 to 15 degrees cooler than in Panama City, where temperatures average 88 F.

Neil Stein, 66, came to El Valle specifically because he could get the mountain-beach-city combo he craved. “One of the things I really like about El Valle is the perfect climate. The cool weather’s great. And when I want some heat I can visit nearby Panama City or go surfing near Coronado…there are about 10 different breaks along the coast.”

Once you turn off the Pan-American Highway, an hour west of Panama City, you are just 40 minutes from El Valle. This stretch of road is one of the prettiest drives in Panama. Through gaps in the pines the crater appears, like a wide bowl draped with felt. The green is scarcely interrupted…a few black furrows that are the region’s small farms…shocks of fuchsia bougainvillea that obscure many of the cottages… The fertility and abundance of the land is legendary—perhaps the reason El Valle’s unassuming market is known as the nation’s best.

A good portion of the market is dedicated to traditional handicrafts, but its simple wood surfaces drip with orange and red mangos, mamey, papayas, and countless other good things to eat. Locals say the soil is so rich that the fences sprout leaves. Volcanic in origin, it’s referred to as tierra negra, or black soil. The dark loam is highly coveted by the city dwellers that come on weekends, picking up bags of the stuff at $1 each.

There’s no major hospital in El Valle—just a couple of small clinics (where seeing a doctor may cost as little as $2). But Coronado’s new San Fernando Hospital—as well as several banks, a new mall, and an upscale El Rey supermarket—is a mere 45 minutes away.

There aren’t as many homes and properties on the market as you’ll find in Boquete (Panama’s best-known cool-weather locale), but El Valle has a wide enough range that it offers something for everyone. El Valle consists of approximately 13 square miles in a crater, and that finite amount of space defines the real estate market. In addition, local rules make it difficult to segregate large plots of land into smaller parcels. You’ll find many lots here are over half an acre…same as they were decades ago. And when upper-crust Panamanians want to sell, they spread the word quietly.

The key to finding a good bargain? Simple: Come and visit. The best properties are advertised via word-of-mouth.

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