La Pintada

This small foothill town, just 12km northwest of downtown Penonomé, boasts an artisans' market and a cigar factory. If you're staying in Penonomé for the night or simply passing through the area, it's worth stopping at La Pintada to pick up some attractive handicrafts and a few fresh-rolled cigars direct from the source.

La Pintada's famous Mercado de Artesanías La Pintada (Pintado Artisans' Market; % 983 0313; S9am-4pm) specializes in Penonomé-style Panama hats. The material used in Panamas occasionally varies from one town to the next, though here the headgear is made of bellota (palm fiber) and also of pita, which is related to cactus. There are several bellota and pita plants growing in front of the market, so you can see what they look like. Other items of particular interest are dolls wearing handmade folkloric costumes, seco (the local firewater) bottle covers made from hat palm, and handmade brooms.

The market is easy to find. As you drive through La Pintada on the main road from Penonome, you'll come to a very large soccer field on the left side of the road. The market is on the far side of this field.

The second obligatory stop in La Pintada is the Cigars Joyas de Panama (S/fax 983 0304; [email protected]). The factory's owner, Miriam Padilla, began growing tobacco in La Pintada with three Cubans in 1982, though they went their separate ways in 1987 when the Cubans emigrated to Honduras to open a cigar factory. Left to her own devices, Miriam sent choice samples of her tobacco to tourists and other people she'd met in Panama over the years, seeking investors for a factory. Today Miriam and her son, Braulio Zurita, are La Pintada's largest employers, employing 80 workers who make a total of 22,000 cigars a day. The employees work at rows of desks in a long, concrete-sided, aluminum-roofed, one-story building the size of a large home, which is the pride of the neighborhood.

The cigars are made in an assembly process that begins at one end of the building with leaf separation from stem, and ends at the other end of the building with the packaging of the final product. From here, the cigars are shipped primarily to the USA, France and Spain. A box of 25 of the highest-quality cigars costs US$50 in Panama and twice that outside the country. Joyas de Panama cigars also come flavored - with a hint of vanilla, rum or amaretto. Miriam and Braulio speak English, and cigars are clearly much more than a business to them.

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