By Gaspar Victoria
Photos: Cristian Pinzón
The pleasant journey from Panama City to Penonomé now takes just two hours, whereas during Colonial times, the same journey entailed two days up and down bridle paths through the rugged Panamanian foothills. We learn this from Juan Pérez de Guzmán y Gonzaga, governor of Panama, who wrote in January 1671 about the loss of the strategic Pacific port to English pirate Henry Morgan. Ninety years earlier, a letter dated April 30, 1581 from Diego López de Villanueva y Zapata, a judge in the Royal Audience of Panama, described how several indigenous strongholds were merged to create San Juan Bautista de Penonomé. Luckily, the Spanish official chose to relocate the inhabitants in the exact geographic center of the Isthmus of Panama, a fortunate circumstance that gave the tiny village an imposing presence in the country’s history, culture, and politics.
In fact, a monument marking the geographic center of the Isthmus of Panama stands on the southwestern side of the main square. So, if Panama is in the center of the Americas, you will be standing in the center of the center, as it were. Unless you derive far too much satisfaction from such a position, it might be a good idea to continue exploring. On the north side of the square is the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, and although it has stood there since the end of the 16th century, the only remaining Colonial feature is the pulpit, attached to a column to the right of the main altar. This altar is unusual in that St. John the Baptist, the town’s official patron saint, presides over the altar from the highest position, but the central statue is that of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, honored by the town as its true patron saint during festivities celebrated between December 8 and 15. The reason for this peculiarity goes back to the second half of the 18th century, when the Miskito, encouraged by the English, expanded from Nicaragua to all of Central America, threatening the Spanish settlements.
Legend has it that Miskito mobs were about to enter Penonomé, but inexplicably retreated. Captured invaders spoke of a maiden who frightened them off by brandishing a flaming sword. Penonomé natives were befuddled until they opened the niche holding the statue of the Virgin and saw that her cloak was covered with flowers, seeds, and blades of grass. By protecting the faithful, the mother of Jesus made the local inhabitants see that she was fiercer than Jesus’ cousin, so they transferred their devotion to her.
The Miskito loom large in more than one nightmare in the collective memory of Penonomé. Walking down Calle Chiquita from the Cathedral and continuing along Camino de las Raíces will take you to a section of the nearby Zaratí River called the Bat Zone. Legend has it that the dark waters and muddy riverbed hide bells stolen from the town church during another Miskito raid. Along the shore, roots and thickets conceal caves and caverns that are home to thousands of bats, giving the place its name. Some evenings, the local inhabitants swear they hear the distant tolling of the bells, signaling the bats to begin their nocturnal wanderings.
The Zaratí River was vital to the prosperity of Penonomé. The river, born in the northern part of Coclé province (of which Penonomé is the capital), tumbles down the rugged foothills to join with the placid Río Grande de Coclé farther south. Even before Colonial times, the Zaratí River served as the main artery for communication and trade: coffee, cacao, rubber, quinine, fruit, vegetables, fibers, and other goods were ferried along the river by the indigenous peoples and cholos (mestizos) of Coclé to be sold in town.
Rafts provided transportation, and one of the best sandbanks for landing them was located near Las Mendozas. These days, the site is paved over by a concrete terrace where Carnival Saturday sees a re-enactment of the arrival of the rafts, now decorated and carrying Carnival princesses. This event makes the Penonomé Carnival different from others around the country, and serves to kick-off four days of revelry, fantasy, and tradition.
As noted earlier, vegetable fibers were among the goods carried on the rafts. Typical of the communities around Penonomé, handicrafts made from this material can be purchased at either the public market or the Handicrafts Market on the Inter-American Highway just outside town. Each site is interesting in its own way: the public market echoes the hustle and bustle of the town, with its stalls of fruit and vegetables, vendors shouting, and buyers inspecting the goods, while the Handicrafts Market gives you an opportunity to learn about the artisans who made your souvenirs and their origins.
No other province in the country can boast such a variety of handicrafts skillfully made with natural fibers. Perhaps the most well-known is the pinta’o,or straw hat, produced in communities in the district of La Pintada north of Penonomé. The production process was recently listed by UNESCO as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The process can be traced back to the pre-Colombian peoples from whom the local inhabitants are descended, making the pinta’o the true Panama hat.
The area’s indigenous heritage is also reflected in other ways. The façade of the public market depicts cholo leader Victoriano Lorenzo. An indigenous general on the liberal side during the Thousand-Day War, he fought for the aspirations and rights of his people, setting a precedent for other Central American revolutionary leaders, such as Farabundo Martí and Augusto Sandino. Lorenzo was shot on May 15, 1903. If you want to learn more about Lorenzo, a visit to Campo Trinchera, on the road to Churuquita, might be in order. The site preserves some of the strategic fortifications that were scattered around the north of the province by the military leader.
Trinchera is located quite near the outskirts of Penonomé. Beyond that, the grasslands transition to the craggier central mountains. Visitors can admire natural beauty while enjoying peeks into local culture, as the mestizo cowboys of the plains make way for the assimilated indigenous people, the proud cholos who are farmers and artisans. The inhabitants of this area are the heirs to an ancient culture that left proof of its cosmovision in necropoli like Sitio Conte and El Caño, as well as in complex petroglyphs, such as those at Tavida.
When traveling to Tavida, Villa Tavida, located on the road to Caimito, is a good place to stop. The area is a protected private reserve, featuring a lodge that offers rooms, dining, and a spa. But the Villa is also the departure point for excursions not only to the aforementioned enormous petroglyph, but also to the waterfall of the same name (one of the loveliest in the province), Cerro La Vieja, the artisan community of Vaquilla, or even the more distant Mt. Congal, Coclé’s highest point. A trek up to the mount’s summit requires two days and overnight camping, but on a clear day, it rewards visitors with a panorama of two oceans.
Near Tavida, the Cerro La Vieja Butterfly House, one of the country’s largest, is also worth a visit. The House’s exhibit hall shows visitors fascinating facts about the lives of butterflies and their relationship to the environment. The protected area sits on a hillside, so the paths wind about in such a way as to make it seem like you just happen upon butterflies in out-of-the way spots. All the species on exhibit are native to the area.
As you can see, there are plenty of activities to fill a couple of days in the Penonomé countryside, and there is still more to see when you return to town. Perhaps you already saw the Cathedral, for example, but there are other interesting churches in town. Since you are on the way back from Tavida, stop first at the Cristo Rey de Chigoré Chapel. This church is quite small, but it felt smaller still in August 1984, when the statue of the Resurrected Christ that tops the main altar began to cry. The miracle offered hope to a country that was struggling to free itself from the military dictatorship. Word breached the borders and spread to a Central America that was trying to leave behind decades of civil war. In less than two months, the walls of the small chapel threatened to buckle under the pressure of a tide of pilgrims from as far away as Guatemala. The statue no longer cries, but it still attracts the faithful.
Another church, the San Antonio Chapel, has been located on the same spot since the middle of the 18th century. The current structure is a 1925 reconstruction that seeks to imitate its predecessor, built in the bahareque style (clay or mud reinforced with cane) in the 18th century. The small chapel lends its name to the neighborhood, a municipal heritage site that preserves some houses from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Penonomé Archeological Museum stands near the Chapel. Recently reopened, the remodeled facilities house exhibits from pre-Colombian cultures, the Colonial period, the union with Colombia, and the early Republican period.
Another of the town’s museums is dedicated to brothers Harmodio and Arnulfo Arias. Born in the nearby region of Río Grande, both brothers reached the presidency of the Republic. They exerted great influence on the country’s political future, and Arnulfo, the younger brother, even served as head of state several times. The museum shows images, objects, and documents related to their public and private lives. Up to this point, our tour may have given the impression that Penonomé’s attractions are limited to tradition and history, but that is not at all the case: Panama Technological University runs the country’s only astronomical observatory here, and the dozens of turbines in the country’s only energy-producing wind farm are visible from the outskirts of town. There is much to enjoy in this compact, easily-accessible spot, making it a perfect destination for weekend “village hopping.”
How to Get There
From Panama City you can travel west, via either the Bridge of the Americas or the Centennial Bridge, along the Pan-American Highway to kilometer 149.
Where to Stay
A good option in Penonomé is the Hotel Coclé, located in the Iguana Mall on the Pan-American Highway. Tels: (507) 908 5039/5719. Info@hotelcocle.com.
The Villa Tavida Lodge & Spa, on the highway to Chiguirí Arriba, is located in the Penonomé countryside. Tel: (507) 838 6114. Info@villatavida.com.