Fundacion Bahia de Portobelo – The Heart of El Otro Lado

El Otro Lado Private Retreat definitely has a soul; when you first arrive on property you sense it in every thoughtful detail. Whimsical furniture, local Congo artwork highlighting nature and human connection, splashes of bright color everywhere and an amazing curated playlist of Latin and Afro Caribbean music from the archives of Gladys Palmera combine to assure the guests “Here is a place that knows how to celebrate the beauty of life without taking itself too seriously. “

But to discover the heart of El Otro Lado, one must venture across the bay and join Mama Ari – town matriarch and custodian of Congo* culture – on the Cultural Walking Tour of Portobelo. This humble town was once the most important shipping & trade port in the Americas during Spanish colonial times and is full of history and stories. In addition to visiting the UNESCO fortifications that guarded the town from attacking pirates, guests are welcomed into the homes of local people and participate in the programs of Fundacion Bahia de Portobelo which promotes, preserves and celebrates the unique cultural heritage of Portobelo’s people while encouraging social and economic development.

The nonprofit Fundacion Bahia de Portobelo is the passion project of three women; Aurora Eleta, the owner of El Otro Lado, her sister Alejandra Fierro Eleta (aka Gladys Palmera ) and their cousin Sandra Eleta, one of Panama’s most famous photographers. They each fell in love with the richness & magic of Portobelo – on Panama’s bohemian Caribbean coast – called the “other side” by residents of Panama City. In and around Portobelo, rainforest, mangroves, the Caribbean Sea, legends of pirates and the proud history of the rebel Congo people merge to form an area that is incredibly rich in biodiversity, culture and artistic expression. From the delicate woodwork of carpenters, the bold colors and nature themes in Congo paintings, the interpretative dance and songs of young local Congo performers, to the pulsating drum beats emanating along the coastline during the area’s holidays, the region is a treasure trove of Afro Caribbean art & culture.

But despite this cultural and natural richness and a historic past, Portobelo today faces many challenges. The educational and economic opportunities within the town have been minimal; government provided healthcare is inadequate and social services have been lacking.

To counter these inequalities, Fundacion Bahia Portobelo works to strengthen the economic, social and cultural well being of the citizens of Portobelo in a myriad of ways. With La Casa de la Cultura Congo (or just Casa Congo), the foundation operates three B&B style accommodations and a small waterfront restaurant. After touring Portobelo with Mama Ari, El Otro Lado guests enjoy a post-tour lunch here, with traditional Caribbean fare like fried conch and grilled octopus. With the Congo Culture recently receiving recognition by UNESCO, tourism is slowly growing in Portobelo and employment at Casa Congo offers local people (especially youth) valuable experience in the hospitality and food service industry, enabling them to work in El Otro Lado, venture elsewhere or start their own tourism based enterprise.

Casa Congo also features a community center, computer lab, art studio and curated art gallery displaying locally produced paintings, sculptures and furniture, photographs as well as a small museum tracing the roots of Portobelo’s inhabitants back to West Africa. All proceeds from gallery sales go directly to the artisans – both the skilled carvers & furniture makers in the local Carpentry Workshop (based onsite at El Otro Lado) and the painters – enabling them to make art a sustainable profession. Local artists also lead informal art classes for guests of El Otro Lado, introducing guests to elements of the Congo style and encouraging them to let their imagination run free in creating their own pieces.

Across the street from the gallery, a blue building houses the foundation’s La Escuelita del Ritmo, where local children receive free music instruction in a variety of instruments, ranging from singing to African drumming to guitar to trombone & saxophone. Originally envisioned as an after school program to keep children off the streets, the Little Rhythm School is now the hottest ticket in town (100% of the town’s youth participate in the program) and a great source of pride for Portobelo. The immensely talented youth troupe has performed for visiting ambassadors, presidents and dignitaries to Panama, and the most gifted individuals are eligible for music scholarships to UC Berkley. A former student & scholarship recipient, Mary, has returned to the school as a teacher and recently launched a music program for very young toddlers.

Guests of El Otro Lado can join the students in a percussion class or enjoy a musical performance at the property, a fully participatory experience that draws even the most reluctant dancer into the fray. It’s incredible to watch child-prodigies like 8-year Elian (below) come out of his shy shell and improvise on stage.

Lastly, to experience Congo Culture at its most raw and real, visit Portobelo just after Easter during the annual Congo Festival (which alternates each year between La Fiesta de los Diablos y Congos and the Fiesta de Conga Pollera). Every year in March or April thousands of visitors gather to watch local performers celebrate the resistance of the Cimarrones, formerly enslaved Africans during the Spanish colonial period who escaped to the surrounding rainforest and established free communities. Dressed in wild & elaborate homemade costumes and masks, the actors tell the story of the Cimarrones who assisted English privateers like Francis Drake and pirates like Henry Morgan to successfully sabotage Spanish colonial trade vessels. Using these partnerships as leverage, the Cimarrones negotiated with the Spanish (the Devils) to have their freedom recognized and established themselves as “Congos”, the name their descendants proudly use to this day to recognize their African roots and unique Panamanian story.

The Fundacion Bahia Portobelo funds the annual Congo festival, which includes performances by La Escuelito del Ritmo and highlights the work of many local artists.

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