Chiriquí Libre November 2008


The rains give and they also take away

 By David Dell

The Chiriqu Viejo River winds down the Shangri-La Valley from Cerro Punta through the villages of Bambito, Nueva Suiza and Paso Ancho. The river provides a spectacular centerpiece for the stark rock covered mountains and lush, verdant hillsides – occasionally the river turns rogue. Almost 40 years ago, in 1970, this same river brought death and destruction to the people of this community. Saturday night of November 22 and Sunday morning of the 23 2008, the river roared again after the climax of four days of almost nonstop rain.

A cold front from Costa Rica collided with another cold front from Colombia – the result  disastrous floods in the highlands of Chiriqui.  The normally clear, brisk waters of the Chiriqui Viejo  turned an angry muddy brown. The soft sandy banks started to erode quickly and the fragile, shanty style homes of the indigenous people started to fall into the river. As the homes disappeared sadly so did the lives of the residents. By the morning of Sunday the 23rd, according to local police Sgt. Morales, 30 homes had been damaged or destroyed and 41 families and some 180 people were homeless. In Volcan and Boquete, and four people have lost their lives.

I drove past the church to a point were there used to be a road to the Florentina Café Finca. The road ended abruptly in a sheer 150 foot drop. To my right was an open swinging metal gate, it dangled over the abyss. The road was gone and I feared the house would soon follow it down into the roaring Chiriqui Viejo river. Downed power lines dangled precariously over the road. As a light drizzle soaked the faces of the disbelieving locals I walked to the edge of the ever-widening river. Twenty feet below was a pile of battered zinc sheets and splintered wood, the remains of what several hours earlier had been two people’s homes.

Traveling further toward the village of  Bambito, two washouts  had reduced the traffic  to a single lane. At one point, close to the entrance to the Casa Grande Resort, a concrete power pole had been swallowed by the river. The utility crews were working frantically to sort out the mess of shattered tree limbs and dangling telephone and power lines.

 Passing through the small village of Bambito I noticed that their small church had lost its river side wall. During the night, the altar and east wall of the church had disappeared into the raging river. The white lace altar curtains were still hanging from the remains of the roof  and still waving defiantly in the wind. Clearly, many of the houses on the same side of the road as the church are now unstable and may have to be permanently evacuated.

It’s an ill storm . . .

At the Bambito trout farm the road was almost blocked – not by any storm damage but by  opportunistic scavengers. The storm had caused the deaths of countless thousands of farm trout. The dead bodies could be seen  floating on the surface of the breeding ponds. The police had to intervene to sort out the chaos as the cars of hundreds of people clogged the road’s narrow shoulders. Their owners gleefully rushing to harvest this  pescatorial bonanza with an assortment of plastic bags, milk crates and buckets.

I went to visit the house of  Don and Mary Binder, their house borders the Chiriqui Viejo River. Don showed me where fifty feet of his garden and his much prized chicken house had been claimed by the river. The Binders had been warned the previous night to evacuate. They did move the chickens and their two dogs to safety but they, decided to stay.

At the Paso Ancho church, the children laughed and played, for them it was a great adventure. Their exhausted and despondent parents sat quietly in the church pews. One exhausted man sat hunched forward with his head buried in his hands. As I watched about  a dozen or more plastic bags arrived. They were packed full of much needed clothing items. I inquired of an ex-pat helper who had donated the items, she shrugged her head and replied, “I don’t know where they came from, they just arrived.” I did learn later that a local Palestinian store owner, on hearing of the disaster, had packed up clothing and drove up to the church to distribute it. Perhaps, he had received such help as a refugee in his west bank home of Ramallah. Today, this tall, unassuming, Moslem man, returned the favour.


The indigenous people of Chiriqui, mainly of the Ngobe Bugle tribe have had more than their fair share of hardships. Their already poverty-stricken lives were dealt yet another, cruel and unexplained blow.  The rain and the eternal spring climate of the Shangri-La valley can be a wonderful provider. This area produces close to 90% of all the fresh vegetables in Panama.


 Those same rains that on the one hand prove to be a wonderful provider can, on the other hand, unexpectedly and tragically,  become a cruel and uncaring thief.