Sitio Barriles, on Finca Landau near central Volcán, is one of Panama’s most important archaeological sites, but as usual the site (no phone, 7 A.M.–6:30 P.M. daily, free) itself has little to offer visitors but a view of some holes in the ground.
Most of the items recovered here are now in Panama City’s anthropology museum, which makes for a better visit. Still, those with an archaeological bent may want to take a quick look to help them connect the pieces with their place of origin.
The Barriles culture is intriguing, mostly because so little is known about it. It’s believed to have been an agrarian, warrior-dominated society with roots extending back to 734 B.C.
It consisted of about four dozen human settlements that extended from this area to the north and east as far as Cerro Punta. The highland settlements are the most ancient. The relatively lowland Barriles site is much more recent, dating from around 60 B.C. It was the ceremonial center of the Barriles society.
The pieces found here are mysterious. The most numerous are odd stone statues depicting a proud figure wearing a conical hat who is being carried on the shoulders of a stockier man. Because these pieces were discovered in 1947–1948 through huaquería (grave robbing) rather than professional excavation, nearly all their historic context has been lost. But later research has helped to date the site and its treasures. An authorized archaeology dig in 2001 uncovered more pieces.
Barú’s last major eruption, in A.D. 600, scattered the Barriles culture, though the Barriles site itself was far enough away from the volcano that it may have remained populated until A.D. 800. There’s some evidence it was recolonized in A.D. 1200.
Just about the only remnants of all that history are some petroglyphs near the home of the Landau family, which owns the finca (country house) the site is on. They’re trying to make it a tourist attraction—including neatly embedding some pottery into the walls of a hole in an attempt to simulate what a dig might look like. If you’re pressed for time, and even if you’re not, you can easily skip the place. They do have some tasty homemade cheese and jams to sell, though.
Getting to Sitio Barriles
To get to Sitio Barriles from Volcán, head toward Río Sereno for one kilometer past the crossroads. (If you get to Hotel Don Tavo, you’ve gone too far.) You should see a sign on the left; make a left turn onto that road. The site is just down the road; look for the sign. A taxi from “downtown” Volcán costs US$3.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition