When you stop for a can of Coke and end up staying for lunch

Sometimes you find the best places when you are not looking for anything.

We were on our way to visit the (humble and tumble-down) ruins of the fort in Portobello the other day, with the intention of stopping by one of the three locks on the Panama canal before they closed at 4p.m. We had a driver who knew his way and certainly drove like he did. That was a problem for me. You see, in our household, I’m the one who gets carsick. Not seasick. Not airsick. After all, one could go through life without taking a boat or even a plane, but avoiding cars/buses/coaches is a lot trickier, so getting carsick after about three minutes driving on a straight road seems like a fabulous idea, right? Ugh.

What makes me flinch even more is that while drivers here seem to look at traffic signs (“NO ADELANTAR!!!!!” – Do not overtake) as mere suggestions, and they see seat belts and indicators as unnecessary vehicular accessories, the purpose of a rear-view mirror is to support an impressive array of rosaries, miraculous medals and – my personal favourite – holy images with the inscription “Jesus Christ, protect this car”. Oh, come on!

  

The road was rather terrible, with potholes big enough to house a family with kids, and for some reason there were frequent and apparently random speed ramps across even wide roads that caused our car to groan and shudder as it bumped over them, and us along with it. Also, Portobello seemed like it was the end of the world. I saw a sign: 38km. Then another: 20km. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. I decided to call for a Coca-Cola sugar-fix pit stop at the first opportunity… Nausea, you know my name…

We pulled in, got out, stretched.

We were quickly greeted by an energentic little man who seemed to be the owner of a little road-side restaurant. A few varnished wooden tables and chairs were set out between pot plants, a sort of pergola held up by square pillars covered in hundreds of pepples stuck in cement. There were a few wind vanes, a couple of old metal signs… the overall effect was one of tropical coziness. So we sat down.

I sipped my sugary drink and tried to stop my stomach from heaving. There was a pleasant little breeze, so after a few minutes even I felt like I could participate in a conversation. Our host, Arik Ben from Bogotà, Colombia, was quite the businessman. “Would you like to eat?”, he asked. We said, not really. “Please, try our ceviche, on the house!” We did. It was good. We ordered 4. “How about some shrimp? They’re fresh and delicious!” Oh-oh… He had said the magic word: shrimp! My husband was out of his seat in seconds and spent long minutes discussing the shrimp, prodding them, asking questions. 

  

In the end, Arik prepared a platter and placed it on the table in front of us with a flourish and a wide grin. “Bon provecho!” 

  

Everything was fresh. Everything was delicious. The chat was lively. Everyone was happy. Even my stomach.

Our host was running a really classy operation: after the shrimp, he presented us with a dish of cool water with fragrant lemon leaves to wash the smell off our hands!

  

    
Arik was pretty excited during the whole meal, skipping from us to the grill, to the fridge, and back again. “Oh, you must taste this! It is special! Cheese, from a farm near here! And goyava jelly! It’s typical from Panamá!” It was lovely and not unlike eating Basque sheep’s milk cheese with cherry jam.

 

Total of the tab: less than $30. Unbeatable value.

If you happen to be on the road between Panama City and Portobello… keep a look out for Arik’s little restaurant (on the right hand side, as you head for Portobello). No need to call ahead for reservations… Arik has it covered. He even has Argentinian beef in his freezer, impeccably individually wrapped. He’s only waiting for an excuse to show off his BBQ skills.

Oh, and the view is colourful…

  

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