El Valle is less than 2 hours from where I live, so I often go there for lunch and a pleasant afternoon. But I had never spent the night in El Valle, so the few nights in the volcano town were a definite treat.
As you drive through the small town, the thousands of shades of green blend with the vibrant yellows and oranges and fuchsias of tropical flowers. The abundance of flowers is awe-inspiring and the muted sunlight from the overgrowth of plant life is soothing.
El Valle's lush flora and fauna are the result of the rich volcanic soil and temperate climate. It's about 70 degrees year-round in El Valle, and the combination of pleasant weather and daily rain mean that it's impossibly lush. Tropical plants such as bougainvilla and orchids grow wild. In fact, locals harvest wild orchids from trees and the tops of mountains and sell them to tourists.
As we drove through the small streets dotted with small vine-covered houses with our windows down, we shared the road with locals on foot or on bicycle. I wasn't alive during the 1950s, but the streets filled with people and flowers and dogs made me feel like I'd crawled into a Latin version of a Norman Rockwell painting.
It was our goal to visit all three waterfalls during our visit to El Valle. On our last day, we were having a difficult time finding the road to the third one. (As it turns out, we drove by the entrance two different times without knowing it. Signage in Panama is not the same as it is in places like Yosemite or Niagara Falls.) We asked an elderly lady for directions, and instead of pointing, she hopped in our car and rode with us. She got us settled on the right path, and we spent the next two hours climbing the waterfall.
When we got back to the entrance where our car was parked, our elderly friend was waiting for us. She wanted to sell us orchids, so we followed her down a winding path to her home. It was modest cottage with an outdoor sink and a pot of beans simmering on an outdoor wood fire. I didn't go inside her home, but the outside was a gardener's dream. This woman wasn't wealthy, but she lived in a garden spot that would be coveted by Mrs. GreenThumbs and her Connecticut cronies. During the 20 minutes we spent in her garden, I fantasized about a weekend get-away cottage in that exact spot. I imagined the inside of the cottage would need some renovating, but the spot itself was a mini Garden of Eden.
Our friend struck a bargain with my fiance. She would give me as many orchids as I wanted, and he would buy her groceries at the local store. I knew she didn't have much money, so we pooled our resources and realized we had a mere $27 in cash between the two of us. (Like most small markets, her neighborhood market only takes cash.) I got a box full of beautiful orchids, a cut hydrangea as my birthday bouquet, and a blessing from this sweet old lady. She got two big bags of groceries that would feed her for a week. It was one of the best birthday presents I've ever had, and I got to bring a few pieces of the mountain town of El Valle back home to the beach.