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Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Mists of el Valle de Anton

The ridges of the volcano rim surrounding el Valle which is nestled right in the crater

We spent the last two days in el Valle de Anton, a charming little mountain town in the mists nestled right in the crater of an extinct volcano. It's a favorite place for people from Panama City to come for a cool weekend. The climate is almost temperate but frequently rainy or foggy because of the hot moist tropical air blowing across the mountain top.

Don Pepe's and the Residential el Valle are cheek by jowl

There are two predominant places to stay set next door to one another like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Don Pepes and Residential el Valle. Neither are cheap but Enrique Tiban of the Residential replied to my e-mail and was prepared to give us a mid-week 28% discount to the old Lonely Planet price of $35 when I sounded like we might give up the ghost, and he was very helpful throughout our stay.

Two panoramas from the top of Residential of the volcano rim surrounding us (click to enlarge)

el Valle is not a distinctive Panamanian town but it is charming in its climate and environment. There are a number of good nature walks and a lot of mountain wildlife. It's a really good place to recuperate from the heat and frenzy of Panama City within two and half hours ride along the Pan American and up the tortuous road that eventually spills over the volcano's rim and down a little into town.

It was also an opportunity for Christine to buy a couple of panels of traditional appliqué of the Kuna Yala native people from near Colon at the little craft market beside the fruit market up the street. This is a congregation point for several tribes from other parts of Panama to hawk their crafts to tourists from the city.

The woman above selling traditional appliqué is dressed in Kuna Yala style clothing including headscarf and the anklet beads although she could have had an appliqué blouse, but she drove such a hard bargain that we ended up buying from the hotel proprietor's shop at a discount.

The Kuna Yala are the most politically organized autonomous ethnic group in Panama, which may explain her attitude.

Before we could even get out to look however, there was a staccato series of fireworks explosions and a parade emerged for the Queen of el Valle complete with a weird mixed brass and woodwind band and drummers, and an extraordinary posse of small boys pulling ride-a-cock-horses along between their legs.

There was also a funreal at the bare but distinctive local church.

Another high point of the evening was taking a warm shower before Christine cut out my 14 stitches, some of which had become so deeply embedded in my skin and sewed together in double loops from one side tied at the other that they were a bit like a stuck pig, so she literally had to ship her way through my dermis to get them to separate, leaving a couple of superficial woulds but at least no more stitches!

Panama City is renowned for it 'red devils' old US school buses repainted with hellish apparitions of brush art.
The el Valle bus was a much more conservative white devil, but it still sported a murderous cowboy!

We were still trying to unwind ourselves from the Panamanian scam operated by the government and COPA the Panamanian airline in which we were forced to buy a useless $780 US flight out of Panama to be let in, only to have the huge hassles in the last blog unsuccessfully trying to get a refund from the airline offices in Panama City. By the evening we arrived I had ransacked their web site and found that we were entitled to a refund if we emailed them demanding a cancellation, which they guaranteed they would reply to within 24 hours. Of course this never happened. I spent the day checking our e-mails and sending follow-ups and sure enough - no reply.

So at sunset I purchased a $3 phone card from the supermarket and at 7 am I phoned them because I know few people clog their lines first thing in the morning and had this ridiculous 30 minute conversation with the card running out which finally resulted in them locating my e-mail and within 15 minutes of hanging up I had an e-mail confirmation that our refund was being processed - in two weeks time if we are lucky!!!

The ocean from the rim of the volcano

Further down the road

After finally getting some signs of relief from financial hijack, Enrique kindly stood outside and hailed us down a bus to the Pan-American and we wound our way back down from the mountain. When we hit the Pan American we set up with a sign for David and within 15 minutes were on an air-conditioned bus cruising rather slowly but comfortably north watching a Spanish version of a Bruce Willis action thriller in the corner of our eye.

The journey took about 6 hours, and as we drive the driver's behavior began to look a little odd. Why was he forcibly braking and keeping the bus to only 50 kph going down every hill? How many bus drivers go down hill much slower than they go up? Eventually someone came from the back of the bus and banged on the door and told the driver the engine was overheating. So we had a 20 minute wait by the side of the road, while they replaced the fan belts (that were presumably also powering the vacuum brakes) finally we took off at speed now minus the air-conditioning.

Stranded on the Pan-American while they replace the belt

Finally at about 4 pm they unceremoniously dropped us all off in the rain at some non-descript office that was not the bus terminal, so we had to hail a taxi to get to the bus for Boquete, which was only $1.25 for a four block ride dropping us right at the back of a yellow US school bus heading for Boquete where we are now ensconsed in the rain and fog in a quaint little backpackers called Palacio dialing out on a free wi-fi the owner claims he doesn't have, which must belong to a nearby shop because its only on during trading hours. More on Boquete tomorrow when the weather clears.

Riding into Boquete

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