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Devils & Drag Queens: The Secrets of Corpus Christi – La Villa de Los Santos, Panama

La Villa de Los Santos is the center of many of Panama’s annual festivals including much of the madness of the country’s best Carnival celebration. We traveled back to La Villa de Los Santos on the Azuero Peninsula to uncover some of the secrets of Corpus Christi which, it turns out, include devils and drag queens.

Chorpus-Christi-Devils-Los-Santos-Panama

A posse of “white devils” during Corpus Christi festivities in La Villa de Los Santos, Panama.

 The Texas of Panama

The Azuero Peninsula is the Texas of Panama, hotter, drier and ranchier than the rest of the nation. Like Texas, the Azuero is also fiercely independent. Residents of La Villa de Los Santos were among the early fighters for independence from Spain.

In 1821 they wrote to Simon Bolívar with a request to join his revolutionary forces and there is, of course, an annual festival in La Villa de Los Santos to mark the beginning of Panama’s independence movement. The building in which an early declaration of independence was written is now the Museo de la Nacionalidad (Museum of Nationality).

Corpus Christi numbskulls

We admit to knowing very little about Corpus Christi when we arrived in for the celebration in La Villa de Los Santos. We just like festivals. We have since become slightly more enlightened and we can tell you that Corpus Christi is a Catholic festival dating from the 1200s which celebrates the Eucharist which is the part about the “body and blood of Christ.”

Corpus Christi is celebrated all over the world on a changing date that falls between the end of May and early July. In Rome there are solemn, stately processions. In Latin America, things get slightly more animated.

Not surprisingly, the town’s church, Iglesia de San Atanasio, is central to Corpus Christi. Its elaborate wooden altar, covered in gold and blue, dates to 1733 though the final construction date of the church is 1773. The church was declared a national monument in 1938 and the altar is said to be too heavy for any number of men to lift. However, even the grandeur of this church was overshadowed by the pageant unfolding around it.

Diablos-limpias-clean-devils-Corpus-Christi-Panama

A white devil confronts an angel in front of the historic Iglesia de San Atanasio in one of many struggles between good and evil which are played out during Corpus Christi celebrations in La Villa de Los Santos, Panama.

Our Corpus Christi savior

We missed the first weekend of Corpus Christi celebrations, which we were told are the biggest, but we arrived in town on the final Friday to take in the final weekend. That’s when Salvador, a local, found us in the small town’s central plaza and appointed himself our personal Corpus Christi savior, patiently explaining what was going on and making sure we saw the best of it.

Basically, what we saw was a Latin re-enactment of the struggle between good and evil. There were men and boys dressed as diablos sucios (dirty devils) wearing red and black striped jumpsuits with bells sewn to their bums (Salvador never quite explained that one) and gruesome paper mache masks on their heads which are proudly made in town and can cost up to US$600 each.

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A group of menacing “dirty devils” roams from house to house in La Villa de Los Santos during Corpus Christi celebrations.

Devil-masks-Corpus-Christi-festival-Panama

These paper mache masks, many of which are made by artists in La Villa de Los Santos, can go for up to US600.

Other men and boys were dressed as diablos limpios (clean devils), wearing white costumes festooned with multi-colored ribbons.

Corpus-Christi-Los-Santos-Panama

This parade of imposing “clean devils” went right past our truck.

Unlike most Latin festivals which take place in the streets, most of the Corpus Christi activities we saw on Friday were happening inside or in front of private homes. That’s where the “dirty devils” and the “clean devils” danced it out for dominance, leather sandals and wooden castanets slapping out a beat and those mysterious bells clanking away to a repetitive ditty played on guitar or flute.

Dirty-Devils-Corpus-Christi-Panama

Many of Corpus Christi spectacles took place in private homes.

The “dirty devils” performed a particularly elaborate and aerobic dance and most were soon sweaty and exhausted.

Dirty-devil-children-Los-Santos-Panama

A group of young “dirty devils” takes a well-earned break during Corpus Christi events in La Villa de Los Santos, Panama.

There were female characters involved in some processions as well, but for some reason (more secrets!) those were portrayed by men clumsily dressed as women.

Corpus-Christi-festival-Los-Santos-Panama

Female characters were portrayed by men clumsily dressed as women during Corpus Christi in La Villa de Los Santos.

 

devils-Corpus-Christi-Los-Santos-Panama

One of the most energetic groups of “white devils” struts their stuff in front of the historic church in La Villa de Los Santos.

As the weekend wore on, different performers playing different roles in different costumes appeared. We never quite figured out what these dudes wearing hoop skirts, fluffy balls of yarn and mirrors on their heads were all about but they were fun to watch.

Los-Santos-Panama-Corpus-Christi

Hoop skirts, mirrors on their heads, fluffy balls of yarn…we don’t know what these Corpus Christi performers were all about but they were fun to watch.

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Hoop-skirt wearing performers take a break to confer about their next mysterious moves during Corpus Christi in Panama.

Dancing-Los-Santos-Panama-Corpus-Christi

Corpus Christi festivities in La Villa de Los Santos go well into the night.

It’s not a festival until the trannies arrive

Speaking of men dressed as women, Saturday’s Corpus Christi events were filled with trannies of various degrees of finesse. During Corpus Christi they pranced around on rickety stages set up around the main square, took part in beauty contests and generally confounded us. What did cross-dressing (and mostly terrible cross-dressing at that) have to do with Corpus Christi?

Queens-Villa-de-Los-Santos-Panama

Queens and queens! Reigning carnival queens from the area lead a procession of drag queens during Corpus Christi celebrations in La Villa de Los Santos, Panama.

Drag queens played a major role in Panama’s Carnival celebrations too as performers, choreographers, costume designers and makeup artists but that made sense given the fact that Carnival is essentially one big drag show anyway.

Villa-de-Los-Santos-Panama-Trannys

God and gaudiness collide during Corpus Christi celebrations in Panama.

Our savior Salvador was nowhere in sight and we didn’t know the Spanish word for “transvestite” so our questions about what the heck cross dressers had to do with the body of Christ went unanswered. We had another beer and waited for the next pageant to start, grateful that the performers were getting a much warmer reception than they’d get in most parts of Texas where they actually have a city named Corpus Christi.

Villa-de-Los-Santos-Panama-Corpus-Christs

And that about sums up religious festivals in Latin America: a transvestite performing her heart out in front of a church.

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Western Beaches of Panama – Isla Boca Brava & Playa Las Lajas

While not exactly untouched, Isla Boca Brava and Playa Las Lajas are not nearly as visited as Panama’s more well-known beach destinations like the islands in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago and that’s part of the charm of traveling to the western beaches of Panama.

Isla Boca Brava Hotels

To get to the 30 square mile (77 square km) island of Boca Brava you have to first get to the fishing village of Boca Chica. After leaving our truck under an avocado tree on the property of a family that’s decided to use part of their land as an informal parking service, we got into a water taxi for the ten minute ride to Cala Mia Pacific Hotel for a dose of secluded romance.

Cala Mia Hotel, Boco Brava, Panama

Plunge pool with a view at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava in northern Panama.

Cala Mia’s 11 thatch-roof accommodations, private horseshoe bay beach and cliff side location make you feel like you’ve got the island to yourself. Rooms have all the mod cons including A/C and private patios with ocean views, especially nice from August through November when humpback whales migrate through.

Private Beach Cala Mia , Boca Brava, Panama

A shady perch on the private beach at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava, Panama.

When we were at Cala Mia a new owner had just taken over and we believe there’s been a new owner since then. Hopefully one of them upgraded Cala Mia’s dramatic Spa Cielo which is accessed via a swinging bridge which connect the mainland of the island to a nearby rocky outcrop but needed some serious TLC.

On the other end of the accommodation spectrum (and the other end of the island) is Hotel Boca Brava with 17 rooms ranging from privates (around US$30 double) to dorms. The food in the open air restaurant is almost as good as the view of the Pacific. Room #10 was our favorite with curved walls, a small private patio with chairs and a water view. Water can be scarce on the island in the dry season and the hotel’s gregarious owner, Brad, keeps occupancy to just half  in order to make sure everyone has enough water. Still, conserve as much as you can.

Boca Brava Office of the Day

Karen’s office of the day on the patio of or room at Cala Mia Pacific Hotel on Isla Boca Brava in Panama, though we still don’t fully understand why hammock seats exist…

What to do around Boca Brava

Boca Brava, and more than 20 other islands, are all protected within the Gulf of Chiriqui National Marine Park, so it’s not surprising that most of the things to do around Boca Brava involve getting wet.

As we already mentioned, August through November is whale watching season in northern Panama with migrating humpbacks crowding the water and plenty of tour companies waiting to take you out to see them. Isla Ladrones, 27 miles (43 km) from Boca Brava, is a SCUBA diving hot spot all year round with the chance to see sharks, rays and more. Our plans to dive around Ladrones were thwarted, however, by bad weather which created rough conditions and very limited visibility in the water so our trip was cancelled. The deep-sea fishing is said to be terrific around Boca Brava as well, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Iguana Boca Brava Panama

Local resident on Panama’s Isla Boca Brava.

Exploring Playa Las Lajas

Playa Las Lajas is most famous for its 12 mile (20 km) long stretch of beach. You can walk for ages and you’re likely to have the place to yourself except on weekends. Just don’t have your heart set on a funky beach bar or awesome seaside seafood shack. Playa Las Lajas was eerily free of any sort of service like that.

Las Lajas beach

Playa Las Lajas is 20 miles (12 km) long and at low tide this beach is incredibly wide as well.

If you ask us, the town of Las Lajas, inland from the beach, should also be equally famous for is flamboyant, sculpture-filled bus stops, each depicting a different marine scene. You almost hope the bus never comes.

Mermaid bus stop Las Lajas, Panama

This is a bus stop, Las Lajas style.

Swordfish bus stop Las Lajas, Panama

Another impressive bus top in Las Lajas. The roof reads “Looking for Paradise? It’s in Las Lajas.”

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows, opened in Las Lajas in 2013, is not on the beach but it’s close enough and you can’t beat it for its style bungalows and small pool. The real reason to visit Naturalmente, however, is the open-air restaurant where owners Chantal and Gabriel, both from Modena, let their Italian roots show with pizzas (baked in an oven imported from Italy), great pasta dishes, homemade bread and homemade Italian sausage.

Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows - Las Lajas, Panama

A bungalow at Naturalmente Boutique Bungalows near Playa Las Lajas, Panama.

If you’re making the very long haul on the Pan-American Highway between Panama City and David, Boquete, Cerro Punta or the border with Costa Rica at Paso Canoas or Sixaola, Playa Las Lajas makes a great place to break your journey.

Geographical note about the screwy compass in Panama

Countries in Central and South America unfurl in a tidy north-to-south trajectory except for Panama which takes a sharp turn and ends up sitting perpendicular to its neighbors.This means that, in Panama, “north” refers to the long Atlantic/Caribbean coast and “south” indicates the long Pacific coast of the country. If you want to talk about the end of the country nearest the city of David and the border with Costa Rica, as we do within this post, you’re really talking about the west end of the country.

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Border Crossing 101: Paso Canoas, Panama to Paso Canoas, Costa Rica

Crossing international borders in Latin America is rarely easy or pleasant (why do they always smell like pee and desperation?). Things are even more complicated when you’re driving across borders in your own vehicle as part of an overland road trip. These border crossing 101 travel tips will help you travel from Paso Canoas, Panama to Paso Canoas, Costa Rica smoothly with or without a vehicle.

From: Paso Canoas, Panama

To: Paso Canoas, Costa Rica

Buen Viaje PanamaPaso canoas border

Lay of the land: It took about 15 minutes to exit Panama at well-manned offices with no hassles and no exit fees. Entering Costa Rica was equally painless.

Elapsed time: 1 hour.

Number of days they gave us: We asked for and got 30 days since that’s all that was left on our vehicle importation permit (see “Need to know” below). The standard tourist visa duration issued in Costa Rica is 90 days which is given without a fee to US citizens.

Fees: US$15.50 for three months of mandatory driving insurance and US$6 for vehicle fumigation.

Paso Canoas border station Panama costa Rica

The border facilities on the Panamanian side are larger and newer than those on the Costa Rican side.

Vehicle insurance requirements: You must buy local insurance to drive within Costa Rica. At this border insurance was only sold in three month blocks.

Where to fill up: Fuel was cheaper in Panama than it was in Costa Rica when we crossed the border, so we filled up before leaving Panama.

Need to know: Costa Rica is always one hour ahead of Panama so be sure to change your watch. Oh, and we recommend you just play dumb and drive through the fumigation station without giving them time to turn on the hoses and collect the US$6. That’s what everybody else was doing.

This border crossing tip is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT FOR ANYONE DRIVING ACROSS: While Costa Rica will renew a tourist visa if you spend 72 hours outside of the country (and that rule is often not enforced) but foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180. This means that once you use up or cancel your temporary vehicle importation permit you can’t get a new one for 90 days.

Costa Rican officials can “suspend” your temporary importation permit when you leave the country which puts it on hold until you return at which time the clock starts ticking again with whatever amount of time you had left on your original permit. That’s what we did with our Costa Rican truck paperwork since we knew we’d be returning to the country.

Costa Rica's poor quality roads - Carratera en mal Estado

This sign on the Costa Rican side of the border says “Road in bad condition” and that pretty much goes for most of the roads in the country.

Duty free finds: There are two large “Mall Libre” facilities on the Panama side of this border but they were pretty shabby when we were there.

Overall border rating: Easy, breezy – just the way we like it.

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Diablos y Congos Festival – Portobelo, Panama

Thousands of Africans arrived on Panama’s Caribbean Coast where they were sold as slaves and sent to work in other parts of Central America. Some escaped, however, and their descendants now make up a self-described “Afro colonizer” population in the area. Two weeks after Carnival communities in and around Portobelo hold the Diablos y Congos (Devils and Slaves) festival which is an exaggerated re-enactment of how their African ancestors used clothing and language to communicate and an over-the-top parody of Spanish colonizers.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

A crew of angels try to stop, punish and banish a devil (representing Spanish colonizers) during the Diablos y Congos festival in Portobelo, Panama.

Some men and boys dress as Congos (slaves) by wearing old clothes worn inside out and adorned with found objects like dolls in imitation of the way Africans modified the clothes they were allowed to wear in order to make them their own. They also speak “Congo” by saying the opposite of what they really mean, a re-enactment of how African ancestors managed to communicate even under the watchful eye of slave traders.

Congos slaves - Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

Extravagant costumes made from rags and found objects are worn by men and boys representing Congos (slaves) during the Diablos y Congos festival in Portobelo, Panama.

Congos slaves - Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

The more over the top the better. This man dressed as a Congo (slave) decided to put a cordless phone in a baby shoe as part of his costume.

Congos king - Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

The annual Diablos y Congos festival on the Caribbean Coast of Panama includes the crowning of a Congo King and Queen.

Female Congos wear long, bright, pleated skirts, flouncy blouses that fall off the shoulder and multiple necklaces in a costume that is a humble reflection of the pollera, the national dress of Panama, which is an important part of the country’s carnival celebrations.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

The outfit worn by women taking part in the Diablos y Congos festival is a simpler version of the pollera which is the national dress of Panama.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

Though most of the Diablos y Congos action takes place spontaneously in the crowded streets there are some scheduled performances on a stage in the center of town.

Diablos-y-Congos-festival-Panama

Though most of the Diablos y Congos action takes place spontaneously in the crowded streets there are some scheduled performances on a stage in the center of town.

Dancing-Diablos-y-Congos-festival-Panama

Though most of the Diablos y Congos action takes place spontaneously in the crowded streets there are some scheduled performances on a stage in the center of town.

Other men and boys dress up as diablos (devils) to represent the Spanish colonizers who ruled the region during slave trading times, donning intricate costumes and wearing grotesque masks many of which are made in nearby Puerto Lindo.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

A group of diablos (devils) representing the Spanish colonizers on the streets of Portobelo, Panama during the annual Diablos y Congos festival.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

Children take part in the Diablos y Congos festival too. Here, two kids dressed as twin devils pose with a young fan.

The devils whip the Congos and even innocent bystanders and some are more vigorous about it than others. Meanwhile, a pitifully small crew of men dressed as angels try to capture, punish and banish the whip-wielding devils/Spaniards.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

During the Diablos y Congos festival men representing the diablos (devils) play the role of the Spanish colonizers and use whips to try to punish the Congos (slaves) and to fend off white-costumed angels who try to capture as many diablos as they can.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

The Diablos y Congos festival is a passionate, crowded, loud and complicated re-enactment of a time of slavery and colonization on Panama’s Caribbean Coast.

It’s a chaotic, passionate, sometimes alarming spectacle involving hundreds of participants and thousands of spectators. Here’s more of the madness.

African-dancing-Diablos-y-Congos

African culture and history is celebrated during the annual Diablos y Congos festival in Portobelo, Panama.

Here are some of our favorite devil costumes from the Diablos y Congos chaos in Portobelo, Panama.

Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama Diablos-y-Congos-3 Diablos-y-Congos-1 Diablos-y-Congos-4 Diablos-y-Congos-6 Diablos-y-Congos-5 fireworks Diablos y Congos Festival - Portabelo, Panama

 

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Pirates of the Caribbean Coast – Puerto Lindo & Portobelo, Panama

A snazzy new road means you can now travel from Panama City to the Caribbean Coast in two hours. This easy access has brought renewed talk of improving tourism infrastructure in this lightly visited area of the country but, as we found out when we visited Puerto Lindo and Portobelo, that’s largely still just talk.

Never stay in a hostel with no woman on staff

Puerto Lindo means “beautiful port” in Spanish, but it wasn’t. The slim, grey beach in Puerto Lindo was littered with trash and the pier was ratty and occupied by locals who failed to return our greetings. School seemed to be permanently out. Sitting around was the preferred day job.

Puerto Lindo Panama

Puerto Lindo. Not.

There are two places to stay in Puerto Lindo and the least bleak of the two, creatively named Hostel Puerto Lindo, turned out to be a filthy, neglected place ostensibly managed by a lazybones named William who kept asking us for money. The sheets, pillows, floors, shower and hammocks were tacky with a mysterious greasy film. The foam mattresses were too frightening to contemplate. The communal kitchen was a Petri dish. At least the fan worked, but US$7 per person it was a rip off. Hell, at US$2 per person it was a rip off.

That’s when it dawned on us that everyone “working” at Hostel Puerto Lindo was male and we vowed never to say in a hostel with no woman on staff again. Ever.

Making Diablos y Congos masks - Puerto Lindo, Panama

Impressively creepy devil masks like these are made by craftsmen in Puerto Lindo to be worn during the annual Diablos y Congos (Devils and Slaves) festival held on Panama’s Caribbean Coast.

The next morning we tentatively poked our heads into a few nearby homes where men were creating impressively ghoulish masks which are worn during the dramatic, wild, hedonistic Diablos y Congos (Devils and Slaves) festival which is held on the Caribbean coast after Carnival. Then we fled to nearby Portobelo, nine miles (15 km) away, hoping that it better resembled its name which also means “beautiful port”. We didn’t even bother seeking out the “sloth lady” of Puerto Lindo that we’d been told about. Yep. Not even sloths would keep us in Puerto Lindo.

Making Diablos y Congos masks - Puerto Lindo, Panama

A mask maker in Puerto Lindo shows off his art in progress.

Modern pirates of Portobelo

Compared to Puerto Lindo, Portobelo is a metropolis albeit a garbage strewn, ramshackle one with occasional shootings in the street like the one that occurred shortly after we arrived in which someone named “Oaky” was gunned down for allegedly stealing drugs from a cartel in Colon.

Portobello Harbor & Fort Santiago - Portobello, Panama

Portobelo harbor and the remains of the Spanish-built Santiago Fort.

The most famous place in Portobelo, by far, is Captain Jack’s hostel, bar and restaurant owned by a US expat who now simply goes by the moniker “Captain Jack”. He appears to be loved and reviled in equal measure, as all pirates should be. We did not stay there (Captain Jack doesn’t offer private rooms) but we did have a decent US$7 hamburger with the best fries we’d had in years (hand cut with the skin still on).

The open air bar/dining area also had WiFi and that, coupled with the good food, cold beer and generously poured rum drinks, conspire to create an irresistible magnet for every foreigner in Portobelo and, it turns out, there are many.

Fortress Jeronimo - Portobello, Panama

The Spanish built the San Jerónimo Fort in Portobelo, Panama to protect the harbor from pirates who were after the plundered gold the Spaniards hoarded in town before sending it back to Spain.

Among the “yachtie” community–an international group of people who live part or all of the year on their boats (which are very, very rarely yachts)–Portobelo is a popular, well-known port for repairs and re-provisioning. Yachties are not traditional travelers. They’re not expats. They’re a breed all their own – boisterous, boozy, a little bit snarky. Some of them have the distinct air of being on the lam.

Some boat owners offer sailing trips through the San Blas Islands and the talk in town often revolves around departure dates, prices and which boats have sunk lately as backpackers try to book the best passage.

Pirates Cove - Portobello, Panama

Pirates Cove and its gregarious owner Tommy.

With Captain Jack’s out of the running for accommodation, we headed to a place down the road called Pirates Cove behind the police station just off the main road. It’s run by a gregarious Panamanian named Tommy, fresh back from years in the US, who was doing his best to improve the run down rooms which had saggy mattresses, weird drop ceilings, dirty showers and ill-fitting polyester sheet with cigarette burns in them when we were there.

You can’t beat the waterfront location, however, and we are hopeful that Tommy has made some basic improvements by now. The outdoor bar at Pirates Cove is another yachtie magnet and good place to meet captains and get information about San Blas sailing trips.

Yacht Bar, Pirates Cove - Portobello, Panama

The easy-going waterfront bar at Pirates Cove is a great place for a cold one and for getting information from boat owners about San Blas Island sailing trips.

In between the cheerful open air restaurant and the blocks of rooms at Pirates Cove you’ll see a strange area of shallow cement troughs mostly filled with sea water. Look closely and you’ll see that the water is covering (and, therefore, protecting) rows of cannonballs, tiny cannons and even wood beams.

These items, we were told, are believed to be bits and pieces from one of Christopher Columbus’ ships (more on him later) which sank near Portobelo in the early 1500s. The 1500s, people! Others believe the remains could be from the wreckage of a pirate ship operated by Sir Francis Drake.

Ruins of Colombus ship - Portobello, Panama

This concrete trough full of sea water on the property of Pirates Cove holds what could be cannonballs from one of Christopher Columbus’ ships.

This apparently important booty is just sitting there soaking until restoration and preservation experts can verify the remains and figure out what to do with them.

Oh, and be aware that the wind in Portobelo can be epic, especially in January and February.

Historic pirates of Portobelo

Christopher Columbus founded “Puerto Bello” in 1502. The tiny town was re-named San Felipe de Portobelo by Spanish colonizers in 1586 when they took the town and its strategic port. The Spanish built the San Felipe Fort, San Diego Fort, San Jerónimo Fort and the Santiago Fort to defend the port, and the plundered gold stored in the local Customs House.

Portobelo was a primary ports for shipping stolen gold from the “New World” back to Spain and it suffered a long line of attacks from pirates, including Henry Morgan who trashed Portobelo in 1671.

Fort Jeronimo - Portobello, Panama

San Jerónimo Fort in Portobelo, Panama had 18 cannons but even that wasn’t enough to stop pirates from taking the town and the stolen gold the Spaniards amassed there.

San Fernando Fort, San Jerónimo Fort and Santiago Fort still stand and can be visited. San Fernando is across the bay and you can hire a boat for a few dollars to take you across to it. On the western end of Portobelo you’ll see Santiago Fort (free) wedged between the road and the bay. It’s worth a wander around. San Jerónimo Fort (also free) is essentially in the middle of Portobelo.

Santiago Fort Portobello, Panama

Santiago Fort in Portobelo, Panama.

In 1980 the forts in Portobelo were included in a UNESCO World Heritage Site as “magnificent examples of 17th- and 18th-century military architecture.” In 2012 the forts were placed on UNESCO’s List of Heritage in Danger because of “lack of maintenance and uncontrollable urban developments.”

Portobello and the Custom's House from Fort Jeronimo

The hulking Customs House in Portobleo and the fortified wall along the harbor.

Even today, the Customs House in Portobelo, where the Spaniard’s beloved gold was stored, stacked, counted before being shipped to Spain, is by far the largest and most imposing structure in Portobelo. It’s huge rooms now often house changing exhibits of local art and history.

Custom's House Portobelo Panama

Spanish colonizers stored and counted their stolen gold in the Customs House in Portobelo, Panama before shipping it off to Spain – if the pirates didn’t get it first.

Its also worth visiting the nearby San Félipe Church to check out the four foot (1.5 meter) tall statue of the Portobelo’s famous black Christ. Various legends surround the statue but a common element to the story is that a large box mysteriously appeared in Portobelo and when locals opened it the black Christ was inside. Every October 21 the town hosts a festival which draws pilgrims from all over to help carry the statue around town, then drink and dance until dawn.

 San Félipe Church Portobelo's famous black Christ Panama

Portobelo’s San Félipe Church is home to his black Christ, subject of much legend, a few miracles and an annual festival.

 

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More Jungle In the Jungle – Mamoní Valley Preserve, Panama

Nearly 13 years ago Nathan Gray, founder of the ground-breaking Earth Train  peer-to-peer student activism movement in the US, was looking for a new home base for his seemingly boundless philanthropic efforts. A friend recommended Panama as a place with lots of land just waiting for Earth Train to protect it and lots of young people in need of empowerment. So Nathan got on a plane, then he got on a bus, then he got on a truck taxi and soon he found himself in Mamoní Valley. That’s when a Panamanian woman sitting next to him mentioned that her family was selling a chunk of property nearby. Nathan toured the property later that day and soon he was the owner of 198 acres (80 hectares). The Mamoní Valley Preserve was born – part nature reserve, part environmental education center, part eco adventure travel destination.

Mamoni Darien Panama

Earth Train’s Mamoní Valley Preserve works to turn cleared farm and ranch land back into this: lush jungle and vibrant waterways.

From ranch land to reforestation

Like so much of the land in the area, the property had been cleared for cattle pasture so Nathan, a growing Panamanian Earth Train team and a crew of volunteers began reforesting the 198 acres (80 hectares) with indigenous plants and trees. Soon the streams cleared up and wild animals returned.

Bamboo was planted and it quickly began providing building materials for a true environmental retreat and education center where Nathan’s dreams of educating and empowering young people to lead other young people into a better environmental future could be realized.

Mamoní Valley Preserve , Panama

Reforested land around Centro Mamoní is criss-crossed with trails like this one.

Now Centro Mamoní has four two-level, mostly open-air wood and bamboo sleeping structures with room to pitch tents on the upper floor and bathrooms with showers and composting toilets on the ground floor. There’s also a large kitchen and a dining/meeting area with satellite internet all powered by a hydroelectric generator on the grounds.

Centro Mamoní, Darien Panama

One of the two-level, open air bamboo and wood sleeping structures at Centro Mamoní.

Hiking at Mamoní

We visited Centro Mamoní with Nathan and hiked a loop trail that took us up and down through the lush jungle and across creeks. We dove into swimming holes and stopped at lofty viewpoints where we could see the Caribbean Coast and the famed Kuna Yala, homeland of the Kuna (sometimes called Guna) people.

Dart Frog, darien jungle, Panama

We saw this dart frog (named for the shape of its head) while hiking on trails around Centro Mamoní in Panama.

Along the way we saw a dart frog (not a poison dart frog – this one is named for the shape of its head, red spider monkeys, helicopter dragonflies, tiny black frogs, a centipede that smelled like almonds because it protects itself by secreting cyanide (cyanide smells like almonds) and a rare caecilan which is an amphibian that looks like a worm or snake. It amazed us all, even Nathan. Cougars and harpy eagles have also been spotted at Mamoní since reforestation started taking hold.

 caecilan Darien Panama - giant worm

This rarely spotted caecilan, an amphibian which looks like a worm or really weird snake, was spotted on a trail in the Mamoní Valley Preserve in Panama.

You can also go kayaking within the Mamoní Valley Preserve and even hike from ocean to ocean through the preserve since it exists in the narrowest part of the Panamanian Peninsula.

Modern Mamoní

Mamoní now protects more than 12,000 acres (48,567 hectares) including most of the vital Mamoní watershed, six of its tributaries and more than 50 miles (80 km) of streams.

The legendary Dr. Jane Goodall has visited Mamoní and the center has hosted her Roots & Shoots environmental program for 70 students.

bumpy tree Darien jungle Panama

This tree with an odd bumpy trunk is just one of the native species that have been brought back in the Mamoní Valley Preserve thanks to reforestation efforts by Earth Train.

Mushrooms darien Jungle Panama

With few visitors and air-tight environmental protection all kinds of species flourish in Panama’s Mamoní Valley Preserve.

Mamoní abuts he Chagres National Park and an area inhabited by the Kuna (also called Guna) people, Panama’s largest indigenous group, and Earth Train works closely with the Kuna Congress (the indigenous group’s autonomous government) to promote environmental protection.

Junglewood, a program run by Grammy award-winning producer Rob Griffin, brings musicians to an outdoor amphitheater on the Mamoní property for outdoor concerts that are truly in tune with nature.

Panama-Flower

Wild beauty in the Mamoní Valley Preseve in Panama.

Earth Train recently opened a campus, designed by a protégé of architect Frank Gehry, near Panama City in order to offer even more environmental education to even more people.

Pre arrange your visit to Mamoní Valley Preserve and Centro Mamoní, just two hours from Panama City, by contacting Earth Train by email at info AT earthtrain DOT org. The cost of your visit will help fund the purchase and protection of more land and the creation of more environmental education programs.

Fireworks-flower-tree-Panama

Bursts of color in the green, green, green Mamoní Valley Preserve.

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