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.
It was clear that Barriles, as it is known to Edna, is far 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 extending about 7 feet underground into a fake excavation block. Whole ceramic pots stuck out of the dirt walls green with the growth of small lichens.
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.
Second-tier Status for Artifacts
Several days before visiting Barriles, we had thankfully exited the raucous Pan-American Highway near the coast southeast of the city of David and pointed the car up one of those impossibly 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. The goal 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 on the way up. 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. I asked if I was going the right way. The woman shrugged. The man didn't look my way. The girl hugged the horse's neck.
At the end of the road sat the whitewashed Nancito Archaeological Museum. It was closed. I shot what photos I could of the rock art with my telephoto lens through the fence and, not sure what else to do, drove down the hill.
Nancito and Barriles speak to challenges of both 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.
"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."
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.
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 a resort and can be visited by tourists to the island.
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. But does the ancient past offer another form of both rural economic development and access to tight research funds?
"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."
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 and not slowing down if cars didn't clear out of the way.
Night fell as we continued southeast towards Panama City, leaving the few remnants of the pre-Colombian past behind.
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.
Taos, New Mexico-based writer and photographer Jim O'Donnell is the author of Notes for the Aurora Society and Rise and Go. He is the owner and head monkey at the Around the World in Eighty Years. He is currently working on his first book of fiction and making plans for a long-term project exploring the relationship between the Viking and Islamic worlds in the Middle Ages.
The First Astrotourists of Panama by Darrin DuFord
Discovering Forbidden Archaeology by Brad Olsen
Before Dawn in the Place of Voices by Joshua Berman
The Dreams of Man in Stone and Concrete by Tim Leffel
See other Central America travel stories from the archives