LAS LAJAS, Panama – Kenin Loo hasn’t left Las Lajas beach in more than 20 years, even though his brother lives in the city.
“What for?” Loo asks.
Perhaps the man has a point.
Las Lajas is a beach 15 kilometers long on Panama’s Pacific coast. During the off-season, barely a soul visits, except for the locals and a herd of wild horses that roams the beach. Framed by two rivers, and with waves big enough for surfing, Las Lajas is a scenic place still undisturbed by the developments for North American retirees popping up all over western Panama (see separate story).
The Las Lajas of today is much like it was when Loo’s parents were around. Loo’s restaurant, Estrella del Pacífico, certainly looks the part. On the outside, the elements are slowly chipping away the advertisements painted on the wall.
Here, time crawls by. Meals hover around $2.50. Behind the beach is a large cattle field. Locals rise early in the morning and catch the microbus out of town to David for school and work.
Fishermen head to the beach and catch red snapper, corvina and other morsels for hotel dinner tables. With machete and catch in hand, they cross the San Félix River, though the currents are strong and sharks patrol the area where the river meets the ocean. Tiny crabs scurry around the flat beach, disturbed by any passerby. Islands dot the ocean horizon.
At night, geckos feast on the many insects, and fireflies light up the deep dark like shooting stars. Mosquitoes, moths and beetles buzz and flutter to the background of crashing waves.
But Las Lajas, according to the locals, livens up once December comes around. It’s a popular beach with Panamanians, and tourists from around the world have begun to notice.
Las Lajas is about an hour’s drive from David, the largest city in Panama’s western ChiriquíProvince. The bus ride from David costs $2.25. It’s a scenic drive, going through small towns, crossing over rivers and green –lots of green. Travelers can take two buses: one that goes directly to Las Lajas, but runs only a few times a day, or the bus to San Félix, the town just north of the beach. From San Félix, a taxi ride to Las Lajas is $5. Getting a taxi from David is possible, too, but can cost up to $30.
Along with his restaurant, Loo has four brightly painted cabins next to the beach (507-6478-9397). The one with air conditioning costs $40 and the others $25-30. Breakfast is included. Loo, known as Kenito, gets up at the crack of dawn to make coffee. For $2.50, he’ll make dinner. Beers go for $0.60.
Loo provides lively conversation and will give advice about women, reflect on the past or murmur about getting an Internet connection.
His father was Chinese, while his mother was known for her blue eyes.
They were the first here, Beto Reyes says. Reyes, 26, is Loo’s neighbor. He runs La Palmera camping hostel (507-6505-6727), where you can rent a tent for $5.
His pad is a house that looks half-finished, but it’s meant to be like that. The second floor houses five camping tents and hammocks. He lives in one of the tents.
During the dry season, travelers can camp on the grounds near the beach. Surfboards are available for $3, and that’s for the whole day. The surfer type, Reyes has many stories to tell about growing up in Panama. He’s originally from Boquete, a small coffee town in the western highlands now popular with North Americans and Europeans.
He’ll tell stories of being chased by wild boars in the forests around Boquete, of crashing while doing extreme sports up in the mountains (Reyes says he and his friends were inspired by the sled sport luge), and of his escapades in his younger years. He’ll reflect, too, on how Panama is changing.
About 150 meters down from Reyes’ place are cabins and a restaurant run by Dayron Sánchez, a Colombian who immigrated with his family to Panama. They now run Cabañas Panamá (507-6574-4986, 507-6539-6969/ $38.50). The complex has five two-floor cabins, each with its own bathroom, a full-size bed and two twin beds, plus a hammock that can be hung wherever. The cabins are snuggly, and the second floor with mosquito netdraped bed looks almost regal.
For the time being, water is available only between 8 a.m. and noon and 6 to 10 p.m. At the restaurant, prices are as high as $7, including seafood (Sánchez fishes his own) and Colombian dishes.
Sánchez also provides tours of the area, including all-day excursions ($50 per person) to the nearby forest, where indigenous peoples left hieroglyphics on stones. Boat trips to the nearby islands for fishing are available for $100.He can also arrange horseback rides for $5 – tame horses, of course.
Reyes says domesticated horses sometimes escape and join the wild herd on the beach.
Local legend has it that these horses escaped a long time ago, and no one bothered to corral them again. Now they roam the beach, grazing on the wild grass.