Text and photos: Javier A. Pinzón
Responsible community tourism is trending on the east side of the Gulf of Montijo. Several communities have organized to welcome visitors with the best of their cuisine. They share natural treasures and provide a lovely place for a well-earned rest. In conjunction with the MarViva Foundation, restaurants, hotels, tourist guides, and community associations control tourism in this corner of Panama. These people are all doing what they can to make better use of their resources, thereby mitigating the effects of climate change.
The Panorama of the Americas team is ready to put itself in the hands of these enterprising people who live in a slice of paradise. Here are some suggestions for what to eat, where to stay, where to go, and what to do. Our voyage begins in the picturesque town of Mariato, 187 miles from Panama City, home of Copa Airlines’ Hub of the Americas. This small town serves traditional cuisine at three restaurants, known locally as fondas, which are run by enterprising women. These fondas have received training from MarViva on how to purchase supplies and raw materials responsibly. For example, the fish they use is a certain minimum size, which ensures future reproduction and encourages fishers to engage in sustainable fishing.
Entrepreneurs María Tejeira and her daughter have been running Fonda Lineth for five years. After honing her cooking skills at various restaurants, María bought the fonda from its previous owner and changed the name. One of her most popular dishes is conch, a type of seafood that is very common in this region. María says that it must be lightly parboiled, and then chopped with garlic and culantro; this mixture is sautéed with more garlic, onion, and a little tomato sauce, after which it’s ready to enjoy. The recipe is María’s own, served only at her restaurant.
At the Mi Cielo fonda, we are served by owner Mrs. Agapita Torres. Begun in 2004, the business employs three generations. One of the fonda’s best dishes is the morcilla de gallina (chicken blood sausage); it is so good it was even mentioned in Panamanian chef Charlie Collins’ book. Agapita explains that it is a family recipe. Her mother used to cook this blood sausage for her father, who was very fond of it.
María Alba Iglesias, owner of the Wahoo restaurant, tells us that she opened the fonda with seven siblings who trained at INADEH (National Institute of Vocational Training for Human Development). She says that they make an effort to innovate and keep things as natural as possible, including growing some of the herbs and spices at home. Her forte is fish, but she also cooks lobster, seafood, and seafood rice, all using local ingredients. She did not want to name the restaurant after herself, so her son suggested “Wahoo” (a type of deep-water fish).
The community of Malena lies just 6 miles from Mariato. This small town sets an example for sea turtle conservation. Darío and Ana González, from the Malena Beach Conservation Association, have spent the last 16 years helping these turtles by protecting nests from predators and illegal gathering for human consumption. Just last year, they shepherded 32,165 neonates from 425 nests into the sea. Ana notes that 2017 was their most successful year in terms of turtles making it to the sea. It is highly likely that this community is already seeing the results of conservation efforts. It has been protecting nests of Olive Ridley turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea), a species that takes 12 years to reach sexual maturity, so that the first neonates protected and released are probably returning now to lay their eggs and complete the cycle. Malena’s main attractions are the turtles and the warm people, but our visit also includes a dip in the beautiful waterfalls and a boat ride to Cébaco Island.
Continuing along the Turtle Route, the community of Mata Oscura is located about 10 miles from Malena. Since 2007, its 3-mile turtle beach has been protected by the Quebro Agro-fishery and Ecotourism Association (AAPEQ) and the Agua y Tierra Foundation, directed by biologist Jacinto Rodríguez, who notes that some fifteen years ago, few people in Panama thought about turtle conservation, whereas today, turtles are protected in many places and people are becoming more aware of the issue. This beach is known for its efforts to save the critically-endangered hawksbill turtle. In the 1970s and 1980s, Panama was one of the largest exporters of hawksbill turtles to Japan, with thousands of turtles being killed in the space of a few years. Today, thanks to the endeavors of those patrolling the beaches at night and relocating nests to a nursery, these turtles just might survive.
Here in Mata Oscura, an effort is being made to strengthen operating structures by promoting initiatives that involve the community, including the creation of the Turtle Route. It’s all part and parcel of how Jacinto is leading the turtle conservation project and why he welcomes volunteers and tourists from around the world. AAPEQ’s Evelia has established ecotourism “ecotrails,” such as a kayak tour through the mangroves. Ilda, from the Mata Oscura and Morillo Joint Environmental Association, does her part by introducing visitors to artisanal processing of sugar cane.
From July to November, one of the region’s most popular activities is watching whales and dolphins, especially near Cébaco Island and Coiba Island. This latter is part of Coiba National Park, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. Boat drivers stand ready in Malena and the fishing community of Palo Seco. It is also possible to depart from Puerto Mutis, 173 miles from Panama City. Nearly all the boat drivers are certified in tourism and offer sport fishing, whale and dolphin watching, and ecotours to Coiba. Mr. Franco Camarena is one of the most experienced boat captains.
If you happen to be hungry for a huge platter of seafood, get in touch with Mr. Pedro Aparicio on Leones Island. He runs a family-style restaurant, where the specialty is a seafood platter that includes lobster, fish, rice with conch, and shrimp, all for twenty dollars. He also runs tours in the Gulf of Montijo, taking visitors to three islands and a lovely beach. Pedro has been running the tour for fifteen years. The price of forty dollars covers everything, as long a minimum of eight people sign up; otherwise, visitors will need to pay for transportation from Puerto Mutis.
There is a range of hotels and hostels available for lodging and relaxation. If your focus is on seeing turtles, you might prefer to stay in either Mata Oscura or Malena.
Avery pleasant recovering secondary forest can be found some 5 miles from Mariato. The approximately 20 acres were reforested by two biologists who are owners of the Hotel Las Heliconias. More than 150 species of plants and more than 3,000 trees are part of the biologists’ huge push to provide a home for wildlife in the midst of cattle pastures. They tell us that migratory birds, along with hummingbirds and woodpeckers, have begun to make their homes on this land. Since the pair is inspired by the ICO philosophy of environmentalism in the public interest, part of their work consists of providing the community with bird-watching and first-aid training, so that young people can learn to guide the tours offered to guests.
Venture into Mariato and the surrounding areas for both bold cuisine and adventures in nature. You’ll enjoy gorgeous landscapes and meet cheery local residents who are always eager to lend a hand.
How to Get There
Mariato, a district in the province of Veraguas, is located 211 miles west of Panama City on the Pan-American Highway.
Where to Eat
We recommend three restaurants in Mariato: Fonda Lineth, Fonda Mi Cielo, and Restaurante Wahoo. You can also eat at the Hotel Las Heliconias or the small fondas in the towns along the road.
How to Get There
Mariato: Hotel Playa Reina
Nearby: Hotel Las Heliconias
Malena: Hostal Iguana Verde, run by Ana González. Tel: 686 58908
Mata Oscura: contact Jacinto Rodríguez, firstname.lastname@example.org
What to Do
In Playa Malena, you can see turtles laying eggs and watch turtles being born. You can also visit waterfalls and traverse ecotrails at Hotel Las Heliconias, which runs trips to Coiba and Cerro Hoya National Park.
Mata Oscura is another place to see turtles laying eggs and watch turtles being born; you can also visit the artisan sugar cane mill and go kayaking through the mangroves.
Tours to Cébaco Island and excursions for whale- and dolphin-watching depart from Malena, Palo Seco, and Puerto Mutis.
For tours on Leones Island, contact Mr. Pedro Aparicio at tel. 663 85986.