December 2019 Culture Stop: Panama’s Soul-Stirring Arts Scene

Culture Stop: Panama’s Soul-Stirring Arts Scene

Cultural photographs, creative color schemes, and fresh flowers fill El Otro Lado’s Gazebo gathering spot.
Cultural photographs, creative color schemes, and fresh flowers fill El Otro Lado’s Gazebo gathering spot.
Ethnic pluralism and a proud history inform creative traditions in the Crossroads of the World.
"Panama’s diverse art scene is a direct reflection of the country’s multicultural environment,” says Ramón Zafrani.

An architect and contemporary artist from Panama City who has helped curate major exhibitions in Panama and Central America, Zafrani joins me on a walk through the town of Portobelo, located around 60 miles north of Panama City. The informal tour is offered by El Otro Lado, a playfully decorated boutique hotel that sits across the town’s eponymous bay (its name means “the other side” in Spanish) within the jungled Portobelo National Park.

El Otro Lado seems to naturally attract an international arts crowd; during my stay, I share cocktails and conversation with a German musician and DJ, a Russian model, a Canadian painter, and a Venezuelan who works at a music club in Casco Antiguo (Panama City’s Old Quarter). I also meet a Spanish photojournalist and close friend of famed Panamanian photographer Sandra Eleta, whose extended family has owned El Otro for generations.

Such an inspired guest list makes perfect sense to Marisa Costa, a Virtuoso travel advisor. “El Otro Lado is a gorgeous, off-the-beaten path retreat for travelers interested in arts and culture,” she says. “It appeals to those who desire a Caribbean experience that’s different from the typical beach vacation: more authentic, with a focus on community.”

The hotel takes this notion even further, playing an integral role in bringing attention to – and helping sustain – Portobelo’s vibrant, Afro-Caribbean arts heritage.
Local art adorns guest rooms at El Otro Lado. 
Local art adorns guest rooms at El Otro Lado. 
Sandra Eleta first visited Portobelo with her family as a child, playing among the ruins of the seventeenth-century battlement walls that guard its natural harbor. The now sleepy fishing village on Panama’s Caribbean coast had been one of colonial Spain’s most important settlements, where Peruvian gold was loaded onto ships headed back to the motherland. (It was also a popular target for such infamous privateers as Welsh captain Henry Morgan, who held the town captive for weeks until it paid a hefty ransom.) In 1980, the fortifications of Portobelo-San Lorenzo earned UNESCO World Heritage status as some of the finest examples of Spanish military architecture in the New World.

Yet it was Portobelo’s people that most fascinated the young Eleta. After finishing art school, she returned with her Hasselblad camera and began forging deep bonds within the community. Her striking portraits of local Congos, the proud descendants of self-freed slaves, have been showcased at the Guggenheim and other esteemed institutions around the world. Many now adorn the walls of El Otro Lado.
San Felipe Church, home to the mysterious Cristo Negro.
San Felipe Church, home to the mysterious Cristo Negro.
Photo by David Castillo Dominici/Alamy
The town’s other claim to fame is its Black Christ, a rare Christian icon that comes with an even more unusual origin story. Though no one knows for sure how the Cristo Negro arrived in Portobelo, a common legend tells of the statue’s seventeenth-century journey from Spain on its way to another city, when the ship carrying it was forced by foul weather to dock; the storms returned each time the crew attempted to leave, until it finally tossed the figure overboard. Later moved to its coveted alcove in San Felipe Church, the icon’s miraculous inception adds to the locals’ devotion to it, expressed most definitively during the Festival del Cristo Negro on October 21. Every year, followers from around Colón Province make the pilgrimage to Portobelo on foot, some crawling for the final mile.

Numerous depictions of the Black Christ hang at El Otro Lado, every spare inch of which is covered in canvases, papier-mâché masks, whimsically painted walking sticks, and brightly patterned molas (handmade textiles).
A vibrant Congo portrait purchased by the writer at Portobelo’s art gallery.
A vibrant Congo portrait purchased by the writer at Portobelo’s art gallery.
Guests are invited to visit the on-site wood workshop, where master artisan Señor Mono and others craft the exquisite carvings and furnishings found around the property. The hotel can easily arrange private lessons with local artists through the Casa de la Cultura Congo, which it helped establish, along with the town’s small art gallery. At the latter, I lock eyes with a portrait of a Congo, brilliantly adorned with a feathered headdress and a toucan on either shoulder, that will soon hang on my wall back home.

Given its proximity to Panama City, Portobelo makes an ideal day trip for travelers cruising the Panama Canal. To fully experience the destination, though, I’d decided to add a few nights at El Otro Lado after my own canal voyage, which disembarked in the Caribbean port of Colón. There I find a private car and driver waiting, along with a local guide, thanks to Virtuoso on-site connection Ancon Expeditions. Though the drive from Colón to Portobelo is even shorter than from the capital, Ancon arranged a more adventurous route that provides the opportunity to connect with another fascinating community.
A traditional Emberá <em>paruma</em> skirt.
A traditional Emberá paruma skirt.
Panama’s cultural heritage encompasses seven indigenous populations, including the Emberá tribe. While many Emberás have been displaced from their ancestral home in the Darién jungle, they still adhere to their traditional lifestyle in a handful of thatched villages scattered about the Panamá and Colón provinces. My journey to one of these begins with a motorized longboat ride along the leafy Chagres River. A small contingent of villagers greet our boat, the children shyly peeking from behind their mothers’ paruma skirts until they spy the crayons and Spanish coloring books that I brought for them. Soon they’re giggling and making monkey sounds while hiding in the foliage as the village’s medicine man leads us on a forest walk, pointing out various plants and their healing qualities.

“Everything here has a use; nothing goes to waste,” he says through my guide. “In nature, there is a reason and purpose for everything.”

Such ancient wisdom is often lost when indigene youths discover iPhones and other Western diversions. Yet I meet a number of young Emberás who, after attending university, have returned to the village with the specific purpose of preserving their ancestral way of life amid a host of infringements, including deforestation and climate change.
An intricate toucan mask woven by an Emberá tribe member. 
An intricate toucan mask woven by an Emberá tribe member. 
One aspect of the Emberá culture that thankfully continues is the art of weaving. Panama’s indigenous people are recognized for their intricate animal masks and coil baskets woven from chunga palm fronds colored with natural dyes. One master weaver points to a piece she has spent the better part of a year on, a stunning basket detailed with radiant hummingbirds that’s worthy of display in any museum. The toucan mask I’ll bring home immediately ranks among my most prized travel possessions.

My Panama visit happens to coincide with Lent, the six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter set aside for fasting and reflection. Portobelo residents have their own unique take on the religious observance, which I witness on the drive from the Emberá village.

Many Central American slaves who escaped their Spanish masters found refuge in the thick forests around the Colón Province. These fugitives, known as cimarrones, fiercely maintained their freedom and African traditions through various acts of resistance, including armed uprisings. During Lent, the local Congos (a term Spanish colonialists used to describe all black people) celebrate their ancestors’ self-liberation with a dramatic reenactment. Some participants appear as cimarrones, dressed in tatters with satchels full of the meager belongings carried during their escape; others are elaborately adorned as diablos (devils), representing the former slave masters.
Where to get in the swing of things: A balcony hammock at El Otro Lado’s Casa Grande. 
Where to get in the swing of things: A balcony hammock at El Otro Lado’s Casa Grande. 
As my guide and I make our way to El Otro Lado, our driver slows to a stop when two such garbed men emerge and block the road. I might have been alarmed had my guide not explained the carnival ritual; instead, I happily chip in a few coins to appease the benign bandits. Later, on my walk with Zafrani in Portobelo, I watch a handful of children joyously evade the papier-mâché stick wielded by a young devil.

Eleta has photographed many of these modern-day cimarrones, and I pause to view one such image before making my way to what’s possibly my favorite spot on the entire property: a rope hammock on the Casa Grande’s second-floor balcony. As I swing there contentedly, the evening sun bursts through the rain-forest canopy, and riotous monkeys suddenly pierce the surrounding silence as they settle in before nightfall. Eventually, their howls are replaced by another sound coming from the town – African drums, marking the end of Lent. The drumming, accompanied by claps and whistles, echoes across the still bay and centuries past when a subjugated people never lost their will to celebrate life.

Our Portobelo Picks


Vibrant artwork and a jungle vibe inspire creative exploration at El Otro Lado, which comprises four casitas, plus the three-bedroom Casa Grande. The hotel offers myriad imaginative activities, ranging from lakeside yoga and art lessons in the on-site workshop to rainforest treks and excursions around Portobelo. It can also arrange for Congo dancers and drummers to perform for guests. Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily.


An insider peek at Portobelo’s Royal Customs House (where the Spanish counted their gold), a snorkel tour in Portobelo Bay, and a ride on the historic Panama Canal Railway highlight a 13-day journey from Avanti Destinations. The totally customizable tour also explores Bogotá and Cartagena, Colombia. Departures: Every Friday through 2020.

A private introduction to the Emberá culture is one of many Panamanian experiences that are possible when your travel advisor works with Ancon Expeditions of Panama. Each tour is completely personalized, be it an hours-long cruise shore excursion to Portobelo or a week spent hopping around the Pearl Islands aboard a luxury catamaran. Contact your advisor for details.


Visit the UNESCO-designated fort at San Lorenzo and ride a motorized canoe to an Emberá village deep in the Darién jungle when the 66-passenger Safari Voyager cruises 11 days between San José, Costa Rica, and Panama City (or the reverse). UnCruise Adventures puts the emphasis on discovery as travelers kayak through mangroves, hike Costa Rica’s Osa Conservation Area, and snorkel in Panama’s Coiba National Park. Departures: Multiple dates, December 10, 2019, to April 7, 2021.

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