Altos del Maria— Shangri-La Enchantment in Panama

One can look at a map of Panama and see it as would an early engineer, as an earth moving project. There, where the raised land is as narrow as a sandbar on the globe, and the two giant fraternal land masses balance on either side of the equator, Panama is like the stretched middle of a twisted water balloon, and anyone with an imagination tuned to navigation, would place an inland waterway there to connect the oceans, dug to accommodate the cargo of deep-hulled ships.  But when one is on the high elevations of Altos del Maria, the rarity of the view is not seeing this slight ribbon of land, ripe for the cleaving, but rather the Janus mask of two oceans, almost touching each other, facing each, with the jungle highlands and the steep side of a crater, carving out their profiles.

I live where there are no oceans, no lakes that spring from the arterial earth, no river ways deep enough to skim across with a craft. I live in the Sonoran Desert, and all my seas are imaginary.  These seas are waterless, but seas nonetheless, and I would know them as if I were face down in snorkel gear examining the ocean bottom, for all the contours are there of a deep trench, just no longer filled with lapping water, but open and exposed to a sun that has never been jealous with its favors, the shelf of each fathom only apparent from the high mountain tops.

So when Xochil said “From here you can see two oceans,” I did not see what she saw. The oceans I had become accustomed to; the ghostly remains that I understand as Arizona’s historical ledger, are not bright blue, they do not move with the tug of the winds and tide, they shimmer as movements of the heat in the hot skies.  What Xochil showed me, these “wet” oceans, were dark and vast, stopping only at the horizon. I could not see their sandy bottoms or how the currents had tilled their shape. They really were too significant to understand, since everything was hidden and enormous, especially considering the surplus of the other on either side of me.Altos del Maria, Panama mountains – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living

To reach Altos del Maria, is to approach from opposites: from the bustling Panamanian Highway, where there is a sign that spans the road, or from the sleepy village of Valle de Anton, where a little real estate sign hints there is more to see. I knew of Altos del Maria before our trip, because I looked at a map of Panama and triangulated a pleasurable spot away from the cacophony of the major city, known locally only as Panama; the beach communities, where the heat was too familiar; and the hinterlands where there were few roads or services. I found a house to rent, a round house with a loft bedroom on a lonesome road; left emails messages and got no response. So because it was a gated community, I thought there would be no way in.

Altos del Maria, Panama jungle mist – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingA map can tell you nothing about what is desirable.  On a map, Altos del Maria looks forbidding; the way is rugged and steep. Each marker on the road counts down how far it is to Altos del Maria, because someone sensed how easy it would be to lose heart along each tortuous bend of the 25 minute journey, where the side of the road is either mountain side or mountain slide, and you would need encouragement not to turn back. We felt like explorers, because there seemed to be few inhabitants, and the ones there were, were pointing upwards, as a way to ask for a ride up the hill; understandably, because walking was such a strain, unless you were inclined to mountaineering. But we found it beautiful; there was innocence about the tender greenness of the trees that hugged to the precipices. I thought of Shangri-La, enchantment, and that it would be very different when we got to the top, and that at the stopping point at the gates of Altos del Maria, time, too, might stop.

I don’t recall if we called ahead to be let in, but there was a guard at the gate, and during our time there I noticed guards in vehicles patrolling, and I guess we seemed harmless enough, especially me in an ill-fitting dress over my beachwear, and my husband with his standard good-natured brio, expecting to be let in.  We did not expect to see a reception area cum business office that looked quite alpine.  The landscape was dominated by pine with curious tropical flowers twining around each other. Altos del Maria, Panama jungle trees – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingInside there was the architectural vernacular of Colorado; the proportions were baronial. Other than an attendant, we were alone. We were served coffee as we waited, and I spent that time pacing the outdoors, loving the freshness of the air.

We were introduced to Roberto, the manager, with whom I found much in common; his background in California and Hawaii, as I had, and his ebullient ambition, which is a trait that springs eternal in my husband. We told him we had seen his ad in anther desert community, Silver Springs New Mexico, and laughed at the coincidence of it all. He had two assistants, Xochil and Samantha, a bit younger than he, well educated, well-spoken, who I came to think of as the naiads of the cloud forest.  They offered us a tour of the property in their 4x4, which we quickly agreed to. Their work attire was long pressed pants, buttoned down shirts, manicured nails and well-groomed hair.  When we began to walk a rough but maintained path, I began to see the wisdom of their accessorizing with hiking boots.Trail at Altos del Maria, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living

One of our stops was to a building that served as a community center for Altos del Maria. The builder, visionary and laird of the manor, Mr. Melo, whom the staff was always careful to refer to in the most respectful way, had built a cavernous space so that the inhabitants could join together for a Sunday potluck breakfast. I saw in smaller adjoining rooms, weight equipment and a smaller meeting room.  There was a message board for passersby to read outside the building and foot paths leading into the jungle that crept closely beyond the large picture windows.

We saw newly built homes constructed on pads off the main road.  It had the familiarity of suburbia, except for the tropical wildness of the marginal lands, and the views of the numerous hills that protected the tracts like concentric circles of defense. The small neighborhoods were concentrated on a street or two, left alone a mile or so away from the next, in isolation, the road between them narrow and twisting, the height ever climbing, the fog growing thicker as the altitude grew.Flowers at Altos del Maria, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living

For us, the day, which began at sea level, was very bright and hot. But here we were, our sunglasses unnecessary, for the glare and heat of the sun was muffled by the drops of moisture held in the air, now cooler than the temperature around us, muting the chroma of the rampant green, the humidity now made pleasant and agreeable. It did not rain, but the evidence of water was all around us, especially where it made its escape down the hillsides into gullies that followed the road.Man near a stream at Altos del Maria, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living

Roberto met us at a very special recreational area, just for residents. Its parking lot was so pretty I would have been content to picnic there. There were vines with the thickness of rope that could hold anchors; the plants had exaggerated leaves that could serve as parasols. The branches of the tree tops held each other like a living mat with the greying sun penetrating through its open weave. For desert dwellers, this knotty paradise had more forms than we could grasp; the abstract growth of many phyla we could not organize in our brain,Jungle trail at Altos del Maria, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living like a Kandinsky painting but only in lovely, variegated green.

Xochil and Samantha told us we were going to see a waterfall. They could have told us we were going to see a sulfuric geyser in the subdivision, which we would think to be as likely to occur in the grounds of a neighborhood park. We walked along a path that was made of steps, which had wooden hand rails to lead you to where the water rushed. We walked across covered bridges that spanned the vertiginous drops, the spray blowing upwards into our faces, a cool splattering drink. Covered wooden bridge at Altos del Maria, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingAs the path followed the line of the slope, we stopped to examine glamorous flowers beckoning for suitors, the exposed meandering of roots, plump stems of sprawling bushes, which we thought if we were to cut, potable water would flow. And there was the sound, the thunderous crash of mighty water falling from different platforms, the simultaneous falls that fell into tiers, and leapt dangerously to the small boulders at their base, and made pools that smoothed to glass, where we longed to splash.Small waterfall at Altos del Maria, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living

It was the ultimate luxury, a private waterfall, and hard to accept. Mr. Melo could have charged the paying public to see this magnificent cascade, and yet there was no one there but one couple, who were taking a dip in a placid bay, their backpacks lying without care on the beach. My husband and I envied them fiercely for their privilege.  In my mind’s eye, I could see my husband in his jaunty trunks, with the dogs, throwing the ball for them to swim to and retrieve, as the waterfall danced, and I on the shore with a fondue pot and canned-heat, dipping something delicious that I had picked along the path of the musical brook.Rushing water at Altos del Maria, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living

We left one water-colored landscape for another; a little lake so romantic and melancholy that Tennyson would have placed in it a lady in a boat, her curls and her fingers drifting on its placid surface. My husband and I were left alone for a while, to contemplate the platinum depths, while it sprinkled gently, the taps of a thousand little reminders of the clouds that broke around us; we were not in the desert.Couple near a lake in Altos del Maria, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living We have pictures of us with our arms around each other, my body holding his close.  We are both thinking we would be very happy here, in a canoe with the dogs sitting between us, a life of watery delights.

As we go further up the mountain, Roberto shows us a saddleback where he hikes with his young son.  Samantha recommends to us her favorite white sand beach, and Xochil tells us she is originally from Mexico. There are more guard gates, like the locks of the canal which you do not pass unless you are allowed. There are more houses, this time along the road, older ones, real characters; the homeowners dreaming out loud, of Switzerland, Canada, and England.  There is one house that has a backyard with an orderly garden of raised vegetables and fruits.  My husband and I see ourselves doing that, if we lived here, abandoning the raspberries and strawberries of Boqete’s farmer’s market, to poke what would become our own side dishes into the growing earth.

Misty house at Altos del Maria, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingThe last guarded gate is the barrier for Mr. Melo’s home. By the entrance of his property made of heavy, framed steel, the almost vertical, winding driveway, the massive structure crowing it, it reads like a castellated fortress. But like the pines he had planted along the lanes throughout, his castle seemed natural there, not out of time or out of setting.  He was the one who had coaxed the mountain into a sanctuary site, and his home rightly looked dominating.
At the mountain top where we could see the two oceans just by turning our heads, Mr. Melo is building a large park, a playground for all ages. Parts are already constructed and it will be grand. We can read the map of Mr. Melo’s mind; he pictures families romping, room to run to exhaustion, eating and napping alfresco, celebrating with all generations present, gathering together to be outside in the cool atmosphere, caught in the vapors of the thick moving sky. This he has set apart for not just someone who could pay the high tariff of Mountain views at Altos del Maria, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Livingthis extraordinary view, but for every one who lives along the corridors of Altos del Maria.

Where I had seen desert seas that had evaporated into time, Mr. Melo with Altos del Maria sees the present as paradisiacal. What he has developed on this hilltop refuge is more interesting than the ocean, which hides everything.  Here every turn in the road one is stuck by the volume of the views, swathed in mists, the houses quaint, and the scenery changeable and hung with beautiful forest tapestries.

Jungle waterfall at Altos del Maria, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International LivingThese days, my husband and I include our dogs in our conversation about Altos del Maria, as a place away from the deserts hazards: nothing will fight them for prey, nothing can eat them; they will never go thirsty, or suffer from drying heat, they can run in the water and they can run through the hills.  How happy we could be there, days falling sweetly as fruit. It was my imagination at play.

For many months after we visited, I made my own translation of “Altos del Maria” to “Altar of Maria”, for this is cliff life nearer to heaven, and inspires moments in me to pray, and remember the orchids and raindrops, the elements of the sea and the passing storms of a never ending spring.
Stream and waterfall at Altos del Maria, Panama – Best Places In The World To Retire – International Living

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