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Las Sirenas: Santa Clara Cottages

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Wednesday, 27 June 2007 17:22
"Las Sirenas is an odd concept, sovaldi " admited co-owner Gilda de Ferrer. "It's not a hotel." I sat there, slightly bewildered, listening to Gilda on her porch while drinking fresh lemonade and playing with the #4 key I had just been given at the reception desk moments earlier.
"The cottages are fully equipped," she said. "It's more like having your own private beach house."

The property is located in Santa Clara, one hour and 15 minutes west of Panama City, along the Pan-American Highway. The 11 ‘beach houses' are actually small, brightly colored cottages. I could sense the memories that they guarded and the mixture of old and new from the color choices - although freshly painted, the yellow was a little too mustard-colored to come from anywhere but the 60s or 70s.


As I did find out, the five hilltop cottages had been around since before World War II. The versions that stand today are cleaner and brighter than the originals according to one guest who visited the property 50 years before as a child. The six beachfront cottages are more like modern row houses and jut out perpendicularly from the beach with a small patio space behind each.


All the cottages are decorated in crisp citrus fruit shades, and the hilltop ones even have oversized lemon, orange and lime slices integrated into the columns. Amenities in each include a fully equipped kitchen, although the appliances are about 2/3 the size of normal ones - including the 4 cup coffee maker, a refrigerator that came up just below my chest and a stove-oven combo that resembles a child's toy.


The air conditioning is limited to the bedroom and the bed was the most comfortable I've been in in months. It would have been very difficult to will myself to leave to enjoy the wonders of nature, but when I quickly reached the 3rd and final television channel, I was forced to reconsider my options. "We are debating getting rid of the televisions all together," Gilda said. However, if the guests demand it, they will take the alternate route and get cable.


Outside each cabin is a barbeque area, table, chairs and a hammock. I must have made a good impression on Ines, the caretaker who has been working there for over 30 years, because I found a bowl with five fresh mangoes waiting on my table, while other guests were sad that they did not receive the same special treatment.


It was all for the best, however, seeing as how I had not eaten lunch nor grasped what "no onsite restaurant" truly means. The owners recommend that guests either stop for food on the way in Coronado or at the small grocery store at entrance to Santa Clara one mile away. For those who prefer not to cook, or arrived by public transportation like me, there is a beachfront restaurant called Las Veraneras within walking distance from the cottages that has a selection of decently priced local cuisine.


When I finally wandered down to the beach I passed a new volleyball court set up on the left and a small communal area with a ping pong table on my right. Guests can also opt to rent horses along the beach for as cheap as $4 to go down and back, explore the nearby deserted island, help the morning fishermen pull in their catch of the day, or take a day trip to La Pintada, a village near Penonome or the cool mountain town of El Valle.


However, after a short swim, I found myself taking advantage of the wireless internet on my porch with the evening sky changing colors before me. I neglected to consider the affects the fading sunlight might have on my short stroll to get food. Realizing this, I began the walk, thinking the little light I saw was from the moon that would lead me home. However, as I sat and waited for my order of choripan and patacones, the little light that was disappeared. I asked the waitress for an estimate on my chances of survival for the walk back, and was informed that police do rounds on the beach at night so there wasn't a problem.


As I set foot back onto the sand, I saw no one beyond my new little oasis. All the cute beachy accents of the day turned into towering creatures of the night. I had already heard the beach dogs were aggressive and was not excited to see one howling at the non-existent moon. About seven minutes later (or so it seemed) I was back, but had to take the side driveway up the hill because there is absolutely no lighting underneath the bougainvillea tunnel that led me down a set of sloped stairs to the beach earlier that day.


I was happy to see my neighbors barbequing outside, and stopped for a chat, enjoying the communal nature of the place while letting my heart beat slow to a normal pace. I was informed that they had seen drunkards wandering the beach until 1am the night before. Good to know I thought, excusing myself to eat in my own little kitchen and reflecting on how I felt like I was at my grandparent's cottage up on Lake Eerie again - mosquitoes, stories reminiscent of the good ol' days, bad water pressure and all.


"The whole idea is to detach your self from everyday stresses," Gilda's husband Manuel had told me earlier that day.


Gilda hopes guests will understand this and get into the mood of the place, which has been a part of her life since childhood. Today she still visits every weekend with her husband to get away from the noise and traffic of the city where she works as a translator, and Manuel as a pharmaceuticals distributor.


A short history ...


Gilda's parents purchased the property in 1965 and she and her sister Nair Revilla inherited it about seven years ago when their mother decided it was too much work. The changes since then have been minute, the most notable of which is the ever-blooming bougainvillea tunnel used to shade the once scorching path to the beach, and all hints of light at night.


Throughout their interwoven histories, Las Sirenas cottages and the town of Santa Clara have both been shaped by a mixture of Panamanian and American influence, families and interesting characters.


The prominent Panamanian businessman and politician Armodio Arias originally used the land that is now Santa Clara to purchase the Panama America newspaper from American journalist, Nelson Rounsfelt. Rounsfelt's wife Betty Webster, a Panamanian vixen known for entertaining troops at the nearby U.S. military base, designed the layout for the community and sold a large portion of it to her friend Jade Rodora, who was famous for her erotic dance show called The Woman and the Monkey at a notorious nightclub in Panama City during WWII. She, in turn, married an officer from the U.S. Air Force and lived with him in Santa Clara as well. Popular rumors note Betty's affinity for Scotch, and how Jade insisted on giving birth to all three of her children in the nearby river.


Betty sold another portion of land to American John Franklin Phillips who constructed the first five hilltop cottages and called them Phillips Cottages. It was originally a retirement community, but opened up to seasonal renters.


Gilda's family frequented the compound during summer months, and her parents decided to build another set of A-frame thatched roof cabins on the beach, naming them the Muu Muu Cottages. When Phillips mentioned plans to move back to the states, Gilda's father Erasmo de la Guardia jumped at the chance and purchased the hilltop cottages. In 1987 they reconstructed the cottages on the beach and renamed them "Las Sirenas" which eventually took hold as the name of the entire complex. The foot of the drive to get down to the beachfront cottages now ends in a cul de sac that circles a white statue of three Sirens created by a local artist.


The majority of the original guests that Gilda remembers were people from the military base or their visitors, as well as U.S. embassy employees. The closing of the military base greatly decreased the occupancy of the cottages. In their wake, Panamanians began to come to the cottages for weekend beach parties. However, strict rules were quickly enforced regarding the number of people per cabin and noise level to offset the problems that were brought on such occasions and to restore the tranquil nature of the place.


From 1987 to 2000 the cottages brought in just enough money to pay the bills as the Noriega drama unfolded and negative press loomed around the country. Rumors of voodoo and witchcraft circled when Noriega placed a tall, thin cross illuminated by electric generators atop the deserted island, just 20 minutes offshore by boat. Today you can pay local fishermen to take you to the island to walk around, or perhaps dart through the long cave that cuts through the island from end to end at low tide.


When things settled and Panama's reputation improved, business started to pick up again.


"It was a laidback business before the Real estate boom," Gilda said. "Business has now doubled in the past three years."


The creation of their website also attributed to the increase in occupancy. "The internet really put us on the map," Gilda said.


She has received several offers to purchase the property, but says she would never want to see the high density development in nearby areas reach her childhood playground of Santa Clara.


However, she admits that the area is at a turning point and big changes are heading their way. For Las Sirenas, however, the changes shall remain demure. They are considering adding a bar or a pool in response to requests from visitors, but for now there is no rush.






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Does this hotel have a web site?
written by CharangoNYC , March 02, 2008
This sounds like exactly what we're looking for. Do you know the best way to book it?
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...
written by Lisa Runswick , May 09, 2008
I am very interested in renting one of Las Sirenas cottages, could use more information on rates and availability. smilies/smiley.gif
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Google is your friend
written by Jeffb , May 14, 2008
http://www.lasirenas.com/

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correction
written by Alyssum , January 04, 2009
Betty Webster was American, not Panamanian. I know because she was my great-aunt.
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additional correction
written by Alyssum , January 05, 2009
Additional correction: My great aunt, Betty Webster, was not married to Nelson Rounsville, but to William Stewart Webster.
Nelson Rounsville was her business partner and one of the shareholders of Santa Clara Beach, Inc., the original owner of the Santa Clara Beach property. (This correction if from my father, Betty's nephew.)
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Last Updated on Thursday, 21 August 2008 16:20
 
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