The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music
Ariel Blanco and friends jamming at La Casita de Don Daniel
It has happened to us all. A guest arrives from out of town. What to do with them that is different? Once in a while, an experience moves you so much you just can't stop talking about it. Just such an experience happened last weekend in El Valle.
Our friend Kathy came to stay with us form Canada. Our weekend started with a simple trip to the market in El Valle to buy the legendary black earth that makes plants bloom and gardens flourish.
He arranged for an incredible tour of The Valley so we could experience the music and the magic of the mountains first-hand.
My companions for the day - two beautiful blondes, Kathy and Yolanda, felt they needed a break from the hectic pace and heat of the beaches. Sometimes my job just sucks, but I manage to brave through it.
Our morning began with a relaxed drive through The Valley, stopping at Bambusillo Art Gallery, then the El Valle Gourmet Coffee shop for an expresso, and then on to the famous farmer's market.
No trip to The Valley would be complete without a stop at Ty's Sports Bar for refreshments and the hospitality of Ty and Michelle Miller - two PanaCanadians originally from the St. Catherine's, Ontario area. They now run the best sports bar in The Valley, and make a fantastic burger, as we discovered. Plasma screens, karaoke machines and great rock 'n roll music makes this place hop almost every night. Rumor is that Ty's Sports Bar franchises may be popping up in other areas of Panama soon. It is easy to find - right on the main Street next to Melo and Digicel shops.
. A little taste of Canada in El Valle - on the main street.
It was raining the day we visited The Valley, otherwise I would have taken my guests to El Nispero; the animal sanctuary, which has a wonderful collection of rescued exotic birds and animals, and is home to the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center which is working to save the endangered golden frog.
Michael arranged dinner for us at one of the most famous restaurants in El Valle (also on the Main Street) Restaurante Brushetta, recently moved to its new located in the Anton Valley Hotel, across the street from the church, just down from the market. (6518- 4416)
Self-taught chef/owner Mario Mata is as charming as he is talented. He is a consummate host, making every guest feel at home and a part of his family. He deftly introduces guests to each other, helping newcomers to make new friends.
However it is in the kitchen that Sr. Mata's star shines the brightest. As the founder of a chef school in Canada, I knew enough to turn him loose - asking him to cook whatever he wanted for us - and he did.
This man cooks with passion, and his subtly spiced and complex combinations surprise and tantalize the taste buds. He genuinely delights in pleasing his discerning customers.
We starting with a signature brushetta of diced - not crushed- tomatoes, olive oil, garlic and spices on a specially-made fresh flat bread was a meal in itself.
Signature tomato garlic brushetta - one of many different brochettas Mario serves at - Brochettas
Our main dishes were to die for. (Mata means " he kills") Killing us with kindness, Mario served up my stuffed garlic lagostinos - this was simply the best I have ever had anywhere. Period.
Kathy's garlic pesto pasta was perfectly el dente, fresh and delicious. Yolanda had a wonderful fillet of sea bass still swimming in garlic and olive oil, it was so fresh.
Sharing a glass of wine with some charming folks who live in El Valle, I asked what they loved best about the area. They told me they had come directly from the airport to Brushettas for dinner, before even unloading their suitcases. I can understand why.
Despite protests of diets and being sated, Mario presented us with a caramel cheesecake flan and three spoons, with delightfully light caramel sauce. Heaven serves this exact dish I am told (never having visited there myself, I have to take my companion's word for it).
The charming and talented Chef Mario Mata of Restaurante Brushetta
Our night was not over yet as we were welcomed to La Casita de Don Daniel. A beautiful home overhanging the river with overnight camping, a dining room, a pool table and a bar. Follow the main road out of town towards the waterfall. Look which direction the guitars on the La Casita signs are pointing. Go that way. www.lacasitadedondaniel.com
The pool table adds to the homey feel of La Casita de Don Daniel 6615-5511
Even a power failure and heavy rains could not dampen the spirit of the crowd. The drummers drummed and the people sang in the darkness as candles were handed out. It just added to the magic of the night.
We have friends coming in next Friday and hope to return for the 9 o'clock jam. I am told even Michael from Yoguini's sits in on the piano from time to time. I wonder if they want me to bring my accordion? I will ask.
As the lights went out at La Casita de Don Daniel, so did I, and needing my beauty rest, we headed back to the Yoguini Spa.
The hills truly were filled with the sound of music that night. A standing room only performance of Music in the Mountains took place at Los Mandarinos, an outdoor opera concert to support the Opera School. It featured Italian tenor Angelo Ferrari and Maestro Martin Yadzik from New York City and seven other soloists and performers.
Our visit to the Yoguini Spa was unquestionably the highlight of our trip. Upon arrival we were greeted by the lovely Julissa and seated on comfortable leather couches out on the patio. She served us a calming chamomile and honey tea.
Whatever stress the beaches may have created in my guests was washed away by the soothing sounds of new age music (I loved the music so much Michael burned me some disks - I am writing to them right now). It is like taking a musical tour of the world.
We all slept like babies, and awoke refreshed and energized, ready for our massages. Kathy was in Panama for dental surgery and really was under stress. My left calf has been cramped since coming in from Canada a week before, and I was suffering from lower back pain. Honest.
Michael began with a beautiful patio-side serenade on the piano of music he composed for a recently deceased friend - a lovely, relaxing new age tribute. He has a very gentle and calming way about him, even as he speaks with obvious passion about El Valle.
A sweet serenade before Michael performs his healing massage.
Michael has developed his own style of healing massage and offers an unusual twist - a four hand massage, together with his assistant, Julissa.
Kathy and I both elect to get the four-hand healing yoga massage. Yolanda decided to read a book during our two and a half-hour massage marathon. The candle-light and soft music may have seemed like a recipe for napping, but Michael's incredible twisting, stretching and deep tissue massage was not conducive to sleep - but it did what two previous trips to the chiropractor in Canada was not able to do - put my lower back in line and relieve what has been two months of lower back pain. That alone was worth the trip to The Valley.
However it did not stop there. Bells tinkling softly, the sound of waterfalls, the smell of the scented oils and the soothing music lulled us. I have never had a massage done to the rhythm of music before - and it was great. They alternated back and forth, at times gentle and soothing, at others energetic and enthusiastic.
Deep breathing helped calm me as Michael worked out the rock-hard knots in my calf muscles. It took fifteen minutes to unlock the cramp in just one of my legs. I had been working really hard physically in Canada without warming up properly - I think I learned my lesson this time. I am not twenty years old anymore.
Positive endorphins flooded my mind. My body began to seep into the massage table and become one with the furniture. Just as I felt myself drifting off, they team up into what can only be described as the most decadent, relaxing and therapeutic massage I have ever had. They are a gifted and talented team.
Michael and Julissa performing their famous four-hand healing yoga massage.
Don't tell them, but I would pay double the $120 for this two and a half-hour massage. It is now a week later, and I still feel like a new man.
I have always enjoyed my trips to El Valle, and whenever visitors come to Panama I take them there. However Michael and the new Chamber of Tourism are opening up new experiences to visitors and helping guests find new and different things to do.
It is more than just music that is alive in El Valle. The whole Valley is alive with interesting activities, great food, gorgeous sights and great people.
To find out what's happening this week in El Valle: http://www.antonsvalley.com
Check it out soon - tell them Roberto Chocolaté sent you.
Stay healthy my friends. Roberto
Where to stay in El Valle:
Yoguini Spa: Suite $150, land line 908-7117 cell phone 6150 8083
Anton Valley Hotel: (call for rates) 983-6097
Crater Valley Hotel: ($98 - $126) 983-6942
La Casita de Don Daniel 6615-5511 (camping $5 per night, includes your tent and mattress)
Hostal Cariguana costs $27.50 for 2 people. (this is where Maria Candelaria, the 101-year-old herbalist, still works!)