‘Bienvenidos Eco-Jardin Tematico El Explorador,’ pronounced the sign as I stopped to catch my breath. I had set off on a gentle hike from Boquete, the small mountain town at the base of the Chiriqui Highlands, in search of the eponymous garden 45 minutes previously and it was clear I had reached my destination.
I checked the sign again. There weren’t too many eco gardens in this particular corner of Panama but I wanted to be sure, nevertheless. This time, however, it had changed slightly; beneath the lettering there sat an upcycled frog, its eyes bulging with a grin as wide as the valley beneath. The sight took a few seconds to sink in but I accepted the warm, if slightly surreal, welcome. This would be unlike any garden, eco or otherwise, I would have experienced before.
The premise of El Explorador is simple: the open garden lets visitors soak up the cleansing highlands atmosphere. Its philosophy seems to run thus: ‘La felicidad no se encuentra… se construye dia a dia.’ Happiness is not found… it is built day by day.
In El Explorador’s case, happiness is built as if channelled from a fever dream. The short climb into the garden indicates something different is on the horizon: a series of flower pots, each decorated with wide-eyed grins, add a slightly disconcerting edge to proceedings. As I reached the garden itself I stood transfixed as the ethereal strains of a Debussy melody ebbed and flowed. Lost in a daydream I swayed gently to the passing breeze as El Explorador begun to cast its spell.
Time had all but disappeared as I floated around the garden. Whether it was the old TV screen, emptied out and replaced with smiling paintbrushes, or the oversized swing-set, or any of the myriad surreal images, El Explorador excelled in replacing the mundanity of everyday life with the innocence of childhood. I had the feeling L Frank Baum was just around the corner in search of inspiration for his Oz series.
The same grin and inviting eyes could be found everywhere: even the trees and bins seemed to be lulling me over with their giant smiles and coquettish gaze.
Further exploration uncovered even more unexpected delights. A makeshift model barman held court in front of an empty bar, while another mannequin, painted bright pink and dressed in workman’s helmet and gardening gear, held up a frying pan bearing the legend ‘La gente + feliz, disfruta al maximo de todo lo ke dios pone en su camino’. Loosely translated, happy people enjoy everything God puts in their way. I looked at the figure’s face and it stared back at me, knowingly.
Unfortunately, as Debussy turned into Rachmaninoff, reality had started to make itself known once more and as I surveyed El Explorador a final time I felt sure the figures had gathered to bid me farewell, their countenances divine and their mouths eternally grinning.