While my friend had her parents visiting Panama City for a few days, I took off on my own to Playa Farallón down the Pacific Coast and then up to the mountain town of Valle del Antón. I know, I know, I had just been on islands in the middle of the ocean for several days, but I definitely was not beached out yet!
Playa Farallón is a long, clean beach with parts that actually appear to be black sand though it does not go down too far. It’s well-known with the high-end tourists because there is a Decameron resort along the beach, but being the budget traveler I am, I found a cheap little hostel called Taca Tucan Hostel for $15 a night including breakfast in a shared 4-bed dorm which I ended up having to myself both nights. The owner, Trixie, is an Austrian who visited Farallón, liked the community, bought the hostel from another expat family that owned the bar/restaurant down the street, and stayed. Next door, there’s a little coffee shop/homemade pizza place with a unique vibe and great place to meet people, as I did my very first evening there hanging out and having a beer by myself.
To get there sounded complicated, but was surprisingly easy. From the main Albrook bus terminal in Panama City, you ask around and find the ticket window to buy a ticket passing Farallón near Playa Blanca and get on a little mini-van. They drive along the highway and drop you at a cross street near Farallón. You hop out, cross the highway, and wait for another little mini-van to pass, waving your arm for them to stop. Hop in with a bunch of the locals heading to work at the Decameron and ask them to drop you by the iglesia for around 35 cents. This is practically right in front of the hostel as there’s only one road running parallel to the beach. I have to admit though, it would be a lot more complicated if I didn’t have the Spanish.
I spent the next couple days lounging on the beach, hanging out with some people I met, including a Panamanian with a Swedish guy that’s been living in Tokyo for the past 10 years, and then an Argentinian guy that had spent some time in Colombia and now was working at the restaurant for a few months on the beach. He showed me a massive tree where the roots are out of the ground and it’s like a giant climbing playground and then a beautiful place to watch the sunset as you look out over the expanse of beach. Honestly, I could have easily spent a relaxing week in this area, which cannot even be called a town as it’s little more than a few shops and restaurants along a small strip.
However, I had already made plans to catch three more mini-vans up to Valle del Antón, which I had read about being a cute little mountain village. I stayed at Bodhi hostel which also cost $15 and had a great vibe, but I will admit, the giant dorm with like 32 beds stacked three high was a bit annoying at night for light sleepers like me.
One of the more popular things to do in Valle del Antón is to visit the thermal baths where you can slather your face with the volcanic mud, which supposedly has lots of great minerals for your skin, and then hang out in the water. I got a bit lost walking there, but it’s only about 15 minutes from town so it should be easy to get to. You pay a $3 entrance for upkeep and then choose which volcanic mud you want…one for more sensitive skin or the other one. As you sit around and wait for it to dry, there are small pools for you to soak your feet and chat it up with both the locals and travelers hanging out. A word of caution: don’t wear a light colored bathing suit! After I got out, I realized my suit had turned orange in some parts from the minerals in the water. I had to soak it in vinegar about five times when I returned to get it all out.
A great way to get around Valle del Antón is on bicycles. The next morning, I rented an old school bicycle from the hostel for a few dollars and rode around on it. There are some hikes you can do and some waterfalls you can visit not too far out of town, but I wasn’t in a hiking mood. I did try to find one waterfall through a back way I read about on another blog, may have hopped a few fences, and got myself lost before I gave up. But from what I read and heard from others, they’re worth it to find if you’re there for a few days. I basically explored on bike and then went to the local market in town, where you can buy artisan crafts, typical souvenirs, plants, and produce. One guy was carving little metal plates that he attached to bracelets and necklaces right in front of me. I stopped to talk and he ended up making me a custom tree bracelet on a little bronze plate for just a few dollars.
Getting back to Panama City was easy peasy with all the mini-van hopping, but then there was a major traffic jam that we sat in for over an hour and a half. Luckily, I had books on my phone to keep me company and we weren’t moving, so no motion sickness, yay! Bright and early the next morning, New Years Eve, we were on our way to Quito…