Everyone looks at you as if you were a mad when you mention you are traveling here. The lure of lost tribes, uncharted jungle and unique experiences is why explorers among travelers come here. This is the Darien Panama.
I boarded a small bush plane in Panama City connecting to a town near the Colombian border. The plane flew over turquoise blue waters speckled with small islands before arriving to the shoreline dense with jungle and volcanoes. It felt as if journeying back to a time when the internet didn’t exist and the great unknown lurked all around the globe. Out of the jungle I saw it, a half dirt half concrete landing strip, as we begun to land the chickens and assortment of other animals fled the strip.
Getting to The Darien Gap
Planes are supposed to come once a week but more so than often they don’t. The whole village rushes out to see what is arriving in the plane. I was greeted by the entire village… and also the military police who felt the need to be equipped with machine guns, and escort me to the police station. Walking to the police station the hum of the plane engine taking off reminds me that my last ticket to civilization has just left.
“What’s your name“, “what’s your passport country“, “what’s your point in coming here“, these are the questions I understood from the police, only problem is my Spanish is about as good as their English. The locals all speak a language called Embara. After being interrogated, the police finally gave up communicating and pointed at a map, everywhere on the map that revealed dense jungles with small towns they pointed at saying no good. They then proceeded to teach me the word, “Beeua Beuu” which in Embara means “thank you”, and I was on my way.
I managed to find lodging in Sambu, well it was more like a villager’s house who woke up and decided to convert his guest quarters into a hotel. He charged me eight US dollars a night, which included a hard bed, a fan, and a hole in the wall that leaks brown water from it which turned out to be my shower. Venturing into the village had attracted many people who stared in awe at the sight of a foreigner, but when I glance back at them they greeted me with a big smile and wave.
Staying in the Darien
That afternoon to my amazement two American explorers showed up in a wooden canoe, equipped with Nat Geo style cameras and travel gear to take them all the way to Colombia. Their names, Paul and Joice. They were professional explorers who have been doing hard core trips around the world for the past thirty years. They hired a guide to take them up river to here, but this was to be their final destination. I became good friends with the two, I think because we both spoke English, and the fact I was intrigued by the stories they told me. We chose to stick together and go further up river to where it only gets more remote, more dangerous, and of course disobeys police orders. The following day we hired a local man for fifteen dollars to take us to what he called the “Crocodile lagoon”, that was further into the jungle. After about three hours hacking through the jungle we arrived to this lagoon. It was incredible, there were hundreds of crocodiles filling this lagoon. Our guide showed us survival techniques of the Darien jungle, several different medicinal leaves and insects to make life less hard. We retired for the evening checking out Sambu’s bar…. Yes there is a bar but it’s just a simple hut on stilts near the river serving two kinds of drinks while blasting salsa music so loud it could blow the town away. That night we met a school teacher named Marco, we quickly became friends as he could speak English and Embara, after a few beers he agreed to take us further into Darien as a guide…. Under one condition!! And that was only if he gets to practice English with us.
Taking Boat Into The Darien Gap
We awoke early to catch a ride on the only mini bus that follows the only road in Sambu, and probably the entire Darien province. The road passed dense jungle and spotted farmlands to a town called Bayamon. Bayamon is inhabited by only a couple hundred Embara who only speak Embara, the local attire is mostly grass skirts and no top and the men wear even less. Bayamon really feels as though you’ve landed yourself on a true adventure. The Village elder greeted us and asked for a small fee of ten US dollars, after we paid he gave us a tour of his entire village, we entered local homes and he showed us Embara life. Later that evening he invited us to come again tomorrow and his son would take us further past Bayamon.
The Elder’s son took us deep into the jungle towards unexplored territory the next day. The jungle was intensely thick and noisy from monkeys, birds, and strange insects. He brought us to a bright blue river for us to swim in, although it was full of tiny piranha like fish who take small bites from you. Arriving back to the village we were brought into the boy’s mother’s house. She had prepared traditional Embara body paint for me and I was getting painted in the Embara style today. The elderly women painted my chest, back and arms in all kind of designs, apparently the dye is created from the Jagua nut and it is a natural bug repellent. In the evening we walked around the village and I noticed all the villagers creating bowls and masks out of reeds. This art they created was to sell to tourists on the mainland, and for the few that make it here.
In the morning we hired a canoe to take us so close to the Colombian border you could see it. The canoe trip was amazing our wooden canoe found its way through the tight water channels with jungle canopy hanging over its river banks. At times we exited the canoe and had to walk because the river tide was so low. After about four hours we arrived at a small settlement called Boca De Trampa. The village consisted of seven small grass huts and a small handful of Embara families. Marco explained this was the village he grew up in, he had not been here in twenty five years. Not much has changed he said. The people gathered strange animals for us to see and numerous strange types of food that only grow right here in this village. We ate a nut that tasted like an egg, and a square banana that tasted like cream pie, best of all was the Bodohol. There is no way to explain how Bodohol tastes like, but nevertheless… it’s really good, not to mention its medicinal and apparently cures everything. At this time I had one of those moments where you sit back and realize where you are, how far you had come.
My American friends departed back to Panama City the following day, Marco and I were left to explore some more. Marco found a bike for me and we road on a dirt road towards his school where he teaches. I was promoted to teacher for the day. It was a great experience and honour teaching the kids how to speak English. When school was finished we rode our bikes to Marcos farm. Here I was promoted to farm hand. We climbed trees and gathered fruits of all kinds. Then we visited the sugar cane smelter and Marco took me too one of the best views in all of Darien from here you could see volcanoes and small settlements dotted through the jungle. Exhausted we went to Marcos family home, where his family made us dinner, the food was great, fried plantains and some kind of deer meat only found in Darien.
On the last and final day I was left to sit and wait for a plane with no arrival time to arrive, with this time you are left to the thoughts of where you had just been, what new friends you made and experiences you had.
At last the plane is insight and the animals begin to flee the strip once again, only this time I was the one greeting the plane with curiosity.