The Heartland of Panama and The Gringa of Guararé
The Azuero Peninsula hangs off of the Panamanian underbelly like a squat appendage, jutting southwards into the Pacific. It’s been called “the heartland of Panama” and “the home of folklore and traditions” but at its heart it is the distillation of the old Castilian culture; the celebration of the vaquero – the cowboy and the landed gentry. Fittingly it is a land of voluptuous, softly rolling hills and breathtaking vistas, verdant green pastures, farmland and working cattle ranches.
For the modern world, it encompasses golden and white sand beaches, world-famous surf destinations, spectacular sport fishing, whale-watching, snorkeling, diving and sea turtle nesting areas. The eastern portion of the Peninsula, the most populous region, includes the city of Chitré, the smaller city of Las Tablas and the sleepy, seaside fishing village where we found ourselves, El Puerto de Guararé, (pronounced Gwa-RA- ray).
Although our perception of Guararé was of a town that had stepped back in time our hostess Bonnie Birker, owner of the friendly, seaside guesthouse Casa del Puerto, said it had progressed since her first arrival in 1967 as a Peace Corps volunteer. At that time La Enea de Guararé was fairly isolated with only one car in the entire area and roads of deep mud during rainy season. There was electricity but no phone service. Water was provided by a village pump and the homes had outside latrines.
Guararé was featured by Lonely Planet in 2000 and Bonnie, who prefers to be called a gringa from Guararé rather than an expat, realized that the town that had given her so many friends and memories had modernized and even had phone service. She returned to Guararé for good in 2006 after her retirement from a career as an international consultant in countries that included Honduras, Jamaica, South Korea, the Philippines and Nepal. She bought a large but unpretentious house with deep covered porches that overlook the wide expanse of the Pacific spread out in all its awesomeness.
The food in Guararé is well worth mentioning. It’s located on the coast and small fleets of boats set out twice daily in the early morning and near sunset and their catch graces the tables of many local restaurants. Most often we feasted on freshly caught corvina, or sea bass. Served with heads on – and sometimes staring eyes, too – they were easy to debone with a sumptuous, flaky, white meat. They came accompanied by the regional specialty of patacones – which we had previously called tostones in Nicaragua – or crisply fried green plantain patties. We also stuffed ourselves with fresh fish or shrimp ceviche. Late one afternoon we dined on fresh caught tuna on the southern coast of the peninsula. The bounty of the sea was never more lavishly available than in the Auzero.
During our visit Bonnie did her utmost to show us some the reasons why she had returned to the village of Guararé and the Azuero Peninsula. We visited Las Tablas for the National Festival of the Pollera held there each July. The Pollera, a descendant of the Castilian culture, is the females’ yang to the vaqueros’ yin. It is the quintessential national dress composed of a blouse and long, full skirt featuring the painstaking work of the Panamanian women with original and complicated, decorative embroidery and, many times, additional applique, crochet and lacework.
The festival included the presentation and judging of the Pollera in several categories, rodeo and equestrian events, craft and food vendors and a concluding parade. The latter displayed several dances with the men and women moving in a formal and stylized, intricate synchronicity while others featured the women – with many young girls imitating them – swirling and twirling holding the hems of their dresses up to display the gorgeous embroidery designs and a demure peek at the white-on-white lace and cutwork underskirts.
Many of the dresses involved hundreds of hours of skilled and careful needlework and the most elaborate were expensive by almost any standard. And, as if the Pollera needed any additional decoration, several long necklaces of gold were draped around graceful necks, sparkling beaded hair adornments sat atop glossy, black hair and eye-catching earrings dangled from lobes.
Towards the end of our time in the Azuero we spent a day traveling through the center of the peninsula to the southern coast, again with Bonnie. We drifted through established towns such as Tonosi in the rolling hill country, still much immersed in the cattle culture. Places such as these are the anchor of the peninsula, they are the heartland clinging to the more traditional. At the terminus of the journey we stopped at the beach town of Cambutal, with its rapidly expanding infrastructure reflecting the up-coming changes. Here, and elsewhere, are modern signature homes, boutique hotels, tony yoga retreats, funky eateries and up-scale restaurants all vying for the dollars possessed by the surfers, sun worshipers, eco-tourists, gringo retirees and wealthy Panamanians.
The Azuero Peninsula neatly encapsulates the tensions that exist as an established way of living cedes ground to the new. Surely benefits accrue in the wake of modernity but at a cultural cost. Bonnie, and her many amigos, represent those on the cusp, those who are witness to and participants in the changing of the guard. And in the Azuero, we were the fortunate ones who wandered through able to observe and appreciate the heritage and enjoy the perks offered by the latest and greatest.
By Anita and Richard