Discovering the history and culture of Panama Day 6

Published: June 10th 2019
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We left the Hotel Cubita at 9AM to visit Dario Lopez the renowned mask maker at his home on the northern edge of Chitre in the district of Parita, carnival mask headquarters. Mr Lopez demonstrated the creation of traditional Panamanian folkloric festival masks using clay, paper mache and forms that could be reused up to 30 times. He doesn’t use a base color but adds up to five colors as he creates his designs. A large mask can take about two to three days to build the form, letting it air dry and finally painting. Mr Lopez has been making these devil masks since the 1960s and now his family joins him in this tradition. Dario’s granddaughter Madeline (five years old) was very proud of her grandfather, taking photos and watching over him like a little angel.

These masks originated from the Spanish as a means to frighten the population with the idea that if you don’t become catholic you will “go to the devil” as represented by Diablico Sucio” – the dirty devil. Diablico Sucio’s dress is red and black striped and he always wears a fearful mask. The scary masks and shiny black and red costumes are created
Dario Lopez, renowned mask makerDario Lopez, renowned mask makerDario Lopez, renowned mask maker

Dario's daughter proudly photographed his entire presentation.
to look like they are on fire by candlelight. Dario’s sons and little grandson appeared dressed in these colorful costumes and proceeded to dance (and happily frighten us) in their costumes and clicking castanet-like noise makers and bells.

Corpus Cristi is sixty days after the resurrection and the only day that these performers can dance with their masks and costumes. We were told that as part of the ceremony they have to remove their masks to reveal themselves before they can enter the church. While dancing for 13 hours these performers eat ginger to help them from cramping and drink rum to keep them going from noon to 9PM! They use maracas to make sounds like chattering teeth and they wear bells to announce the devil is coming.

We left this region, last of the historical and cultural portion of Panama, and headed on to more current events in Panama including what most of us came for, the Panama Canal. Our bus drive returned on the Pan-American Highway where we made a quick stop at a rural gas station in Penonome in Cocle Province, for banos and refreshments. Again we saw large windmill farms in the surrounding Pacific coastal lowlands, with more mountains beyond. I later learned that the original Spanish settlement was founded on the ruins of an ancient Indian town on the Zarati River. Apparently large stone sculptures once stood here before the Spanish conquest.

Curious, I went inside the convenience store where I saw a nice display of good looking pastries and a few pastelito de quesos left but I wasn’t even tempted knowing lunch was around the corner. This rural farmland area must be a cowboy haven because as I was leaving the gas station/convenience store I spotted an Isuzu open-bed truck pull up with a small horse tethered to the truck’s frame in the open bed. A western saddle hung on the fence of the bed. The two men dressed in appropriate cowboy attire left the horse and truck to go into the gas station’s store and came out with two cases of beer.

We drove another hour heading east towards the town of Coronado located near the coast, where we had lunch at Delicias Margot, a Fonda style restaurant located in a very commercial area on a highway next to a large mall. There were tables in the open air with the very necessary fans to relieve us from the heat. The restaurant offers traditional Panamanian dishes. Dave and I had ordered a “chicken stew” that to my mind was not a stew but a piece of roast chicken, a large pile of rice with beans, potato salad and sautéed plantain. I guess it’s all in the local translation, but it was good. We both enjoyed the fresh and cooling lemonade.

The bus deposited us in the late afternoon at the Holiday Inn Panama Canal located in Clayton overlooking the newest section of the Panama Canal. This “Holiday Inn” is in name only and has no connection to the US version of the hotel chain. We were very lucky that our room on the fourth floor and had a partially obstructed view of the ships and train passing by. I felt sorry for others whose views were totally obscured by the deciduous trees.

Since we arrived in the late afternoon and still well before dinner we decided to take advantage of the free drink offer. We sat rum in hand with a view of the colorfully tiled outdoor pool and watched a procession of well dressed guests arrive with gifts and children in tow for a baby shower.

Abdiel collected those of us who wanted a little tour of the area of the once bustling Fort Clayton, now used for residential housing, schools and the City of Knowledge. Fort Clayton closed in 1999 with the United States Army South relocating to Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico. The purpose of the City of Knowledge or Ciudad del Saber was to convert old military areas in the former Panama Canal Zone into a center for knowledge exchange. The institution provides the facilities and support for programs in education, research and technological development. As we walked around the campus we were told this is one of the most expensive areas to live in Panama. We explored this area for over an hour passing residences and a park where people picnicked and played ball in the late Saturday afternoon sun. I attempted yet again to photograph some birds but the light was becoming too dim for my small lens.

The sun was setting across the canal as we walked back to our hotel. From our room we could watch large container ships slowly drift by. The train made its way past and the view of the mountains in the sunlit distance made for an inspiring vista.

That evening we all convened for dinner at the spacious hotel restaurant called Ship View Cafe. I must say the hotel buffet provided some of the best food I have had in Panama. Some of my choices were Fish with Garlic Sauce, Chicken Breast in Pomodoro Sauce, nice roasted vegetables, some delicious salad options and absolutely amazing desserts. I could not have been happier.

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