By John Bennett
Fifty one miles West of Panama City, as the crow flies, there once roared a great volcano, formed by the subduction of the South American Nasca continental plate beneath the Caribbean Plate, where the Isthmus of Panama is perched upon.
There are three plates colliding in Panama, the two already mentioned and a third one west of the Nasca Plate, the Coco’s Plate, whose subduction is responsible for the formation of the volcanoes closer to the Panama Costa Rican border. “El Valle de Antón” (the Anton Valley) is a quaint country town nestled inside the caldera of a once magnificent colossus, whose eruptions modified the shape of the Panamanian Isthmus from the Caribbean to the Pacific, making the narrow isthmus look somewhat like a snake, whose middle bulges out after eating something large; yet therein lies the beauty of it all. About one million years later what is left is a natural marvel sculpted into Panama’s central mountain range.
As a visitor approaches the long subdued monster of old from the southern coast of Panama, he notices that the landscape has changed. The earth is no longer the classic orange earth color of much of Panama’s soil; it is now grayish white, for the volcano covered the breadth of the Isthmus, from the Caribbean to the Pacific, with a carpet of volcanic sand. Toward the Pacific coast you will notice the rivers no longer can be easily seen from a car when you pass a bridge, for they have scoured their way down to the basalt rock some two hundred feet or more below.
This can also be appreciated at the beaches south of El Valle, which are also formed of volcanic sand, and where you can see cliffs dropping down to the sea, somewhat reminiscent of the White Cliffs of Dover; mute reminder of
the forces that set this scenery.
When you finally wind yourself onto the rim of the slumbering caldera, you are taken in by its six mile wide radius, and the perfectly level valley floor below, dotted with quaint summer homes of Panamanians and of the native Indians who lived here since before the Spanish Conquest. If the frivolous cloud cover favors you, you will have a clear view of the entire caldera, against the backdrop of the three major mountains at the northern end of the valley. They are three enormous lava domes that were extruded skyward long ago. Some of the more adventurous might hike up to the top of El Gaital, the tallest of the three. It is a marvel of varying vegetation that slowly changes from the typical, relatively stunted growth of trees deformed by the high winds of the area, to a ghostly stunted rainforest reminiscent of a scene
from the original movie of King Kong. All tree branches are covered with sopping wet moss and lichens of all kinds, until you find yourself walking over a tangle of roots whose soil has been washed away by the constant rains. And finally, if you are lucky and have a clear day, looking south you will see the Pacific Ocean, as its discoverer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa once saw it and looking north you will see the Caribbean Sea.
But since the valley is surrounded by mountains, there are others that can be negotiated more kindly, such as “La India Dormida” (the sleeping Indian maiden); a mountain to the west of the caldera valley, that when viewed from the town looks very much like a sleeping maiden and where you can also see petroglyphs.
Curiously, there is much to be investigated and reported with regard to the history of the inhabitants of El Valle. For those of us who were raised in summer homes here, there is profuse evidence of the people who lived here before Colonial times, for anytime you are digging to
make a pool or such, you will find pottery shards; most likely discarded artifacts of its ancient dwellers. There is a museum where you can see some of these items and part of the history. After the arrival of the Spanish, the Indians seemed to have moved out of the Valley, most probably avoiding unpleasant encounters with the invaders.
My family has an interesting relationship with this place of fables, for my great grandmother traveled from Panama’s capital in a sloop to the coastal town of San Carlos, from where she was carried in a hammock up to the Valley, where she would take thermal baths to cure ailments. In 1929 my grandfather, George F. Novey, built a home for my grand uncle, Toño Garrido; probably the first summer home of Panamanian’s from Panama City. In 1930 he built himself his own prefab home of Celotex (cardboard) and wood; where many of us were conceived for it was the traditional family honeymoon destination, where the bed of the main bedroom had a curious tendency to come apart sometimes during the night.
George was a New Yorker who came to Panama during the Canal construction and married Amalia Garrido, daughter of the landlady of the rental home where George lived. My father was also an American who was raised on a farm in Worcester, Massachusetts and traveled to Panama with the United States Fruit Co. on a temporary assignment, that became not so temporary, after he married George Novey’s daughter. At the time, the road to the Valley only reached the rim of the crater and from there the materials and supplies, as well as people had to be carried down to the floor of the Valley on horses or mules.
When George finally had his cardboard house ready and they would set up lunch on an open porch, they would be surrounded by the natives, who would stare endlessly at George, until my grandmother finally inquired about this. The natives said they “had never seen a person with eyes the color of the sky.” Later on, when the road was finally built down into the Valley and the first cars came along a bend, the natives would panic and stampede down the road, sprinting ever faster as the driver honked his horn to get them to move to the side of the road.
Not the least of which is its weather and burst of powerful winter winds that Panamanians call “summer winds” for it is the dry season. But still the water from the sky is present in the form of blowing and swirling drizzle Foehn Winds, blown down the mountain sides of El Gaital, that locals calls “bajareque.” One moment the air is perfectly still and then you hear a sound as if a freight train is bearing down on
you, and then a gust of wind of more than 40 knots slams into you, shrouded in a mist of bajareque.
The floor of the Valley was a lake after the formation of the caldera and through the centuries and millennia, the soft sandy sides of the rim filled in the lower parts, flattening it out, until the water finally broke through a narrow gorge at the south western end, where nowadays you can visit the famous falls of Las Mozas. Actually, Las Mozas consist of three consecutives falls that legend has it were formed when
three young maidens disobeyed their father and went swimming there on Good Friday and were forever petrified there.
As a matter of fact, the floor of the Valley is still something very close to a lake, for the water table in most of the valley floor is only a few feet below the surface and at the surface, particularly during the rainy season. And yes, it really rains during the rainy seasons, hard and long. The Valley used to be the home of a myriad of water birds of all kinds and you can still see cloud whiteherons fighting their way through the winter blows.
Another testament to the soft sedimentary nature of the valley floor is felt during occasional earthquakes, for no matter how small, they are accentuated by the humid mushy nature of the subsurface. My mother built a rammed earth home in El Valle, with an enclosed swimming pool and during the occasional quake the water inside the pool would slosh from side to side; yet people in other places outside of the caldera would not feel the tremor.
The jungle in El Valle is something else, for the trees are forged crooked by the strong gusty winds, which give the jungle a weird twisted character. It all holds a beauty of its own and gives the place an unique character; and it’s not just the green but the incredible variety of ambers, reds, yellows, and rust colored leaves, that blended into the greenery, creating a unique contrast. If you happen to be here at the end of the dry season, just before our spring arrives, you will catch the sight of the amazing guayacan trees that shed all their leaves and dress up in an incredible array of brilliant yellows. Also, during this time of the year, the typically green vegetation of the dry season produces a profusion of autumn leave colors that make an incredible contrast with the tropical evergreen trees of the area.
The market place on Saturdays and Sundays is an interesting place to visit and even now, the commerce there is carried out the same way it was for as far back as I can remember. The natives come down from their mountain villages, bringing their fruit, woodwork, pottery, plants and flowers and much more to trade.
In recent years El Valle has also experienced the development of an interesting variety of hotels and restaurants that cater to a wide variety of tastes, mainly prepared with the abundance of local fresh produce. The skies at night, during the rainy season are washed clean of dust and on a clear night you can see more stars than you ever imagined, as low lying puffs of clouds fly by at great speeds. Then there are the square trees and golden frogs that intrigue so many. The square trees are a kind of tree called “alcarreto” that sometimes grows straight up when it lies protected in a hollow; some of them are completely SQUARE. The golden frogs are not as abundant today as when I was young and there is a growing concern in regards to their protection; but you can still see them at El Nispero, the local privately owned Park.
I have never met anyone who was not enchanted at the first sight of this unique mountain town nestled inside the caldera of an enormous
inactive volcano. There are still many characteristics that let you know about the origins that led to its present configuration, as is the
case with La Mesa, a plateau on the other side of El Gaital and its two comrades, Caracoral and Pajita. The mesa is actually still situated
inside the perimeter of the original caldera, but was separated from the main floor of the valley by the uprising of the Gaital lava domes.
In La Mesa you will find sinkholes.
El Valle de Anton is definitely a unique place to visit if you come to Panama. Its curious and abrupt mountain scenery will surprise you as you make your way up to the continental divide, between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea; for Panama is definitely a Caribbean destination, with a Pacific twist to it.
In Panama there are also four archipelagos; two in the Pacific and two in the Caribbean. The two in the Pacific have well over 300 islands and hold the three largest islands on the Pacific side of the Americas. The three islands are: Coiba, El Rey, and San José, all three mainly uninhabited up to now. If the day is clear, you will have a view of the archipelago of the Pearls, where the Peregrine Pearl that Elisabeth Taylor owned came from; and where pirates and buccaneers used to roam and harass the Spanish gold trade.