Backhoe artist, Marcial Vargas

I first met sixty four year old Marcial Vargas when we worked together constructing a decorative waterfall and lake. At one point, I wanted a large rock moved some fifty yards to a point next to an artificial pond – the problem was that the rock was huge, too big to be lifted by either of the retro’s two buckets. Marcial wasn’t fazed. He gingerly rolled the rock (the size of Volkswagen Beetle) over and over until it finally rested in the exact chosen position.

Retros, or backhoes, are to be seen all over Panama, from farms to building sites. They are the workhorses of the construction and agricultural industry. Ninety per cent of the time their tasks are mundane and repetitive, they load, they unload or just move soil from one location to the other. But when placed in the hands of true mechanical maestro, they become like a paint brush in an artists hand.

Marcial’s reputation amongst the people of the Volcan is becoming truly legendary. He is credited with constructing nearly thirty lakes and waterfalls in the area. Recently I watched as he cleared away some dense jungle west of the town and transformed a pile of rocks into two small lakes with a breathtaking cascade that will surely hold visitors in awe for years to come.

Near death experience. Some twelve years ago, he was working on a steep slope when the ground gave way and his retro rolled over three times before coming to a rest. He credits his survival to wearing a seat belt. Something he stills does to this day – especially when the terrain is steep or rain soaked.

Locals I have talked to, speak in awe of his capabilities. This is only surpassed by their deep respect for his honesty, cheerfulness and heartfelt desire to perform the tasks to the exact way his clients desire. He is known as someone who will do the job in half the time taken by other operators, and will never drag out the work to pump up the price. Most of the ex-pats that want work done with a retro will patiently wait weeks for him to become available.

Marcial Vargas

Marcial starts his day around 5:30 with a two kilometer jog around the quiet and deserted streets of Volcan. Then he is off to work armed with his flask of decaffeinated coffee, cheese sandwiches and wearing his trade mark smile. He is quiet, unassuming and takes virtually no credit for the wonders he creates. I have never seen a look of frustration or anger on his face, even when “the gringo” wants him to move the same rock for the second or third time. His philosophy is simple: he is there as the facilitator of the one paying his wages. Although, if he is left to his own creative desires, his talents are obvious.

There has been many a day when I have driven Marcial back to Volcan from a work location. With both of us tired, and invariably soaked to the skin from the constant rain, we leave a part of Panama that has become even more beautiful, more awe inspiring. I may have been the creative force, but I am always mindful that the paint brush was not in my hands, it was in the hands of a mechanical wonder-worker, an unsung Panamanian artist, Marcial Vargas, retro operator extraordinaire.