Hike to the Mythical El Salto – Santa Fe, Panama

This post is available for your listening pleasure on the Boose on the Loose podcast, streaming now on Spotify.

The setting: Santa Fe, Panama: land of beautiful mountains, farms and rainforest.  My boyfriend Ethan and I had arrived in the midst of torrential downpour the previous day and were itching to get out and hike.

Our hostel, La Qhia, provided a link to their blog which contained descriptions of some hikes in the area.  We were only going to be there for 2 days, yet there were endless options and each sounded more incredible than the last.  I gave up and told Ethan to pick one.  After seeing the buzz words “organic farming village,” he selected El Salto. 

The description of El Salto said we would hike out to a little village in the jungle, which sat at the entrance to a short trail which led to a grand waterfall.  If we wanted, we could stop at the village and ask for someone named Egberto.  He owned an organic farm and enjoyed telling travelers about the farm and leading them to the waterfall.  It was also customary to tip him $5.

I downloaded the map and screenshotted the details, and off we went.  We caught the bus, for like $0.40 each, down to a bridge, which was about 2 miles away.  Then from there we began to hike up the “trail”, which was a dirt road with trucks driving on it.  There were farms along the side of the road for most of the way, which surprised me since I’d been expecting jungle.  But I’m not complaining; the views were expansive and impressive and I filled up my phone’s memory with gorgeous landscape photos.

About halfway there, we found a little turquoise swimming hole that looked irresistible. We jumped in the cool water, which felt too perfect for words, and took a short break for snacks & photos. This part was so lovely that I thought it actually would’ve been worth the hike just for this swim. In Texas that would have been enough of a destination on its own! Nobody would expect a bunch of fancy waterfalls on top of that. That tells you just what a special part of the world this is!

When we reached the village the trail led us directly to a shack, in front of which were two young men sitting at a table drinking coffee.  One of them introduced himself as Milton, Egberto’s son, and said he could guide us to the waterfall … after he finished his coffee.  We accepted his offer and then chatted with the two guys until they were done with their beverages.  Milton showed us a map and explained where we were.  His family’s land is actually a bio-reserve containing 22 waterfalls!  He said we could come back another time to see the rest.

Now knowing how much there is to explore out there, I think I would have done this trip a lot differently.  The drivers of the 4WD truck cabs in town quoted $30 to drive to the village.  Next time I would splurge on the taxi ride up there and spend the day exploring the jungle and its plethora of waterfalls.  You would probably need to contact Egberto & Milton ahead of time in order to schedule this type of expedition (email & phone number are shown in the above photo).

Milton hopped up and motioned us to follow him.  His two beagle-esque dogs also accompanied us.  I am so glad we hired this informal guide, because the “short trail” to the waterfall included climbing up some very slick boulders, rope climbing, and even rappelling (sans harness).  It was quite a serious adventure, none of which had been mentioned in the hostel blog.  I’m athletic-ish, but the climbing really pushed me to the limit of my upper-body strength.  Luckily I was able to push through the pain and made it the whole way! Amazingly, the dogs had no problem at all hopping along the rocks.

The waterfall actually has three levels to it, and you can only see one at a time.  We stopped at the first level to jump in the water and swim around.  Then we kept climbing to the other two levels, which were just too impressive to put into words.  Looking at those falls, I felt so insignificant and just in awe of the power of nature.  I just wanted to stay in this place forever and soak it all in.  I knew then, and know for sure now, that photos will never do justice to this experience.

We climbed back down the rocks and walked back to the shack.  Milton asked us to sign his guest book, which contained the name and country of each visitor to the refuge.  Interested, I flipped through the previous pages.  Over the course of the last several years, they’d been visited by lots of Panamanians, a decent amount of Europeans, a few Australians and one Canadian.  Believe it or not, Ethan and I were the first people from the U.S. to have signed the book. 

I tipped Milton and he showed us a short-cut to get back down the mountain.  He took us wading through a river until we found a little foot-path on the side.  He said to follow the path and then waved goodbye. 

Unfortunately the path led us to a neighboring farm where a pack of barking dogs descended on us.  Nobody got bit but it was rather scary nonetheless.  I followed the path for another couple of minutes until we came to a closed gate.  At that point I chickened out and determined it would be safer to walk back to the road.

It was late afternoon and we still had a long walk home.  Ethan was starting to complain of blisters.  Just as I was starting to feel like I wanted to give up and spend the night on the mountain, a friendly family in a truck pulled up and asked if we wanted a ride back to the highway.  I was so relieved. 

We got back to the hostel and immediately collapsed in hammocks.  It was a long but rewarding day. 

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