To the edge of the Gap: Impressions of the Darien, Panama

Recollections from a trip in 2009 to Panama’s Darien Gap (details on bird sightings will follow)

I spent the night in the cheapest hotel I could find in Panama City, ten dollars for a bare room with high ceilings and a narrow window facing an enclosed yard. There was about a foot of space between the sagging mattress and toilet. Simple enough I thought. The fan stirred the thick tropical air all night, while mutts barked themselves hoarse in the streets.

I stumbled sleep-deprived into the street before sunrise. Cool morning air still clung to the concrete. I waved down the first taxi that would stop, threw my small backpack into the backseat, and told the driver to take me to the main bus terminal. The terminal was already packed with people. Buses of all shapes roared in and out, the air heavy with exhausts and the rising heat. Old school buses were heavily decorated, with drawings of wrestlers mixed among religious incantations, windshields cluttered with stickers, glitter, and tinsel, left barely a slit for the drivers to see the rutted road.

I bought a ticket for the next available bus heading east towards Meteti and waited outside. One of the older looking school buses pulled in, this one just naked yellow. I climbed in and settled into a seat in the back, much of the cushioning had escaped through the split leather. After waiting for half an hour and taking on another five passengers, the bus driver rushed on board, hastily threw the bus into gear and after the first turn was unceremoniously trapped in heavy traffic. We lurched at five miles an hour out of Panama City.

The bus didn’t pick up much speed after we passed the turn-off to Tocumen International Airport, where I had landed in the dead of night just two days ago. Scattered towns of simple concrete, broken boardwalks, and narrow streets floated by for the next hour; before giving way to rank pastures with remnant rainforest visible on the distant hills. Fifty years ago the Darien Gap would have started just two hours east of Panama City, with impenetrable jungle making further travel expeditious. With the extension of the Pan-American Highway east and south to Yaviza, much of the forest along the road has been cleared and land turned into farms and ranches.

Villages grew sparser, but the bus seemed to stop every two or three miles to take on new passengers. In some places there was no house or track visible; people just appeared out of the green. Past Chepo I caught a glimpse of Lago Bayano, an immense reservoir on the dammed namesake river. I was able to make out untouched patches of rainforest growing on steep slopes on the horizon. The bus came to a stop at the first of three police checkpoints. I had to put down my name, passport number, and age. The officers asked where I was going and why. My broken Spanish confused the situation and they just waved me on, at least I was leaving some kind of record in case I disappeared in the Gap.

The potholed pavement came to an abrupt end just outside Meteti and I had to change from the school bus to a minivan. I waited around the new terminal, painted clean yellow, with scrubbed tile floors. I bought a tepid coke to pass the time and looked across a clear-cut landscape, bright under a fierce afternoon sun. Five hours out of Panama City and I still had a long way to go before I’d find myself in pristine rainforest. Vehicles came and went, there appeared to be no schedule of any kind. I waited. Eventually someone motioned me to a minivan and ensured me it was headed to Yaviza. I was the only passenger and the vehicle fish-tailed more than drove along the wide strip of red dirt turned slick by recent rains. The driver gunned it through the large puddles.

The road literally ended in Yaviza. The track splayed into a dusty plaza, surrounded by two-story clapboard houses, part of the road dropped off into the Rio Chucunaque. I walked down the steep embankment and asked about a piragua headed to El Real, a small village on the confluence of the Rio Tuira and Chucunaque, and the jumping off point for the Pirre Station in the Darien National Park.

I was directed to a piragua, half loaded with fuel canisters and groceries. An old woman and man had already taken a seat. I threw my pack into an open space, tried to get comfortable, and was ready to go. The motorista had disappeared and I waited. The old woman sitting in front of me, gaps in her teeth,  skin like dried earth, reassured me that we were headed to El Real, when was another question. For twenty minutes I watched piraguas, loaded with stacks of plantains motor downstream, and observed the busy plaza, where hard muscled men, shirtless and barefoot, carried supplies from trucks to boats. Eventually hunger got the best of me, leaving my pack in the care of the woman, I wandered back into the village and found a panaderia. I bought another tepid coke and some sweet bread. A narrow ravine running through town was choked with trash, eight hours out of Panama City and still a long way to go.

Back in the boat I took a closer look at a large ship at anchor on the river bank. Rust had conquered most of the hull and its wooded planks were rotted. Like the ship, it appeared its crew hadn’t gone anywhere and wasn’t going anywhere soon. Some hung about in hammocks, while someone occasionally stepped out of a cabin pouring dirty water into the river.

After more than an hour and seriously wondering whether we were going anywhere, a hefty black woman with a commanding voice got into the piragua. The motorista and helper sprung into action and five minutes later the keel sliced through the dark waters, heading upstream. Ten minutes later dark rainforest pressed in on both sides. The black woman, clearly of some local position, looked me up and down, and said a few things. All I understood was that she owned a store and wanted to know where I was going. She realized quickly that I didn’t speak the language, gave me a look that said “what in the world are you doing here?”, and let me be.

I watched the banks of the river drift by, steep hills cloaked in dense forest. Occasionally I spotted a clearing, thatched roof, or a simple pier projecting into the murky waters. Except for passing piraguas, settlements thinned with the hours until we reached the village of El Real. The boat pulled up to the village pier, I paid my five dollars, shouldered my pack, and jumped out. I was the only one to disembark, the others carried on upstream to who knows where.

I walked along the main street, large plates of concrete set into the muck, into town. Sunday, late afternoon, people were out, kids played in a field, people talked in front of their houses. I heard music somewhere. My arrival caused a bit of commotion, someone directed me to the ANAM, or national park office, and told me to wait. A man introducing himself as Gregorio Cintana, took a seat, and offered his guiding services. Through hand signals, some confusion, we eventually agreed on ocho de la manana and ten dollars.

Exhausted I settled on Hotel Nazareno, the only other option in town, Hostal Macho del Monte, looked about the same from the outside. A crooked doorframe led to a rough bed and a large barrel standing in the shower stall substituted for running water, at least the barrel was full. Since Restaurant Dona Lola is the only one in town, I had no problem making up my mind for dinner. I didn’t even have to decide on a meal, when I stepped into the empty place, Dona Lola, I assumed, got up and walked into the kitchen. Five minutes later she came back out with a plate full of rice, beans, chicken, and a heap of canned spaghetti. I ordered a coke to wash it all down.

The night was a bit rough and I was already wide awake when the first roosters called. I met Gregorio at the agreed time and we walked over to a small store, a wooden shack with a large open window. I looked at the mostly empty shelves and just kept pointing at the same items until my pack was full. The cereal turned out to be as flavorful as the packaging they came in and the canned sardines had more flavor than I had bargained for.

After the obligatory stop at the local police station, again to put down my name and passport number, we headed out of town along an overgrown dirt track. At the edge of town we passed several open walled house on stilts of Embera families. Naked children stared at the sweat soaked gringo, huffing down the trail, wearing rubber boots into the forest where the water waited hip-high.

I had arrived at the height of the rainy season. Every afternoon downpours, lasting two to three hours, started. The trail was flooded from the start. Gregorio had the help of two kids who tagged along and updated him on conditions. We steered around the worst patches, sinking to my knees along muddy trails, snaking through dense second-growth and plantain plantations. We climbed over collapsed fences and passed a few farmsteads, some looked abandoned. After ten kilometers of stoic trudging we reached the village of Pirro Uno, no more than a cluster of simple houses with rainforest crowding in on all sides. I took the chance and bought the last soda and met a doctor, who was there to treat a local with malaria. I hadn’t brought mosquito repellent or medication anyway, so I didn’t worry about it.

At the last farm I finally caught on to Gregorio’s chicken talk for the last two hours and offered to buy one as a present for the rangers at the station. A thick-set woman showed us her flock and Gregorio picked out a large white hen. The woman didn’t seem happy until I gave her the five dollar bill. Gregorio tucked the chicken under his arm, its feet tied to prevent escape, and we continued the trek. Suddenly we stepped into primary forest along the Rio Pirre. The temperature dropped immediately, massive trunks stretched into an unseen canopy. The sunlight dimmed.

Four kilometers later we arrived at the Pirre Uno Station, a small clearing on the bend of the river, flowing clear and swift. One of the rangers, introducing himself as Henry, had just caught a few hand-sized catfish and showed me the station. Gregorio handed over the chicken and started to head back. The station consisted of a large building with two rooms containing bunks. It was dark and dusty, no more than wooden planks and a thin mattress. The other ranger, Henry, was camping in the large front room, which was more airy. There was a simple kitchen, table, and few chairs. Surprisingly there was an outbuilding with flush toilets, showers, and faucet with potable water.

As was tradition I handed over my food I had carried in and the rangers would use whatever they could to provide some lunch and dinner. The first night I ate rice and fried plantains, the staples here.

There were a total of six of us Luis and Henry, or Pizarro, both Kuna Indians and the rangers on duty. Edith, with her baby Manual, her brother Crispulito, and pretty Lydia were Embera visiting from the nearby village. There was also a malnourished mutt that howled pitifully at night. I assumed from stomach parasites, but Henry let it lick the plates clean anyway. I hoped my own stomach was up for the challenge. We spent the nights sitting around weak candle lights, eating simple dinners, and talking about the national park and life in the rainforest. Everybody ate two chicken dinners and by night number three I wished I would have brought more. One dinner consisted of plain rice and chunks of dark meat, I asked whether it was beef. It didn’t taste like it and I found out the next day that it was Paca, an oversized rodent active at night in the rainforest and favored bushmeat. While it tasted fine I felt odd visiting a national park and eating its wildlife.

I spent six days exploring the trails, jungle, waterfalls, and mountains in the immediate vicinity of the station. One morning Henry took me up to Rancho Plastico, named so after tarps housing a research camp. At an old landslide we had an unobstructed view south, untouched rainforest stretched as far as I could see. As if on cue a pair of red and green macaws split the clouded sky above.

One morning I wandered along the trail leading back to the village and spotted a Tamandua, a small anteater, and caught a glimpse of a cat, probably an ocelot, but it had noticed me long before and vanished in dense tangles. The forest was full of life, during early morning hour’s macaw and parrots screeched unseen above the dense canopy and a hundred other bird songs streamed from the forest.

I waited out the afternoon rains at the station or walked into the drenching waters to cool off. Evenings were quiet, with the occasional rustle of a mammal deep in the forest and water dripping on leaves.

When the skin between my toes wouldn’t heal anymore, my boots would never dry again, and my clothes started to mold I made plans to head back to El Real. Crispulito had agreed to guide me back out and we started early the next morning. The final morning at the station they served rice and fried plantains, no surprise there, but there were also two thick slabs of whitish pork fat. I passed on my portion to Crispulito who gladly accepted. I just wasn’t able to stomach that at 7 am. I was tired and the walk took a long time. Halfway we met one of his friends, who produced a new bottle of “wicky” from his pack. After taking a big schwig, Crispulito shoved the bottle towards me. Considering the temperatures, level of fatigue, and miles to go, I declined.

Back in town I dragged myself to the hotel, washed by the barrel, and walked over to Dona Lola’s, she produced a plate with rice, canned spaghetti, and slabs of pork fat. I was hungry, but had pretty much lost my appetite. I spent an extra day exploring the outskirts and patches of rainforest around the village. Another rough track led to another settlement deep in the rainforest. Along here the “potable water” or “washed dishes” from the station caught up with me and I left some memories and some dignity in the dense shrubs. I recuperated somewhat before the boat and bus ride back to Panama City the following day. Waiting for the piragua to Yaviza I met a missionary from Colombia who asked whether I wanted to tag along, going further upstream, more remote. Unfortunately I was out of cash and healthy stomach bacteria, but just communicated the first. He then went into a lengthy story of how it took him a year to recover from a stomach infection he had acquired on a first visit to the region. I said, interesting, and we parted ways when the boat arrived.


One response to this post.

  1. you have to be young and daring to do this. Quite an adventure. I got an intestinal bug in Guatemala and took 6 months to finally get to normal bowels. JoAnn I called the El Franco Lee manager and registered my hope that they would not waste the chance to save some marsh this year.


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