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What to do about Barriles? Archaeology Travel in Panama

Below the grassy parking area where the majority of the stone artifacts were on display I crawled into a cool, tiny sandy nook.

The hole at the edge of El Sitio Barilles was made into a cave by the dangling roots of bright green bamboo stands that teetered overhead. I was looking at the layer of black volcanic sand that had covered the village of Barriles many hundreds of years ago. That is when Edna told my friend Maria-Elena about the UFO she had seen over the volcano forty-some years before.

“We saw it just out there,” she said. “One afternoon when all the family was together my mother shouted ‘Look! Look at that huge light!’ And we saw a light that was coming down. It was round like a ship and it was spinning. We waited for it to fall but it didn’t. From the ship came a giant light, like a bulb, which lit the ground all around…and then it waited and waited and then it went straight up into the air.”

She clapped her hands and pointed to the sky. “This is an important place.”


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The road to the site runs out of Volcán into the Chiriquí highlands and wends west towards the Costa Rican border up into bright green hills on the flanks of the Barú volcano. There the fences are alive, made of various species of trees and bushes, purple, white and red flowers drape the roadside and men with machetes fade in and out of the patches of cloud forest that remain.

The road is potholed and narrow and run by careening dump trucks so weighed down with sand and gravel that their tires were pancaking. I was tense the whole way, sure Maria-Elena’s little white Hyundai was going to crack an axle. She didn’t seem terribly concerned.

“Panama. Love it or leave it,” she said when I cringed at a large truck headed our way.

Travel in Panama, could be a little nerve-wracking.

Edna is right.  Barriles is an important place. But not because of UFOs. Barriles is one of the better-known archaeological sites in Panama and I found that it was the type of place that offered some insite on how archaeological travel in panamaheritage might be preserved by travel in Panama.

The site was named for several stone barrels found on the site in the late 1920s. It is reasonably assumed based on the limited research done at the site that the people of Barriles, numbering more than 1000 individuals, were divided into  upper class, middle class, and lower class. Around 600 or 700 AD Barriles hosted a far higher population than any other site in the region and was possibly a ceremonial center whose activities drew people from the dozens of sites dotting Chiriquí valley and the slopes of the Talamanca cordillera.

Maria-Elena and I had crossed the mountains from the town of Boquete, where we had spent a few days hiking in the cloud forest, to reach Barriles. As a ex-archaeologist still passionate about the past I had long heard of the famous site and insisted that we see it. It feels difficult for me to really understand a place without understanding how people have moved across, settled and interacted with the landscape in the past. Maria-Elena was happy to oblige.

While driving we got lost among all the green pastures and Swiss-looking farmhouses of the highlands. The freshly-paved road dipped straight down into and then climbed straight back up the other side of every little river coming down off the cordillera. At every crossroad waited someone with an eager smile and a slightly-off set of directions.

It took us far longer to reach Barriles than we had planned.

Edna met us in front of the farmhouse next to a replica of a four-foot stone statue found on the site whose authentic counterpart was now hidden away in a Panama City museum. She wore a red sweater and a free-flowing skirt that gave her a carefree aspect, which she soon dispelled by telling us that she was just a little bit stressed.

“You’re late,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Are you expecting someone else?”


travel in panama

~ ~ ~

Edna Houx is the matriarch of the site and manages it for Panamanians and others who travel in Panama under an agreement with the National Institute of Culture. The northwest portion of the settlement lies on the property of her family farm. The rest of the site rolls away towards the volcano under Holstein-dominated pastures owned by a number of other families.

Edna is convinced, despite what archaeologists say, that the site was populated by an advanced race of Africans and Asians; she took me immediately from the porch and pointed to the statue as proof. One of the men, she assured us, had African facial features, while the other was “obviously” Asian.

travel in panama

“They were not Indians. They were not native people from the area. It was a special group that was here. Everything here is different from everything else in the region. Now, look at this,” and she pointed at a large stone near some berry bushes.

A squat bus pulled in next to our car and a bunch of Panamanian teenage girls spilled out and milled about in confusion, pasting on lipstick, checking cell phones and kicking at the gravel. Their teacher was fiddling with a folder and trying to pass out photocopies.

“Hey.” Edna poked my arm to call my attention back towards the stone. It was a five-foot tall polished anthracite. “People come here to be healed by this rock. Pay attention.”

And then there was the Ark of the Covenant, she announced. “They found it in Panama,” she said.

“The Ark of the Covenant?” I blurted and started to laugh. I could see for her, however, it wasn’t a laughing matter. She was serious. I wiped the smile clean off my face.

“These were ancient civilizations that came from very far away. If you don’t pay attention now you will get confused.”

No kidding. I was confused. The Barriles story was turning out to be one of UFOs, healing monoliths, ancient Chinese and African immigrants and, now Raiders of the Lost Ark?  As Edna went on, I wondered what was coming next. I was feeling a desperate urge to talk to an actual scientist.

She explained that Barriles was settled nearly 3000 years ago by two trans-oceanic groups of people who knew the secret healing powers of stones, one African and one Asian. A giant volcanic eruption wiped them out—and then came the Mayan invaders.

That was what was coming next.

“Mayan invaders?”

“Yes. Of course!”

It was clear that Barriles, as it is known to Edna, is troublingly different from the one researchers know.

~ ~ ~

Besides the large farmhouse, the modern site sports a small display of maps and blown-up photocopies of old research journals and National Geographic Society magazines housed under a tin roof. Further west, among rows of stone artifacts, Edna led us down a ladder dropping about 7 feet underground into what appeared to me to be a fake rectangular excavation pit. Whole ceramic pots stuck half way out of the dirt walls that were green with the growth of small lichens.  The perfection of it gave the feel of a museum display.

She walked us out to look at the excavation area left by a German team in 2001.

Then she took us to a tiny, one-roomed slightly problematic museum sheltered by bamboo. Problematic because the roof barely kept out the rain. Problematic because a large number of the artifacts on display simply don’t come from Barriles and are not even from the same time period as the Barriles she was showing us in the excavation pit.


travel in panama

Museum Closed – All of Them

It was obvious to me that there was more going on that just the story of Edna and Barriles.  The archaeological site she was showing Maria-Elena and I was clearly an important place and yet it was privately run by Edna’s family, ridiculously under-funded and grossly misinterpreted by the well-meaning matriarch. I wondered if and how Barriles might be representative of the challenges of archaeological research and preservation in the entire country.

Nancito was another example.

Several days before visiting Barriles, Maria-Elena and I were cruising the hot and raucous Pan-American Highway along the coast southeast of the city of David when I saw a little road to the right that appeared to be the one on my map.  I pointed at it.

“Archaeology?” She asked.  I nodded.

We exited the highway and she pointed the car up one of those bewilderingly steep roads where you can’t see the pavement in front of your car and it is impossible to know what is over the hill or around the corner. We looked at each other and gritted our teeth.  Actually I think it was just me gritting my teeth.  She didn’t seem so bothered.

“Panama.  Love it or leave it.”

Our target was a 1500-year-old rock-art site towering above the Pacific Ocean known as Nancito.

There were some huts by the side of the road as the Hyundai slowly climbed the hill. There was a man smoking, looking at the sea, and a little girl sitting on a ragged-looking horse. She wore a Dora the Explorer backpack. A woman stood closer to the road holding an umbrella. Maria-Elena stopped and I asked if we were going the right way. The woman shrugged. The man didn’t bother to look my way. The girl hugged the horse’s neck.  We drove on.

At the end of the road sat the whitewashed Nancito Archaeological Museum. It was closed. Frustrated we wandered the fenced perimiter and I shot what photos I could of the rock art with my telephoto lens through the fence. Not sure what else to do, we cracked a cold beer from the cooler in the trunk and drove down the hill and back out onto the highway towards David.

travel in panama

Archaeology Travel in Panama 

Both Nancito and Barriles speak to the dual challenges of preservation and interpretation of archaeological resources in Panama for the general public—not to mention the ability to generate income for preservation and further research through archaeological tourism.

I wanted to talk to an expert on Panamanian archaeology.

“Even though the archaeology of the country is fascinating, the vast majority of research and museums and such are all concentrated in or near the canal and deal with the Colonial period. So, in many respects, Barriles is all there is for people interested in visiting a site in Chiriquí,” Dr. Scott Palumbo of the College of Lake County in Illinois told me. “There used to be a small museum in David—which still exists—but is closed due to lack of funding.”

Just like Nancito.  Barriles on the other hand only stays open to the public thanks to the force of Edna’s will.

Many of the statues and tools from Barriles are on display in the Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz in Panama City. Many more sit in crates in the museum basement. Other important archaeological objects, including some impressive rock carvings pilfered from sites throughout the western provinces, are housed at the small museum in Los Santos. Thats closed too.

Barriles is one of only three archaeological sites regularly accessible to visitors. The others are El Caño in Central Panama and Panama Viejo. One site dating from 500-1400AD is located on Isla Palenque is protected by an eco resort and can be visited by tourists to the island.

While Panama has become adept at delivering white sandy beaches, palm-tree laced islands and bountiful birding tours to the growing numbers of tourists arriving on its shores it seemed to me to be neglecting another valuable resource. Its past. Does the ancient offer another form of both rural economic development and access to tight research funds?

I think it might.

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Well….Its Complicated…

“I want to leave something for the future of Panama by protecting our past,” Edna told us when we arrived at Barriles. “The government doesn’t care anything about archaeology in Panama. They just want money. I have to do something here.”

There is a complication in Edna’s relationship with the ancient history under her pastures. She operates as somewhat of a rogue, delivering not-quite-accurate information to visitors and hosting questionably-obtained artifacts of which the authorities aren’t quite approving. And yet without her, Barriles would not get the protection and exposure it deserves.

“Edna does do a lot for the archaeology of the area. She freely stores my artifacts, a function a museum often provides. Even if I disagree with some of her claims, many people do walk away from her property even more appreciative of archaeology than when they started, and that has tremendous value,” Dr. Palumbo told me. “I think she does a nice job sharing archaeology with people and deserves commendation for her efforts.”

I agree.  On top of that archaeology travel in Panama could be a valuable tool both for economic development and preservation of archaeological resources.

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~ ~ ~

It was getting late already when we left Barriles and started down the road to the coast. We should have stayed the night in Volcán. And maybe the next day too.  The highlands of Chiriquí is the type of place I could be happily lost for weeks at a time. And I wanted more time to talk to Edna.

Back out on the Pan-American Highway, evening came early as smoke from the burning cane fields settled over a nearly endless stream of Spanish-owned in-and-out motels for the philandering adult, billboards pointing towards brand-spanking new beachfront resorts and tractor trailer rigs barreling up and down the highway, blasting their horns as a warning. They didn’t bother to slow down if cars didn’t clear out of the way. A giant pink rig flew by.  I gasped.

“Panama.  Love it or leave it,” Maria-Elena smiled.

Night fell as we took turns pushing the little white Hyundai southeast towards the sky-scraping condos and jungle of roadways that is modern Panama City.

~ ~ ~

If you go:

Sitio Barriles is located on the Road to Cazán, 6 km south of Volcán, open daily 8am-5pm. Phone: 507.6575.1828. Cost: free but donation encouraged. Edna will soon have a website ready that will take donations.  I will announce it here and encourage you to consider a donation to her efforts.

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