As I mentioned in my last Panama post, I made it about two days before I wanted to go do something.
I had read about the archeological site of El Cano, and we decided to hire a car to drive over and explore for the morning. It was about an hour drive from the resort. We had no idea what to expect! I believe it is a $2 entrance fee per person; the site may not be open every day, so may be worth calling ahead.
El Cano is one of the most important sites in Central America and definitely, arguably, one of Panama’s most important archaeological finds. It contains pre-Columbian period burial sites that are dated between 700-1000 AD. This period was prior to any European contact, and particularly Spanish looting of existing burial sites, and has provided scientists with more information about Central America during this period. The burial sites have been full of some really fascinating artifacts that had not been previously found at other sites–in particular, a huge numbers of gold items, including necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. In addition to these artifacts, including a golden lobster, there is also a field of stone monoliths and sculptures that had drawn historians before the burial sites were discovered.
Based on the findings at El Cano and another nearby site (Sitio Conte), it appears as if the chief (leader of the chiefdom) is surrounding in the burial pit by a number of individuals, including a child. Historians believe that these individuals were likely captives or slaves that may have been sacrificed when the chief died. In a very strange discovery, scientists also discovered a vessel full of bones from a pufferfish–that may have been used to kill the sacrificial humans for the burial, though that is mostly hypothesis. The pits were typically covered by a thatch hut, which they have reconstructed in a few places on the site.
Now, El Cano is really not a visitor destination. And if you are looking for a complex site with lots to look at and take pictures of this site is not for you. There are simple grass paths from one area to another. The museum is “under construction” and has been that way for more than a few years. All of the artifacts have been removed and sent to museums (most not in Panama). That said, if you are interested in archaeology like us, and want to go explore, the site is worth a stop. In terms of scientific interest and relevance, El Cano is pretty amazing. But there isn’t that much to see, other than the stone monoliths, the grass-covered burial hills, and a mocked-up burial pit. The largest excavation pit was covered while we were there and not available for public viewing, as of Fall 2017 (courtesy, or so we were told, of National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institution who continue to pay for some of the excavation at the site).
Our guide was really enthusiastic about the site, its meaning to Panama, and was knowledgeable about El Cano and the pre-Columbian period. We took the tour in Spanish since it was obvious he preferred that, and we both needed to practice! English is also available if your Spanish is not archaeological site ready. I’m now thankful that my Spanish teacher had me read Nat Geo for a while…
Other than the entrance fee (I’m happy to pay $2 in the hopes that maybe it goes to the community or further preservation, but one never knows), there is really no indication that Panama has tried to capitalize–or has the funds to capitalize–on the finds or historical relevance of El Cano. I hope that perhaps they can get a small visitor center together with signs in both English and Spanish so that more people can learn about the importance of the site in Central American history. It’s definitely worth a stop if you are in the area and have a car. While it may be stating the obvious, there is plenty to enjoy here, just don’t go expecting a site like Caracol or Pompeii or anything you’ve seen in Egypt.