I am Panama
By Lisa Collins-Haynes
Las Vegas Informer
The Republic of Panama holds a dear place in my heart. I am half Panamanian, but was born in the US with nearly no connection to my Afro-Panamanian roots. When the opportunity arose to visit my “home” country, I was thrilled. Upon landing in Panama City I was completely moved. People have said it before, but the feeling was quite overwhelming to, in a sense, go home to a place I’d never been before.
Although my visit was short, I was able to see and do a lot. Not only was I able to soak up the local culture, but also put a visual on all the stories I’ve heard from my relatives of their time spent in Panama. Naturally, my first beeline was to discover what all the fuss was about over Panamanian ceviche. I’d heard before that if you’re going to eat ceviche, then Panama is the place to do it. There was no way I was going to miss my opportunity to have a taste, and there was no better place to go than where the locals go – Mercado de Mariscos. It’s located at the water’s edge and along the boardwalk, under the city lights. Day or night, it’s the place to be, with several seaside restaurants to choose from all serving varied types of fried fish and shrimp, stuffed tostones, and their versions of hand-crafted, home-style ceviche. Yes, I admit that I did spend most of my trip digging out of a white cup with a plastic spoon, but the ceviche was delicious and just as I had anticipated.
Next on my list was to visit another place I’d heard about – the BioMuseo; which highlights the fountain of bio-diversity of Panama, educates and promotes discovery to visitors on how integral Panama’s ecological footprint is. As it joins two continents together, it was the catalyst that allowed animals to roam from the south to the north and vice versa. This force change introduced them to new climates and created a shift of evolve on what they ate, how they hunted, how they lived and how they died. It also covered the extinction of animals and plant life; the ones that have completely vanished and the ones that are endangered. The museum has eight exhibits, with a fascinating multimedia platform shown across ten jumbo-screens that allows visitors to lie down on the floor and look up and all around them to simulate swimming with whales. Both visually and auditorily stimulating, BioMuseo was impressive and a wonderful interactive and creative tool. Other exhibits showcased the diverse species of animals to scale, to show the true estimated size of them. A noticeable Giant Ground Sloth replication appears near the end of the tour. It was a prehistoric creature that was likely killed off by human hunters, as it had few predators due to it’s size – about four tons and twenty feet long. The BioMuseo has constructed a learning tool, often described as a living web of information. Panama forced a barrier between the two oceans and it not only changed wind directions and water currents but climate conditions, natural history and geology. The BioMuseo has effectively put a system in place to show the impact that bio-diversity has on the environment.
I briefly visited Reprosa Panama – a factory and cultural gift shop that offers a behind the scenes tour of how the detailed pieces of Pre-Colombian artifacts are replicated. The theme that still rings in my ears was, “I am Panama.” Reprosa is focused on the preservation and promotion of Panama’s history, traditions, and diversity. By creating replications of coins and artifacts found at archeological sites, this save’s the culture so it is not only enjoyed by future generations; but also a way to tell the story of days past. The jewelry is inspired in nature and folklore with the help from many indigenous tribes. Panama’s ancient civilizations, cultural traditions and natural treasures come to life in their workshop. I was able to see how reproductions of pre-Hispanic artifacts were created using a process called “lost wax”, which is the same method the ancient goldsmiths of Panama used thousands of years ago to make their innate pieces of gold.
The highlight of my visit was arriving to the airport for my flight to Isla Bocas del Toro and discovering that Air Panama’s plane was much bigger than I expected. Bocas del Toro was full of expats from the US, Canada and Europe. I found a slow pace of life surrounded by paradise; it was easy to see why so many make it their home. It was totally a grungy, seaside, sleepy village – but I couldn’t get enough of it. From the moment I got there, I was only met with people of a warm spirit, who were friendly and helpful despite the language barrier. My only regret was not having the time to rent a surfboard and catch a few waves while I was there…but next time!
I stayed at the luxurious Red Frog Beach Resort and Spa – and let me say it more than exceeded expectations. In my occupation, I’ve had the chance to visit and stay in many luxury retreats, but Red Frog is definitely one of my favorites places. The views and private beach alone are worth a thousand words – but the chance sightings of howler monkeys, sloths and exotic birds make this a worthwhile place to visit. I loved the unpaved dirt roads under the wheels of my golf cart, as I drove through what felt like the jungle. The resort is massive, and boasts a remarkably untouched natural aesthetic. I felt like I was on an episode of Lost – but in a good way. The pace of life is slower there and even though my days were full with zip-lining, horseback riding and spa treatments – I still had time to bird-watch, photograph wildlife, and hunt for the elusive red frog.
As an avid traveler, I often have a hard time not getting too attached to a city or place. But I must admit, I had a very difficult time leaving Panama. I found it to be both a lively country and impressionable. It impacted me in more ways than I could have imagined. The people, the food and the culture are embedded in my DNA by nature and finally getting a glimpse of my heritage was simply priceless. I am Panama.