Diablos Congos

Trip Start Feb 21, 2009
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Trip End Mar 04, 2009


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Flag of Panama  ,
Thursday, February 26, 2009

Portobelo was hell! But only because their Carnaval centers around men in elaborate demon costumes parading through the streets, snapping whips at villagers who "challenge" them.  The night we arrived, we watched the evening Carnaval parade, which was actually pretty lame until the demons showed up.  There was a Carnaval queen, followed by lots and lots of pick-up trucks full of people yelling.  That was pretty much it.  But the demons put on a great show, stomping around, daring young men to break ranks with the crowd and come into the street.  Some of the "challengers" had whistles that they blew constantly, while they hopped around trying to avoid the snap of the whip.  It was all very dramatic.

The town doesn't have any real hostels or hotels that we could see, so we asked around for people who might rent out a room.  We ended up in an awesome two-story house with a balcony overlooking the ocean.  Our upstairs room had a great view of the water, and in the evenings when we weren't watching Carnaval, we took advantage of the giant hammock on the balcony, swaying in the ocean breeze and counting geckos on the ceiling.  The family has several rooms that they rent to people vacationing from Panama City, and the family itself is pretty large, so there was a constant stream of people in and out.  But it was far enough from the town center to be relatively quiet.  Portobelo was full of music, most of it so loud that you couldn't think, and all of it competing with the rest for dominance.  So we were glad to be a few blocks away from the epicenter of the chaos.

The town of Portobelo has an interesting and visible history.  Right now, it's an economically depressed little fishing village with a steady trickle of tourists, most of them waiting for a boat to Colombia.  But it was once the most important Spanish port in Central America, and as such, it was well-fortified against intruders.  The ramshackle houses are now built among the ruins of 17th century forts, and cannons lay rusting behind stone turrets, presumably exactly as the Spanish left them.

So our short time in Portobelo was interesting in terms of culture and history, but it was a culinary disaster.  I've never seen so much fried food and meat  in my life (and I've seen a lot of fried food and meat!).  There were a handful of restaurants, but they all served the exact same thing: Chicken and rice, fish and rice, or beef and rice.  You can guess what I ate: Rice!! There was one "gringo" place in town that had pizza, but the one time we ordered it, it took two hours to arrive.  The only saving grace was that one restaurant had the best ice cream EVER.  I think that ice cream was the most nutritious thing I ate in Portobelo.

Shen was determined to watch the League of Champions Barcelona/Leon soccer game while in Portobelo, and we thought he'd have no trouble at all finding a place to watch it.  After all, every other guy on the street was wearing Barcelona paraphernalia.  Unfortunately, either it was just for show, or Carnaval takes precedence, because no one seemed too enthusiastic to watch it.  However, after enough asking around, one guy made it a personal mission to hook us up.  Eventually we found ourselves in the living room of the Mayor's house, watching the game on ESPN2.  I stayed long enough to enjoy the novelty, but I can't say soccer holds my interest so I wandered off the explore the countryside while Shen got his soccer fix.

Personally, what I was craving was some nature time.  Nothing spectacular was accessible on foot, as far as we could tell, so we hired a water taxi to take us to Playa Blanca.  Playa Blanca (White Beach) is on the mainland, but it's only accessible by boat, so it has a lost-world feel to it.  Our ride from Portobelo was about 20 minutes, and the seas were pretty choppy once we left the bay.  On the way out, we passed little forested islets and empty coves, all set in that incredible blue-green of the Caribbean.  When we landed at Playa Blanca, just a strip of sand in a small bay surrounded by jungle, we were the only souls in sight.  The beach itself has no development at all, though a short walk around the bay brings you to an abandoned hotel guarded by one passed-out guy and two dogs.  Our solitude didn't last long - a second boat pulled up with a family from Panama City about half an hour after we arrived. 

The beach was a tropical paradise, to be sure.  I wish we could have stayed there a few days.  We splashed around in the ocean and rested under coconut palms on the beach, frying ourselves to a nice lobster-red before our boat returned to pick us up.  It was a much-needed respite from our time in town.  It occurred to me at some point that we could have just planned eleven days on the beach, instead of scooting around Panama, trying to get some sort of authentic feel for the place.  It felt like eating a nice plate of well-prepared vegetables: They're tasty and good for you, and you know you'll be much happier with them in the long run.  But you can't help but fantasize about just ordering the ice cream.

On our last night in Portobelo, we came home in the evening to a living room full of demon masks.  Apparently our house had become Grand Central for the performers, who were all sitting around watching soccer and working on their costumes.  Some of them went out into the alley without their masks and practiced their whip-snapping on each other.  I guess even demons get bossed by their mothers - After awhile, the matriarch of the house came out and yelled, "Get going! You're already late and people are waiting!!" It was funny to see all those chastened young men in demon costumes, meekly coming back in to finish their preparations.  It was also interesting to note that when they came back inside, they crossed through the doorway backwards.   That night, the festival was bigger than before, with more demons and more onlookers.  Instead of along the road as before, the events took place in a big field by the town center.  It was really cool, and also pretty amazing that it didn't devolve into something scary, since there was a lot of testosterone, a lot of beer, and a lot of simulated violence.  But was it very cool and I'm glad we're accidentally here for it!
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