The circuit to El Valle and back, by bus

from the highway
From the Pan-American Highway where you’d turn off to get to my house, the ancient volcano that has Altos de La Estancia on its rim and the town of El Valle of its crater floor, about 30 kilometers away. The mountain hasn’t blown up in 10,000 years, but El Valle still has some warm mineral water springs that belie some magma activity underneath.

Day tripping to El Valle: a five
bus ride photo and gawking tour

photos and comments by Eric Jackson

I get around mainly by bus. I may wear a Detroit Tigers hat in this country of Yankees fans, but it doesn’t make a gearhead, a gringo subject to the Marxist curse of being slave to the machine of me. There are lots of cars on the roads here, but MOST Panamanians get around by public transportation. That still subjects us to the ravages of the internal combustion engine and roads that are generally awful at the moment. It also dooms us to living amidst the gaffes of too many politicians whose thinking equates the physical design of the places where we live for the convenience of cars rather than people to be “progress.”

One of the things that I have done for years, and especially began to do in earnest with the onset of the COVID epidemic, is observe what I see while riding on a bus and try to draw some social, economic, cultural, political and environmental sense of it. This time, it was a trip that has a small part through Panama Oeste province’s San Carlos district but was mainly through Cocle province’s large Anton municipal district, which touches both the Pacific Ocean and the Continental Divide. My downscale barrio of El Bajito and the upscale mountain town of El Valle are both within it.

It’s the every five years election campaign season, the waning days — I hope and some experts predict — of a beastly El Niño drought, and a time of uneven and faltering economic recovery from a worldwide catastrophic plague. There are signs to be seen from a bus window, and while walking or sitting between bus rides.

Some of the signs are literally that — the banners, posters and billboards that candidates and parties put up for the season. Different campaigns have different strategies, strongholds, resources and needs, so an always inexact attempt to estimate how things are going by the outward appearances of sign wars can lead to errors in the simplest of times, let alone in a present-day Panama of severe political fragmentation. WHICH CAUSE is winning the sign wars on this circuit around Anton? CLEARLY it’s “Se Vemde.”

The first leg of my day trip, from my house by foot to the bus stop, then on a San Juan de Dios to Anton bus into the town of Anton, belies some noteworthy political things. All these PRD banners, and poster and signs for our incumbent perredista representante, Carlos Fernández, plus all of these piles of sand and stacks of building blocks on many properties reflecting his distribution of political patronage spoils, those do impress. But those are not present at most places in the corregimiento. There would have to be a huge tidal wave against the currently ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party to sweep Fernández out of office, which might happen but which I don’t expect.

Visible on this leg of the journey are a lot of Rómulo Roux things, both Panameñista and Cambio Democratico, some of them unexpected. A prominently and traditionally MOLIRENA household with Roux stuff — there IS something to these reports of a Nationalist Republican Liberal Movement split, with a faction of the fighting rooster party departing from the alliance with the PRD and opting for corporate lawyer Rómulo Roux’s Democratic Change and Panameñista Party coalition instead. Off the bus in Anton, to grab newspapers and breakfast — tangerines, Powerade, hampao and empanadas — and make a few observations.

Here CD and the Panameñistas may be running together, but it’s the Cambio Democratico guy, El Capi Carrasquilla asking for votes to take PRD incumbent Melchor Herrera’s seat in the National Assembly.
Notwithstanding the alliance headed by the CD’s Roux and his running mate the Panameñista former mayor of Panama City José Isabel Blandón, Ricardo Solís Ponce, son of the comptroller general, is running against both the CD’s Carrasquilla and the PRD’s Herrera for that seat in the legislature.

Well, what about this time of seven presidential tickets and more fragmentation within those alliances in the down-ballot races? Do all the people in the houses with the PRD flags intend to vote for Gaby Carrizo for president, or are some of them Carlos Fernández’s people who my go elsewhere in their presidential choices? There are Panameñista flags, and Roux signs, but no outward indication of Solís or Carrasquilla support. Ricardo Lombana’s Movimiento Otro Camino has flags out and some signs for Lombana specifically, but from a bus going through the corregimiento of Juan Diaz you don’t see signs of his down-ticket running mates, even though they have been out campaigning in the neighborhood. Then there are the Martinelistas — you see RM flags here and there but Don Ricky is not going to be on the ballot. He will be in prison or holed up in the Nicaraguan Embassy, and former Panama Canal Authority board member Lourde “Lulu” Castillo is running hard on the RM ticket to represent Anton in the legislature, but especially for the presidency it’s difficult to fathom where Ricardo Martinelli supporters are going to go. Yes, he has anointed a stand-in, but even if “RM” stands for Realizando Metas it means Ricardo Martinelli, as egotistical and personalist a politician as they get and thus not all that transferrable a brand. We saw that in the 2014 election and the ineffectiveness of surrogacy is probably still a factor.

Is the political science of observing the advertising wars a science at all? Well, with due humility, an INEXACT one. Polls are snapshots in time, watching the publicity is another set of indications but unless something goes dangerously wrong we learn the final score sometime on the evening of May 5, or shortly thereafter.

The second leg — Anton to Las Uvas

Onto another bus, headed toward Panama City but I will get off well before then. Politics have somewhat revived what had been a moribund billboard industry, but economic observation kicks into higher gear.

Work continues, ever so slowly, on matchbox home subdivisions, based on the failed US 1950s and 60s model. Intended for whom? Residential tourism? A middle class that works where? At a glance, sales and occupancy are very slow.

There is this garish new sign, in the now usual style, at the entrada to Juan Hombron. Plus a new caseta there, looking better built than the usual.

In Rio Hato as well, a new sign is in, poorly placed so as to obscure the view of a long-standing little religious shrine. The economy of solid old houses torn down to leave matchbox dwellings as an alternative is the long-running and still very much in evidence tale of this town first established by freed slaves. There are abandoned businesses, and “new” business premises built years ago but never occupied. No planes at the airport when we went by that, either.

Farther on, in and just past Santa Clara, a few old businesses have new management. In Las Guias, then into Panama Oeste and La Ermita and El Higo, there is a bit of construction, mostly private homes, but the look is of business decline or stagnation.

Getting off the bus at Las Uvas, then crossing the pedestrian overpass I noticed this string of little plastic Panamanian flags, tattered and twisted and largely obscured from the view of drivers. The representante’s crew, or whoever, failed to take down the decorations for last November’s patriotic holidays. The country WAS on strike then, but still….

Uphill from Las Uvas

Got onto an overcrowded little bus as soon as I got off of the pedestrian bridge, and unlike the usual found that I was not the only fulo. One gringo got off the bus a few miles up the road in El Copecito. That elderly couple behind me — was that Dutch, or German, that they were speaking? The 60ish woman with the tattoo — a gringa? Along the way there was plenty of advertising in English for real estate or lodging. 

Up to the top of that side of the crater rim, and over. Those folks who volunteer their labor to clean up the lookout had done their job well on this morning.

Do golden frogs say “ribit?” Or do the ones who hang out drinking coffee speak French and smoke cigarettes?

El Valle on a dry Thursday morning

First stop, just up the street and across the street from the bank and its ATM. No, the big check for which I have been waiting has not arrived. It would be far from enough for me to move to Millionaire’s Row in any case.

But before I got to the Caja de Ahorros, a voice came up from behind, warning me that I was walking in the bicycle path. I stepped out of the way and apologized.

El Valle’s bike path system was underway before COVID, its development continued before and after the lockdown and now years of work show in a marked increase in its use. It’s one of several signs that El Valle is well run little town. So does the alcalde claim credit? The representante? The diputado? I think they all had their parts, as did some ministries. Money spent on worthy things, and money allocated and blown, are different things. This is something that went right.

Was it that El Valle is upscale enough that people there had the resource to go on through the hard times working for a better day? That SOMEBODY would appreciate and buy those carefully painted little wooden hummingbirds?


That even as the upscale tourists and the millionaires who have their mountain cottages here might come and go and consider decorative effects, the more plebian customers for whom fish baskets are thought of in utilitarian terms would be back on a better day too?


The museums that tend to grab this reporter’s attention were all up and running, with mostly foreigners on the premises. However, I have also seen kids taken through the local historical museum, dedicated to the tragic Liberal guerrilla general Victoriano Lorenzo, and told by their teachers variations on “This is who we are.”

On the other hand, nature displays on other premises neglect to mention the dreaded man-eating bespectacled fleebydoo moth. Could this be a mythical beast? Shouldn’t there be another museum that features it, and The Tulivieja?


Politically? Is it a mistake to play mostly to the upscale residents of the crater floor, rather than those of more modest means who may work or sell there but live on the surrounding hillsides? The Roux presidential campaign and Lulu Castillo’s RM campaign for the legislature are the most visibly present political expressions in town.

Unless, that is, you consider versions of “clean up after yourself” or “appreciate and respect nature” to be political statements. Those are very big in El Valle. Plus odd reminders to react to wildlife with patience rather than fear.}


Signs of economic activity? Some abandoned things, not nearly so many as during the epidemic, and some things that went out of business forever or temporarily being renovated for new occupancy. And all these new businesses!

A lot are oriented toward tourists. If you LIVE there, wouldn’t you want to just keep your own bicycle, traditional or electric, if that’s a big thing in your life? But if you are a tourist, or a resident trying something new…


This being a Thursday, the market offerings were fewer than usual. I didn’t find any seedlings that I wanted for my farm there on this morning. There are other places in El Valle where I could have found these things, but that sort of shopping was something I didn’t want to do. Otra vez. Grabbed me a cup of coffee at the fonda inside the market, some cat and dog food at Melo, a few other things at the supermarket across from the public market and waited a little while for the next bus.

Up and back

The longer in distance but shorter in time way back would have been to grab an El Valle to Penonome bus and make my way home from Penonome, I took the more direct and time-consuming way and soon enough an El Valle to Altos de La Estancia bus showed up.

On the treacherous road up to the volcano rim we were briefly stopped on a bridge over the La Estancia River. “La Estancia” has various meanings in Spanish, the one I take most likely here meaning “the little farm.” We have had a little rain in Anton these past few day, and surely a bit more in the highlands. So the Rio La Estancia had water in it this time, just a relative trickle.


I got off at the caseta across from the mini-super atop the volcano’s rim and waited. And waited. And took pictures.

What kind of looked like a PAIS party scout group, decked out in their orange and white party colors, hiked by. There are Panamanian laws and general ethical concerns about using the photos of minors, especially if it gets interpreted as the promotion of a partisan campaign. I didn’t take their picture,

Some interesting birds stopped nearby, but I wasn’t close enough to get usable photos.

Looking out the back way toward the mountains of Penonome and beyond, I took this picture of the flora and backdrop. In this weird El Niño year things are flowering and fruiting at somewhat unusual times. A flower picture only tour of this circuit would be an interesting enough task, and would be different in the various times of the year, even a normal year.


Eventually a bus headed “the back way” toward Anton showed up. We wound our way downhill and through what’s more or less the Bible Belt of Anton district. Lots of signs with Lulu Castillo making her pitch to the Martinelistas’ Evangelical base. A bunch of Roux signs probably making the pitch to the same people. A number of houses painting that garish pink that’s one of the Cambio Democratico colors — was this a Roux campaign expenditure? But as soundly thrashing the politicians as “For Sale” did on the first part of this tour, Christian symbols, images, houses of worship and artwork dominated along this way.


So are Jesus, the Virgin Mary and the saints on a roll this election season? Or shall people argue about which version of the Bible, which denomination and who was the cooler saint? Or if Taylor Swift’s boyfriend is actually adept at drop-kicking footballs or people through the goalposts of life? Reading the signs from a passing bus, as noted is not an exact science. Especially when religious beliefs and shifting political events and fortunes come into the mix.

I got home in time for the animals to be fed in time. I got too much sun for a day’s work but it’s a photo excursion that I have taken before and will probably take again. 


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