Discovering the history and culture of Panama Day 11

Published: June 10th 2019
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After an early breakfast we toured the ship’s galley and said goodbye to the friendly crew and staff, then disembarked the Discovery to be rejoined with Roberto our jovial bus driver on Isla Amador. He drove us around Isla Amador passing the Smithsonian Tropical Institution on Isla Culebra where they have been measuring water accumulation in the region.

From there we found the much anticipated Biomuseum designed by architect Frank Gherry whose wife, we are told, is from Panama. I am sure she had a great deal of influence on the design and installation of this amazing museum. The roof, with its many colorful tiles scattered about like piles of brightly colored leaves, makes this building stand out with a statement of its own. But under the roof it gets even better. As you get closer to the museum you can see that the bright orange, yellow and blue metallic canopies are part of a “tropical forest” designed with colorful leaves supported by “branches “ and “roots”. This open tree spaced entrance offers a connection to the environment around it framing palm trees, the soft blue of Panama Bay, and in the distance, a soft green colored mountain that used to be a volcano millions of years ago. A perfect segue into the contents of this wonderful museum.

The museum is still growing but what we did see was truly impressive. In their literature the museum says “the Biomuseo tells the story of the importance of Panama in the creation of the world as we know it.” It definitely lives up to that promise. We began by walking through the Gallery of Biodiversity. On display was an introduction to Panama’s amazing natural heritage. This area went on to describe the importance of maintaining biodiversity by showing photographs of the many species who are either endangered or no longer with us. Further inside the museum a sign said “When the isthmus of Panama rose from the sea, it changed life on earth in countless ways. Today this Bridge of Life hosts an astonishing wealth of biodiversity, and is the nexus of a multitude of connections - climatic, biological, and cultural - that link the globe.” Today Panama is a bridge between the continents and a barrier between oceans producing a profound effect on the global environment.

With these thoughts in mind we entered a dark room and stood as the room exploded with color, animals, birds and all manner of species that surrounded us on all sides, even under our feet. Accompanied by lively indigenous music, these natural wonders flew, stampeded, swam, and made their way in their various environments. For over 5 minutes we were immersed in the jungles of Panama. From leafcutter ants to blue morpho butterflies, to howler monkeys, to mountain tops, rain storms, and birds on the fly, it was all here. We were surrounded by rushing waters, jungle flowers, oceans and the wildlife therein, while whales and turtles swam under our feet and above our heads and all manner of frogs in trees and butterflies flew about, all to amazing indigenous drum and animal sounds. It took our breath away. Overall three hundred species were flashed by us on 10 screens in the three level “Panamarama” projection space that swept us away. There are more species in Panama than Brazil and we may have seen them all! Even Jane Goodall said she was “very, very impressed”. I think I have to come back.

Leaving this “theater” we began to explore the geological world as the earth formed. I touched pillow basalt that originated underwater about 70 million years ago, peridotite that was formed by magma, and fine grained limestone formed underwater between 15 and 16 million years ago. In another room we walked beneath and around giant life-sized ancient species that once roamed the earth. Giant sloths as tall as a tree, and other large animals stampeded toward each other as you walk among them observing their enormous bodies. Most of the large animals that lived in Panama became extinct by 10,000 BC. The largest land animal to survive is the Tapir.

The Biomuseo was created in one of the most biodiverse places in the world. The movement of plants and animals between North and South America known as the Great Biotic Interchange began millions of years ago but its results are still very evident in Panama today. Anthropological and genetic evidence indicates that the first people to arrive in the Americas came from northwest Asia but it is still a guess as to whether they arrived by land or along the coast in boats, or possibly both. Today more than 45 percent of Panama is still forested and more than 50 protected areas cover over 30 percent of the national territory. But resources and staff to safeguard such a large area are very limited.

There were more exhibits in the open area near the exit and a gift store that went unvisited by us, but sadly we were dragged away to our bus to the next venue of the day. The Biomuseo was not included in our OAT tour, which is quite surprising as to me. I felt it should have been a major feature of the trip. The museum fee was nominal and we were glad to pay it, especially to support such an amazing museum, but I would have liked to have spent an additional hour or two more, both in the museum and the gardens surrounding it along the Panama Bay. When we left the museum we could see men clinging to the brightly colored slanted roof tiles as they cleaned and or painted them in the hot sun. Not a job any of us would want.

The Panama Canal Administration building, we were told, is shaped in an E (visible from above) honoring the engineers who worked on the canal. Framed along the circular walls inside the high domed rotunda, are murals painted by William Van Ingen, also known for his murals in the Library of Congress and the Philadelphia Mint. The murals narrate the various stages of the construction, heroism and courage of the people who built the Panama Canal. The building was intended to impress with its marble columns, pink Tennessee marble staircase with its elegant Mahogany banisters. As we were leaving, with biodiversity on my mind, I saw an “agouti”, an animal that looked like a rabbit with no tail. Citified.

Back in Panama city we had lunch at Casa Sucre Coffeehouse, an Americanized version of Panamanian food. We each had a chicken, spinach, cream cheese empanada with passion fruit juice. The passion fruit was rather thin and the empanada was just ok. I wish we had chosen a more authentic restaurant but we were hungry and tired and here it was, so… They sell groceries too but most items are available in the US.

After we ate lunch, Dave decided to join me while I photographed this beautiful old city. Plus I promised him an ice cream treat for dessert. As we were walking I heard drumming and party sounds in the distance. I was intrigued. I followed the sound and discovered, to my great delight, behind the cathedral on a narrow street, eight drummers in colorful shirts and straw hats were prepping for carnival. The combination of Steel drums, the Tamborito, Caja, and Repujador created sounds at once joyous and irresistible. The insistent beating of the drums combined with the laughter and enthusiasm of the drummers made it hard to be a bystander and not run up and join them. Headdresses and parts of carnival costumes were randomly thrown about on the sidewalk. I stayed for as long as I could but Dave was waiting for the promised Roll Ice.

We had been told there was Roll Ice not far from Plaza Independence but we soon got lost. I asked a man in a nearby store whose eyes lit up with enthusiasm. He insisted on walking us down the small side street to the tiny Ay Mi Negra. Sadly there were no fresh fruit options like I had in Costa Rica (fresh mango), instead there were mostly heavy non-healthy options like Cookies and Cream, Butterfinger and the Kinder Addict that were not as refreshing as fruit. My husband chose (vanilla with Nutella ). Maybe if he had chosen the Berry Berry or Unicorn Cherry it would have been less sweet and better tasting but it didn’t look like the fruit was fresh. For $6 you get a large stuffing of 5 ice rolls that were more than enough for two people. I will say it is fun to watch the handsome man making the roll ice but still, not near as good as the fresh mango coconut roll ice in Costa Rica.

Dave needed to rest at the hotel so I left to photograph more of this lovely old city in the late afternoon sun. I walked over to the Plaza Bolivar with its historic statue of Simon Bolivar, El Liberator, famous for having overthrown the reigning Spanish in colonial South America. The beautiful, recently restored, 17th century Iglesia San Francisco de Asis, one of the smallest but most ornate churches in the old city, is at one end of the Bolivar Plaza, an historic theater stands on the other. The beautiful church bell tower rises high above the surrounding buildings giving it a commanding presence. Situated on the tree-lined Plaza Bolivar, which is near the waterfront, the little park is very peaceful with tables and
"Lady of Panama""Lady of Panama""Lady of Panama"

The modern city of Panama is behind my lady.
chairs available on the plaza, some tables even have umbrellas, where local people gathered to enjoy the afternoon.

Nearby I found a man standing in a doorway of the empty Casa Congora, the House of Culture and Art of Panama. He beckoned me inside. There was no entrance fee and no one else in the building so with the man’s encouragement, I began to explore. The building itself is under renovation but is quite charming nonetheless, with a courtyard and curving stairway to the second floor that opened to a decorative fenced in balcony with a view to the city below. There were a few paintings and art pieces throughout the rooms but what struck me were the colorful sculptures made out of folded paper similar to origami. Some sculptures represented birds, and others were traditional masks. Many looked like elaborate displays of flowers. A very pleasant find.

I walked along the water’s edge and saw a beautiful woman with a lovely smile being photographed in her gorgeous royal blue pollera costume. The bodice and the skirt was made from a complementary cloth with red, yellow and blue floral patterns. Her dark hair was brought up with a side bouquet of red hibiscus and white jasmine. Bright yellow earrings danced as she moved. She even wore tiny matching blue shoes. What made this photograph even more spectacular was the backdrop behind her. The tall buildings in Panama City lit up by the afternoon sun, with the blue waters of Panama Bay gave my “Lady of Panama” a post card takeaway photo of all that is Panama.

I then followed a path uphill under a covering of beautiful bougainvillea where I walked past many Guna people lined up in their stalls along the high point of the lookout. These men and women were selling crafts but I respectfully did not photograph them. I was told that they think their soul will be captured in the camera and they will never be at rest. They will allow, if you ask first, to have their stall and work photographed. When doing so, they will cover their faces and duck below the stall’s bench.

Remembering that a fellow traveler remarked about a fabulous view atop a restaurant, I headed to the rooftop of the fancy Casa Casco restaurant/bar which was next door to the squatters building we had visited when we first arrived. The view from the top of Casa Casco overlooked the park, a basketball court and a wall of protest murals, one clearly saying “Sin Los Habitantes NO Hay Patrimonio”. From this vantage I could see the tall buildings with new improvements and additions that encroached on the squatters park neighborhood. I began to take a more serious look at the area by taking several photos looking down on the housing and park of the squatters.

I left the rooftop and walked around photographing the very expressive and emotive painted murals that I had seen from above. One described the anguish of the revolution of the Guna people. I wish I spoke Spanish because I would have loved to decipher the messages on the murals. Men pointing guns, portraits of Olonibiginya, Ologindibibbi, and Nele Kantule were painted on the wall with “1925 - 2015 90 Anos De Revolucion Dule” in bold above their faces. A beautiful Guna woman with flowers in her hair and henna tattoos on her face and body represented the indigenous, and voiceless, people of Panama.

On my way back to the hotel I heard drumming again and followed the sounds back to the same street directly behind the cathedral. This time the drummers were joined by several beautiful (scantily) clad women in multicolored beaded costumes decorated with numerous sparkling “jewels”. Elaborate sparkling headdresses in blues, yellows and purples were surrounded by large colored feathers that framed and almost dwarfed each of the women. Equally fancy jeweled necklaces, arm bracelets, leg decorations and other adornments added to their costumes. And all the time they were wearing spiked high heels!

Despite the tiny bikini-like costumes, there was so much adornment on their heads and backs that the weight, especially in the heat, must have been smothering. I don’t know what they did to keep their makeup from dripping. The crowd grew in size as the drummers pounded their rhythms and those of us in attendance quickly crammed into the narrow side street where we stood enthralled by this cultural display. I am not sure how long these people practice for carnival in all their fancy costumes but it was a thrill to see what I had found, quite by accident, behind the cathedral.

Carnival is always celebrated for four days prior to Ash Wednesday. A large number of people leave Panama City to return to their home and their families to celebrate carnival. There are so many people doing this that a “carnival task force” would convert the Bridge of the Americas to a one way road out of Panama City to accommodate the swell of traffic. The celebrations take place in Panama City but also many of the towns we visited such as Las Tablas, Chitre and Penonome. The celebration culminates in the coronation of the Carnival Queen. Despite that February and March are the hottest months and it would have been very crowded, I was still wishing we had come at that time to see a part of the spectacle. But then there wouldn’t have been any rooms available.

Sadly, when I returned to the hotel I found Dave to be quite sick. Dave stayed behind and after I made sure he was as comfortable as he could be, I left for our tour’s farewell dinner. Grapes Restaurant and Bar was a short walk from our hotel and I paused often to photograph the beautiful old city at night. Once inside the restaurant I was a bit worried because the restaurant was empty save for our group, but the chandeliers, wine cellars and nice artwork that decorated the inside of the stone walled interior made me hopeful. Sadly the pre-ordered food was not as good as expected. Of course this is often true when large groups must be fed. My salad was soaked in dressing making the lettuce soupy. I will say the mushroom ravioli I chose as my entree looked small but it was quite tasty and filling. I had wine that was not spectacular and for dessert we were given vanilla ice cream, a real disappointment for a tour group looking to taste local foods. Apparently there was a rooftop view included in this meal near an adjacent restaurant called Pips. With your Grapes receipt you can go to the top for a view of the city. Since some of our OAT group had to leave early the next morning we were ushered quickly back to the hotel to say goodbye and not given an opportunity to go to the rooftop at Pips. I later found out that this restaurant is located in a private house dating back to 1665. I don’t think our group was well informed about the restaurant or its options.

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