Adventure Central America Culture History Panama

Congo Culture: On the “Other Side” of Panama

Most often associated with the eponymous canal that, when completed in 1914, would speed up and cut costs for transporting cargo between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, Panama has given travelers who seek comfort and exclusivity plenty of reason to slow down in the last few years. Slightly smaller than Ireland, Panama’s 29,000 square miles are painted with a vibrant array of indigenous and international cultures—which may seem curious for such a small strip of land if it were not for the rich human history that marks this transcontinental link between Central and South America

Panama – The Transcontinental Link

In fact, it was in Panama city where Spain would erect the first settlement (on the Pacific side) in 1519. From here, the Spanish conquest of the Americas ensued—resulting in insurmountable riches for the conquerors and, consequently, the dark beginning of slavery and rivalries as the small isthmus grew increasingly significant and valuable for the New World.

A Variety of Culture and Worldly Influences

Today, indigenous communities belonging to Panama thrive alongside fellow countrymen and women whose roots derive from distant lands: from the Guna Yala people of the San Blas archipelago dotting the Atlantic Ocean, the Emberá along the Chagres River, to the Afro-Panamanian population of the tropical coastal town of Portobelo.

It is the later port town (also referred to as Puerto Bello, or “beautiful harbor”) in which we find a particular sense of mystique and singularity when visiting Panama. Once a principal Caribbean port—and temporary storage site for treasures looted from the Incas—, Portobello today is as much a historian’s playground as it is a traveler’s retreat.

Portobelo, Panama: Entry to the New World

Spanish fortification ruins dating back to the 17th and 18th century stare out over Portobelo Bay and towards the lush Portobelo National Park. Here, footed by pristine beaches and nestled in the rejuvenating tropical rainforests of north-central Panama, a unique Congo culture is preserved.

The ancestry of the Afro-Panamanian population that calls this dreamlike jungle home can be drawn back to the Cimarrones—enslaved Africans from the Spanish colonial period who proved to be not only rebellious but quite valiant. Alliances with the likes of English admiral Sir Francis Drake were used as leverage to eventually gain their freedom and establish their own communities.Travelers today can immerse themselves in the Congo culture—considered an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO—while relishing the pristine and natural setting of El Otro Lado.

Fundacion Bahia de Portobelo: Support for the Afro-Panamanian Heritage

To celebrate the area’s traditional and spirited Afro-Panamanian heritage, Aurora Eleta (owner of El Otro Lado) co-created the non-profit Fundacion Bahia de Portobelo. Through festivals, shows and on-going activities, local culture is preserved and social and economic development is encouraged. (Currently, you can support the local community during the COVID-19 pandemic through this fundraiser).

In June 2019, our Marketing & Sales Representative Turney Maurer visited Portobelo and stayed at El Otro Lado to learn more about this fantastic destination. We asked him what his favorite part of the visit was and this was his reply:

Visiting Portobelo and staying at El Otro Lado was a completely unbelievable experience. While I anticipated turquoise Caribbean waters and exciting outdoor activities such as kayaking and hiking, I quickly realized that the most beautiful facet of this destination was the people. The locals are very proud of their heritage and you can discover it through their song, dance, and friendly personalities. My greatest memories were having the opportunity to teach a few of the staff members how to wakeboard, dancing through the night with a performance from local music students, and paddleboarding into the sunset. I now have friends in Portobelo that I will always hope to visit and enjoy time with. The beautiful thing about traveling internationally is realizing that regardless of where we are from or what we believe, we can always relate and enjoy each others company through exploring new areas of the world and trying new things.

Turney Maurer

Victor, staff member at El Otro Lado gearing up to wakeboard on the left, Turney on the right.

Come See Portobelo for Yourself

By effortlessly merging nature, comfort, and the surrounding community, the unique essence of this Caribbean culture is maintained within the grounds of the private retreat as well. Custodians of the local culture fill guests’ stay with authentic dance, gastronomy, and more, which can be shared through workshops; the retreat itself is enlivened with a vibrant showcase of artworks and a steady playlist of Afro-Caribbean beats (created by Gladys Palmera, sister to Aurora and co-creator of Fundacion Bahia de Portobelo).

This retreat is less than a two-hour drive from Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport. With plenty of non-stop flights from the U.S., this is an ideal weekend getaway for families looking to connect to nature.

You can read more about El Otro Lado here. To arrange an escape to Panama contact us at info@latinexcursions.com (or call 305 356 8488). We are designing quick escapes for later in the summer and beyond.

Someone once said, “your journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” We encourage you to take the first step by reviewing our collection of itineraries, hotels, villas, and ships to choose from here at Latin Excursions. Then, give us a call for your free, no obligation, trip assessment and to learn why travel experts like Wendy Perrin, Travel+Leisure and others recommend our services for private Latin America travel.

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