One of El Valle's attractions, its warm mineral water springs. Photo by Eric Jackson
The lay of the land in El Valle
El Valle is one of Panama's preferred retirement and tourist areas, but it's also a good example of this country's geography and geologic history, and an illustration of the question of whether Panama is part of Central America, South America or something else entirely.
The isthmus of Panama arose millions of years ago as a volcanic archipelago on the borders of the Caribbean and Farallon tectonic plates. About four million years ago it drifted into a jam among four of the earth's plates and plugged the gap between North and South America. That squeeze put most of the formerly very volcanic land into a relatively stable and not so active position, the big exceptions being at the eastern and western ends of present-day Panama --- Chiriqui/Bocas and Darien/Kuna Yala respectively. The nation's tallest mountain, Volcan Baru, last erupted in human times, about 600 AD (people having first set foot on the isthmus some 20,000 to 22,000 years ago).
El Valle, on the other hand, is the caldera of a much older volcano which formed about 1.3 million years back and last erupted some 34,600 years ago. And what an eruption it was, looking at the record written in today's topography!
At the center of this computer-enhanced photo we have the old volcanic caldera that's El Valle. Photo by NASA
So is it a dead volcano, or a dormant one?
It seems that El Valle is not about to erupt anytime soon, but it is still an active geothermal field. Thus the warm mineral water springs, and the occasional interest in the development of renewable energy projects wherein water would be pumped into a hole in the ground and turned into steam to power generating turbines.
Above and below we see the edges of the caldera, looking up from El Valle. Photos by Gaenor Speed
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