Peninsula Valiente loomed in the distance, growing higher, as we bounced from wave-top to wave-top, on the one-hour ride from Popa Paradise to the mainland of Panama and the indigenous reserve, Comarca Ngobe Bugle. Gumercindo “Gumey”, our Ngobe boat captain, steered the boat and it’s seven passengers, two couples from Texas and a young couple from Manhattan and me, effortlessly until we reached the grandeur of the edge of the Peninsula, that juts out into the Carribean, looking like an island from afar.
The first sign of a village, was the blue roof of an elementary school, that juts out of the hillside of Punta Valiente, one of the many villages in the Comarca. The wood and thatch houses clung to the steep hillside, as if planted their by giants. A small clearing around the village was the only thing that separated it from the dense jungle surrounding it.
The Comarca Ngobe Bugle is an indigenous reserve created by the Panamanian government in 1997. It stretches from the middle of this part of Panama right to the coast, bordering the islands of Bocas del Toro. The Ngobe Bugle who live there are some of the earliest inhabitants of this part of the world. Many of our employees, including our boat captain, are Ngobe, and still speak a dialect called Guyami. Their traditions, culture and way of life have been preserved for generations and this is what we had come to experience.
Gumey expertly navigated the boat around the point and we passed hillsides dripping with foliage. It seems every inch of land was densely covered with forest, the trees in particular, looking Seussian in nature, as they vied for the attention of the sun.
Soon we were at the mouth of Bahia Azul, with small, houses lining both sides of the bay and Gumey pointed the boat towards a small viallge called Punta Alegre. Greeting the boat at the dock were about twenty school-children, who had run out of the classroom at the foot of the dock. They eagerly grabbed the boats lines to secure us to the dock, while Gumey’s small son and two daughters jumped into the boat to greet him. Gumey’s wife is from Punta Alegre, and it is here that Gumey calls home on his vacations and days off.
After apologizing to the school teacher for disrupting class, we followed Gumey and his young daughters to their home. Constructed out of the native hardwood in the area, Gumey proudly gave us a tour of his environs, complete with kitchen, dining area and shaded patio. Built on stilts to keep it dry from the surrounding marshy land, it picked up the breeze coming off the ocean. Although simple, considering the surroundings, this truly was a dream home.
Gumey walked us further to show off a cooperative project in the village, run by an aunt of his wife. With funding from philantropic donors, she was trained by experts on how to increase the agriculture of their village, increasing their self-sufficiency.
She led us to the chicken coop, showing off the healthy chicks, while Gumey’s daughter exhibited the proper way to hold a chick in her little hands. We also witnessed a growing garden, full of taro, plantains, bananas and other vegetables. They were most proud of the aquaculture project that had been started and we were impressed to see tilapia swimming through the man-made ponds.
As Gumey caught up with his wife and checked on some work being done to his house, we ambled slowly through the village, with Gumey’s daughter and niece pointing out animals along the way.
Gumey caught up with us at the end of the road, bringing the boat up alongside a dock, so we wouldn’t have to double back on ourselves.
We pulled off, with two extra ship-mates, our tour guides, Gumey’s daughter and niece, who babbled on and on, their enthusiasm needing no translation.
Pulling into Ensenada, another village, about five minutes further south, we again readied ourselves to apologize to the teacher as another classroom emptied itself onto the dock, the classmates eager to greet the newcomers.
We were met by a local village leader and the American Peace Corps Volunteer who lives there, who collected and explained the reason for collecting admission to their village ($3 per person). The small fee goes to bettering the infrastructure of the village and they led us to the path that goes through their village and across the penisula to the open beach.
With cooler, surfboard and towels in hand, we crossed the trail that goes through the peninsula at its narrowest point to the beach on the other side. Traipsing through incredible jungle vistas with not a worry of a turned ankle or muddy shoes, it felt like we had walked straight into a Disney World theme-park.
The illusion was shattered the moment we crossed the apex of the trail and saw an amazing sight: Crystal clear waters breaking on golden sand at our destination for the afternoon, Playa de Uva. This was no theme park, this was nature at its best.
Playa de Uva is about a half-mile long, with wide sections of soft sand, with blue, clear waters washing up on the beach. We spent the rest of the afternoon shelling, surfing, picnicing and enjoying this unspoilt wilderness.
We had to tear ourselves away from the beach when the sun started sinking into the horizon. We made our way back to Ensenada and were greeted this time by the sounds of musica tipica. The traditional Panamanian music was being pumped out of speakers inside one of the classrooms, which was attracting many of the elders of the village to poke their heads in the windows and watch the spectacle inside. When we made our way to the front of the crowd, we could see the little boys and girls being encouraged to dance together ballroom style. The children needed no coercing and after each song ended they would race to pair up with a new partner.
At the suggestion of the Peace Corps Volunteer we made our way to the little artesania, where they were selling bags and purses made out of natural materials and decorated traditionally. We were treated to a fresh cup of….. made with boiled bananas and coconut milk, a refreshing treat after a long day in the sun, while the PCV regaled us with tales of being so far removed from her past life.
Feeling the breeze pick up, Gumey lead us back to the boat and after a short stop to drop off our little tour guides, we motored home, quietly reflecting on the day we had all just experienced (and for me at least, planning my next day back in the Comarca.)
(For more pictures of the trip, click here.)