Panama: Volcán & Area

Population 2022: Approximately 15.000

It was a bit of a shock to our systems to shift them from hot, humid Bocas del Toro to cool, rainy Volcán in the highlands of Panama, all in a few hours. From sea level to about 4500 feet above sea level. We travelled by bus from Almirante, Bocas del Toro, to the city of Volcán, Chiriqui in about six hours. An economical trip, yet cramped and treacherous with no seatbelts, frequently encountering oncoming drivers cutting blind corners. All four of our feet experienced painful bouts of cramping at night in the couple of days afterwards. My standards seem to differ when I’m travelling in countries with a lower infrastructure than what I am accustomed to at home in Canada—somehow I feel less likely to be impacted by dangerous driving and it’s possible outcome, as though I am less vulnerable. Totally illogical … 🤷🏻‍♀️ The rosary, signifying prayer to those of the Roman Catholic faith, swung wildly as we careened along the pot-holed highway. Jungle and agricultural fields hedged the narrow road.

Having arrived in Volcán, we found ourselves at the home of Raquel, of Raquel’s Ark. A most interesting experience to stay with her for a couple of days. Breakfasts were tasty, with hot coffee (though not espresso) provided every morning. We chose the cappuccino machine for our espresso. Raquel is a generous host who offered to drive us wherever we chose to go, and offered suggestions of nearby attractions. She introduced us to Volcán residents and were apprised of the regular activities in the village, such as the expat market in front of Barrico’s, a popular Mexican food restaurant.

Before deciding to stay at Raquels, we arrived for a tour of her wildlife rescue facility. Most of the animals living in her compound had been either injured in the wild or given to her by individuals who had tired of caring for them with their wild ways or unexpected growth. Captivity had caused their vulnerability, and it was believed that they were unlikely to survive in the wild. Raquel cares for them in enclosures on her property while they live out their lives. A variety of monkeys, rabbits, coatimundi and a weasel were in residence in the spacious enclosures outside her home. The wildlife is fed and cared for by a Panamanian family who lives on the property with Raquel, in a separate home, while Raquel conducts tours for visitors to her facility, and accepts donations. An interesting dynamic has evolved at Raquel’s Ark, between a solitary adult male capuchin monkey and a motherless male baby who arrived. The bond has become such that they are virtually inseparable—the baby rides the adult male’s back and attempts to cling on when taken from his back.

Previously Raquel has homed sloths, which have been a big attraction for well-meaning animal lovers. After reading online of the natural instinct for this creature to be extremely shy, solitary and anxious when humans or predators are near, I was relieved to hear that the two had passed and were no longer being kept at the Ark. Though sloths appear to be smiling and calm at all times, these animals were likely highly anxious while humans were holding and petting them. Unlike the sociable monkeys seen below, and the kitten Sammy, according to wildlife studies, sloths are not sociable creatures.

We had been told that November is a big month for parades and celebrations in this country so we were not surprised to hear and see the festivities surrounding Panamanian liberation from Columbian rule. When walking in the neighbourhood we happened upon this mom and child returning from the party, and dared to ask for a photo op. Since she was clearly dressed to be admired, we were not disappointed by the response. Imagine the yards of material that went into this skirt!

While in Volcán, we were delighted to join a local group of hikers, mostly expats but a few Panamanian hikers as well. I confess to imagining local agricultural workers, toiling the fields, caring for livestock, trudging up and down the heights as a necessity to living, wondering as we pass, at our desire and our having leisure time to hike uphill and down for pleasure and fitness.

In the hike shown above right, we drove beyond Cerro Punta, a village close to Volcán, and hiked to elevations above 8000’. A steep and wonderful climb, with reassurance about my own altitude tolerance and a social and nature experience that was much appreciated. We spotted a colourful quetzal, far above us in the treetops and, though too far away to photograph, an uncommon pleasure for all to witness. The variety of bird life and plant & flower life is unlike in size and variety to those we encounter at home. 

Shopping: I have noticed that more familiar tasting groceries are available in Panama than in other less developed countries. Just look below at the perfect avocado I opened yesterday! This avocado was about 7” from top to bottom, fully pear shaped with perfect unbruised skin — and not one bruise inside, no discolouration. The cost is about $1US. The sad part is that, so far, we have found these humongous, perfect avocados to lack flavour. Aaron is in papaya heaven, with papaya on every corner. Fresh pineapple and every kind of produce, fruit and vegetables, is available in abundance. Again sadly, we have witnessed that practice of spreading fertilizer and pesticides on the fields as this produce grows. Seeds of papaya can apparently be used to fend off tummy troubles, so we remember to crunch down a mouthful daily. Then there are the less familiar items, like plantain. Delicious fried or stewed, and plenty good for us too. Other grocery items which I have found to be less available in some countries, like Costa Rica, Nicaragua and even Mexico, we find here. Perfectly acceptable plain yoghurt, made without sugar, is easily found, as well as bread baked without sugar (though these are not necessarily inexpensive). I’ve had some difficulty finding bread to my taste even in the US! We have even found delicious dark roast espresso coffee, grown, roasted and ground here —— fit for any espresso snob’s palate. Still we have not found the equivalent in the decaffeinated variety, which is easier on my own nervous system. We found the Sawubona brand to be grown, roasted, ground and even served in espresso shops around Volcán, to be rich, dark and very tasty. The proprietor, Coralea, speaks English and is most generous with her local information, whether about her coffee practices or other information. The price for this bagged espresso was half or less from her, than what we pay in Canada.

We learned from a friend living in Volcán, how to eat an orange in Panamanian style. Some of the trees here produce a fruit which is ripe when it is still green and hard on the tree. The locals apparently grate the outside, chop the top to create an opening then simultaneously squeeze and suck to enjoy the juicy fruit. I love to discover a new way of doing things! (That’s Aaron demonstrating the squeeze/suck process below right.) I used a peeler for the orange due to my lack of a grater. It worked well.

I have noticed that almost all Panamanians in Volcán that I encounter in my day — passing in the street, in a store, in a vehicle — offer a greeting. Buenos, buenos dias or hola is pretty much always the greeting, while, when leaving the common parting word is the Italian, Ciao, and rarely Adios. And, regardless of my fluency with Spanish, most people are eager to help, especially if I make an effort to communicate in their language. This open and friendly attitude is very appealing.

Finally I will mention the popular dresses worn by the women and girls of the local Indigenous population. A plain but boldly coloured, ankle length dress that is trimmed with a pattern created by the seamstress. Interesting is that each woman I have asked, and there have been several, has sewn her own dress. I thought the trim was all made up of the type purchased in a roll but, upon close examination, I see that each section of the pattern is sewn separately! Such a huge amount of work goes into the creation of these dresses. I did see a dress that used the rolled trim and it lacked greatly in style and energy invested, when compared to the individually created patterns. See below the dress modelled by an Indigenous woman who, along with her obviously proud husband, happily added details about her peoples’ efforts in sewing these dresses. I did not catch all the details due to my poor grasp of Spanish, but it is clearly a labour of love to create these traditional dresses.

As we moved on to our next adventure, home and pet sitting on a rural jungle property about a half hour from Volcán, we felt enriched by our experience of village life in Volcán.