The Little Switzerland of Panama — Volcan, Where the Temperature and the People are Cool
The second largest city in Panama is David, a not-so-hectic alternative to the bright lights, construction noise, and traffic congestion of Panama’s main business hub. Perhaps the greatest thing about the area around David, is the option to escape the city all together and move to one of the smaller towns that dot the country’s interior.
Closer to Panama City, you have fewer lifestyle options, and definitely less high-elevation towns (I’m not saying there aren’t any—just less). Once you pass Santiago on the Pan-American Highway, you find great places to base your new lifestyle from; towns like David, Boquete, Las Lajas, Dolega, Bocas del Toro, and this month’s feature destination, Volcan.
Don’t worry, we’ll touch on all those other towns mentioned in later addtions of Panama For Real.
This month, we’re taking you about an hour and a half drive farther than David, to the mountain town that, to me, looks a lot like a small Colorado town, minus the snow capped peeks.
To get to Volcan, you’ll pass David on the Pan-American Highway. Just keep going straight. Don’t turn towards Boquete. Maybe twenty minutes outside of David, you’ll come to the small town of Concepcion, and you’ll see the signs telling you that Volcan is to the right. Follow the signs and make your turn. From there you’ll have about a thirty to forty-five minute drive up to Volcan.
The main road leading to Volcan, Cerro Punta, and even towards the new road that can take you to Boquete, is very smooth and gentle on your car. Unlike some of the other mountain areas I’ve visited, there were no seriously steep inclines on the way into town. This is a plus when you have a car, like to ride a motorcycle, or want to rent your wheels, but don’t feel like splurging on a 4×4 vehicle.
I’ll talk more about the roads in town later, some of which are in pretty bad condition, but you can easily get to town, in a regular car. We drove a Suzuki Swift, which if you’ve never seen one, they’re like little go-karts. I love the car, especially when searching for parking in Panama City, but it’s not what you’d expect someone to be driving when they say they’re headed up into the mountains.
Speedsters, usually young teenagers from the area, tend to zip their way back and forth from one lane to the other, as they’re headed home or down towards David, so keep your wits about you as you travel the main road. I’d been to Volcan once before making this PFR trip, but still, I drove slowly so I could take in the beautiful scenery. Apparently this frustrated people behind me as they whipped around me every chance they could get. Don’t let it piss you off. Just let them go. Take your time.
Something else to keep in mind as you’re headed uphill is that this is cattle country. Marlene and I realized on this trip, that every milk producer in the country has a farm or two or eleven somewhere along the main road. We saw La Chiricana (my favorite milk), La Estrella Azul, Nevada, and Bonlac farms alongside the road. We even had to stop at one point for farmers leading their herd across the road.
The lack of guardrails on many parts of the road is another concern. It’s not a dangerous drive. Not at all. Not if you drive like a normal, sane person, but it’s good to know that some of the turns should be taken a little slower than others.
Since I’m talking about getting to Volcan, I have to mention El Mirador, an important pit stop and restaurant you’ll find just before you reach town. It’s a large, white and brown building on the left hand side of the main road. It’s one of those places all locals stop at on the way to Volcan. Usually the place is jam-packed. Just a heads up, when you enter the building, you’ll find two lines. If you’re facing the counters, the line to the right is just for empanadas, tortillas, and things like that.
The line to the left (where you see Marelene standing in the photo above) is where you want to go for one of their delicious strawberry shakes (batido de fresa) or their cheeseburgers, which are also very good. The burgers aren’t “Man Vs Food” great, but they’re a good snack, and they’re quite inexpensive, at only $1.25 apiece. They’re simple; just a patty, cheese, and lettuce, on a bun that’s squished down and grilled. The pineapple shakes are great too.
Before reaching Volcan, you’ll come to a small town called Cuesta de Piedra, where you’ll have the option to make another pit stop and check out Cañon de Macho de Monte. We did this on our trip, and I’m glad we did. It was awesome.
To get there, all you have to do is follow the signs. Turn right off the main road, then make another right and keep going. Parking at Cañon de Macho de Monte is a bit scary though. You’ll need to park roadside and just make sure you’re far enough away from the curved road so that no one barrels into your car. I was amazed by where some others were parking.
I was with my wife, her sister, and my four kids, so we weren’t going to try to figure out how to climb down into the canyon, but as you can see from the following photo, it’s definitely possible to get down there. These guys were wading through the water, having a great time.
Across the street from the little bridge, you can actually walk out and look over the edge of what is a waterfall during the winter season. In April, when we visited, it’s dried up, which allowed us to get closer to the edge and see the beatufiul, water-filled, rocky canyon below.
My sister-in-law, Darlene, is a doctor in David, and she’s spent quite a bit of time in the remote medical stations set up to allow people from small towns in Panama’s interior to get medical care. One of these small stations is parked between Cañon de Macho de Monte and Volcan, on a back road. Darlene told us to keep going straight, past the canyon, if we wanted to get some spectacular photos. She wasn’t kidding. I’d taken the main road into Volcan before, and it’s beautiful, but if she hadn’t taken us the back way in, we would have missed some amazing photos.
Since we’re talking about getting to Volcan, let me back up a bit and just tell you that if you keep going straight past the turn off we made at Cuesta de Piedra, you’ll run right into the huge sign that says Bienvenidos a Volcan (Welcome to Volcan). So it’s not necessary to take the back way I’m talking about now. And actually, it’s not even a back way. It ends up leading you out to the main road again, just before the “Welcome to Volcan” sign, so I guess you can say it’s really just a scenic detour.
Taking the Scenic Route
You’ll find several steep inclines on this scenic route, but again, we were in a Suzuki Swift, and we were fine. That said, this was a beautiful, tranquil drive into Volcan. I’ve never seen anything like it. Being a country boy, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, every open field or prairie is like comfort food for my soul.
Look at this photo we took on the way into town. It’s so simple. It’s nothing but a small shack-like house at the end of a field, with mountains rising up in the background, but it caught my attention enough to make me stop the car and tell everyone to get out. It was the perfect place to do a little filming and for snapping a family photo.
I wouldn’t recommend taking this back-road route at night, as we only passed a few people while on the road, so a late night break down could mean being stranded for a little while, that or a long walk back to the main road.
At one point we passed a group of young twenty-somethings who’d parked their truck on the shoulder of the road, dragged some lawn chairs under the shade of a tree, and were drinking beer out of a cooler. I swear it’s something I’d expect to see back in Oklahoma, or in Texas somewhere, but they get down like that in Panama too? As Tim McGraw would say, “It’s just country boys and girls gettin’ down on the farm.”
I had to stop the car a second time when we saw this pond. One thing I have to say about the entire Volcan area is the clouds seem so alive. I don’t know how to explain it. In every picture taken, the clouds stand out as much as the mountains. They’re stunning.
No matter which route you take, you still end up in the town of Volcan, a spread out village located at 1,400 meters (4,617 feet) above sea level. It’s been described as similar to Boquete, but much less congested. I’d have to agree. I’ve read in a lot of expat blogs that more and more foreigners have settled down in Volcan, but suprisingly, I didn’t see as many as expected, which definitely wouldn’t be the case in Boquete.
As you enter town, after passing under the welcome sign, you’re greeted with a few small homes and businesses on both sides of the road. It’s all green land until you reach what’s considered the town center, where even there, things are pretty spread out.
You could easily walk around the main part of town, but what makes it a little bit different from most other towns, except maybe El Valle, is its lack of an established, nailed down town center. What I mean by that is there’s no huge church with a gazebo, where everything is set up in a square, to mark the…well…town square.
Some might argue that the park (near the firehouse) is kind of a square, although it is technically a square, by shape, and it does have a gazebo of sorts, there’s no significant anchor to establish it as the main town center. You won’t find a town hall or anything like that there. Surrounding that park is a fire station, a hostel, and a store that happens to sell 5 pound bags of rice for $1.50. Now, that’s a bargain.
With plenty of small businesses lined up on both sides of the main street, you see locals and foreigners alike walking and riding bicycles through town. I spent some time on foot and in the car navigating the streets, and although the main road through town is well paved, the side streets can be a bit iffy. Some are downright dangerous for a small car.
Some streets are completely paved and smooth, some are full of potholes, many are only half-paved and then suddenly end in a dirt, rocky mess, and some are completely unpaved. On a few of the side streets, I attempted to make my way through, but then feared for the safety of the little Suzuki and made a U-turn. Even the smallest of rocks takes a chunk out of the bottom of that thing, and I wouldn’t describe many of the Volcan roads’ rocks as small. Little boulders is more like it.
You won’t find a Rey, Super 99, Xtra, or El Machetazo, which are the main supermarkets in Panama City, but Volcan has several mini-supermarkets and a couple of fairly large supermarkets. We stopped by the Berard grocery store while we were there, and it’s not a huge mega-store like the large supermarkets in Panama City or like you’d be used to in the States, but it sold all of the necessities, and even bicycles and some hardware items.
At the back of the store there was a butcher area with all the main cuts of meat you might want to buy. For the most part, you should be able to get any foods in town. Not to mention the fresh fish you can buy, right in town, or that you might catch yourself at one of the Volcan-area rivers.
Fresh fruits and vegetables can be easily acquired in Volcan. We stopped by a small kiosk along the road that leads up to Cerro Punta, and it sold everything strawberry. If what you wanted didn’t require strawberries, you’d better gt on down the road. This place sold plain ol’ strawberries, strawberry sundaes, strawberry smoothies, and just about everything else you can imagine having strawberries in it.
Other than milk and strawberries, the area is also well known for supplying cabbage, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, corn, tomatoes, and the list goes on and on. It’s kind of a farmer’s paradise, and with spring like temperatures year round, it’s the perfect place to set up your own garden.
In Volcan, it’s common to see markets set up along the side of the road. You’d honestly never need to enter a grocery store for fruits and vegetables again. Just buy from the local farmers. The cool thing is some of these local entrepreneurs sell bags already filled with a mixture of their wares. You just drive up, throw your car into park, grab a bag, pay the man/woman, and be on your way. I’m a big fan of buying from street-side vendors. It helps buy dinner for a local family while putting food on your table at the same time.
Infrastructure And Everything Else
To put it simply, Volcan is a place anyone can make an easy life. The infrastructure in town is great. Electricity, for the most part, is uninterrupted. In some ways it may be better than in Panama City, where it seems that power dips in and out whenever it gets the urge. Water is drinkable from the tap, and if you’re not comfortable with drinking tap water, bottled water is available at all of the mini-supers in town.
Internet and Cable packages are available from all of the major suppliers, and you can usually pick up one of the combination packages that covers home phone, Internet, and Cable TV for about $45 per month. The main cable providers in Panama are:
I figure the best way is to just give you the websites, as listed above. Most of these sites have the option to be translated in English. Which is the best? I honestly don’t know. It seems, from what I’ve gathered from most of my English speaking friends, that Sky is one of the best. I’ve used all of them at some point, except Claro. I remember the only issue I had with Sky, being that it was satellite TV, was the amount of downtime whenever it rained heavily. All of these companies will have options for changing your channels over to English (for the most part). Some channels will remain in Spanish. My kids are frustrated right now with CableOnda because some of the cartoon channels can’t be changed to English.
I’ve already written enough about the quality of the roads. The main streets are fine, but many of the side streets aren’t in the greatest condition. Banking can be conveniently taken care of in Volcan. I didn’t count the banks while in town, but I know there is a branch of Banistmo (was HSBC) and a Banco Nacional de Panamá, both with ATM machines, so accessing cash won’t be an issue either. Plus, as I mentioned before, David has all of the major banks in town, and with it being only a short drive away, you can plan a trip to your branch if needed.
As with most towns in the interior, you’ll have no problem keeping in touch with family in other countries. If you don’t care to have Internet at your home, you’ll find several Internet cafes in town. The Western Union, which you can see a few photos up, will allow you to send and receive money easily.
For anyone with school-age children considering this move, we did see a public school in town. This would probably be an all Spanish school though, like most public schools in Panama. What some expat families have done in other towns in the interior is send their kids to school half the day at the local, Panamanian public school, then have them finish the day with a stay at home program, usually computer based. So you can still make this move with young kids.
What’s there to do in town?
Volcan definitely doesn’t have the hoppin’ nightlife of Calle Uruguay in Panama City, but compared to the other small towns surrounding Volcan, it has the best nightlife around. At least in Volcan you’ll find a couple of bars, a disco, and even a pool hall.
If you don’t need the bright lights or the chance to hop from taxi to taxi as you hit the main city street for great shopping, Volcan just might be the place for you. It’s a fisherman’s dream. Swarms of locals head to Volcan for the chance to relax on the banks of the area’s rivers and fish ‘till the sun goes down. It’s that kind of place. If a beer in one hand and a fishing pole in the other sounds like heaven, Volcan should provide just the entertainment you need.
Other outdoors excitement like hiking the many trails in town, and of course, climbing to the top of Volcan Baru, will keep adventure-bound people busy for quite some time, and since there’s no threat of snow in this mountain area (although the top of Volcan Baru gets quite chilly) the fun is year-round.
For anyone else, it might be considered boring. It really is a place to settle down and relax. You won’t find a shopping mall, fast-food chains, or a movie theater in Volcan or its neighboring towns. Restaurants and even small, charming cafes dot the main street in town, but everything there is very local.
If you have kids, you’ll be happy to know there’s a restaurant filled with fun things for the little ones. It’s called Kid’s World and it’s located right off the main street. The front of the place looks kind of like a charming old Western plaza, and inside is filled with video games, pool tables, and other entertaining items for kids.
You won’t find major shopping centers or department stores in Volcan, but we did pass two stores advertising that they sold American clothing. You’ll have to head to David for your nearest shopping mall, but if you just need to run in and buy a pair of underwear, socks, a couple of bras and a few T-shirts, you should be able to accomplish that without leaving town.
If it’s souvenir-style digs you’re after, these can be picked up roadside from this vendor. Caps, T-shirts, sandals, backpacks, this dude has a little of it all.
Places of worship
Catholicism is the most dominant religion in Panama. It’s probably safe to say that in every town in Panama, whether in the middle of the city, or in the deepest, most off-the-beaten-trail villages in the country’s interior, you’ll find a Catholic church. That holds true in Volcan as well, where the first church I noticed, was a small Catholic one.
In addition to the Catholic church, we also noticed a 7th Day Adventist, a small Evangelic (I think), and a large Christian center. We drove up and down every road, and walked many of them during our trip to Volcan, but it’s easy to miss things, so there may be other churches in town. We’ve noticed during trips to other small towns, that oftentimes people will simply gather in someone’s home to worship, instead of congregating in an established church.
Would I need to leave Volcan to visit a doctor?
Not at all. You won’t find a large hospital in Volcan. For that, you’d probably want to travel to David, where you’ll find several large hospitals. However, for routine doctor visits and most other medical needs, you wouldn’t need to leave Volcan.
Volcan had plenty of pharmacies, a laboratory, and I saw one small clinic, plus a Centro de Salud, which is the social security clinic here in Panama.
I even saw a sign announcing that a new hospital was on its way to the area. I’m not sure when it will be built, but if it’s true, that would be great for this area, and would mean less trips to David.
Is this an affordable retirement haven?
While there’s a lot of truth to what’s being said about Panama City not being a cheap retirement haven anymore, towns outside of the city offer a lot of what the city doesn’t, at a fraction of the cost. At the time of writing this, I found a two-bedroom home for sale in Volcan, with a fenced in yard, for $75,000. This was a 1,000m2 home (a little over 10,750 sqft.)
A different home, which was about the same size, but had a little more going for it with 3 bedrooms, 2 bath, 2 terraces, and a 2-car garage, was going for $165,000. Now, that’s not super cheap, but if you compare that to what the cost of a 3-bedroom condo is going for in Boca Raton, Florida, you’re getting much more bang for your buck in Volcan.
Rentals in Volcan would start somewhere around the $850 per month range. Remember though, you probably wouldn’t spend much on electricity as the temperatures in Volcan are very comfortable all year long, meaning you won’t need to use an air conditioner. A ceiling fan would suffice.
I always tell people to rent before they buy. This is important anywhere in the world, and definitely in Panama. People read the Internet articles, see all the colorful photos, then come here expecting this place to be paradise. It has its ups and downs. Just check out the expat blogs and you’ll see that a lot of people come here with intentions to retire here, but after a week’s visit, they’re back home, writing about how Panama just isn’t for them. For this reason, you need to spend some time in the area you might be considering living. If possible, rent for a year. I know that’s a long time, but if you’re not willing to wait that long, at least rent for a couple of months. Make sure Volcan is the place you want to be.
I saw the ad in the photo above posted inside one of the supermarkets in town. For only $150 per month, a couple (or two people willing to live together) can rent a cabaña (like a cabin) with hot water, electricity, and garbage collection included. Sounds like a great deal, but I’ve never seen the place, so if you’re interested, make sure you at least ask for a couple of photos before agreeing to anything.
Hotel Bambito Resort, one of the nicest hotels in the area can be found on the road that leads up to Cerro Punta. We also noticed many smaller hostals along the main road in town, and even a few signs advertising specials for cabaña rentals. Any of these could be good temporary housing while you spend some time in Volcan and make sure it’s right for you.
I’ve already written about the affordable cost of food in this region. Buy from the local markets and farmers as often as possible and your grocery cost should be on the low side. Your budget can increase greatly if you plan to eat in town restaurants all the time or if you travel to David constantly for a night out or to pick up imported goods. Spend most of your time in Volcan and you can live on a fairly low budget. Take a look at this chart I put together:
|Rent||2 Bedroom house||$850|
|Electricity||Won't need AC, only ceiling fans||$75|
|Gas||For cooking and dryer (2 small tanks)||$10|
|Phone card for calling the U.S. (if you don't use Skype/MagicJack)||Telechip International, for 5 hours talk time||$5|
|Food||For 2 people||$300|
|Entertainment||Dining out, bars, playing pool, not much else in town to pay for||$100|
|Routine Doctor Visit||Once per month for each person ($25 each)||$50|
|Medication||Varies, but for my monthly high blood pressure and diabetes meds this is what I'd pay just to give you an idea||$45|
|Getting around town||Buses and taxis||$20|
|Travel outside of town (to David once a week)||By bus||$40|
|Extras||Other things you may need||$50|
|Total Monthly Expenses||For 2 people||$1,590|
Don’t forget, you can see all of the budgets we’ve put together for all of the locations we’ve visited by clicking on Budget Snapshot up in the main menu.
My overall gut feeling?
I liked Volcan a lot. You can feel the temperature lower as you reach higher into the mountains and get closer to town. It’s fresh air and spectacular nature all around, and that brings an amazing feeling. The main road is filled with people walking from storefront to storefront and once you get beyond all that, there’s nothing but raw beauty.
Pass straight through town and head up into the mountains. First, you’ll cross a bridge and cows grazing on the side of the road, then you’ll find yourself climbing steeper and steeper up the mountain. We did this, and at one point, we just stopped our car, climbed out, and snapped a few pictures. We had no idea where the road was going to lead (I think it’s the road to Boquete, forgive me if I’m wrong), so we stopped and enjoyed the scenery before heading back down, as this trip was only for focusing on Volcan. The view from up there was amazing though.
A short drive up one of the other roads in town will lead you to Cerro Punta, another beautiful, super-chill town in Panama. I’ll be visiting Cerro Punta in a future issue of Panama For Real. It’s just so amazing to me how extraordinary the views are from both Volcan and Cerro Punta. It’s truly incredible.
l can definitely imagine settling down here with my wife, and a couple of dogs, later on in life. Right now, it wouldn’t make sense for me, having a young family. There’s just not enough to keep my kids amused and I think schooling my children would be a bit of a hassle. Sure, as I mentioned earlier, I did see a school here, but I’m not ready to put my kids in a public school at this point, and I’m not ready for homeschooling or computer-based learning either.
However, if you want to be surrounded by nature, in a place where you’d rarely, if ever, need an air conditioner, where you can sit out on your front porch with a book and relax in a the brisk breeze, then Volcan would be a great place to retire, and the best thing about it is that it’s not far from David where you can escape the seclusion and dip into the city from time to time. It’s mountain living, minus the snow.
I loved Volcan, and I think you will too.
To see the Volcan Video Report click here.
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