Super Road Trip to the Azuero Peninsula

Matt Landau - The Panama Report May 22, 2007

I had decided to take a few days off work and explore some of the lesser known parts of Panama. The real estate and tourism booms in various regions of the country are what keep my finances afloat. But it’s the secret nooks and hidden crannies of the country’s unknown interior that are truly inspiring.

It started off innocent enough. The hustle and bustle of the city had worn me out. Car horns, street vendors, and intense business dealings had together formed this terrible cacophony that rang in my ear day and night, forming the sort of headache you get from extended periods of time camped out below a power generator. I needed a break, and the Azuero Peninsula was calling.

I made it to Pedasi as the sun was dying behind the hills. Pedasi is a small coastal town about forty five minutes past Las Tablas, known mainly for its most famous resident, Miyera Moscoso, ex-President of Panama. The streets are lined with cute little houses and locals hang out on the porches, presumably making fun of people who pass. I was an easy target.

Pedasi has one very high end place to eat, Manolo Caracol, a shoot-off project by a successful restaurateur from Panama City. But I had not ventured into the remote interior of Panama to have fu fu dishes like Kobe beef carpaccio with microgreens and sesame foam. What the hell is foam anyway? I remember once being served beet juice in a shot glass there that made me really question whether or not the chef was on drugs.

I eventually found myself down by the beach in search of something a bit more traditional to the area, fish. It was a Tuesday night and just as I arrived, a small team of fishermen (and I say small because they were actually the size of midgets) were gathering under a small sand-floored bohio drinking cold local beers and tossing irreverent slurs each other’s way. “Your wife has the kind of teeth like a barracuda” I heard one of them say. Fisherman humor I suppose.

I stood off in the distance then wandered over to the oceanfront rancho—the waves lapping just feet away—and promptly offered the fishermen a bottle of aged rum. I’ve found that this technique can make you a lot of friends in Panama and this scenario was no different. The fishermen—all of whom smelled of old sea bass, and several of whom actually looked like old sea bass—welcomed me warmly. “Do you have any food?” I asked.

The fishermen giggled like little girls, smiling to reveal only a few lucky teeth left in each of their mouths: teeth resembling small, deformed Chicklet bubble gums. It was like I had asked a doctor if he had any Band-Aids. “Of course we have food!”

One of the men, Charlie, who actually resembled a small dinosaur opened up a cooler and held out, with his little velociraptor arms, the biggest tuna I have ever seen. It must have been 5-ft in length. He offered it to me yet I had no idea what to do when offered a large tuna fish. I patted the tuna fish on the head with approval, as if it was a young child, and thanked Charlie for his generosity, but I was thinking more like just a filet.

Charlie, his friends and I hung out late into the night. The moon shown bright through the thatched roof and the stars appeared to be clearer than the obvious new friendship that had just been born. We talked about the few things that young kids from New Jersey and old men from rural Panama have in common—women and booze—and we talked about them extensively. We worked heartily away at the bottle of rum I had brought and the fishermen cooked up fresh filets: carved from the still-breathing body, then thrown on a scalding hot mango wood fire. The first piece was supposed to be lucky and was given to me as, what I like to call, The Guest of Honor. Alongside it was a neon green hunk of lime and a small handful of salt. Best tuna I’ve had in my life. Fuck sesame foam.

Day Two

I woke up with sand in my hair and played back the memorable events of the night before like an old intellectual movie reel. When I got out of my tent, one of the fishermen was already up and had scored some ripe pineapples from a nearby patch. After a quick dip in the ocean and a farewell to my new buddies, I was off to continue my journey. I left my business card with the idea that maybe sometime they’d be in the city and give me a call. In truth, they’d probably use it to scrape the fish bones from beneath their teeth.

I continued south along the coast of Azuero to the town of Tonosi which I love. It’s this terrifically rustic town, no bigger in comparison, than my right cornea pupil retina eyeball. In Tonosi, there exists almost no nightlife, almost no restaurants, and almost no places to stay. I like you.

In the town square, I met up with a friend Javier who enjoys making potholders and practicing wood carving skills. I had not seen Javier for quite some time, so when he saw the large mess of hair I had grown, he was surprised and happy for me. The change in Javier’s appearance though was not nearly as easy to come by. Javier had lost an ear in what he called a “knife problem”. (I decided not to comment.) I spent the rest of our time together intentionally whispering things, then joking that he couldn’t hear me because his senses had been depleted. Javier liked this.

Javier always has something fun in store whenever I see him, and this time was no different. He invited me to a rooster fight that night between his friend’s bird named The Hammer, and the opposition: a bird brought in from out of town who all the locals were referring to as El Mongol (or The Retarded One). They called him The Retarded One because he was a mutant and had three legs. The third leg was not a full leg but more of a stump, left presumably for decoration.

From the cockfight, I was expecting a nice, clean, wrestling match that—if I was lucky—might include cotton candy. What I got though was a dirty, dangerous killing field where the only food for consumption was roasted chicken courtesy of the losing contestant. Razor blades had been affixed to the talons making for a quick swipe-like jab which slashed pockmarked chicken skin about as precisely as my 8” Wustoff. It was at this point that I pondered the origin of Javier’s ear accident.

The fierceness at which the roosters fought was intriguing. The sensation was not unlike that which I experienced in Spain at a bullfight—the point at which I realized an animal would actually be slaughtered in the name of entertainment. My smiles turned to winces. My excitement to gloom. The locals though enjoyed it fully. It was, to them, just another form of entertainment and for that I, as a visitor, was no one to speak up. Had a PETA member been in the stands, I might have had her back but as it was, hell, I was immersing myself and chanting with the rest of them: Kill, Kill, Kill!

I slept by the ocean that night: the crashing waves the perfect cleansing lullaby. I slept surprisingly well, beyond a few dreams characterized most notably by large birds carrying custom-built machine guns.


Day Three

I woke up and pulled a few ripe mangoes off the nearby tree. I ate the juicy meat with my fingers and realized this sort of breakfast probably would have cost $7 at Wild Oats. I gathered my things, then ventured down even more south to Cambutal where good surf breaks and a frightening proximity to the equator welcomed me with open arms.

I ran into a bunch of surfers whose slow talking and stoner-like cackles reminded me that losing brain cells is easier than we think. There wasn’t a whole lot to do in Cambutal so I decided to drive up towards Santiago: a road that I never even knew existed until a few friends pointed it out on a map. The road that leads through the middle of the Azuero Peninsula is not quite as good as the one that dribbles along the coast, but it did offer a myriad of mini ecosystems and some new scenery. I drove past several little children who were kicking around a blown-up animal intestine like a balloon. This reminded me of New Jersey.

I needed to use the bathroom and pulled over in one of the small mountain towns, if you could call it a town. Not wanting to pee on just anywhere, I wandered up to a poor excuse for a house: this cinderblock edifice no bigger than my kitchen, to ask if I could use their facilities. (Believe it or not, this is a pretty common practice in Panama, wandering up to strangers homes and asking to use the bathroom). “Permiso” I shouted, “but does anyone have a bathroom I can use?”

Out came this little woman who must’ve been around 87 years old. “Of course we do” she said in Spanish. “Help yourself.”

The bathroom was about as simple as they come. After touring numerous new condo buildings in Punta Pacifica and seeing ultra-luxurious floor plans of bathrooms with saunas, Jacuzzis, and swimming pools in Gorgona, this opened up my eyes a bit. The boarded-up roof, deep hole in the ground and stabilization railing had reduced going to bathroom to its basics. Why do you need a plasma when you can watch little green gecko’s chase each other on the wall? When I came out and prepared to continue my trip, I noticed my car had grown a flat tire. Fan-freakin-tastic.

The little old house woman tried to fix the thing by hitting it with a stick, but no magic here. We called who she claimed to be her son: a car mechanic in Santiago, about an hour north. I was pretty sure the man on the other end of the phone was a woman, but I wasn’t about to call her out. The old woman, who I’d come to know as Irma, offered me her hammock to sit down. Her grandchild came running around at some point wearing a metal pasta strainer on his head. “Are you a little child warrior?” I asked him.”

I showed him a few very technical magic tricks and soon enough, the whole village was there, amazed by my ability to make river rocks disappear into thin air. I’d then shrug my shoulders as if to say, not even I have an explanation for what just happened.

Eventually Irma’s son (and indeed he was a male, just with a high-pitched voice) showed up and fixed my tire. He asked for $4 which I didn’t even feel covered his cost of travel, so I gave him $10. In return, he gave me his sombrero. As I left the community and all the friends that enjoyed my magic, I threatened that if any of them were to do anything bad like steal or curse, I would put a spell on the entire village. They took this very seriously and showered me with religious-like gifts—none of which I can accept, following the bylaws of professional magicians.

By the time I reached Santiago, night had fallen and I needed some rest. I holed up in my favorite spot: La Hacienda Hotel. It’s a little Mexican-built retreat in the middle of Panama. Fantastic. After a warm shower, tasty tacos, and the intro scenes of Rush Hour II, I fell asleep.

Day Four

I had already exceeded the ideal length of my trip, being that the amount of emails and work that would build up might resemble a famous mountain range. On my way back to Panama City, I stopped in Campana for some waterfall hunting. I found this beautiful one, about 40 feet, and met the family whose property it happened to sit on. They were eating paella by the bottom pool, the mist from the falls lightly forming a mysterious haze. I joined them.

We swung off vines and jumped off rocks landing in the icy waters below. Life seems to be so simple in these parts, and it’s really a book outta which I should take a page. I caught a very nice size fish, and when I say nice size, I mean about the size of a small paperback novel. It was the equivalent of landing a Wahoo though, considering the homemade balsa wood fishing poles we were using were designed for harvesting guppies.

The family was incredibly sincere and genuinely wanted me to come back and visit. This was a surprise, as usually when people say goodbye to me, it’s followed by “I hope we never see each other again.” I offered the family the last loose cash I had in my pocket for their hospitality and they accepted it, but with a certain sort of abandon. It became clear to me that money wasn’t something nearly as prized by them—or any of the people I had met for that matter—as perhaps a tight-knit family or a dog with good personality. Sure the money would probably buy them some extra clothes or whatever, but truth be told, all the people I had met on my trip valued things other than cash.

My journey to Panama’s Azuero Peninsula was characterized by a lot of things, but the most poignant commonality of all was the kindness of the nation’s people. The smiles on their faces, the raw pleasure they take in meeting new friends, the time and dedication they give to others. It was actually very moving and although I’m now back in the city, back to my normal grind and wear, I’ll remember each of their faces. I’ll remember that in the Azuero Peninsula, much unlike the rest of the modern world, life moves at a different pace.