Rio Encantado on the Caldera River in Chiriquí Province Panama

 
2,151Views 0Comments Posted 08/04/2024

This story about Rio Encantado on the Caldera River in Chiriquí Province Panama has been told many times but deserves another tell.  Frank Stegmeier rents out his cabins and has 'day passes' for those interested in the jungle experience with a beautiful swimming pool.  I have been there a few times over the years to enjoy the day with my friends and family.  My kids love it.  It is a great place for an outing.  Frank and I have been chatting lately and I asked him to send me his story, as he would like it told, and some pictures, so here it is. 

 

Water rushing over river rocks. Lush tropical jungle. The musical sounds of hundreds of multi-hued birds that have been painted by nature’s paintbrush. This is what awaits Frank Stegmeier every day of his life. This is Rio Encantado, on the Caldera River in Chiriquí, Panama. This is his creation.  His “designer’s jungle.”  Frank was born in Buffalo, New York but moved to Washington at the age of twenty.  Here he joined the police force and proceeded to climb the ladder from beat cop, to initiate a county grand jury and thereby create a political whirlwind enabling him to win a substantial settlement in a lawsuit, allowing him to follow his dreams of travel, adventure and the world of pre-Columbian art.  In 1972 Frank purchased a truck and camper and drove to Mexico.  Thus began his lifelong love of pre-Columbian art, history, and travel. Throughout the 1970’s he travelled extensively, collecting his beloved art until he had more than he could display in his home, so he opened a gallery. He ran the gallery successfully and profitably for several years.  However his love of Latin America never waned and he decided to heed its beckoning call.  He obtained resident status in Costa Rica purchased cabins and a bed and breakfast in Costa Rica. After learning that Panama had extensive pre-Columbian art he ventured on to check it out.  In the late 80’s and 90’s Panama offered substantial better benefits and a much cheaper cost of living.  He built his first home in Boquete in the Chiriquí highlands in the 1990’s for a mere $8000 US, where he resided for a few years, always going to the beautiful Caldera River to swim. He loves the water and was drawn to this picturesque area only fifteen minutes from Boquete.

 

While at the river one day in 1997 Frank happened upon a horse and rider. He approached the gentleman and asked if he knew of anyone selling land along the river. Surprisingly the caballero replied in the affirmative.  He himself owned all the land in the area, on both sides of the river. When asked if he would consider selling he readily agreed since, as he explained, the land was not suited for cattle or for crops. This was on a Sunday and by Monday afternoon Mr. Stegmeier was the proud owner of one hundred acres on both sides of the river for the astonishingly low price.  Frank believes very strongly that “everyone needs a purpose, a reason to live, a goal, especially as you get older.”  He had found his new purpose.  “At first I remained in Boquete and kept the Caldera property as a camping spot and place to swim but then decided to make it permanent,” he explains.  His fantasy was always to retire in Mexico, but after another trip thru the Country and encountering what was a failed State, he drove to Panama where he owned property and began his dream of developing Rio Encantado (Enchanted River) to be his celebration of his love for Nature and Art.  While preparing his new land he lived in his truck and camper, finally building his house in 2007.  His beautiful but modest home is the show place for his impressive collection of art work.  Frank obtained all the necessary permits to build his house but explains that permits and building codes were less strict than they are now, especially with his property being located in a rural area. At that time Panamanians were as yet not cognizant of the importance of conservation and the environment.  Frank pays no property taxes and is now a Panama Citizen and the costs to run the business are minimal.  He clarifies that his building was done for far less than costs today.Frank believes that nowadays, however, a custom home can still be built for around $100,000. He rents his cabins from $80- $120.00 per night but guests have an opportunity of paying for a day pool pass, Nature tour over the two hanging bridges over the river, canopy zip line and Tarzan swing.  Or spend a special night in the tropical tree house right on the river.  Being first and foremost a lover of nature and a vehement advocate of preserving the environment, his top priorities while building his home were cleaning up the river, reforestation, and conservation.  He is proud of the fact that all the wood and other materials used to develop and build on his property come from the Caldera area.  Now, several years later, his dream has become a reality. One side of the river is home to a beautifully designed and maintained pool area complete with an open air bar, cabanas, picnic areas, and three rental cottages and a one of a kind tropical tree house. The grounds are stunning and boast a plethora of indigenous trees and flowering shrubs.  The opposite side of the river is like stepping into another world. Three natural swimming holes, well maintained jungle trails, and, in Frank’s words, “a senior citizen’s zip line. I wanted to be able to grab on and take a leisurely swing across the river, slowly enough to enjoy the nature and this beautiful panorama, savoring it at my own pace.”Thanks to Frank’s ingenuity, nightfall provides a treat for all. The entire property, including the river, is illuminated by well-placed lighting, making for a spectacular and magnificent sight.  On one side of the river Frank has created his “piece de resistance” (for now anyway), the most unusual and unique tree house in the world. While in Costa Rica he met a man who had engineered and built an elaborate tree house.  This planted a seed in Mr. Stegmeier’s fertile mind. It was time for a new challenge at Rio Encantado.  He hired three Americans to build a tree house around a huge ancient Algarrobos tree on the property. But not just any tree house. His vision was one modeled on a giant termite mound.  One rule: the tree must not be damaged in any way. And so it began. The huge majestic tree grows on peacefully and this state of the art tree house has been built entirely around it. The dome is crafted from steel rods manufactured nearby and is covered with tiny strips of recycled plastic woven together to mimic thatch (the purpose being to discourage insects from making their homes there). The woodwork for the cupboards, countertops, and more were beautifully crafted from local wood, same as the bed.  The shower is literally a work of art, made from river rock and artistically done. The whole structure is open to the air and includes an enviable view of the river and surrounding area and the river below can be illuminated at night. As Frank had envisioned it blends in with its jungle surroundings beautifully and rents for $150.00 a night.  The elaborated steel circular staircase and railing ascend to an open area, queen bed, bar, sink and bathroom with toilet and a building below for cooking, heated shower and bath room.

 

Frank Stegmeier has an innate respect and admiration for the Panamanian people, several of whom have become loyal, talented, and long term staff. He seeks out their strengths, then nourishes and encourages them.  Consequently everything they do on his property is done expertly, and in a timely fashion and he rewards them with gratitude, the respect they deserve, and more than normal remuneration. He is a firm believer in hiring Panamanians whenever possible and treats them like extended family. He explains, “This is their country and foreigners coming here need to integrate with them, not try to change them.”  Rio Encantado has been, and will undoubtedly continue to be, a work in progress. No hurry, just a new addition whenever things are running smoothly and Frank has another idea. In this way, costs have been spread out throughout the years.  “My house, the cottages, the bar, and all other structures were built for sufficiently less than the going rate largely due to the fact that my talented Panamanian administrator, who has been with me for many years, negotiated with Panamanian contractors and workers.  So many gringos believe that because their lawyer or a contractor speaks excellent English that they will be honest and efficient and have their best interests at heart.  This is not necessarily true.  Unfortunately quite often there is a gringo price and a local price. “He also believes that “no one should go to Panama to open a business as a foreigner, first and foremost.  Integrate”!  Case in point: When it came time to erect his suspension bridges he once again hired a hugely talented 24-year-old Panamanian who designed and built both state of the art structures. 

 

Frank employs his administrator, who receives a percentage of the profits, a personal assistant who he pays $400 per month, two gardeners, a maid, and a part time cook, who each receive $20.00 per day plus benefits and live on the property in a house that Frank built for them. He has a man from Germany who runs the bar on a contract basis but all other employees are Panamanian.  “My employee social security costs run about $400 per month.”  In addition he hires local laborers when necessary for maintenance or small projects.  Currently they are constructing a huge cage for his two new additions.  They are rescued Tamarind monkeys aptly named King and Kong. His plan is to also house rescued howler monkeys.  There is no onsite restaurant but visitors who take advantage of the $10.00 day passes are encouraged to bring their own food to enjoy at one of the strategically placed tables surrounding the pool and overlooking the river.  Additionally he encourages tourist guide groups, his fellow environmentalists, and other organizations to visit and hold their meetings. He arranges lunches or dinners for them if ordered in advance.  Frank has his property listed with Trip Advisor, booking.com, expedia.com, and hotels.com as well as holding occasional media days to showcase his establishment.  A Boquete online service recently did a podcast on his life and the development of this property, which literally sells itself so word of mouth travels far and fast. He now enjoys guests from everywhere in the world, as well as locals.  Never having his passion for the environment far from his mind, he concentrates on making it his mission to educate the Panamanian people of its importance to their beautiful country. Often groups of school students are invited to Rio Encantado in order to teach them about the wonders of nature and how to preserve it.  When asked about interests he listed swimming in the river, collecting more art, working out on my Tarzan swing, or dinner with friends and participating in or spearheading environmental organizations, forever striving to teach the municipality, the utility companies, and the government the necessity for preserving and protecting the environment.  However he was quick to explain: “But my greatest joy is waking up each morning to the music of the river, the birdsong, swimming in my beautiful river, and hiking with my dogs. This is a place that perfectly suits lovers of nature and peaceful surroundings and who understand how special it is to stay within a beautiful nature reserve.