April 10 – 25: Tropical Panama – Our Destino Final…!

We titled our blog “To Panama” and we actually made it to our final destination – having escaped robberies and muggings, car breakdowns, illness, or any schism in the partnership of the co-pilots of this 15-week adventure southward from Toronto…!

John and Elizabeth were in Panama in 1974 to launch their South Pacific sea adventure; Deborah has collaborated since the mid-1980s with Panamanian popular educators, in particular the late Raúl Leis and his partner Mariela Arce, our major host for the two weeks. Both of us discovered more diversity in Panama than we had previously known – from the rural mountains in the north to the cosmopolitan Panama City, from Taboga Island on the Pacific side to the Guna Yala islands and Indigenous people on the Atlantic side.

Wild West Welcome

 Mariela’s sister Carmen, along with Zurabi and David, hosted us in Boquete in the province of Chiriqui and joked that they had arranged a weekend of festivities to welcome us, as our arrival coincided with the 104th anniversary of the founding of the district.

Zurabi and Carmen 4 (1 of 1)

For two full days, we were entertained with queen contests, parades of school bands and dancers, and for the first time in ten years, the resurrected Cabalgata, a parade they called “Mil caballos” (a thousand horses); we watched hundreds of riders from around the province, fueled by free rum and beer, prance through the streets and back again.

John captured the Cabalgata on video (see vimeo: https://vimeo.com/126700198) and we offer a slide show review of other sites that passed by our house on Central Avenue.

Boquete festival

One morning we biked up into the surrounding hills exploring coffee fincas, strawberry fields, flowers, climbing rocks, and mountain springs.

John on bridge (1 of 1)  Deb the climber (1 of 1)John amidst the hibiscus (1 of 1)

The next day we went with Carmen and Zurabi to visit El Explorador, an enchanting eco-garden of thousands of flowers and miniature plants potted in recycled containers, with dichos, or wise sayings, dotting the landscape – all from the imagination of endlessly creative Deyanira Guerra de Miranda,

El Explorador (1 of 1)  Deyanira 2 (1 of 1)

view of garden (1 of 1)  Dicho 6 (1 of 1)

Provinces and playas

We took a detour on our way to Panama City, to visit the peninsula of Azuero, passing through small towns known for their artisan work – Panama hats, leather sandals, elaborate dancing dresses, etc – and spent one day at Playa Venao, a Pacific coast area long discovered by surfers and now by condo developers.

Deb at cottage (1 of 1)  John in pool (1 of 1)

Deb in pool (1 of 1)  woman surfer

The City and The Canal

 Our base for the next ten days was the home of Marliela Arce, and her two sons, Raúl and José Carlos. Mariela is in the midst of a complicated law suit, following Raúl’s tragic death four years ago, when his doctor mistakenly prescribed penicillin following a routine eye operation, triggering a fatal asthmatic reaction. As Raúl (seen below in Deborah’s Toronto garden in 2010) was a well-known educator, writer, theatre artist, and social movement leader, the law suit has generated national attention to the previously unacknowledged issue of medical malpractice.

En memoria  Mariela 1 (1 of 1)

Panama City, an international financial centre, is a sharp contrast to Boquete and Venao, with hundreds of tall skinny skyscrapers (many foreign-owned condos) rising up from the horizon. Its history has been shaped by its strategic location and the interoceanic canal which is now being expanded to allow larger boats to pass through daily. We watched a Norwegian cruise ship move through the locks, joining other observers in welcoming the 3,000 passengers on their balconies in the huge floating hotel.

Norwegian Pearl (1 of 1)

locks opening (1 of 1)  floating hotel (1 of 1)

We also explored the old city and the harbour with Mariela, celebrating at our favourite seaside strip of ceviche restaurants..! John ventured off on bike twice, once into the countryside from our suburban neighbourhood, and another time into the skyscraper centre.

Boats and highrises (1 of 1)  Flower shower (1 of 1)

Taboga Island: La Isla de las Flores

Mariela invited us for a three-day retreat at her other home on Taboga Island, an idyllic fishing village an hour ferry ride from the city and a place Deborah has visited often over the years. While another encounter with the nasty stings of the ‘agua mala’ (jellyfish) kept us from swimming, we enjoyed time on the beach with some cold Panama Lagers. We took two hikes to hilltops overlooking the bay, captured many flowers through our lenses, watched the birds and boats from our breezy balcony, and hung out in hammocks to read and snooze. Most importantly, we shared stories and music, food and lots of laughter with Mariela, as we plotted our next adventures.

Isla de Tabog


Guna Yala – An autonomous people

 In 1925, the Guna people launched the Tule Revolution, resisting attempts by the Panamanian state to integrate them and gaining them a certain autonomy in term of governance and control of the territory. Guna Yala consists of 365 islands (one for every day of the year!) with only about 50 inhabited. Deborah collaborated with Guna popular educators and artists on the VIVA project ten years ago. We were fortunate to have two fabulous guides during our visit to two islands – Jose Colman, a theatre artist and storyteller who has collaborated with Monique Mojica on productions in Toronto, and Achu de Leon, an internationally known visual artist, based in London, Ontario.

Jose storyteller (1 of 1)  Achu storyteller (1 of 1)

Our journey to the islands was an adventure in itself. John drove the van part-way, but when we reached the ‘border’ of Guna territory (where we had to show our passports, after passing through two police checks), we were told that only 4-wheel drive vehicles could continue on the 35 Km steep and curvy road to the coast. So we left the car and hitched a ride to the port where we got a boat to Carti Sudup, a major but small island, packed to the edge with thatched roof houses. Blas Lopez, another VIVA collaborator, accompanied us and his brother Elbio took us to a community garden, where John offered some composting advice. We reconnected with his family and bought molas, the multi-layered ‘painting with scissors’ art form worn by women as a strong symbol of their identity and way of knowing.  We toured the island, the school, health centre, a local museum, and the meeting house of the Congress, where the leaders are in hammocks in the centre, and where communal decisions are made.

Iguana island   Bienvenidos a la isla (1 of 1)

Achu then took us to a tiny island, Isla Iguana, a veritable Shangri-La tourist retreat run by his cousin, with palm trees, white sand beaches, a few cabins, and a restaurant. There we swam in crystalline water, cavorted with massive schools of sardines, collected shells, and spent a magical evening with Achu sharing his art work via his tablet and José regaling us with cuentos or stories of Guna legends; we translated from Spanish to English  for a young German couple who listened in, not believing their luck that they were being introduced to Guna Yala through internationally known artists and storytellers. Our slide show below shows José in action and offers some of Achu’s paintings, as we also attended an art show opening back in the city where he exhibited work.


Guna Yala


Indigenous Women take over the van

A highlight of our visit was meeting with the women of CONAMUIP, the National Coordination of Indigenous Women of Panama; when John decided to donate the van to an NGO in Panama, Mariela suggested this group. We had an amazing day with them, hearing from the women (representing Guna, Wounaan, and Buglé peoples) about how the organization had helped them develop personal confidence and political power as a collective; they crammed into the van, thrilled at the possibilities it offers them. Our final day in Panama was a six-hour marathon with two of them, led by another friend of Mariela, who took us through the bureaucratic hoops of donating the car….not an easy task, as John couldn’t leave the country until he got his passport stamped by Panamanian customs liberating him from responsibility for the vehicle.

John, car and CONAMUIP (1 of 1)   Car and CONAMUIP 2 (1 of 1)


That took us down to the wire…so we headed off early April 25, for our 12 hour two-flight trip home to Toronto, only temporarily losing one bicycle on the way. Now we have happily landed, and are enjoying reunions with family and friends.

There may be one more entry to our blog – a kind of summary, with some special visual treats…so stay tuned..!

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