Thursday, June 15, 2017

Panama: Central America's undiscovered gem

Embera tribesman poles tourists to his village (Taylor)
PANAMA  In the world of travel and tourism, most people probably know more about the Panama Canal than the country that links the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean.

But "times they are a'changin'" and though tourism is still relatively new to Panama, it is country that has much to offer visitors with native crafts, friendly people and a rich history as well as being an environmental paradise. Panama has more than 900 species of birds. For that reason alone it has become a major destination for bird watchers from around the world.
Tropical rainforest (Taylor)
Thanks to a rainy season that lasts slightly more than half a year, the tropical isthmus is a haven for plants and animals that is beginning to rival its Central American sister, Costa Rica.

Panama was originally inhabited by several indigenous tribes before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century.
Embera women perform a traditional native dance  (Taylor)
One such group was the Embera-Wounaan people who were once called Choco. Today, the Embera live in small villages of 5 to 20 thatched roof houses along the riverbanks of the country.

But tourism has even found a path to the Embera, who regularly pick up travelers along rugged, uneven shores of a river and carry them upstream in dugout canoes to experience their lives just as it has been lived for centuries.
Typical thatched roof huts set on stilts in the Embera village
Traditional crafts are on sale though this is not a place for bartering since prices are already inexpensive.
Embera crafts for sale

The Embera are a gentle people who are proud of their heritage. Translators explain their history to guests before a traditional fish lunch is served followed by a demonstration of native dancing.

The colorful clothing, though similar to what we would call our Sunday best, is primarily worn for tourists. When visitors are not around, the Embera prefer minimalism when it comes to garments.

To truly embrace the country of Panama, it is probably wiser for travelers to visit the country by land rather than cruising through the canal. Not only will they learn more about the century old engineering marvel that is the Panama Canal, a project that has carried nearly a million ships across it waters, you will also learn about Panamanian craftsmanship which rivals that of artisans anywhere in the world.
Believe it or not this will soon be a Panama Hat  (Taylor)
Begin with a demonstration of weaving a "Panama hat" which, by the way, has its roots in Ecuador. In Panama the hats are known as "Pintado." Some people say the "Panama" designation was an American creation resulting from photos of President Theodore Roosevelt wearing one during the construction of the Panama Canal.
Weaving begins  (Taylor)
No matter. Panamanians are masters at the weaving process that creates the stylish hats. The quality is second to none and in a matter of an hour or less you can witness the completion of a hat from little more than reeds to the finished product. 
Finished Panama hats by master craftsman  (Taylor)
Traditional fine linen makes up the "pollera", a lace blouse and skirt comprised of about 13 yards of material. Creating a pollera is a time consuming art, which takes about a year to a year and a half to complete the entire ensemble. Needless to say this traditional clothing is worn during only the most special occasions.
Panamanian dancer in traditional "pollera"  (Taylor)
Consisting of a ruffled blouse worn off the shoulders, a pollera also features a ruffled skirt on the waistline with gold buttons. Designs usually consist of bright colors with flowers or birds.
Exquisite craftsmanship  (Taylor)
There are two matching pom poms on the front and back, with four ribbons hanging from the front and back on the waist line. In addition, five gold chains drape from the neck to the waist and a gold cross or medallion on a black ribbon is worn as a choker.
A work of art and elegant artistry  (Taylor)
When the skirt is lifted, it resembles a peacock's tail.
Young model  (Taylor)
The hair is usually worn in a bun, held by three large gold combs with pearls that resemble a crown. Earrings are usually gold or coral and the slippers typically match the color of the pollera.
 Quality polleras range anywhere in price from 10 to 16 thousand dollars.

Often this traditional clothing is worn in parades or native dances where the women sway gently while twirling their skirts and the men hold their hats in their hands as they  dance behind the females.
Masks are also popular to wear in ceremonies (Taylor)
There are several legends surrounding origin of the name "Panama" but when combined, most Panamanians will say that the word generally means an "abundance of fish, trees and butterflies."
Ride over a rainforest in a Swiss built cable car  (Taylor)
Trees are certainly indeed in abundance. It is possible to take a short cable car ride across a forested canopy where naturalists keep a keen eye out for animals including a variety of birds, howler monkeys and three-toed sloths.
Sloths are a favorite attraction
Another popular creature to spot is a capybara, a tailless rodent that is the largest in the world.

Dominating Panama's geography is a spine of mountains that forms the continental divide. At 11,401 feet, the Volcan Baru is the highest point in the country.

Natural beauty of Panama

The only missing link in the Pan--American Highway lies in the nearly impenetrable jungle between Panama and Colombia. Until 1903 Panama was part of Colombia.

Tourism in Panama is still in its infancy. Its people are energetic and friendly. Stop in for a beer and some ceviche and you will quickly see for yourself.
Ceviche and beer will make your forget all your cares
Transit the Panama Canal by ship if you wish, but you will miss most of what this delightful country has to offer.