The town of La Arena (pop. 6,429), two kilometers west of Chitré, could be renamed Ceramics City. Small shops all along the main street that passes through La Arena sell the pottery this area is famous for throughout Panama. These include pots, mugs, ashtrays, plates, vases, pitchers, and even entire tableware sets (see Shopping).
The pottery is based on designs created thousands of years ago by the indigenous residents of this area. The most traditional piece is the tinaja (pot) that was once used to store household water. These are used as decorative items all over Panama.
One of the country’s most famous painters, Sheila Lichacz, has made a career out of her pastel images of and montages using these tinajas, which fascinate her. She was born in nearby Monagrillo.
When she was a child she’d swim in the river on her family’s ranch and accidentally kick up shards from broken pots that dated back 500 years or more.
The oldest designs made in La Arena are based on pre-Colombian patterns, mostly abstract, painted in earth tones on the reddish-brown piece. More modern designs incorporate bright colors, glazes, and representational images, and these have become popular in recent years.
It can now be difficult to find more traditional pieces. The factories are constantly experimenting. After a little comparison shopping it’s easy to spot the distinctive style of each taller (workshop/factory).
La Arena is also known for its bread, though remember that what’s called good bread in Panama is called “hot dog buns” in other countries.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition