Below the grassy parking area where the majority of the stone artifacts were on display I crawled into a 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 companion 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."
The Early Panamanians
Barriles is one of the better-known archaeological sites in Panama.
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 are pancaking. I was tense the whole way, sure our little Hyundai was going to crack an axle.
Barriles was named for several stone barrels found on the site in the late 1920s. It is assumed to have been a socially-stratified town and home to about 1000 people around 1300 years ago. Barriles hosted a far higher population than any other site in the region and was probably a ceremonial center whose activities drew people from the dozens of sites dotting Chiriquí valley and the slopes of the Talamanca cordillera.
My friend and I crossed the mountains from the town of Boquete to reach Barriles. We got lost among all the green pastures and Swiss-looking farmhouses. 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, and at every crossroad waited someone with an eager smile and a slightly-off set of directions.
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 stressed.
"You're late," she said.
Hoax or Houx?
Edna Houx is the matriarch of the site and manages it for tourism 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.
"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."
And then there was the Ark of the Covenant.
"They found it in Panama," she said. "Pay attention now or you will get confused."
No kidding. I began to wonder if the UFO had anything to do with this.