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The “Central provinces” of Panama include the provinces of Coclé and Veraguas, situated to the west of Panama City, along the Pan-American Highway, and the provinces of Los Santos and Herrera on the Azuero Peninsula.

These provinces are considered to be the cultural heartland of Panama, a region of quaint little towns, history and strong religious beliefs. Their relative isolation from Panama City during the colonial period contributed to the strength of their Hispanic traditions.

Traveling up the Pan American Highway westward from Panama City along the developing area of the Pacific beaches, you enter the province of Coclé between the beach towns of San Carlos and Santa Clara. Further westward, the highway takes you past Farrallon and Playa Blanca, where mega residential and hotel developments are taking place, before heading inland to the town of Penonomé, the provincial capital.

If you are visiting Penonomé, or passing through, reward yourself with a visit to Yuka’s Grill, a fine restaurant and coffee shop on the right hand side of the Pan American Highway heading out in the direction of Chiriqui. The prices are reasonable and it is popular with Penonomeños.

Around Penonomé visitors can discover some interesting sites, including the town of La Pintada, known for the famous “Sombrero Pintado” hats, which are an important element of the “Montuno”, Panama’s national costume for men.

Other attractions are the archaeological museums of Sitio Conte and El Caño, where skeletal remains and tools dating from the pre-Columbian period are displayed. The museums are located between Penonomé and the town of Natá, which boasts the oldest Catholic church of the Western Hemisphere.

The highway passes through Aguadulce, with its thousands of acres of shrimp farms, before striking westward once again to bring the traveller to the province of Veraguas.

El Valle

Nestled in the green mountains of the province of Coclé is El Valle de Antón, a resort town which has become an important jewel in Panama’s ecotourism treasure chest.

The town is located on the site of an extinct volcano —the largest in Panama in pre-historic times. This fact has endowed the area with hot springs and fertile land ideal for flowers and vegetables.

El Valle is 120 kilometers from Panama City, and the journey takes about an hour and a half up the Pan-American Highway, turning right after the town of San Carlos.

Due to its altitude, El Valle enjoys a cool climate year round. This, com-

bined with its proximity to Panama City, has transformed the town into a week-end retreat for many Panamanian city-dwellers. Many wealthy individuals have built beautiful villas and country homes there.

El Valle is also a land of history and legend. Inhabited for hundreds of years by several Native American tribes, the area is famous for some rare petroglyphs.

The lush vegetation of El Valle harbors great biological diversity, including golden frogs and square trees. The frogs are found only in El Valle and Campana National Park. A good place to see them is at the El Nispero Zoo and Plant Nursery. Also on show there is the “Flower of the Holy Spirit” —the rare orchid which is Panama’s National Flower.

A relaxing way to tour the valley, or the mountains beyond for that matter, is to hire a horse. They are available at the roadside ready saddled, at weekends.

Daring adventurers will also find a lot of action in El Valle with the Canopy Adventure attraction, where visitors are able to imitate Tarzan, flying above the jungle floor on an exciting zipline. While on this tour, visitors will also fly above the El Macho waterfall, one of the largest in the area and a scenic attraction worth visiting even if you don’t go on the Canopy Tour.

The Panama Explorer Club, offers courses in adventure sports such as rafting, rapelling, mountain biking, kayaking etc. to visitors and to people wishing to train as tourist guides. 215-2330.

The club has its headquarters at Crater Valley, a resort in idyllic garden surroundings offering comfortable accommodation, eco and cultural tourism.

A recent addition to the comforts offered in El Valle is the Cariguana Spa, situated in magnificent tropical surroundings, and, according to their brochure, is “designed based on sacred geometry and architecture emphasizing ecological sustainability”. The Spa offers a wide range of holistic spa services to rival the best in any part of the world.

On the weekends, and especially Sunday, the otherwise quiet and relaxed El Valle becomes a picturesque country shopping center, celebrating its most popular tradition: The Market. In this event, locals and residents of neighboring towns gather to offer an impressive variety of flowers, handicraft, rattan furniture, fruits, vegetables and flowers.

In recent years, a number of fine lodging facilities has opened in town, such as Los Capitanes, a picturesque eco-resort.

El Valle has bed and breakfast accommodation at Park Eden, the lovely home of Mr. and Mrs. Lionel Aleman.

A boutique hotel of great distinction, Los Mandarinos Boutique Spa and Hotel, is located at the edge of the town flanking the border of a national park. The hotel is designed and decorated in the traditional style of Tuscany and boasts the excellent O’Pedros Pub and the renowned Casa de Lourdes restaurant. Their luxurious spa is well worth a visit.