El Otro Lado--literally the other side in Spanish, is a five minute boat ride across the Portobelo Bay to the "other side" but can just as well be thought of as the "other side" of the world from the daily cares of business and modern life—providing as it does complete freedom from those daily worries in a lush, colorful tropical setting of relaxation, with every need anticipated and met.
Bahia de Portobelo winkles westward from the top jut of the northern Caribbean coast of Panama, and bears the traces of Captain Morgan, Sir Francis Drake, Phillip II of Spain, and Columbus himself, who discovered the place on his fourth voyage in 1502. Almost a century later the Spanish claimed it and named it San Felipe de Portobelo. From here, Peruvian gold and silver, stolen by the Spanish, flowed to Seville for a century and a half. The Spaniards brought slaves from the Congo to Portobelo, resulting in both mixed races and tribal religious influences—still felt today—dancing the Conga is common.
The gold and silver trade attracted pirates and navies alike, and Henry Morgan, Sir Francis Drake and William Parker marauded and attacked. The Spanish built lookouts and forts--San Fernando on the town side of the bay, and San Fernandino, which is directly adjacent to the lushly planted grounds of EOL.... The British admiral Edward Vernon conquered Portobelo in 1739, and promptly lost it again two years later when he tried and failed to take Cartagena from the Spanish.
El Otro Lado is a small, quiet, private luxury retreat. There are three rooms in the original owners' house up the hill, and four spacious bungalows clustered around the deck, infinity pool and bar restaurant building. The decor is bright, light and full of colorful Caribbean and native influences. Private and public decks are populated with comfortable Adirondack chairs, rockers, and chaise lounges.
The grounds are a tropical botanical garden with dozens of types of palms, including the coral-trunked Lipstick Palm and Ruffled Fan Palm. Lush flowering trees abound, with the Guayaba, purple flowered Caimito, or Star Apple, and Blue Jacaranda stars. Shrubs and bushes include white bougainvillea sporting tiny saffron flowers from the creamy bracts, the Ti plant with its variegated spear-shaped leaves, and twining, creeping vines. Many of the trees and bushes have display labels showing both local and other common names, as well as scientific name, to assist the interest of the amateur horticulturalist. Crimson ginger, orange heliconia, peach hibiscus and creamy plumeria pop against the verdant green background. Orchids of many hues hang from cracks and crevices of trees--some of which, like the Cedro Espino, and Marazon Curazao show shaggy and mottled of bark. Three enormous trees: Espave, or Wild Cashew, Corotu, or Elephant Ear Tree, and Sangrillo, or Dragonblood Tree take pride of place around the entry to EOL. At the far edge of the resort, past the majestic Espave, EOL has it's own sawmill and ebanista--wood shop--where local hardwoods are turned into much of the furniture in the resort.
The lighting of the resort at night is magical.....a combination of subtle up lights, a few palms wound with LEDs to create a tube of light, twinkling lanterns hanging in the trees, hidden path lights, and the glow of the pool. In the distance, rigging lights from sailboats at rest combine with the winking lights of Portobelo town as a backdrop. Music, thankfully low or none....the chorus of insects and night birds, and the faint murmuring of other guests is all that punctuates our conversation.
Relaxing, reading, strolling the grounds and adjacent ruins of the smaller fort San Fernandino, and a short hike uphill in the jungle to the dammed lake are easy activities (the dam was built at the turn of the 20th century when stone was extracted from a quarry up the hill to be used in construction of the Panama Canal locks). There are three Sandy beaches a 5-15 minute boat ride away, for sunbathing and ocean swimming. For the more adventurous, river fishing for snook and snapper, ocean fishing for tuna and marlin, scuba diving and mountain trekking up the hills of the rainforest are available.
We spend a couple of hours on a historical tour of Portobelo led by Mama Ri, clad in traditional African based robes of the black population of the town circa the 18th century. Though we know some Spanish, the resort manager, Diana, accompanies us to translate. A UNESCO World Heritage Site in Danger, Portobelo is quite poor. The ayunamiento, or colonial town hall, where much stolen native gold was stored before transshipment to Spain, was partly ruined by a quake in 1994, and reconstruction is uncertain. Much of the defensive walls and cannon of fort San Fernando are intact, and a walk along the ramparts evokes the Spanish, the English fleet, and those pirates after all that gold. Colonial Portobelo was divided into white (Spanish) and black (African slave descendants) zones. the ayunamiento and fort are in the white zone, but the Iglesia de San Félipe sits in the black district, so good Spanish Catholics had to crossover weekly for service. In the church is a noted black Jesus figure, for which there is celebrated the Festival-de-Cristo-Negro every year on October 21, in which Cristo Negro is paraded around town on a catafalque carried by 40 devout men, and which is attended by people from all over Panama.
The cafe Congo and Gallery Congo are outposts of EOL, and projects of the Fundacion Bahia Portobelo that the hotel's owner, started in order to make improvements in the lives of locals, helping to effect positive change in the tourism business, local schools, and arts and crafts. On the fan-cooled terrace of the cafe we enjoy cold beer, local rum, ceviche and tuna sandwich while waiting for the launch back to....the other side.....
The kitchen at EOL is run by the team of Mirna, Raul and Juan. They provide a wide variety of breakfast choices (included in room rate); set three-course meals are offered at lunch and dinner, showcasing local products and much fare from the sea--corvina or octopus ceviche, tuna tartare, langostinas, grilled snapper, and in season, crab. Desserts tend to feature local tropical fruit--the mangoes, passion fruit, pineapple and papaya are all dead ripe. There is a small menu of salads and sandwiches for those wanting the occasional break from a three course hot meal. Viktor, lead bartender, is adept at creating concoctions ranging from passion fruit mojito to caipirinha, and will mix up anything special you teach him, such as a perfectly balanced daiquiri--assuming you teach him closely.
For two more days we sit, read, sip, swim, and gaze vacantly out to the ever-changing harbor scene; watch the blue herons and white egrets sail majestically by, and the pelicans just offshore climb and crash into the sea taking fish after fish. We gaze at colorful tropical birds and butterflies as they swoop by, flouting their crimson, emerald and sapphire feathers and jewel-colored wings. The periodic short downpour cools the air for a bit, as does similarly for the body a cool dip in the pool.
In what seems a couple blinks of the eye, a full four days and nights have passed, and it's time to pack up and head back to the real world. The languid siren call of this magical place will long linger in memory . . . . .tempting a return when the hectic life of the other other side seems to build to a frenzied pitch.