Bienvenidos to El Pilón de Montijo, a community of rolling hills, típico music, spectacularly colored sunsets, biodiversity galore and warm, friendly people. Here is a classic Central American combination of rice and corn, cows and chickens, farmers and professionals, teachers and students, colorful concrete-block houses, and soccer fanatics. The peaceful, though never sleepy, town of […]
Bienvenidos to El Pilón de Montijo, a community of rolling hills, típico music, spectacularly colored sunsets, biodiversity galore and warm, friendly people. Here is a classic Central American combination of rice and corn, cows and chickens, farmers and professionals, teachers and students, colorful concrete-block houses, and soccer fanatics.
The peaceful, though never sleepy, town of about 200 houses, may have a bit more infrastructure than other Peace Corps Panama sites, boasting an Info Plaza of 10 computers and Internet service (free for the first hour and 25 cents for each subsequent half hour), a Casa Comunal (town meeting room) with a fan and a tiled-floor, and freshly manicured lawns with flowering bushes to welcome the butterflies. But, in El Pilón you’re sure to find a culture, pride and welcoming nature that is purely Panamanian to compliment your campo (country) adventure.
The name “El Pilón” stems from the community’s historical reliance on and love for rice – a pilón is a tool used to beat harvested rice, to shuck the shell off of the white interior edible portion. Rice has always been an (if not the) essential staple in both the diet and economy of El Pilón. While the pilón is now most commonly used only for Panamanian historical and cultural presentations, piladoras (large, modernized rice production plants) are alive and well. There is one currently functioning piladora here, located behind one of the two smaller kiosk tiendas (the Panamanian version of a general store). So get ready to whet your palate with the most delicious slow-cooked rice and beans of your life, accompanied by the freshest of local oh-so-very-free-range chicken.
Mangroves and Wildlife
The cannot-miss experience in El Pilón is a trip to the town’s crowning eco-tourism attraction: the lush, beautiful mangrove forest. With assistance from a
UNDP grant, the local eco-tourism group, Avicennia Nitida, has transformed the area into a protected haven open for small tours and for use as an educational tool for the study of the all-important tropical mangrove ecosystem. Grupo Avicennia offers guided tours of the protected mangroves, El Sendero Jujuna, home to a stunning 70 species of migratory and non-migratory avifauna, numerous mollusks, crabs, amphibians, monkeys and the occasional sloth. The tour costs just US$10 and includes a spin around the mangroves in a boat, where if you’re very lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a caiman, boas, turtles and other marine life. For $5 extra, the walking tour through the mangroves gets you up close and personal to the four different species of magnificent mangrove trees (it is rare even in Panama to find all four in one single area!). Though you won’t be traipsing up to your ankles in mud, the tree-trunk steps can get a bit slippery from the changing tides, so bring shoes with good traction.
And for just an extra US$2.50 you can enjoy a tasty, natural, home cooked lunch in an open-air rancho. Certified local tourism guides Alonso Herrera and/or Romulo Pineda lead the tours (Telephone: 1-507-6471-9173). They are also bird watching experts and will take birders to the prime sites for US$8 for half a day.
Also while in Pilón, don’t miss horseback riding with the beautifully cared for horses of Rancho Nueva York. Contact Sr. Jaime Melamed for additional details. He’ll also provide an in-depth guided tour of his many acre fruit tree orchard (where he loves to give visitors a sample of whatever fruit may be in season, and right off the tree!) and there’s a chance to fish in the property’s pond. Telephone: 1-507-6565-1513.
A walk/easy hike to the river, Rio San Pedro, and then a refreshing dip in the summer months (January-March) will offer visitors a welcome cooling off. Ask any one in town to take you and they’ll be glad to as they, too, cannot get enough of the river. The river is clearly marked with signs and is just past the entrance of El Pilón on the right hand side for those who’d like to adventure solo. While at the river, visit El Chiflon, an almost whirlpool-like area downstream into which you simply must jump off from the big rock above. For the extra adventurous, join the young local for acrobatic tricks swinging off the rope from a tree branch high above.
For visitors who’d like to really get involved and make a difference while in town, there is the opportunity to volunteer for local environmental protection and restoration projects. Spend a day assisting in the beautification of El Pilón, which may include tree planting and help with their new waste management system, with the environmental protection group Bandera Azul Ecológica (contact Representante Alberto Melamed, 1-507-6613-5803) or work with the elementary or junior high school’s eco-club to tend to their organic gardens, sort recycling in their on-site recycling centers, or do ecological arts and crafts like making bird houses from milk cartons or statues from shells.
If you want to get a little more dirty, go scavenging for concha (a local shellfish) with Sra. Nery and the women of town. You’ll get in a hike, boat ride, and almost always a pick-up truck lift back to town after a day of wading in the water and perfecting your conch collecting technique. There are few people in town more fun and lively that Sra. Nery and after your adventure, for just a few dollars, she’ll cook you a delicious dinner of arroz con concha or guiso de concha (rice with conch or conch stew). Once in town, ask around for her and she if she can take you out.
Super helpful tip: For setting up any and all experiences/lodging options, when calling the phone numbers listed mention “Silvia” and “Cuerpo de Paz.” They’ll inevitably pause for a moment and they say “Si, si!” From then on, you’ll be treated like family in El Pilón. Or, you can just email Silvie and she’ll set everything up for you (firstname.lastname@example.org).
If you are a woman, you cannot leave El Pilón without a set of traditional tembleques, a colorful, usually sparkling beaded headdress that women still wear today for celebrations and típico dancing. And if you are a man, you cannot leave without having purchased them for your wife, girlfriend, daughter, sister, mother…The women of El Pilón are some of the best tembleque makers around (see photo). Find Senora Lucy or Gloria (known to everyone as “Goya”) Montilla to custom design your own pair (or five!) of tembleques.
In Pilón, stay with Sr. Jaime Melamed (El Pilón’s first Representante local official) who with his lovely wife, offer a beautiful guest room in their spacious, colorful and air-conditioned ranch house, Rancho Nueva York. They will cook you a large Panamanian-American style breakfast, bring you juice and snacks all day long, and lunch/dinner on-property can be arranged as well. Soon, Rancho Nueva York, will offer accommodations in new cabañas, complete with a security system protecting the entire property to ease guests’ minds (though El Pilón is completely safe for visitors from all over the world).
While there are currently no formal restaurants in El Pilón, the place to visit is the home of Señor Samuel, a creative local cook who can be paid to cook for tourists. He makes the most mouth-watering yucca tortilla with his homegrown yucca, or he’ll whip up a Panamanian/Chinese fusion chow mien or a seafood dish with other fresh vegetables from his garden. Large bowls of local pineapple, watermelon and papaya from his own trees top finish off the meal. Sr. Samuel’s wife, Liseth, is just as personable and is one of the town’s only members who speaks good English and can help out anyone visiting who still feels shaky with their Spanish skills.
For the closest restaurants, hit the grilled, smoked chicken at Montijo’s El Rancho Bar before arriving in El Pilón (about five minutes on the main road before arriving in Pilón) or head down about an eight minute drive (or borrow a bike and bike it!) to Puerto Mutis which boasts three or four delicious restaurants for fresh fried fish and more. I recommend Pacific View Restaurant (owned and operated by Sr. Jaime’s daughter) or Restaurante Gladys for the most basic, but most delectable fried fish and plantains.
In the sleepy port and fishing town of Puerto Mutis, you can also visit the dock to watch the comings and goings of local life (and the fish!). Select tour operators depart for Isla Coiba from Puerto Mutis as it’s easier to reach than the more popular gateway of Santa Catalina. The boat trip is at least one hour longer, however. For organizing transport to Isla Coiba, contact Romulo Pineda, 1-507-6471-9173, well in advance of your trip.
Representante Alberto Melamed, 1-507-6613-5803
Sr. Jaime Melamed, 1-507-6565-1513
Sr. Alonso Herrera, 1-507-6578-8722
Sr. Samuel Montenegro, 1-507-6576-8477