By Juan Abelardo Carles Rosas
Photos: Carlos Gómez, Victor Soriano
Three shades of green blanket most of the cultivated land on the plains arcing around the Gulf of Panama: the mottled, muddy and spotty green of the cattle pastures; the light, velvety pastel green of the rice fields; and lastly, a green that is dark, silky and viridian —after the Celtic god whose name means “green man”— of the sugarcane fields. This last shade prevails in the fields of Pesé, a district in the province of Herrera.
Here, man and sometimes even nature, adapt their lives to the rhythm of this sweet crop. Harvest begins the cycle at the beginning of January. The first to celebrate are the storks and other long-legged birds that mysteriously congregate near the cane fields days before the harvest, lying in wait for the myriad reptiles, amphibians and insects that will be revealed once the fibrous stalks are cut.
Sugarcane came to Panamá via the Caribbean —to what is now Kuna Yala— during the first half of the 16th century, but it was on the shallow, warm and dry plains abutting the Pacific Ocean that it prospered. Sugarcane presses used to be handcrafted of wood, but iron presses, which were more efficient in extracting juice from the cane, soon came along. Despite mechanization, some of the older and more traditional ones can still be seen. We saw one in Chumajal de Guararé, in the neighboring province of Los Santos. It belongs to dyed-in-the-wool Los Santos native Genis Berrios, and was given to him by his son-in-law, Víctor Soriano. “This press has been in the family for nearly two hundred years. It belonged to my great-grandfather and then to my grandfather,” explained Soriano.
Even though table sugar sweetens our food and beverages, these handcrafted presses are the ones that supply Panamanians with the raspadura (molasses sugar or moist brown sugar) that is indispensable for many traditional desserts, and with sugarcane syrup, which has recently been shown to be an unequalled source of calcium, a boon for anyone who is lactose intolerant.
Sugarcane juice can also be fermented to make guarapo, a beverage used to distill rum – a spirit common to all the nations along the Caribbean Sea – and seco, which is enjoyed mainly by Panamanians. A note on history is called for here; although the break-up of Panama and Colombia in 1903 did not have an immediate effect on most of the habits, customs and other cultural manifestations common to both sides of the new border, it did change things in the long run. Sugarcane spirit used to be served “with anise” or “dry,” but after these political developments, spirits perfumed with the star-shaped seeds continued to be served in Colombia, and the “dry” version became popular in Panama, so much so that it was simply referred to as seco (dry) Pesé is quite an interesting place for a look at the cultivation and processing of sugarcane. A little over a century ago, Varela Hermanos, one of the most important distilleries in the country, put down roots here.
The district of Pesé was named in honor of the son of chief Parita, who was considered one of the fiercest enemies of the Spanish conquistadors. It had tasted importance as the provincial capital of Herrera, a status it lost to the booming port of Chitré at the beginning of the 20th century. Today’s visitors descending into the valley will see houses with spacious entryways, dense gardens, a church as white as the lilies crowning the shepherd’s crook of St. Joseph (patron saint of the church) and an endless vista of cane fields stretching across the horizon.
Beyond the town cemetery, a road flanked by teak trees leads to Hacienda San Isidro, the main distillery of Varela Hermanos, S.A. The cane grows rapidly between June and December and yields its concentrated juice between January and May, which is harvest time. The cut cane is still occasionally transported by oxcart. Although the harvest has been largely mechanized, the company has retained this relic of traditional harvests, even though it is merely a faint whisper of harvests of old, when hundreds of these carts rattled along roads throughout Pesé day and night. The oxen wear colorful cloths wrapped around their heads.
Like many traditional tasks, the making of oxcarts, especially the wheels, is in danger of disappearing. Of the dozens of artisans who kept this craft alive during the first half of the 20th century, there remains only one man: Galo Moreno, who has spent 47 of his 60 years making cart wheels. Even though wheels can be machine-made, nothing beats handcrafting. Moreno can be found in his simple house on the outskirts of the town, surrounded by stumps of oak. “I have to wait nearly three years for the wood to dry completely before it can be worked; otherwise it will rot,” he explains. “It generally takes me about a week and a half to make a pair of wheels. If I had an electric lathe, it would take less time,” explains the artisan, who is all muscle and sinew without an ounce of superfluous fat on him. He makes the wheels with manual lathes and chisels.
This industry involves a lot of handcrafting, as exemplified by the warehouses stacked to the ceiling with white oak barrels, specially made for aging Ron Abuelo, one of the company’s iconic products. The rum breathes and imbibes the oak. The company is working on adding a tourist twist to an operation that is already a great cultural and folkloric attraction. In addition to the cellars for aging, there is a tasting room, where national and international visitors can taste the company’s liquors. We arrive in time to catch up with a group of university students from Ohio, and to listen to the guide’s explanations.
Sam Pudenz, de 22 años, forma parte del grupo. “No sabía que esto fuera tan grande y que la producción estuviera tan industrializada. Las facilidades son muy bonitas”, explica, mientras varios de sus compañeros compran botellas de Ron Abuelo como souvenir. Aunque parezca mentira, algunos vienen con pedidos expresos para llevar Seco Herrerano de vuelta, demostrando que la bebida se labra un pequeño círculo de consumidores allende las fronteras. Aún así, el fuerte de exportación sigue siendo el ron, y Abuelo es la marca insignia.
Any time of year is a good time to visit this area, but the first half of the year is even better, since the attractions of harvesting and pressing are added to the tastings. In March, Pesé celebrates the Sugarcane Festival in honor of the sweet product that sustains its economy. This year, the festival begins on March 17th, with the traditional performance of the pirate ship attacking the castle, all presided over by the festival queen; the festival continues with folklore and cultural shows and parades with floats, culminating in the eagerly awaited parade of oxcarts on Sunday the 20th. “Festival rules state that the carts may be made only from sugarcane and its byproducts,” stresses organizing committee member Héctor Mencomo. “The carts come from the neighborhoods and communities of Pesé or the surrounding areas, although there are also some sponsored by government agencies or private companies. Each one is accompanied by musical ensembles and folk dancers.”
This celebration, which coincides with the feast of their patron saint St. Joseph, dates from 1948. Today, 12,000 people take part, which is nearly triple the number of the town’s inhabitants. The revelry upends their peaceful routine, but it is a small price to pay for the benefits of sugarcane. After the wind wafts away the sounds of drumming and singing and the tang of fireworks, only the chants of harvesters and the sweet aroma of guarapo rise from the shorn cane fields. But shining shoots will soon sprout and the dark, silky viridian green of the cane fields will once again prevail in the Pesé Valley.
How to Get There
From Panama City, take the Pan-American Highway going west to the town of Divisa, then turn south on the Azuero Peninsula highway. Shortly before reaching the province’s capital of Chitré there will be a detour on the right, clearly signposted as the highway to Pesé. It takes nearly four hours to travel the 167 miles from the country’s capital.
Besides the Sugarcane Festival, the town of Pesé is known for its Easter Week celebrations, in keeping with the traditions of other towns with Hispanic roots. You can see several handcrafted sugar presses, both in the province of Herrera and in the neighboring one of Los Santos, but to observe working presses that are more than mere tourist attractions, you might make plans through the regional tourist office or your travel agent. Tours to the San Isidro Hacienda should be coordinated through the Marketing Department of Varela Hermanos S.A.
Tel. 507 217 6046.