San Carlos the only real town in the Arco de Seco
For many of us San Carlos is just the place we go to pay social security for you gardener or housekeeper. Actually it is much more and has been a viable pueblo (town) for a very long time and it seems that every Panamian I meet has some relative who lives or has lived there. San Carlos (Saint Charles) is the name of both the pueblo and the district which reaches far into the mountains and up and down the highway beyond Gorgona and Corona. On Election Day dozens of busses flying the party flags ferry district voters to the poling place in San Carlos.
The town itself is bordered by the highway and the ocean and now squeezed between Vista Mar and Casa Mar developments. El Palmar, even though it has a different name, is considered by many to be part of San Carlos since it is only separated by a river. The population of the town and surrounding area is 2-4,000 as a guess (never could find the census information). Within town are the administration offices of the district, the largest medical clinic in the area, Social Security offices, the courts and numerous other government offices. It also has the largest concentration of small shops and stores for miles around, including 3 internet cafes, 7 mini supers, 6 hardware stores, 2 department stores, a feed store and an ice cream parlor. There is also a large municipal produce market and several fish vendors on the street in the morning.
The fishing business is the largest industry in town and the fishing village is one of the largest in the area with the majority of the catch hauled daily to Panama City. The one ice house in town does a bustling business keeping the huge ice chests full of fish cold for the trip.
And right next to the fishing village is a day resort call Club de Playa which hosts some day beach goers but mostly occasional all night music festivals of 1-2,000 people with no parking, no cops and no control. Some say the concerts are not permitted but it does not seem to stop them. It is on those nights San Carlo residents use earplugs.
It is not necessary to own a watch in San Carlos because the bombaros religiously sound a loud air horn at almost precisely 7 am, noon, 4 pm and 9. The horn can be heard throughout the town and it seems task is one of the major duties of the firemen.
There is not really a town square anymore but the long narrow park which serves as the center of town. It is here the best parades in the district can be enjoyed. For example on November 3rd, Independence day, a drum and xylophone band from every school in the district compete for the trophies in a parade that lasts 5 hours. There are also many religious processions, especially around Easter.
Some interesting landmarks can be seen just driving into town. Two of the original one-lane bridges from the first Pan American Highway in the1930’s are still intact; one still used for cars and the other now as a foot bridge over the Matar Ahogado River which divides San Carlos from El Palmar. The river name means “death by drowning” because the river is famous for flash floods that can carry people away . The other two rivers near town also have very old and interesting names. They are named Rio Teta and Tio Tetita describing size of the breasts of the local women (before implants).
The Catholic Church is large with the steeple covered in oyster shells for which San Carlos is famous. It has a full set of bells and a tradition of calling worshipers with skyrockets and firecrackers.
Along the Park are several good examples of the early typical Panamian homes with hand made roof tiles and beautifully carved wooden doors.
There are a number of good restaurants as well as fondas in town and on the highway with the best known of Momma Mia’s and Carlito’s. A new small restaurant on the is called La Siena and is open for breakfast and lunch and in El Palmar there are additional restaurants, at the Bayview and Magalar Hotel. All of them have good food sometimes
San Carlos is a working town that awakens very early and goes to sleep soon after dark. It is a nice place to live or visit and even though it is surrounded by massive real estate development it has managed to keep its character and pace. That may change soon as a large beachside development called Fontenella is constructed. The largest industry and employer in town may be displaced by condos and parking lots. It does not need to make sense in Panama.