Sitio Barriles is a farm with an archaeological museum owned by the Landau-Houx family. I had heard of the site but had not had a chance to visit. And it is so easy to reach, since it is located in Caizán 6 kilometers from the town of Volcán. You can stay in a hotel in Volcán or in a hotel in Cerro Punta. The road is in perfect condition. A sign on your right hand tells you that you arrived at Sitio Barriles.
This farm was part of the agrotourism in Panama campaign, so we contacted the owners Edna Houx and José Luis Landau to photograph it. We arrived just before lunch and suddenly the sky became dark and a torrential rain began, typical of September. We took advantage of the visit to talk to Edna and interview her.
The Houx family arrived almost 100 years ago
In 1924, the Houx family arrived in the area in search of land to grow coffee. A group of North Americans and Europeans migrated to the highlands of Chiriqui, which offered better climate and agricultural opportunities. They stayed until 1938 when the Second World War began and they had to leave the place.
As Americans planted coffee they had no need to dig very deep, only 12 inches. When they left, the local peasants began to dig deeper in search of painted rabbits and what they found was ceramic ‘huacas’ which were Pre-Columbian artifacts. In 1941 they discovered the first 18 statues made in human size, no more than 2 meters. Much was destroyed and sold by the indiscriminated ‘huaqueria’.
By 1946 the families who owned the large coffee plantations returned and realized what was happening. They pass the news to a museum in Panama and to National Geographic who conducted an expedition in 1949.
The name ‘Sitio Barriles’ was given because they found information that the valley of 5.5 square kilometers and 1,300 meters above sea level was called ‘Barriles’ which in English means barrels. At the beginning of the last century, dwellers of the lowlands looked for new types of soil and found stones in the form of barrels.
Edna’s dad was in the National Geographic project. When he bought, he had no idea of the archaeological value of the land. This expedition was what gave the name of “Barriles Culture” to the group that lived in the area between 300 and 600 AD. This pre-Columbian culture was not indigenous due to its physical characteristics. The statues had human size and shape with characteristics of people from upper Asia and lower parts of Africa.
The pottery of Barriles Culture was simple without colors. It was worked in relief with local clay. This culture ended with the volcanic eruptions of Tzisingal and Colorado. Almost a millennium later the Mayans arrived in the area. It is the only place in Panama with evidence of the presence of these indigenous people who lived at Sitio Barriles 900 years ago. They worked stones in a totally different way using squares with angles and lines. And the pottery had snakes and paintings. The objects were authenticated by scientists with radio carbon that is faster and more effective.
The next day we had to return early in the morning. This time we had a radiant sun and perfect light to take pictures. At the entrance to the path there are exhibits that are part of the 300 you can see in Sitio Barriles. You must go down a spiral staircase to enter the trails that are part of a botanical exhibition.
We went to the end to find Jose Luis doing his morning milking. When he was done, he had to load the milk tank on his shoulder to carry it to the house.
Edna received us with a delicious breakfast of ‘almojabano’, which is fried corn in the form of ‘S’, typical of Chiriqui. She also made cheese, papaya and coffee from the farm. Jam and fruit popsicles are always for sale, varieties depend on the season. We tried lemon, raspberry and medlar.
On the farm they grow corn, beans, vegetables and teach tourists how to milk a cow or how to make cheese. If you want to have lunch you must ask for it in advance. In addition, they have an area where they cook typical food using firewood.
Sitio Barriles has two rooms that they rent for tourists who are mostly backpackers or university students who visit to do their thesis. They also receive international scientists. Many people want to wake up on site to see the birds at dawn.
As an American, Edna speaks perfect English, as well as French. With her husband she made a foundation called Cultura Barriles to promote tourism on the site. Edna tells us that her husband José Luis is her number one collaborator, since they share the same ideas.
Sitio Barriles was declared a National Heritage in 2011. However, it does not receive government support. They have a small museum closed with a padlock because several times they have been robbed. José Luis put in his mouth a small piece of pottery that makes music. They have huacas, arrowheads and old bottles on site.
Edna showed us a flat stone that had nothing. She grabbed a hose and covered it in water. Drawings appeared that were not visible without contact with the water. We were extremely impressed with this trick. Also, they have a magnetic rock that makes a compass go crazy.
Natural and cultural contact
We continued through the thematic garden that has more than 500 varieties of plants cataloged by students of the University of Panama. They used drones to measure the height and circumference of trees such as cedar and ficus. I saw varieties of very exotic heliconias including one that is fuzzy.
We were taken to an area where there was no vegetation which was explained by a large sign that said volcanic eruption. Exfoliating clay and sand from Sitio Barriles is sold for cosmetic use.
More than 60 birds including migrants can be seen in half a day. The quetzal does not arrive because they have destroyed the seeds that it eats. But it is possible to see other species such as trogon, oriol and crested guans. October it is the month of the hummingbirds that eat heliconias.
A spring is visited by people who practice health tourism. Hydrotherapy relieves pain and inflammation. The current flows at a perfect speed and although it is cold, it fills people with energy. People who have problems, depression and chronic diseases are benefited.
The first Sunday of February they do a Ngöbe festival where culture, way of life, clothing and food are explained. It is done in coordination with the University of Panama that provides students as volunteers. Most of the people who go are foreigners who want to know about this indigenous population in Panama.