Panama is undergoing a transformation of sorts. The real estate boom has reached walloping proportions and the embryonic tourism sector is preparing to explode like a seagull on Alka-Seltzer. Couple that with the widening of the Canal, the newly-acquired UN Security Council seat, the tropical storms that are driving people away from traditional retirement havens, and you get one thing whether you like it or not: thousands of awkward, apple pie-guzzling, fanny pack sporting Americans flying into the Isthmus every year asking if it’s OK to eat the lettuce?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike Americans. But having eaten with them, drunk with them, slept with them, not to mention actually being one of them myself, I know Americans to be a tiring breed. It is this influx though, that consistently urges me to venture outside the traditional tourist hotspots in Panama, into uncharted territories. It is this influx of my fellow countrymen that led me to rekindle some of the allure – that sexy, exotic appeal that brought me down here in the first place. I have found this revived charm in a place called Azuero.
If you picture the country of Panama as a stumpy version of an upper-case “T”, the Azuero Peninsula sits secretly at the bottom – the part where you pick up your pen and move on to the next letter. Its southern most tip, Cambutal, lies about seven degrees from perhaps the hottest and most famous line in the world, the equator. The region is characterized by rolling hills, stunning beaches and a rugged coastline, off of which lie some of the most pristine islands in the entire country. And no, they didn’t film Survivor here.
I visit this region frequently and am close to calling it a second home. One benefit of being in such a remote location is the constant improvements of my Spanish because in rural areas, you cannot get away with vague or imprecise sayings like you can in the city. No, down in Azuero, I am unable to explain to the pharmacist "brown balls that are running" and forced to learn the word for diarrhea. I am unable in Azuero, unlike the city, to ask the pharmacy woman for products using crossword clues: “medicine for brown balls that are running, for example”.
I first went to Azuero for the same reason I make most important choices: I was bored. I met the towns of Pedasi, Tonosi, Santiago, Chtire, Las Tablas, and felt a tingle in my heart. Not unlike people before the invention of adult diapers, who instead used wads of sphagnum moss, I was elated to find that places like these existed. This trip back in time was when car horns and high-rise condo buildings didn’t ruin things. The property down there is stunning, being snatched up by investors and developers who are deeming it the next Guanacaste. My first meal experience was as close as I’ve ever come to a gastronomic revelation.
It was off in a place near Puerto Mutis, one of the peninsula’s foremost port communities, staying with some friends of friends whom, by the nature of our relationship, appeared to be nice to me purely out of commitment.
“Ready?” asked Ismael, my host who reminded me of Quasimodo. His level of intoxication suggested he’d spent hours intravenously administering the moonshine he’d been brewing out back – the kind of guy who could probably wake up the next day and blow a .85. By the time we were ready to prepare dinner, Ismael was looking around the room as if he didn’t really know where he was.
“Ready for what?” I asked.
“Ready.” Ismael said,
“Ready!” I had no idea what he was talking about, but just went with it for fun.
Upon agreeing that beef sounded good, Ismael poured me a small glass of his homemade liquor, served out of an old plastic Sprite bottle. He and his brother pulled out a nice enough looking cow, what appeared to be the family pet. With the nonchalance of a bake sale, I sat there on the porch and watched as my hosts slashed the cow’s throat. The procedure was rather quick, but it struck a chord with the squeamish American in me – the American who’s constantly under the gun for eating inhumanely-harvested foie gras and cancer-causing Szechwan peppercorns – the American who can’t even order a burger medium rare anymore because of health restrictions – the American who is scared to death by the warning label on his Caesar salad.
Ismael gave me a strip of the meat, I was left holding it in my carnivorous little fingers, the still-palpitating tenderloin of Elsie the cow. Upon incubating the warm fleshy tissue in my palm for a minute, I took a bite and immediately understood why cowboys think they are so cool. At that point I came to realize that eating something newly-killed, an action far from politically correct, is extremely empowering, enjoyable, above all, delicious.
The Azuero Peninsula (specifically the towns of Santiago, Las Tablas, Pedasi and Tonosi) is a hoot. Everything seems to be so removed and wholesome. Lots of people ride bikes which I think is great. Families eat their dinners together. Chickens run across the roads. It’s hilarious. It's a trip back in time – totally. The Azuero Peninsula is Panama’s final tourism frontier. Mark my word.
Matt Landau is a travel writer and internet marketing consultant in Panama Investment and Panama Travel, Central America.